I’m not sure I remember learning about Adam and Eve as a kid, but I clearly remember learning about Moses and the Exodus. That was a story we told in detail for hours every spring with everyone in our extended family around a table. Passover served as a critical part of my own identity. This is the story of our heritage. These are our ancestors. I’m aware that as a parent, I haven’t done that with my own child. As a UU child, my kid might be able to tell you about lots of creation and origin stories, but none of them are his. It’s true for adults, too. The stories that hold us up often weren’t learned as part of our shared faith, but were brought in from somewhere else.
As Unitarian Universalists, we talk a lot about our faith, but when it comes time to define it, we often speak quickly about what we don’t believe rather than about what we do. If pushed, we lean heavily on ethics, and a few shared understandings of what the world should look like. From time to time, in moments that make every religious professional squirm, someone will pipe in with, “We don’t believe anything” which, of course, is absurd but no better than, “We can believe whatever we want” which is an adolescent response to our stated value of a free and responsible search for truth and meaning. Of course you can believe whatever you want. It’s a free country. But, it’s not an answer to the question. Unitarian Universalists do have a common theology, but we haven’t done a good job of articulating it which leaves us scrambling.
To combat that reality, many ministers talk about the elevator speech. We talk about rehearsing it for our members so they can adopt or adapt it and have something useful to say when asked the question. If you’re interested, mine is, “UUs are part of a covenantal faith. We don’t have doctrine, because we believe that revelation continues to unfold.” It’s short, it’s accurate, it gives a broad sense of who we are. I use it often. It’s fine. But when we’re talking about living into our faith, an elevator speech isn’t enough. We don’t live an elevator speech. We live a theology. We live, we are defined, we behave, we are liberated, by a living faith grounded in a shared theology.
Theology is a system, not just a line or two. It’s a deep and wide expanse of interconnected, interrelated stories that become the foundation for how we understand our lives. Theology is poetry and philosophy and ethics and mythology. It’s broad speculation sometimes made very small so we can hold it in prayer when we are most afraid. It translates out to culture and back in to identity and out again to politics and human systems. As UUs, we have theology, but we haven’t been very good about articulating it. Which is why I’m starting this series I’m calling This We Believe. Over the course of the next few years, I’ll take a systematic approach to theology. This will translate to some adult programming as well as we grapple with the big concepts that make up rich theological systems. It’s also, in its simplest form, the basis for this season’s podcast that I record with Rev. Sarah Lenzi called Hope and Heresy.
What better way to start this UU theology than at the beginning. Cosmology. Creation stories. And here at the dawn of a new year, starting at the beginning makes sense. Sort of. I’m not sure that January, 2022 is really a beginning. I think we’ve been in this doorway or portal, this transition into something else for almost two years. We’re living in a liminal space between what was and what will be. We’ll arrive somewhere and that will be the start of what’s next, but for now, we’re living in the meantime.
But if we’re starting our theological quest, it makes sense to start at the beginning. Every faith, every culture, has a creation story. Or two. The stories have a lot in common as you heard from our reading. Light and Dark. Land and Sea. People. Animals. Floods. Some traditions have more than one. Genesis serves as the creation story for Jews and Christians and in it there are at least two distinct stories. One is told by the day. There is a god who exists before anything else and that god creates it all from nothing.
“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and he separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.” And there was evening, and there was morning—the first day.”
It goes on like that. God separates the land and the sea, creates humans, all the animals…you know the story. It’s beautiful and rich. There’s a second story, too. In the first story, humans were formed as part of the creation of all the things. In the second story, it says, “The Lord God formed a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.” It goes on to say that God planted a garden in Eden and that’s where the man lived for what seems to be quite a while because God is busy creating trees and streams and naming things, but then God realizes the man is lonely, so he takes a rib from the man from which he creates Eve. “Bone of my bone, flesh of my flesh.”
This is a foundational story and, for good or ill, it defines the Judeo-Christian tradition and the many countries founded on that tradition, like our own. These stories create order out of chaos. They tell us why things are the way they are. They give us context. We might let go of them in their literal forms, but the mythology lives in our culture and language, serving as the infrastructure for our collective lives.
