September 16, 2014

Creation Is a Many-Splendored Thing (4): The Whirlwind Creation Museum

Lions Panel, Chauvet Cave

Lions Panel, Chauvet Cave in southern France

The Whirlwind Creation Museum: an imaginary tour, inspired by ch. 5, “Behemoth and the Beagle,” from The Seven Pillars of Creation: The Bible, Science, and the Ecology of Wonder, by William P. Brown, and ch. 12, “God of the Whirlwind,” from Death Before the Fall: Biblical Literalism and the Problem of Animal Suffering, by Ronald E. Osborn.

God’s answer to Job provides the most panoramic view of creation in all of the Hebrew Bible (Job 38:1-42:6). On its surface, the text serves to chasten Job and expose the limitations of his knowledge and ability (38:2; 40:2, 8-14). But never has a rebuke been so colorful and richly textured, even from God. God reproves Job by taking him on a scenic detour through creation’s rugged, far-flung lands, a mind-bending tour of the vast domains of cosmology, meteorology, and zoology. God’s answer features such a variety of particularities, from hail to hawks, that some scholars have compared these chapters to the ancient Near Eastern genre of a catalogue or list. . . . (pp. 116-117)

. . . we must credit God with the making of biting and stinging insects, poisonous serpents, weeds, poisonous weeds, dangerous beasts, and disease-causing organisms. That we may disapprove of these things does not mean that God is in error or that He ceded some of the work of Creation to Satan; it means that we are deficient in wholeness, harmony, and understanding — that is, we are “fallen.” (Wendell Berry, quoted in Osborn, p. 151)

• • •

Hand Print, Chauvet Cave

Hand Print, Chauvet Cave

Welcome to the Whirlwind Creation Museum. Other so-called creation museums place their emphasis on a narrow, literalistic, modernist reading of the early chapters of Genesis. They imagine that these chapters simply “tell it like it is” — this is how God did it. Period. We, however, focus on a more panoramic and comprehensive text about how God created and rules over the universe, our world and its inhabitants: Job, chapters 38-42. This passage reminds us that we weren’t there, and none of us actually has any idea what God has wrought or how it all fits together. Job teaches us that herein lies wisdom.

It is my pleasure to give you an overview of the museum today, so that I might then set you free to explore the vast wonders of creation on your own — wonders that go beyond our human ability to describe and explain.

You see, we think the most basic truth about creation is its ultimate incomprehensibility.

Though we humans have the privilege to use our minds and imaginations to explore and discover and theorize and understand God’s creation, we will never come to the end of it. Its sheer scope and its innumerable mysteries resist our attempts to grasp it all. Its contradictions and conundrums stretch the limits of our logic. Before this great universe, we are very small. We do not think this should discourage us, however. Instead, we devote ourselves to learning, appreciating, contemplating, and proclaiming the splendor of God’s handiwork. In the end we yield our quest for all knowledge to the spirit of trust and worship.

Our Whirlwind Tour begins “with the farthest reaches of the cosmos and [concludes] with the tightly knit scales of the sea-dragon, from the farthest to the smallest scale of perception, from cosmos to chaos” (Brown, p. 125).

That sound of heavy construction you hear would be overwhelming if we were to play it at full volume. It’s God, laying the foundations of the earth, his holy Temple. He measured the entire space — the whole world! — and sank everlasting pillars to support it. He laid his temple’s cornerstone at a glorious dedication ceremony, an event celebrated by the innumerable hosts of heaven as they raised their voices in celestial song — choirs and orchestras filling the skies! Were you there? Can you imagine what it must have been like? The cacophonous sound! The overwhelming power displayed in sinking mountainous foundation stones through the ocean depths! The painstaking craftsmanship involved in forming each plain and forest, each hill and vale, each mountain and desert region!

And then, slam! the entire universe echoes with a thunderous bang of doors being forced shut upon the raging waters of all the oceans and seas, rivers and lakes, setting bounds and firmly holding them in place like a mother swaddles her newborn and cradles him securely in her arms. Were you there? Can you imagine? The tsunami is turned back! With bare hands, God turns the course of the raging river!

