SERMON: In The Beginning

Andrew McKearney’s Sunday Sermon for 23 February 2014

Some of us may have watched the television programme ‘Bible Hunters’ on BBC 2 over the last couple of weeks. It detailed the 19th and 20th century search to discover the oldest manuscripts of the Bible in an attempt to lay to rest the doubts raised by the scientific discoveries of that period.

If geology proved that the earth’s origin was far older than 4004 BC, and biology showed that all species, instead of being unique and all formed at exactly the same time, are related by evolution to one another, then this raised the question ‘Can the Bible be trusted?’ So began a search to establish the original text of the Bible, whose historical accuracy could be proved by archaeological evidence, and then it was hoped that could be the solid rock on which to build the Christian faith – hence the title of the programme ‘Bible Hunters’.

But it didn’t produce what was hoped for!

The older the manuscripts that were discovered, the more they diverged from one another rather than converged; variant readings multiplied rather than decreased; and manuscripts of other writings showed that the books of the Bible weren’t as unique as had been assumed.

The evidence in fact indicated that there were several Christianities not just one pure original form! That varieties of faith in Jesus were hammered into a single orthodoxy largely through the imposition of the Roman state! And when the key sites were subjected to scientific archaeology, the biblical events became less not more certain! This is familiar stuff to many of us, but the programme helpfully reminded us of how far we have travelled as a Church from trying to defend a tight, literal reading of the Bible in the face of all that science might suggest about the origins of the universe.

The fact is that however interesting and plausible the theories are that scientists come up with about how the universe began, they will never be in direct conflict with either the scriptures or the theological understanding of God as creator.

Put at its simplest, the scientific quest is concerned with answering the question ‘how’ – how has the universe come into being, how are things the way they are now? The religious quest is concerned with answering the question ‘why’! Why is there anything at all? Why isn’t there just nothing?

And when Christians, Jews and Muslims talk and think of God creating the world, they are trying to answer the question of why anything exists at all; they are not asking the scientific question of how the universe came to be the way it is now – that is rightly for scientists to answer.

The reason Christians have given that there is anything at all has been that it is due to the generosity of God’s love – theologians sometimes refer to an overflowing of God’s love.

Our experience of human love is the closest we can get to the idea of something happening, someone or something coming into existence, not out of necessity not out of compulsion, but completely and utterly offered, created, made from the dynamic of love, a love which goes out from itself for no reason at all except that it is love. And this is as true whether we are making a cake for somebody, or giving birth to a child – we are creating out of the generosity or overflow of love.

It was Julian of Norwich who expressed most memorably this insight as to why anything exists at all. In May 1373 she received a series of visions that she then wrote about and put together to make the first book in English written by a woman ‘Revelations of Divine Love’. In one of her visions she recorded this:

“God showed me more, a little thing, the size of a hazel-nut, on
the palm of my hand, round like a ball. I looked at it
thoughtfully and wondered, ‘What is this?’ And the answer
came, ‘It is all that is made’. I marvelled that it continued to
exist and did not suddenly disintegrate; it was so small. And
again my mind supplied the answer, ‘It exists, both now and for
ever, because God loves it’. In short” Julian concludes,
“everything owes its existence to the love of God.”

This I have referred to before, is called the ‘positive way’ or in Latin the ‘via positiva’ or in Greek the ‘kataphatic way’. Here image, metaphor, poetry are all used to express our understanding and experience of God as creator. But recall that I also referred to another way, the ‘negative way’ or in Latin the ‘via negativa’ or in Greek the ‘apophatic’ way. This other way stresses the otherness of God, that God is not an object like other objects, a person like other persons. So unlike human beings who make things and create people, God does so out of nothing, ‘ex nihilo’ to use the Latin phrase. This acts as something of a break or check against too human a view of God as creator – God is quite unlike us as creator!

The argument is straightforward. If God did not create the world out of nothing, then either he created it out of already existing material, or he created it out of himself.

The idea that God created the world out of already existing material was accepted by Plato and Aristotle. For them matter was eternal and coexistent with God. Creation for them meant the ordering of pre-existent matter. Christian thought rejected this view because it introduced a dualism: God and matter, both eternal; and that was unacceptable.

The alternative that God created the world out of himself, implied that the world must be in some sense part of God, some sort of emanation of God. And here again Christian thought insisted on the otherness of God, that God cannot be identified as closely with the world as this implied; so that too was unacceptable.

So in answer to the religious question ‘Why is there anything rather than nothing?’ Christians have affirmed two things – that quite unlike human beings, God created the cosmos out of nothing – the apophatic way. But then the kataphatic way, the via positiva, the positive way, in which the human language of love is used as being the closest we can get to answering the question why anything exists at all – from the sheer generosity or overflowing of love.

And that’s the conviction that fires the creation story from the book of Genesis:

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”