Sermon: Creation but not Creationism

Written by Rabbi Josh Levy — 13 October 2012

I have a shocking thing to tell you, a terrible confession. It is almost too shameful to say, here, in intellectual London, in modern times. But we are between friends so here goes… I believe in the creation story. I understand the story from which Eve just read as, well, as true.

Now before there is any misunderstanding, please don’t think I am going all Gateshead Yeshivah on you. I do not believe that the world was created in seven days; that it happened 5773 years ago last month; or that God spoke and here we are. I don’t believe that the Garden of Eden existed, that a snake persuaded Eve to eat the fruit and so on. Unlike an astonishing 46% of Americans, including a scary number of their politicians, I am not a ‘creationist’ in the frightening sense of the word, believing that human beings were created as we are now in the last 10,000 years.  Nor do I agree with Mitt Romney who apparently believes in ‘theistic evolution’ – evolution as divinely controlled, as God’s mechanism for making the world – a kind of Intelligent Design / Evolution hybrid.

Of course I don’t. I have read my Darwin, even my Dawkins, though he seems to be going out of his way to be as objectionable as possible to those of us who try to live with rational religion.

I know the science I understand that evolution is more than a theory.  And I know that it is necessarily random – and therefore necessarily a-theistic – if not, I would argue, necessarily for atheists. Theism neutral, let’s say.

I’ve also read my bible.  Which means I know that, as Eve has reminded us this morning, Genesis begins with two, in places pretty contradictory, creation stories.  And this speaks pretty strongly to the fact that we should be careful whether we believe it as a literal description.

And yet, all this said, I believe that ‘the creation story’ is True.  By which I mean, and I appreciate that some subtle clarification might be necessary here, that our creation myth, with which we began our cycle of reading Torah on Monday, and from which we read again today contains meaning, is laden with truths, with insights, with values.  And while it emerged in a specific historical context, these truths have eternal value – the continuing potential to enhance and shape our lives in the modern world.  In fact, so profound are some of the ideas found within the story that they do not, in and of themselves, even require that we believe the big idea of the story – that God created the world, or even that God exists.

What might these truths be?

In describing the world as of divine origin, however such a phrase might be understood, the Torah speaks against any nihilistic assertion that the world is without meaning, against the idea that our individual brief sojourns within it are without purpose or importance. It asserts that we can and should look for some greater meaning in our existence.

In stating that we are all created b’tzelem elohim – in the image of God – however we choose to understand the God bit, the Torah asserts that each one of us is of individual worth – irreplaceable and entitled to love, respect and dignity.  No individual or group, be they the ancient near eastern monarchs whom Genesis may have addressed, or the premiership footballers of today – no-one is imbued with any more divinity than you or me.

In presenting a human world with a single couple at its source – at least in one version of creation – created at a single time by one God – ‘man and woman God created it’, the Torah further stresses the unity of human kind irrespective of sex or indeed of race.

And in describing a hierarchy of creation with humans at the top, the Torah gives a significance to us as human beings which does not merely recognise our power to use and abuse the world as we see fit, which we clearly have, but also assigns to us a responsibility to act as its guardians.

And this fundamentally impacts on how we might understand the world around us.

It is why I have to struggle over issues at the end – and indeed, at the beginning of life – because deep in the core of our narrative is the idea that life matters.  This forces me to think – to grapple with abortion, euthanasia, assisted dying, the limits of treatment.  It does not determine the outcome of my grappling, but it makes it happen.  It is why I can empathise with the family of Patient L, the current subject of a legal battle between his Muslim family and his medical team about his care, even though in the end I disagree with them.

It is why we are bound to respond positively to the needs of those around us and to the needs of the environment. Because, as Eve read, we are placed here to till it and to tend it, which means thinking about our impact, however annoying this might be.

This story is why, however strong the offence might seem of someone mocking a religion or defacing sacred texts, I am, fundamentally, unmoved by most of what tends to be called blasphemy, and would never, could never countenance responding with violence, however extreme the provocation.  Because this text says that humanity is at the pinnacle of sacred creation, not books, or buildings, or even angels.

It is why I believe any space, including any religious space, which denies total equality between men and women, or indeed on the basis of race or sexual orientation, is not just guilty of discrimination but of genuine blasphemy – of denying the divine nature of all of humanity.

Now, importantly, not only do I consider the story of creation to present these ideas, but I am also utterly certain that the communication of these truths is the whole point of the story.  Our tradition could have communicated these ideas in another way – the more intellectual traditions of the West might have communicated them through philosophical or theological tractates – but that isn’t how Torah works.  It uses stories to demonstrate complex ideas, and when we read it in other ways we fail to read it correctly.

As the Rev Canon John Polkinghorne, a particle physicist, theologian and eminent Christian thinker, has written: Mistaking poetry for prose can lead to false conclusions. When Robert Burns tell us his love “is like a red, red rose”, we know that we are not meant to think that his girlfriend has green leaves and prickles. Reading Genesis 1 as if it were a divinely dictated scientific text, intended to save us the trouble of actually doing science, is to make a similar kind of error. We miss the point of the chapter if we do not see that it is actually a piece of deep theological writing…  literal creationists actually abuse scripture by the mistaken interpretation that they impose upon it.

What Polkinghome expresses is one of the most important ideas of modern religion – that we actually mis-use the text when we read it literally.  And, conversely, that our task is therefore to read it well – to read it as poetry, to grapple with it and engage with it to struggle with its meaning, to eke out the truths from within it – to identify the values within the text which express who we are and what we think is important.

In this way, I can say, without too much embarrassment, that I believe in the creation story. Not as a pseudo-scientific theory, but as our formative narrative expressing our ideals and values. Not as prose, asking me to suspend my critical faculties but as our poetry, demanding my critical, and my creative faculties. Not as a description of what happened to make the world, but as the source of Eternal truths about how we might see the world around us.

And even in intellectual London, I can proudly say: I believe in the Creation story. Even though it isn’t true, it is certainly True.