Please board this tramcar with me and hang on. As we round the corner, suddenly there is light! Brilliant, blinding light! And just as suddenly, as though by a switch, we descend into a depth beyond darkness. From the blazing surface of the sun to the gates of Hades and its deathly dark we ride, through vast Himalayan-sized storehouses of rain, snow, and hail waiting to be let loose upon the earth. Then out through heaven’s windows into the night, we fly among the constellations and the immeasurable emptiness of space. Have you ever been there? Can you even possibly imagine? Light streaking from billions and billions of incandescent sources! Darkness so deep you feel it on your skin! Weather, and storms, and thunders and lightnings so impetuous, so terrifying, so dazzling!

Rhinos, Chauvet Cave

Rhinos, Chauvet Cave

As we come back to this world, let us move next into our zoology section, one of the Whirlwind Museum’s most impressive and, some say, maddening exhibits. I’ve heard it tends to disturb some folks’ theology.

Why? you may ask. Well, let’s begin with our first animal, the lion, a fierce carnivore. Who provides food for the lion? Or how about the scavenging, predatory raven? Who delivers its prey? Tough questions, if the intended answer is “God” (which it is).

Who made these wild animals, such as the wild donkey and wild ox, to resist dominion in a world where humans are to exercise it? This is the truly wild kingdom which humans fear and avoid. And yet it is God’s world, and it is good.

Who made the ostrich so that she forgets her young and treats them cruelly? Again, this is an animal God made to have “no wisdom . . . no share in understanding.” How puzzling!

Look at the majestic horse, made perfectly for war and violence, mighty in strength and agility, smelling in its very nostrils the aroma of battle, ever waiting for the trumpet to sound. Who made that?

And what about the hawks, the eagles, the vultures, who soar above and gaze down with one thought in mind — dinner! Wait. God provides carrion for the birds of prey?

God describes each one with such evocative detail that Job is afforded a point of view that lies utterly beyond himself, a perspective that is God’s, but one that the animals also share. Job is invited to see the looming battle through the eyes of the warhorse, to spy out corpses through the eyes of the vulture, to roar for prey as the lion, to cry for food like the raven’s brood, to roam free on the vast plains, to laugh at fear, and to play in the mountains. Job’s Earth trek is no descent but an ascent to Nature. (Brown, p. 128)

The high point of our zoological exhibit features two of God’s most fearsome creatures: Behemoth and Leviathan. “Whatever they are, these larger-than-life beasts are the quintessential embodiments of the wild, highly esteemed by God . . .” (Brown, p. 128). These creatures were known in Ancient Near Eastern myths as the purveyors of chaos, which must be overcome in order for the gods to create the world. But God speaks to Job of them differently. For all their awe-inspiring terror, God says of Behemoth: “It is the first of the great acts of God,” (Job 40:19) and of Leviathan: “On earth it has no equal, a creature without fear” (Job 41:33).

Were you there when God made these wild, dangerous, and wonderful creatures? Have you been to their dens? Have you stood face to face with them? Can you exercise any control over them? Can you imagine such wonder, such intricacy, such terrifying mystery as you see in creatures like these?

• • •

This is the end of our tour, for now. I now release you to ponder, to imagine, to contemplate how wondrous and immense and incomprehensible God’s creation must be.

If this tour has taught me anything, it is that God’s creation is not simple, nor is it grasped by human minds. From the side of those who practice the Christian religion, this tour can at first be a faith-shaker. You will notice that nowhere in Job does God assign blame for the messiness of creation to a “fall” or the presence of sin as we do in our theodicies. So, when we put the simple, neat descriptions of Genesis 1-2, with their orderly seven-day pronouncements of a good world and a garden paradise next to this wild and frightful vision of a messy, untamed, complex and bewildering world, which includes competition, circumstances of endless variety (both “good” and “bad” from our perspective), seemingly uncontrollable freedom on the part of God’s creatures, discomfort, difficulties, violence, death, and unexplained suffering, it can be disorienting.

As it was to Job.

Yet it is in bowing before God in the midst of all this mess, this turbulent whirlwind of creation, rather than insisting we be able to explain it, categorize it, and systematically theologize it, that we find Job’s wisdom.

And ultimately, it is when we come to Jesus Christ, whose own mother suffered the pangs of birth to bring forth a new creation, and who himself “descended into the lower parts of the earth” (Eph. 4:9), that we find One who walks with us every day through the whirlwind.

