Sermon preached by the Rev’d Dr Zachary Guiliano
What does it mean to believe in a Creator, to believe that the world is a creation? This is the question I’ve had rattling around in my mind in recent weeks. It’s been pressing on me, nagging at me; I can’t quite get it out my head; and some of my old ways of thinking about the question don’t feel quite so satisfying any more.
What does it mean to believe in a Creator?
This feeling, this sense of unease, has been heightened by a few recent events and things I’ve heard or seen: for instance, all the recent talk about how much plastic human beings use and then discard. Environmentalists have talked about plastic for some time, but our broader culture suddenly seems more aware of the issue, even viscerally offended by it. We can probably credit Richard Attenborough’s Blue Planet II, Britain’s most watched show of 2017. Particularly, there was that scene where a young shark was playing with and chewing on a ugly plastic jug. Something about that ugliness, that human invasion of the natural environment — well …it’s jarring — a sick counterpoint to the charming words of our psalm:
There is the sea spread far and wide, and there move creatures beyond number. There go the ships, and there is that Leviathan, which you made to play in the deep.
Something else, something silly caught my eye recently: E4’s advertising for the television show Young Sheldon, a spinoff of the 11 series-long comedy The Big Bang Theory. In an homage to the first show and in oblique reference to our Gospel reading today from John 1, one of the recent adverts shows young Sheldon Cooper sitting in a Texas church, precociously challenging a preacher about what happened “before the Big Bang.”
The preacher says, there was no Big Bang; there was only the Word. Young Sheldon responds, “Was the word Kaboom?”
And other things in recent days and months have drawn my eye: such as our culture’s persistent interest in celestial phenomena (like the recent, so-called super blue blood moon), also our surprise and horror at the ferocity of natural disasters. Think of the reaction to recent wildfires and mudslides in California, or to Hurricane Irma, which devastated the Caribbean. Months later, half a million people in Puerto Rico still don’t have electricity or clean water.
As a species, we human beings are captivated by the beauty of our planet and of the universe; horrified at evidence of our damage to either; astounded at the majesty and destructive force of Nature’s fury; and – yet –perhaps we collectively remain a little confused about just what it is that captivates, horrifies, and astounds us; we’re stumbling and fumbling around the issue of creation, with a lot of strange questions: What came before the Big Bang? Was the word Kaboom?
If we are a Christian, we have answers to these questions – answers concerning the beginning, God, and the Word, which are a little more sophisticated than those offered by the straw men that appear on television, defeated by precocious children. Our answers might begin in the words of the Creed we recite every week.
We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. … We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father… by whom all things were made. … We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life, who proceeds from the Father and the Son.
But our answers to our culture’s questions could not stop at the Creed; they would have to go on, taking on more substance through careful interpretation of Scriptural passages such as we have read and heard today. Our answers would also have to engage the significant philosophical issues raised by our readings and by our ever expanding scientific knowledge. And our answers would have to take into account our own questions: again, not just, What came before the Big Bang? but What does it mean to believe in the God who creates?
I’m not going to pretend I can give a fully satisfying answer to such questions in the confines of this sermon, but let me scratch the surface a bit. And first, let me say something about what it doesn’t mean, taking a cue from that Young Sheldon quip about the Big Bang.
Popular television shows and books, even authors of children’s literature like Philip Pullman, the newspapers, even some politicians, rely on an assumed conflict between science and faith: on one side, the Big Bang, evolution, and all the wonders of the natural world uncovered by modern science; on the other side, the Bible, specifically the Book of Genesis and passages such as we’ve read today, and a huge variety of the Christian cultural heritage.These two sides are supposed to be opposed to each other, locked in a pitched battle. This was especially the line of the so-called New Atheists of the past 10 years.
But this opposition is simply and ridiculously false.
