Subcreation: From Eden to the New Jerusalem
SUBCREATION: FROM EDEN TO THE NEW JERUSALEM:
Genesis Chapters 1 through 3
The wonderful first three chapters of Genesis — two of which we have just read — attempt to grapple with some huge questions: among them where everything that is came from, including but not limited to us; the role of God in bringing about that everything; and our relationship to God on the one hand and to all the rest of everything that is on the other. There’s cosmology, ontology, theology, and ecology thrown in.
There’s been quite a change in the way we’ve read this text since about the 6th Century B.C. when it took final written form. To reduce it to the simplest terms, we humans have been repeatedly demoted. The authors of Genesis saw us being at both the physical and moral center of the universe. Genesis depicts a bubble in the waters, at the bottom of which is planted a flat earth for us to stand on. And over it the sun, moon and stars are posted to give us light and tell us the time. In the very midst of it is planted mankind — us — with dominion – that’s the exact word – over all the creatures a benevolent God has put there, apparently for our benefit. In modern parlance, it’s all about us – well, all about God and us. But we are made in God’s likeness, we are given dominion, and even the power to name the creatures. That naming business is no small matter. In ancient thinking, names were powerful, not mere arbitrary semiotic markers. Think of the mystical air of taboo surrounding the name of God himself in the Old Testament. The person in charge of giving names was powerful indeed. That person was us.
Now let’s talk about Genesis Chapter 3, which we didn’t read, but of course we all know intimately. The thrust of that Chapter is explaining why things are wrong in this perfect world. The main thing that ostensibly goes wrong is that death is introduced into the world. We know, of course, that it’s probably bad theology to say we introduced death into the world. Death was here millions of years before the first human being drew breath. In fact it was an essential, and if I may use the word, vital part of creation. Death, sad as it is, really isn’t the biggest problem the author of Genesis Chapter 3 is trying to address. The biggest problem is that we humans keep screwing things up, and this has been an open scandal from the moment we looked around and took account of ourselves. Because of that, however, the expulsion from Eden, bad as it is, doesn’t really demote us from the center of creation in our own eyes. In fact, in Genesis Chapter 2 there’s a solid hint of that in the description of the rivers in the Garden of Eden, one of them described in the present tense. In other words, Eden’s rivers are still places we can go. Eden is a blessed state we wish we could be in but aren’t, but geographically and physically it’s part of exactly the same world, with all the good things that God has made for us, and we are in still in the middle of it. And the world and the universe are still really about us.
Since then, however, our views of our position have degraded. The Garden of Eden, set in the center of Asia Minor, is no longer at the center of things when you start taking into account — as our forbears in the Roman empire did, for instance, the entire Mediterranean basin – let alone when you discover, as our Renaissance forbears did, the rest of our round globe which has no geographic location of greater dignity than any other. Let alone if your point of reckoning and reference is where some other civilization began. It’s worth noting that the Chinese – similarly — viewed themselves as the Middle Kingdom and have had to accept a similar geographic demotion.
And as for that neat little dome of water snugly bounding our world, it was replaced, even in ancient cosmology, with a series of spheres thought up by the astronomers of the time to explain the complex interplay of stars and planets – an interplay that was just not compatible with all that snugness. Then as the Renaissance proceeded we assumed the uncomfortable awareness that the planets were in some measure worlds like our own, and then that the stars were suns like our own, but much further away. As more time went by, we began to recognize the vastness of galactic and intergalactic space, and to acknowledge that we were not particularly close even to the heart of our own galaxy, which in turn is only one galaxy among millions if not billions. The universe as we now know it gives no signs of being in any meaningful sense about us, although as yet we have no remotely reliable indication that anything else like us exists out there. Not that we would be surprised to find that there were. And probably, if that were the case, we’d also learn that our extra-terrestrial cousins had their own relationship with God, perhaps even their own redeemer.
Down the rabbit-hole we have gone. Originally confident that we had dominion, we went about altering our world to suit ourselves. Ancient farming practices probably contributed much, for example, to the growth of the deserts of the Middle East, and to the deforestation of Iceland. And that was just a warmup, before the Industrial Revolution. Once we really got to work, we set about building the vast interplay of mining, transport, fabrication, and commerce that created our modern world. But we lost self-confidence at every step. The poet William Blake, perhaps the single poet who had most internalized and most thoroughly incorporated the cadences of Biblical style and diction into his own writings, spoke broodingly of the “dark Satanic mills” of the late 18th Century. The labor that went to build this world, far from being mankind’s collaboration with its Creator, was decried by Karl Marx as meaningless, as alienating us from ourselves. Our wars, once viewed as crusades or jihads, touched with divine meaning, came to be viewed by the sophisticated among us as little more than the usual realpolitik tinctured with atavistic bloodlust.
Likewise, we have suddenly become aware of our destructive power in the world, and not only from our weapons of mass destruction. It is our necessary consumption and our unnecessary consumption alike, that we now recognize as the engines of blight. We tear up the landscape, pollute the rivers and the skies, deplete the lands of minerals, and overfish the waters, all in the name of acquiring necessities and comforts. Species are dying off every day, we are told, because of what we do. Can anyone seriously view humanity, the destroyer of planetary resources and balance, as central to the divine plan? Would it not be nearer the truth to view us as the central to some Satanic plan instead? And would it not make greater sense to say that we are not the center but the enemy of the center of creation? How fortunate that we are quarantined here on an insignificant planet in an insignificant galaxy! Think of what we might do with greater scope — with greater importance!