• • •

CaveHorsesNote from CM:

For those who wish to see the awe-inspiring story of the discovery of Chauvet Cave (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) with its wondrous Paleolithic cave paintings, the oldest human art known on earth (30-33,000 years old), I recommend Werner Herzog’s documentary film, Cave of Forgotten Dreams. It is available for free on Netflix for subscribers, and for rental or purchase from Amazon.

iMonk Classic: Thoughts At 8 a.m. Mass


Note from CM: Michael wrote this post in September, 2009. Let me ask our evangelical friends — have things changed in evangelical churches since he wrote these words?

• • •

The wedge contemporary evangelicals are driving between young and old is incredibly short sighted and deadly. Doesn’t the Bible itself say that the older should teach the younger? We’ve turned things around so that anything new (even if unproven) and appealing to the not yet mature, still developing young is trotted out as appropriate worship. More experienced, mature Christians who should be teaching the young about and sharing with them their great Christian heritage are instead asked to “get with it” or “get out.” The evangelical church will die if all it can do is try to keep up with secular culture and make its focus offering whatever the latest fads or glitz it can to “attract” the young as if the church were somehow dependent on a Christian advertising machine rather than God to draw people to Him.

I took Denise to morning mass at Stella Maris (“Star of the Sea”) Roman Catholic Church in Moultrieville, SC. Almost 50 in attendance, of every age. Two priests. Two acolytes and two altar boys. Traditionalist. Ad orientem. Eucharist offered in one kind and most didn’t receive it in the hand. Lots of other traditionalist stuff happening. Several Latin masses during the month. All the little things.

I’m watching a father bring his 5 year old (?) to mass, take his hand and dip it in the water, make the cross for him, then take him to his seat and show him how to genuflect. Teenagers around me- apparently on retreat- are immersed in the various actions of Catholic worship, as are all the worshipers of every age this morning. Of course, adults of every age. Plenty of men. At least half or more of the congregation was male.

The traditionalist flavor of mass is more interesting to me, even in this low mass on a weekday, and I’ve read Ratzinger’s Spirit of the Liturgy and know where these priests are coming from. There’s a sign at the entrance to the church saying the parish can’t register any more members from outside their boundaries. Translation: traditionalism is popular down here in Charleston.

The whole idea of the daily mass, and the level of devotion one sees among so many Catholics such as those surrounding me, has to be of real interest to any post-evangelical. Evangelicalism is diverse, but as a movement it is simply engaging less and less with worship, spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines and any form of tradition. The multi-site, internet driven model combined with evangelicalism’s inherent pragmatism and entrepreneurialism makes one wonder if clicking at the computer terminal or taking in the 20 minute drive up/drop in service can be far away as significant models of evangelical Christianity’s virtues.

pe0081863.jpgI am especially impressed with how a small child and an 80 year old man are functioning within the same world of thought, ritual and understanding. Within evangelicalism, we have communities with strong elements of tradition that bind generations together, but overall, we have compromised this to the core, allowing the quest to make the faith acceptable to teenagers to define the style and substance of everything. Where has evangelicalism gone in the last 60 years? Toward maturity and the core of the faith, or toward the latest efforts to be relevant to the young? The old among us are often those who manage to hang on amidst a hurricane of changes.

I see evangelicals doing less and less that will hold anyone in the faith into their 80s. If I were 80, I wouldn’t go near 99% of evangelical churches. The traditionalists somewhere would have me as a customer.

One oddity. No crucifix up front. One on the altar (well, slightly above it), but no large crucifix at the front anywhere. Central figures: Madonna and Child. Is this unusual? I thought the crucified Jesus visually up front was the usual.

In one publication, the priest said that young people are hyper-connected to one another via technology, but unconnected to God. The church must offer that connection in its mass. Quite a provocative take on the purpose of all of this. No surprise how I feel about it, but he is saying that the church’s great role is to be that which connects us to God. You have to deal with that, because he is right about young people, but can the Protestant Gospel offer the connection to God without the church in the role of mediator? If not, then Catholicism makes a lot of sense.

I could never be a Roman Catholic for theological reasons that won’t change, but if I were, this traditionalist-flavored variety would be quite appealing.

Sunday Formation Talk: Work

Laborare est Orare, Herbert

Laborare est Orare, Herbert

Work joins prayer and sacred reading in an integrated and well balanced monastic life.

• Fr. Charles Cummings

For you know that you ought to imitate us. We were not idle when we were with you. We never accepted food from anyone without paying for it. We worked hard day and night so we would not be a burden to any of you.

