Imagine, if you will, that you are an inquisitive youngster. Your family lives in relatively close proximity to the ocean and you are in love with the rhythm and power of the waves. Each day, or as often as you can pull yourself away from chores, carrying water, feeding the livestock or picking on your little sister, you wander down to the shore, sit at the edge of the sand and just watch. Observe. Study.
You marvel at the way the sand disappears beneath the surf, the way the blue of the ocean flows out further than the eye can see, the way the blue of the sea seems to end and then appear to then take a sharp turn up and up and up and overhead and behind, disappearing behind your village. You observe the jagged rocky places jutting out of the water, off shore, further than you are allowed to swim, surrounded by water.
Some evenings you are allowed to stay down by the sea while the great light of the day disappears beneath the edge of the sea and soon a tableaux of smaller lights bedecks the expanse above as the color of the sky changes to black. Across that array of smaller lights one larger one rides on its own speed across the heavens, along with a number of others travelling the same road, at their own speed sometimes backwards sometimes forwards as you watch them night after night.
It is not hard to imagine that the first chapter of Genesis was born of this kind of observation. Before humans understood orbits and the elliptic, the revolutions of our own planet, gravity, ionospheric refraction, stars and the like. It appeared that the waters of the sea extended out to the edge of a firmament and was then held back by this firmament creating a bubble below and above in which we lived. The stars the sun and the moon performed their dance against this backdrop every day, and we lived and worked on this little island home under that firmament.
What then is the role of faith as we read this story about the creation of the heavens and the earth, and of the creatures with which it is populated. Is it in the mental calisthenics required to stand against all scientific inquiry and observation and hold that this is an accurate description of the creation of the space in which we live?
I read this story and see it not as a repudiation of scientific inquiry but as an example, creating a hypothesis that explains the observed universe. Here we have an inquisitive soul seeking to understand his observations and describe a paradigm that fits what he observes. Later inquiry, exploration and technology would cause him to adjust his hypothesis but given the tools with which he had to work, it was a pretty good paradigm.
I would further suggest that using our mental and spiritual energy to present this story as an accurate description of our living space, to literally believe it, is expending our energy in the wrong place. Faith calls the believer to task in this story, but it is not in stubbornly accepting the mechanics, the how of this creation. Rather, faith is challenged, in every age, not by the how but the what and why. The call to faith resides in the word Good, “and God saw that it was good.”
I believe this is the particularly challenging question of faith for today. How do we treat a creation that God called good? How do we care for that with which we have been entrusted.
I was also reminded during this past week, while I sat in a in a jet travelling home from Europe, of how fragile this home of ours is. I can comfortably stroll 5 miles in a couple hours. If I were to “stroll” that distance straight up the air temperature would drop between 90 and 100 degrees and if that didn’t kill me, the lower air pressure, about one third of what I normally live in, would. And this, at the distance of a casual stroll.
Our habitable zone, what seems vast and robust, is rather thin and fragile on a global scale, less than the skin of an apple. Absolutely amazing that it supports such wonder and diversity. The challenge of faith asks us how we care for this. Do we litter plastic, spew carbon, pollute precious waters without concern. Or do we seek to live sustainably, to allow for the questions about our impact on the planet to be asked and then to find sustainable ways to respond. How should I practice my responsibility to care for that which God has called good, by stubbornly believing the scientific accuracy of at story with pre-historic roots, or by acting responsibly toward that creation today?