What are the creation stories that undergird Unitarian Universalism? We begin with science and the Big Bang. It starts with fire. Creation doesn’t begin in one moment; it came into existence in a sequence of events unfolding from within as billions of galaxies. Eco-theologian Brian Swimme puts it this way, “In the depths of its silence, the universe shuddered with the immense creativity necessary to fashion the galaxies…These gigantic structures pinwheeled through the emptiness of space and swept up all the hydrogen and helium into self-organizing systems…” Sidney Leibes, in his book A Walk Through Time says, “The primal brilliance expands briefly and then suddenly, with great fury, enters upon an even more explosive expansion that physicists designate with the phrase inflation, an exponential billowing forth in which the elementary particles, the first material beings, are torn out of a deep well of potentiality and allowed to enter the adventure of evolution.”
About five billion years ago our sun was born and became a supernova seeding all the elements of our solar system. Four-and-a-half billion years ago spinning around the sun was a disc of the original subcloud just large enough to resist the cosmic rays from the sun. A cold remnant of the subcloud, a hanger-on, a residue, a swirling disc of elements, gave birth in time to Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. The planets were formed, and the solar system took shape as a community.
Cletus Wessels wrote, “The earth was a privileged planet with its size producing a gravitational and electromagnetic balance, and its position with respect to the sun enabling it to establish a temperature range in which complex molecules could be formed. Out of these seemingly random conditions came the earth’s stupendous creativity over the next four billion years that brought forth all the beauty of its land, its plants, and its animals. And then between two and three million years ago, the earth became conscious in the human.”
This is our creation story and one that can lead us more deeply toward mystery and awe. This is our mythology. To be clear, to call something a myth isn’t to denigrate it. On the contrary, I’m looking to elevate this story. Myths are big stories, universal stories that we can hold our individual stories up to. They are mirrors, or lenses, ways for us to see ourselves and our place in the universe. To call something myth isn’t a comment about the facts of the story. It’s to say that the story is True. The creation story science has given us offers meaningful insight into our lives on this planet. One of our sources of Truth is science. And, science, like UUs, changes its mind sometimes. New information is made known and new theories are posited. UUs don’t have doctrine because we know that revelation continues to unfold. But, that doesn’t mean we can’t have myths. Myths can change with time, but they aren’t dependent on facts.
The creation story the scientists have given us is ready to be mined for Truth, necessary insights into what it means to be who we are. These stories tell us that the universe is self-organizing and alive. Creation comes from chaos. Everything from galaxies to solar systems to cells and atoms, everything evolves into collaborative communities. Every species helps shape every other, all of life is in an intertwined process of co-evolution. Sidney Liebes tells us the universe is a cosmogenesis – a developing community – with a role for everyone.
Like every great creation story, this one has implications for how we live our lives. We are wildly, radically, connected to and dependent on all life on this planet. Nationalism is absurd in light of the truth of our becoming. It’s also a call to know our place, to keep ourselves right-sized in this massive story. Thomas Berry, the groundbreaking geo-theologian warns us that humans have multiplied into the billions making us the most numerous of all Earth’s complex organisms. We’ve inserted ourselves into most of the ecosystemic communities throughout the planet, reducing Earth’s diversity and channeling the majority of the Gross Earth Product into human social systems. The future will be worked out in the tensions between those committed to what he calls the Technozoic, a future of increased exploitation of Earth as resource for the benefit of humans, and those committed to the Ecozoic, a new mode of human-Earth relations, one where the well-being of the entire Earth community is the primary concern.
I admit, this origin story is more complicated than “God separated the heavens and the Earth and on the 7th day He rested.” But, it’s beautiful in its complexity. Its proximity to facts is enticing. And its implications are transformative. We could embrace this story, adopt it as our cosmology, our central story of creation and the origins of our shared lives. We have it here to mine, to discover Great Truth that can hold us up when we feel overwhelmed or unsure or confused about the world. This gorgeous, ancient, poetic history of a story is the infrastructure for our lives, telling us who we are, holding us together as a community, providing insight into how we should move forward. I can imagine us telling the story to our children, sitting around a table, explaining that they are stardust, no less than the trees and the moon, that their ancestors became planets and oceans and apes, all evolving into the glorious world we’re now a part of.
As we begin this new year, as we continue on this journey into unknown territory, this story reminds us that we are part of something magnificent, a community of elements that organized into this awe-inspiring life and we are now active players in the long, poetry of our creation.