• 2Thessalonians 3:7-8, NLT

• • •

In this chapter of Monastic Practices, Fr. Charles Cummings encourages us to learn from the long tradition of monks and nuns that manual labor offers “a distinct value to the spiritual life.” From the earliest days of monastic communities, they sought to learn from the example of biblical saints like Paul, who worked at a trade while serving God in his apostolic vocation.

Cummings notes that monastic work has taken different forms and has been pursued for various reasons. The early Desert saints found that keeping their hands occupied gave them greater capacity for concentration on God. Therefore, they took up relatively small tasks, such as basket-weaving or tending small gardens to assist them in their spiritual exercises.

Later, Benedict had to look at work differently. His Rule was for a larger community, one which needed to sustain itself. Yet he also fixed specific limits on the time to be spent daily in manual work in order that they might devote themselves primarily to liturgical prayer.

If keeping a balanced schedule of work, prayer, and sacred reading is a constant challenge for those in religious orders, how much more for those of us who are called to fulfill the daily demands of more ordinary lives? Yet perhaps we can learn lessons from watching the monks and nuns at work.

Monasteries might demonstrate how persons can use modern mechanization and automation without being dominated and dehumanized by it. The fascinating world of science and technology dominates human beings and becomes their idol when they forget that human hands and minds have fashioned these machines and can remain in control of them. Another role which monks and nuns might fulfill is to take responsibility for the short term and long term effects of human intervention with the processes of nature and the fertility of the land. Perhaps monks and nuns can be examples of the restrained and prudent use of energy and alternative forms of energy. In an age when people can scarcely think except in terms of the largest possible scale, the fastest, most powerful, most up-to-date, most expensive possibilities, monasteries might give witness to the value of what is more manageable, poorer, more compatible with the deeper needs of the human spirit. In a society where some consider work merely a necessary evil and would prefer to live on welfare or stock dividends, monks and nuns can be example of motivated workers finding a genuine fulfillment as human beings. (p. 47-48)

Cummings also reminds us that, “Monastic work is often hidden, humble, anonymous, even monotonous” (p. 51). Perhaps we who are required to toil at unsatisfying jobs can take heart from remembering those who are also laboring at assigned menial tasks without notice or applause, yet learning ways to offer their work to God. The author calls this, “the life of everyday routine and quiet, steady accomplishments, like a tree silently growing to maturity” (p. 52). Even seemingly meaningless and impossible tasks can remind us that our human weakness is part of God’s plan and an acceptable sacrifice to heaven.
imageThe balance of work with prayer and sacred reading also relativizes work and reminds us that being precedes doing in God’s eyes. My worth as a person does not come from what I do or accomplish, though it is a strong temptation to see things that way, especially in a capitalistic society.

Indeed, work can be a form of prayer. And the point at which work and prayer converge is when I labor from a heart of love. When I do my work as an act of love toward God and others, I need not be consciously aware of God for it to “count” as prayer. Of course, if my tasks allow me space and freedom to lift my spirit in prayer while I’m at them, so much the better. However, when we are at work, we must be at work. I have seen too many Christians (including myself) who have not been dependable workers, yet they somehow find a way to excuse themselves, imagining that their Christian faith exempts them from the common duty of hard work and paying diligent attention to the task at hand.

Nor is mere activism the answer. There is an addiction that carries a lust for being “in the game” of work, where the action is, always being “on,” constantly engaged in doing things that make one feel important — we call it “workaholism.” Who I am and what I do become indistinguishable. We might think this impossible in a place like a monastery, but Cummings disabuses us of that notion. There are activist monks too, people in religious orders who see themselves as professionals who find their identity more in running the business affairs of the community than in the life of religious devotion. This is a human temptation.

It can also enslave us. An overemphasis on work can shield me from silence, from dealing with other people, from facing God himself. It can steal life from us. “The things that make life worth living can be appreciated only when we slow down and work in a more leisurely, balanced and human way” (p. 65). As a beginning, Fr. Cummings recommends that we revisit God’s gifts of Sabbath and Lord’s Day.

Ultimately, we are called to remember the purpose and meaning of work, which was instituted by God, according to the Bible, in the very beginning. God himself is a Worker. In our labor we join him and ask his blessing in all we do.

Let your work be manifest to your servants,
and your glorious power to their children.
Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us,
and prosper for us the work of our hands—
O prosper the work of our hands!  

• Psalm 90:16-17, NRSV

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