All three of you! (Actually, the photo was taken at my ordination.) Or maybe there's 116, which Mail Chimp says is how many checked this…
God’s Goods: Human and Natural
I’m so glad you’ve invited me here today and that you’ve come. This brief sermon has been forty years in the making. They say preachers really only have one sermon that they then elaborate on. This is that one. It says what I most care about and intend to serve the rest of my life.
I’ll be using some religious terms here. I hope and trust that doesn’t dissuade the more humanistic of you from listening past them to the real message. “God’s Goods: Human and Natural” is intended to serve what is human and natural.
By “God” I mean whatever is the reality that generated this awesome universe and us in it. One thing we know for sure, we didn’t create it. Rather, it creates us and allows us to study it and live freely in it. That God I praise and thank, but I don’t dwell on it, or Him, or Her. I doubt such a vast and mysterious god cares whether I’m a supplicant. Obeying whatever His supposed representatives say doesn’t interest me. Moreover, I think it’s wrong to be gullible and obedient.
To me, “religion” isn’t only worshipping God or instilling faith, shame or submission. Rather, it comes from the old root words religio and religare, meaning “to bind back to the root and become whole again.” The root we’re estranged from isn’t the one saints Paul or Augustine imagine. It is the wholeness we are built of and must live in. It is oneness with our own selves, each other, life, and natural reality. There may be more that we don’t yet know, but these are the necessary parts of what we’re to be whole with. We’re human and natural, at least. We’ve life this side of death, at least. This is our part of God.
I don’t dwell on God; I dwell on God’s goods. I call them human and natural. I get this from the Bible.
Now, I also don’t think we should “believe in the Bible.” To me, it isn’t so much “God’s Word to humans” so much as human words about God (and life, and suffering, and deceit, and wars, and genocide, and wondering, and love, and much that humans deal with). I know it is but one of humanity’s scriptures, efforts to understand and explain what reality, and our history in it, is all about. I don’t believe the Bible is inherently true and authoritative, but I know it is taken that way. It has power because people believe it does, and I want to use that power to rescue, serve, and celebrate God’s goods.
Did you know that the world’s three great theistic religions, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, all base their scriptures on what we call the Old Testament? At the root of these initial books is a mythic explanation of our origins, obligations, and opportunities. I’m talking about the creation stories, which we tend to lump together as the Garden of Eden.
However, if you look at those first three chapters in Genesis (starting on page one, for those of you unfamiliar with the Bible) you’ll see there are two distinct creation accounts. These are read as if one, and that helps.
The first one, the one I love so dearly, is the six days of creation story. Of course, I don’t believe in a literal six days to make the universe, all life, and us. How long is a day when there is no earth to spin in sunlight? Some of the order is mixed up. But interestingly, it follows an evolutionary structure. It starts with light, goes to land and water, grows plants, generates animals, and finally on the sixth “day,” humans (plural, “male and female He made them in His own image” goes the awkwardly pronouns). By the way, the god doing all this is referred to as Elohim, a vague word having both singular and plural implications as well as masculine and feminine aspects, a vague sort of “the gods.”
The important thing besides it being an evolutionary telling of natural creation, including humans, is that most of the stages of creation are called, by God, “good.” There was light and it was good. There was land and water and they are good. There are fish and animals and they are good. There are humans and they are good, males and females, they are good. All together, after the sixth day, Elohim God declares it all is “very good.” I agree with God. Life is good.
Please note there is almost no instruction here. There is no “bow down and worship me or you’ll be smitten” sort of language. There are only simple instructions. “Be fruitful and multiply.” We’ve done that, especially recently. “Replenish the earth.” We haven’t done that; we exploit it and break the cycles of replenishment. “You shall have dominion.” We’ve done that too, but with a “fallen” sense of dominion, as if we’re to be bossy and arrogant, wasting whatever our whims want. I think the word might better be translated as sovereignty. We each should own our own bodies and minds, tending to our stewardship of God’s goods while also enjoying them. A diet is offered that is good for people and the planet, “Fruits and nuts and herbs that bear their seed, these shall be your meat.”
Oddly, despite Genesis One telling of our natural creation, and us in it, as being good, there is a second creation story headed by a different God, YHWH, a singular and masculine name. Genesis Two and Three tells of a barren desert where God forms a man from the dust, and from his rib, a woman. (This was back in the day when women could take a ribbing.) Importantly, though they are naked, they are not ashamed. They have access to almost all the wonders and treats of the garden but are told not to eat of the “tree of the knowledge of good and evil.”
Well, you know the story. A snake, called a subtle deceiver, tells Eve they can be as gods, knowing good and evil. She and Adam eat of it and suddenly, they are ashamed of their naked bodies, try to hide, get caught, blame each other, and are expelled into lives of pain. They are alienated from their own bodies, each other, their garden, and their God. Shame, blame, and pain come from eating of this sort of knowledge. In that sense, they do die. The story gets worse. One brother kills the other. Lots of trouble comes from their alienated condition.
All sorts of ideas are projected onto this story. Maybe it tells of our human transition from hunting and gathering (which is ten times more ancient than all of the history we know). Maybe it tells of our universal experience of being in our mother’s womb only to be cast out into a cold and often cruel world. Maybe it warns us to not be sexual. Maybe we shouldn’t think.