Since at least the second century, Christian commentators on the Book of Genesis have acknowledged that Scripture’s stories of the world’s creation are not meant to tell us how the universe physically came into being. In the fourth and fifth century, St Augustine struggled mightily with how to comment on the book of Genesis in a responsible way, attempting to do so time and time again without being satisfied, and he spoke of how Christians could not give some precise history of how the world began, how old it was, or even how the human race came to exist.
Belief in a Creator doesn’t necessarily tell us all that much about the truth or falsehood of the theory of evolution or the Big Bang, or any other physical process by which the world operated, operates, or will operate. That’s not what faith in the Creator is meant to do.
I don’t want to belabour this point, but the idea that faith and science are opposed is so common. One of the main reasons people, especially young people, say they can’t have faith is because they believe it’s opposed to reason and science. This comes up in survey after survey. So even if what I’m saying has been said from this pulpit before, even numerous time, it’s really worth reiterating: Faith in God as the Creator, does not mean we’re opposed to science.
But, then, what does it mean that God is the Creator? Let me say three things about presence, life, and delight.
A fundamental human fear relates to being alone and without purpose; this too comes up in survey after survey, as well as in discussions about the sciences. Are we alone in the universe? Is there any purpose the the world that surrounds us?
Faith in a creating God, built on the foundation of the Scriptures, would assure us we are never alone, that nothing lacks purpose. There is a God who made us and rejoices in our very being, who “opens wide his hand and fills all things living with his blessing.” As the letter to the Colossians says: “All things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” The world is ordered to God as its source, goal, and purpose, and somehow it is mysteriously held together in God.
Such a view of reality means that as we move about our world, we are not like lonely explorers or pioneers striking out on our own, but we are far more like people entering for the first time the inner chambers of a well-ordered and beautiful home. We’re learning to recognize the work of the framer and master of the house, whose hand we can discern in the arrangement of every thing around us, in the beautiful colours and fabrics, in the bewildering complexity of the elements of the world, and in the resounding harmony of the spheres. Belief in God the Creator allows us to begin to see with new eyes, to discern his presence and our purpose.
John’s Gospel says of the Son of God: “In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.” God is not far from any one of us, but is like the light of the Sun by which we see. God’s own being radiates outwards to all of us, and something about the very energy of life itself as it courses through the human race – our desire to live, to be well, and to excel in sport or art or science, our desire to spread our life and the life of every living thing, our desire to build cities and institutions and laws and patterns of living that sustain us and the world around us – this restless energy is given us by God and is our natural sharing in God’s own being, as created things. God is near us; his presence is not simply “out there” in the world, but among us, even if we do not yet know him, or we have denied him, or we trust or love him not. As St Paul and the ancient Greek philosophers said alike: “In him we live and move and have our being.”
And if we have our reason, being, and life in this ever present God, we may also have our delight in him. In our reading from Proverbs and our Psalm we hear of God’s own joy in his creation. Proverbs 8 speaks lovingly and lyrically, as it traces the lineaments of creation: the “springs abounding with water,” the “circle on the face of the deep,” the establishment of the heavens and the shaping of the earth. As God wrought these manifold works, he took delight in them, as he did in his own Wisdom.
And the psalmist’s words make clear that we may share that divine delight as we gaze on and study the beauty of God’s work, ‘til that same delight blazes forth into words and song. “I will sing to the Lord as long as I live; I will make music to my God while I have my being.”
What does it mean to believe in God as Creator? Such faith implies much about reason, about presence, life and delight. The eyes of faith can learn to recognize God’s presence and purpose in, with, and throughout the created world; the mind of faith acknowledges his life pulsing through all life; the heart of faith knows we can partake in God’s own joy.
Believing in God the Creator certainly means more than this, but it can never mean less.
And thank God because it means that we as Christians can share in the life of this world and in the study of the cosmos, in all the humanities and the human sciences, in politics and law and every human endeavour, just as fully and intensely and joyfully as anyone else, perhaps even more so, because we are confident that we find in such activity the work of the one who made and redeemed us all: God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.