So, in keeping with the new view, when we read the Genesis story, as we do each Easter vigil, we tend to lapse into a kind of Manichaeanism: God good, the universe good, Nature good – Mankind bad. We do the Creation Story each year at the vigil, and it seems to call forth the slide show impresario in many of us — as you will see it has in me. And I want to say first of all that those slide shows are always wonderful and moving, and I hope I prove worthy of the tradition tonight. All the same, the other slide shows have not been untouched by the Manichaeanism of which I speak. We see pictures of the glories of nature or of interstellar space or we listen to the creation myths of humans who have shown greater respect for the natural order, like Native Americans. Usually there is little role for humankind in the images. We see oceans without sails, forests without houses, fields without farmers, hillsides without power lines or ski slopes, all manner of creatures unaccompanied by men or women, galactic phenomena infinitely too vast for human scale. Why would it be otherwise? We humans are a blot and an embarrassment on the face of God’s lovely creation. Are we not? Best to keep us offstage.
Well, not if we take Genesis seriously. It says: “God created man in his image; in the divine image he created him; male and female he created them.” We are free to disagree with that, but we can hardly avoid acknowledging its meaning. Our modern views are, to be blunt, on a collision course with the views of the author of Genesis on the critical question of the meaning and value of humanity. Also on the role of humanity as a consumer of the benison of Nature. God says: “Be fertile and multiply; fill the earth and subdue it. Have dominion over the fish of he sea, the birds of the air, and all the living things that move on the earth.” And God says: “See, I give you every seed-bearing plant over all the earth … to be your food.” And to me most telling of all is the business about the naming. The phrasing is important. God brings each of the animals to the man “to see what he would call them.” If the name is part of the essence of a creature, then we have to read this passage as God delegating to mankind part of the role of defining the essence of the beasts. God finds out the fullness of their meaning from us, not the other way around. Think about it: God is handing off the business of creation to mankind, to us.
Let’s think also about what happens after Eden. Adam and Eve go marching out the gate to – to where? I submit that they go to set up the habitations of humanity. And while there are some indivisibly bad ones like Sodom and Gomorrah, the Bible views most cities as flawed but redeemable. Think of Jonah sent to redeem Nineveh. And think clear from the very beginning to the very end of the Bible. Think about almost the last image in the book of Revelation: the New Jerusalem, gleaming with jewels, actually characterized as the wife of the Lamb. The habitation of men was also the point of union between all creation and its God. In the Biblical view, we began at the center and we remain there to the very end of time.
So in the Biblical view, we belong here. We are not interlopers in Creation. With everything wrong with us, everything allegorized in the story of Adam and Eve’s Fall, we still belong here. And we are still the ones in charge – in charge of getting to – in fact in charge of creating the New Jerusalem. And I maintain that you can’t seriously look into your heart and deny it. “What a piece of work is a man,” Shakespeare said so truly: “how noble in reason! how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable! in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god!” Our works are mighty for good as well as bad. And what we do does carry on the work God did in those seven great days of Genesis – as I hope to show you in detail in a few minutes. God’s creation hasn’t stopped at all; we’re in charge of much of the work.
The kind of work we do is what the poet Coleridge called Subcreation. He may have meant something slightly different by the term, but I think it is a useful one for present purposes. It is the taking of the created world and fashioning something else from it – hopefully something better.
Now think about that image of the New Jerusalem. I have been planning this homily for a while. Given the events of recent days, I experienced a moment of dismay thinking about what a discordant note the mention of Jerusalem must strike, with all the killing going on there as we speak – killing for the very possession of Jerusalem. But then I realized it was ever thus. The history of Jerusalem has always been one of bloodshed and chaos. And when the author of Revelation set pen to paper, Jerusalem was less than twenty years removed from some of bloodiest destruction in its history. Today’s suicide bombers have nothing on the Roman legions. The choice of Jerusalem as the symbol of the joyous and complete fulfillment of history would have been just as jarring then as it is today. You can almost hear the first readers wondering how the New Jerusalem could ever evolve from that.
The fact is, using that God-given and Godlike creativity, it is our continuing role to take on that huge challenge and to subcreate the New Jerusalem from the present fallen one – wherever our particular fallen Jerusalem happens to be. For the poet William Blake, the site of the New Jerusalem was England. And he asked himself exactly the same question the readers of Revelation must have asked themselves – how on earth do we get there from here? Let me read you his answer to himself in his poem, fittingly called The New Jerusalem.And did those feet in ancient time
Walk upon England’s mountains green?
And was the holy Lamb of God
On England’s pleasant pastures seen? And did the Countenance Divine
Shine forth upon our clouded hills?
And was Jerusalem builded here
Among these dark Satanic Mills? Bring me my bow of burning gold!
Bring me my arrows of desire!
Bring me my spear! O clouds, unfold!
Bring me my charriot of fire! I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
In England’s green and pleasant land.
The New Jerusalem, then, will be London, will be Jerusalem itself, will be Baltimore. It will be built in the habitations of men and women as well as in those parts of Nature we do not touch. When we turn to God with all our hearts, we will subcreate it from the elements of this world with which we are already inextricably entwined. That subcreation is in progress, has been in progress for millions of years and may continue for millions more.
For our meditation, then, I would like to present you a series of images showing how Man has carried on the creativeness of the God who largely handed his creation off to us. The seven days of creation continue through us, through our work, through our play, through our exploration and our prayer and our invention and our love for each other. We are not at all perfect, but we are divine.