What we’ve been told is that they offended God by being rebellious. This disobedience was the Original Sin, which we all then inherit, and the way to redeem ourselves from this fallen condition is to believe and obey God’s supposed scriptures and authorities. In our Christian culture, we’re told Jesus fixed this fallen condition by willingly being tortured and killed, as his father god sent him to do, and that his expiatory sacrifice saves those who believe in it from the endless torture of hell, also arranged by God. Many people, trying to be good, believe their humanness is inherently sinful, and if they just believe strongly enough they’ll be forgiven, no matter how they might sin.
My thesis is that this telling of these stories is exactly wrong, misleading, and tragic. When Paul or Augustine or the Pope or the TV preachers tell the story this way, they are the snake, the subtle deceiver, tricking us into believing in their goods and evils even as we forget and forsake the original goods listed in Genesis One, God’s goods. When we remember and reunite with what God’s goods really are, we’ll heal the alienation we have from ourselves, each other, our world, and our God: religio. We’ll stop bruising our heel on the head of the snake. We’ll walk back through the gateway that the cherubim angels guard with flaming swords, unscathed. That image is a union of the opposites image. We’ll overcome our false divisions, our alienated confusion, by our innocent wholeness.
(There is a curious similarity of this myth and the myth of Prometheus. By myth I do not mean a lie; rather, a myth is a symbolic effort at telling an underlying truth or inner condition. Most cultures rest on their myths, as if they tell the truth of how they came to be, who they are, and how they’re to live. Prometheus steals fire from the gods in order to serve humanity. For this, he is punished endlessly. Whether the actual control of fire (or knowledge), there is a parallel. But this Prometheus myth, like that of Pandora’s Box, may be perversions of earlier wisdom, just as the “fall” is told to us wrongly.)
It is not sexuality or willfulness that is the fall. Indeed, saying so feeds us the same fruit. There need be no shame in our bodies or about each other. We needn’t be endlessly stupid and gullible, obeying what some supposed religious authority says. We should be sexual and smart, sovereign, tending a good garden and enjoying it. We’re free, whole humans made in the image and likeness of that divinity that generates this astonishing universe. We’re of an evolutionary process, all of which is good, here with all the creatures and natural laws that make it and us up. Eons of effort have resulted in our having big, intelligent brains and the culture that comes out of them and then forms our thinking. We shouldn’t forsake these and all natural creation by believing subtle deceivers.
We’re more vulnerable and precious than most animals in that we can’t stand up when we’re born. We need family and culture to exist at all. We must be carried about for months, learning whatever language we’re born into, cared for by more than just our smooth-skinned mothers. There’s no fur to hold onto. Maybe the first tool wasn’t the club, but the sling. We’re born some three months earlier than animals our size in order to get our huge heads out without killing us or our mother. Then our brains rapidly grow in care and culture. These marvelous brains should not come up through evolution only to be tricked into being stupid or subservient. We are not subjects of subtle deceivers or bossy snakes; we’re sovereign, good. The earth below us, the sun above, the waters around and within, the plants and animals, our fellow humans – these are all good, very good.
But our culture can forget and forsake this and instead offer up other sorts of goods and evils. When the Christian Secretary of the Interior under Ronald Reagan was asked whether industrial processes might injure the environment he was supposed to protect, he quipped, “I don’t think we have many generations left before the Lord returns.” It isn’t just theologians or popes that subtly deceive us, it is marketers and advertising. Picture a pristine waterfall on a sunny day: “Take a breath. It’s springtime. Salem cigarettes!” It’s old Bible stories and new militarists: “Kill those ragheads (gooks, chinks, etc.).” It’s those who would shame our human aliveness: “Ever feel sexy? Guilty!” It’s those who think believing is more important than behaving, who waste energy, pollute the air, water, and air, all the while acting sanctimonious while ignoring the ethics.
We’d go a long way towards healing the thousands of years of alienation we have within us, among us, and with our garden and God by remembering what God calls good. We shouldn’t mistrust our inner knowing; we should mistrust those who would divide us from it. We shouldn’t distain our bodies or our earth. We should get them healthy and help them to flourish as never before. The march of civilization has often been the spread of the deserts. Old soils have washed away. Our ocean is acidifying and in too many places, dying. Our air is subject to the physics and chemistry of our constant industrial farting, creating needless mayhem for most creatures. We pursue trinkets and numbers in bank accounts no matter at what cost to each other, our own lives, and life itself. We’re desperate for jobs no matter what those jobs are doing. Meanwhile, we’re not distant from Eden; we’re distant to Eden and goodness in ourselves.
When we remember and honor God’s goods around us and in us we will manifest God’s goods of us. We don’t have an energy shortage; we have a shortage of ethics and ingenuity. Whether we waste and ruin it, or feed it and help it to flourish, our wonderful blue ball earth, with its thin, fragile biosphere will continue to spin around our good sun for millions of years to come. But will we live well on it and with it? Will we have time for our lives, for learning, for working, for loving, for dancing? We only recently have come to understand the elegant beauty and possibility of natural laws and processes. Working with such laws leads us to freedom. Science isn’t offensive to God. Science is studying God’s goods. Science is born of God’s goods. Science: “as best we know, so far.” Religion shouldn’t alienate us from those goods. Religion should be those goods come alive. We don’t praise the Creator by ignoring or trashing creation. We are part of creation, co-creating with it. In gratitude, responsibility, and celebration, I offer these ideas on behalf of Creation creating itself; I’m trying to be good for what is good.
Reverend Brad Carrier
For the Humboldt Unitarian Universalist Fellowship
© January 27, 2013