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Original Goodness:
A Prayer from Outer Space

For Sunday June 19, 2011

Lectionary Readings (Revised Common Lectionary, Year A)

Genesis 1:1–2:4

Psalm 8

2 Corinthians 13:11–13

Matthew 28:16–20

           On Christmas Eve 1968, the Apollo 8 astronauts Frank Borman, Bill Anders and Jim Lovell celebrated humanity's first orbit around the moon by reading ten verses of 3,000-year-old poetry. Even the most irreligious person would have recognized the evocative words. In fact, the astronauts read ten verses from the lectionary for this week that begin with the first sentence of the Bible: "In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth."

           I was thirteen years old back then. I still remember the emotional resonance of those elegant words as people around the world watched the grainy television images and listened to NASA's crackly radio transmissions with their signature beeps. Planet earth never looked so beautiful, so mysterious, and so very fragile. In an interesting footnote, the atheist Madalyn Murray O'Hair sued NASA over the Bible reading, but lost.

           The creation story in Genesis doesn't enlighten us about history or science as we understand those disciplines today. How could it? That's not the purpose of this poetry. For cosmology we go with gratitude to the physicists, although it's worth noting that when it comes to the ultimate origins of Something rather than Nothing, and why there's conscious Life rather than mere inanimate Matter, cosmologists are just as baffled as theologians.

           Rather, the ancient creation story elucidates truths that transcend science and that subvert our own modern myths — like Carl Sagan's famous and grave intonation on his show Cosmos that the universe is all there ever has been, is, or ever will be; that the universe is the random result of blind chance even though everywhere we look we discover intricate design; or that it's a geocentric conceit to construe planet earth and every human being as uniquely special in the order of things.

           Theologians speak of original sin, separation, and alienation — from God, from ourselves, from each other, and even from the earth. These are important themes that we confess together every Sunday morning. For confirmation of humanity's "fall" from divine grace, just pick up the daily newspaper, speak to a good therapist, or contemplate our environmental catastrophes and genocides. Having lived through two world wars, the American pastor and theologian Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971) broke with the optimistic liberalism of his colleagues and instead insisted that human sin was an empirically verifiable doctrine.

           But prior to and more important than original sin is Original Goodness. The essential goodness of creation is the most conspicuous theme in this story. On the successive days of creation the author repeats the same refrain six times, that what God created is good:

Light: "God saw that the light was good" (1:3)
Land and seas: "God saw that it was good" (1:10).
Vegetation: "God saw that it was good" (1:12).
Sun, moon, and stars: "God saw that it was good" (1:19).
Living creatures and birds: "God saw that it was good" (1:21).
Livestock and wild animals: "God saw that it was good" (1:25).

Then, on the sixth day, "God saw all that he had made, and it was very good" (1:31). Satisfied with this "vast array" of created goodness, on the seventh day "God rested from all his work."

           To early Christians who insisted on abstaining from marriage, sex, and certain foods, Paul was blunt: "Everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving" (1 Timothy 4:4).

           Christians were so convinced of this essential goodness of creation that they borrowed a technical term from the non-Christian, neo-Platonic philosopher Plotinus (204-270) to define evil. Evil, they said, wouldn't exist without the prior good. It's a parasite on good — a privatio boni, that is, a lack, limitation or distortion of something inherently good. They also rejected the early idea of "docetism" (from the Greek word "to seem") that said Jesus's physical body was an illusion which only "seemed" real — a misguided attempt to protect Jesus from the evils of material creation.

           The creation story reminds us not to fall into the dualist thinking that the "spiritual" world is good and that the material world is evil. We should never deny sin and evil, but we should remember that they are penultimate rather than ultimate realities. In the book Good is the Flesh: Body, Soul, and Christian Faith (Morehouse Publishing, 2005), Brian Wren's poem Good is the Flesh captures these creation-affirming truths:

Good is the flesh that the Word has become,
good is the birthing, the milk in the breast,
good is the feeding, caressing and rest,
good is the body for knowing the world,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body for knowing the world,
sensing the sunlight, the tug of the ground,
feeling, perceiving, within and around,
good is the body, from cradle to grave,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the body, from cradle to grave,
growing and aging, arousing, impaired,
happy in clothing, or lovingly bared,
good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

Good is the pleasure of God in our flesh,
longing in all, as in Jesus, to dwell,
glad of embracing, and tasting, and smell,
good is the body, for good and for God,
Good is the flesh that the Word has become.

            As a divinely created entity that's distinct from God, Christians believe that our earth is sacred, but we don't believe that it's divine. Furthermore, we acknowledge that our earth is dependent and contingent, that it will not last forever, even if it lasts 4–5 billion more years as astrophysicists predict. That's a very long time, but it's not forever. In the end, since God created all things for himself, he will reconcile all things to himself (Colossians 1:15–20).

           The notion of our planet's ongoing preservation is as important as its original creation. Most remarkable of all, says the Hebrew poet, when God finished his creative activity, he "rested." He then turned to humankind created in his very own image, and said, "here, now it is yours, to populate, steward, rule over, and manage, but not to plunder, neglect or exploit." Whereas creation was God's divine act, preservation is our distinctly human responsibility. It's up to us to care for the goodness of God's gift of creation.

           Less well-known than the astronauts's reading of Genesis from lunar space is a prayer that Frank Borman subsequently offered to "people everywhere.” After completing their scientific work, he took a breath, and then prayed for God's good creation and every human being created in his image: “Give us, O God, the vision which can see thy love in the world, in spite of human failure. Give us the faith to trust the goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness. Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts, and show us what each one of us can do to set forth the coming of the day of universal peace. Amen."

Image credits: (1); (2) John Fenzel; (3); and (4)

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