Last week I began to reflect on the first chapter of the book of Genesis. I argued that, one of the most important messages of the Bible, is that God created the earth and that it is good. I discussed some of the teachings of other religious traditions which taught that the earth and the human body was derived from an evil spirit or that it was totally corrupted. I also recalled that, though the Catholic Church had never taught that matter was evil, some spiritualities within the Church came very close to rejecting the material world and therefore the human body.
The most recent example of that was the spirituality which emerged from the teachings of Bishop Jansen (1585 – 1638) who was both a theologian and bishop of Ypres. He wrote four volumes on the teaching of St. Augustine in which he amplified and exaggerated Augustine’s negative view of nature. Though his writings were condemned initially in 1641 and on a number of occasions during the subsequent centuries, Jansenism was widely propagated, especially in France. The Irish theologian, James Good believes that Jansenism became a cancer that ate into every corner of the European Catholicism during the 18th and 19th centuries. He points out that, when Maynooth College began in 1789, six Jansenist theology professors from the Sorbonne in Paris were appointed to teach at the new seminary. He claims that Jansenism had a stranglehold on Maynooth right up until the 1940s. Through out the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s, Lenten pastoral letters were full of warnings against the dangers of ‘company keeping’ and cross-roads dancing. The body, and especially sexuality, was not to be trusted. Genesis chapter one does not support this negative approach to matter and the human body.
Scholars tell us that the first account of creation comes from what is called the Priestly sources. The text has a ritual cadence and structure, finely tuned by decades of use in the temple worship. Even in translation one can sense the majesty and rhythm of the text. God said, let there by light…. God said, let there be a vault of the heaven to divide day from night…. This builds up to a climax in Gen. 2.3, God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on that day God had rested after all his work of creating.
In reading the text, or better still, in listening to it being proclaimed aloud in a Liturgy it is obvious that the author did not set out to give a scientific account of creation in either an ancient or modern sense. While it builds on the cosmology of the day, it was written to answer a more basic question – Who created the world and why was it created? These questions are as relevant today as they were when they were first chanted almost three thousand years ago.
The answer which Genesis gives is clear and emphatic. God created the world and continues to sustain it by His power. If God’s power was withdrawn, the cosmos would immediately slip back into the primeval chaos from which it was drawn forth – now the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, and God’s spirit hovered over the water. (Gen 1: 2). Biblical scholars tell us that the Hebrew word bara is used only in reference to God’s creative activity. This is qualitatively different from the work performed by either humans or animals. A human craftsperson, for example, needs some material on which to work to bring forth his or her creation. This is not true of God’s work. God does not create the Universe out of pre-existent, eternal matter. Nor does God fashion the world out of the Divine being, as creation stories in near eastern religions would have us believe. God creates the universe out of nothing. The Fathers of the Church would use the Latin phrase creation ex nihilo (created out of nothing) to capture this unique act of creation. The Bible does not present God as the great clockmaker of the Newtonian Universe, who created the world but then left it to its own devices. It teaches that God is continually present to the universe. The early Church Fathers used the Latin phrase – creatio continua (continual creation) to capture this dimension of creation.
Finally, the Bible is adamant that, the God who creates the universe is self-sustaining and transcends the universe. Nevertheless, God’s creative power is orderly and extends to all reality. Nothing is hidden from God’s domain. I will return to Genesis next week.