God Created the Heavens and the Earth Sean McDonagh, SSC

The first line of the Bible affirms that the world is created by a loving, personal God. In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (Gen.1: 1). The Bible teaches that the world is good in itself. God contemplates his creation and repeats four times that what he saw was good. (Gen. 1:10, 13, 18, 21 and 25) This perspective on creation is both important and revolutionary.  Israel grew up with cultures which maintained that the world of spirit was created by a good spirit, while matter came from an evil spirit.  At the very beginning the Bible rejects this radical dualism.  In the Hebrew world, unlike the Greek world, there is no unbridgeable dichotomy between spirit and matter; both are essential and, more importantly, are under God’s dominion.

Down through the centuries movements which denigrated the natural world have surfaced. While the Church has never succumbed to these heretical teachings it has sometimes strayed from the clear affirmation about the world being good which we find in Genesis.  Many of the early Fathers of the Church elaborated their theology of creation in opposition to the prevailing teaching of Gnosticism and Manichaeism. The Gnostics believed that salvation was reserved to a select minority of the elect who had access to secret knowledge. They also tended to despise the material world and basic bodily functions like eating, and especially, sexuality.

Manichaeism, on the other hand, emerged from the writings of a second century native of Persia called Mani ( c. 216 -276). He believed in absolute dualism between good and evil. A good spirit created spirits, while the world came from the hands of an equally powerful evil spirit.  The task of the believer was to liberate the spirit, which emanates from the good creator, from the body that was the creation of an evil spirit.  This could only be achieved through prayer and asceticism.

Though many of the Fathers affirmed the fundamental goodness of creation and the human body, their teaching was sometimes tinged with some of the currents of the time, especially neo-Platonism.  The neo-Platonists believed in a hierarchical view of the world and the divine.  The world and even the human body was seen as inferior to the spiritual world. The goal of the spiritual person was to move away from being concerned with the material world and contemplate the truly real spiritual world.  This could be achieved through inner illumination, fasting and prayer. In such a tradition one could not be expected to find God in the natural world. Neo-Platonists would have squirmed at the final stanza of Patrick Kavanagh’s poem –The One – where the poet finds God in the mundane realities of the natural world:

That Beautiful, Beautiful God

Was breathing His love by a cut-away bog.

Even someone as original in his teaching as St. Augustine was affected by neo-Platonism. In his youth  he had been attracted to Manichaeism and spent 8 to 10 years as a member of that sect.  On conversion to Christianity he adopted some of the elements of neo-Platonism.  He seemed to abandon some of the more optimistic elements of neo-Platonism in relationship to human goodness when he witnessed the greed and avarice of people who  pursued their selfish interests in the law courts.  This led him to teach that the natural world was so damaged by original sin that it was almost worthless unless redeemed by grace.  For Augustine redemption meant taking people away from the natural world – the earthly kingdom – and transferring them to the heavenly kingdom. The Irish moral theologian, Fr. James Good, believes that the negative anti-body and anti-sex attitude, which was deeply rooted in the Christian psyche right up to the time of the Second Vatican Council, owes much to the teaching of Augustine. [1]

The anti-world, anti-body vision emerged in the High Middle Ages with the emergence of the Cathars.  The name “Cathari” which means “the pure ones” comes from the Greek word katharos or “pure”.  They too believed that matter was created by an evil god and that spirit by a good god. The Cathars attempted to overcome the evil in the world through a process of ritual purification and also a withdrawal from the world.  Naturally there was a taboo on sexual activity.

In the light of this dualism which has been so prevalent and distorting down through the ages, the assertion in Genesis that God saw it is good is so important and it must become the fundamental basis of our religious life. I will return to discussing Genesis next week.

[1] James Good, “A Theology of the Body: the Legacy of Augustine”, Doctrine and Life, July/August 2003, page 358.


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