It was Christmas Eve, 1968. Christmas Eve at the end a violently tumultuous year. Apollo 8 had launched three astronauts toward the moon to orbit our near neighbor and return. It would be the astronauts of Apollo 11 the next summer who would make the famous landing and Neil Armstrong would utter those famous words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
But the Apollo 8 astronauts made their own mark. In what was the most-watched television broadcast to that time, viewers caught a grainy black & white glimpse of the cloud wrapped planet on which they lived, with the barren lunar landscape in the foreground. And on that Christmas Eve, in that tumultuous year, the 3 astronauts, taking turns, said:
“We are now approaching lunar sunrise and, for all the people back on Earth, the crew of Apollo 8 has a message that we would like to send to you. ‘In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said…'” [Turn by turn the three astronauts read the first 10 verse of Genesis 1, ending with the words] “‘…and God saw that it was good.’ And from the crew of Apollo 8, we close with good night, good luck, a Merry Christmas–and God bless all of you, all of you on the good Earth.”
It was an awe-inspiring moment. That scene. Those words. A perfect fit. But, of course, not everyone was so moved. The famous Madalyn Murray O’Hair immediately sued the US government for violating the 1st Amendment. The Supreme Court tossed out her suit. Yet one more of so many, many examples of how those words in the opening chapter of Genesis continue to inspire both awe and annoyance.
The big names in the early Church were fascinated by the Book of Genesis, especially this opening chapter. In the 4th Century, St. Augustine, St. Ambrose, and St. Basil the Great all found a seemingly endless source of inspiration in the creation account as they wrote their books of Christine doctrine.
Martin Luther, 12 centuries later, was lecturing on the Book of Genesis in his last years because he saw in that text the best foundation to summarize all that he had been working for in the reformation of the Church according to the Gospel. For Christ is hidden in Genesis, and Genesis is made clear in Christ!
Ah, you say, but that was then and this is now. We know so much more than they did. Oh do we, really? It has become a commonplace to be rather dismissive of this famous first chapter in the Bible. We have uncritically accepted the gross popular distortions about faith and science in recent years.
The over-reaching critics of Genesis, like the outspoken zoologist, Richard Dawkins, have said that misguided religious zealots might believe that ancient superstition, but it “has no proper basis in evolutionary biology.” The curious Princeton ethicist, Peter Singer, has said that it’s a stubborn, dogmatic religious prejudice to believe that humanity enjoys a special place in the cosmos. And many a student who grows up in the Church goes off to college, and hearing such things in a lecture, almost immediately concludes that those bumpkins in the church back home know nothing at all.
But then, how often anymore does the Church shoot itself in its own foot! I remember hearing a man recount how as a boy in his Lutheran school his teacher had insisted that dinosaurs did not really exist, because they’re not mentioned in the creation. I don’t know which is sadder…someone like that teacher who sincerely wants to defend Genesis but does so in such a foolish way, or those who are so afraid of the critics that they avoid Genesis altogether, or reduce it to the status of myth or epic poetry, lofty in its expressions, but certainly not to be taken in any literal way. It’s sad!
It’s sad, because it was the literal Genesis account of creation that inspired Christians for centuries to become scientists! The sheer orderliness with which God creates in Genesis inspired the great Isaac Newton to develop all his theories of physics; theories which, with minor variation, have proved reliable for centuries.
It was this same orderliness in Genesis about God setting the heavenly bodies into their rhythm of days and months and seasons and years that inspired early Christians to adapt Ptolemy’s geocentric cosmology, and then later Christians to reject that view for the heliocentric discoveries made by Galileo, Copernicus, and the Lutheran astronomer, Johannes Kepler. Even in the 20th Century Albert Einstein recognized that God does not play at dice.
It was the Genesis account and its literal, repetitive description of creation that inspired biologists to pursue the interconnectivity of all life, as Genesis itself implies. There’s nothing in this chapter to prohibit finding things in common between man and animals. What Genesis insists upon is that regardless of what he has in common with animals, man holds a unique place in the cosmos apart from the animals.
And long before the debates of the last 2 or 3 centuries between science and faith, theologians wrestled with the days of creation. Are they figurative or literal, or both, or something else altogether? And what does each option mean? It’s a discussion still worth having, and Genesis inspires that discussion! Ambrose, Basil, Augustine, the big three, all wrestled with this, and with what the Greeks believed about matter being eternal. Was this true? Is the earth old? Or young? There is ample evidence to support and to question either one. Genesis inspires that debate.
But we in the Church have too often argued ourselves into positions that are impossible to defend—whether from a liberal or a conservative view of Scripture—impossible positions about what Genesis must say or cannot say. So with this religious zeal gone too far, together with those equally impossible to defend outbursts from folks like Dawkins and Singer and others, it’s no surprise that this incredible text from the beginning of Genesis suffers so.
It is as though we…we people of faith…have forgotten—or we have woefully underestimated—the word of the angel Gabriel to Mary. In the beginning of that creation that surely boggles both science and faith, when the Spirit of God hovered over the scene and God became His own image and likeness in the conception of Jesus, the angel said to Mary, “For nothing shall be impossible for God.” And with the Incarnation, God in human flesh, “by whom all things were made, without whom nothing was made that has been made,” with Jesus we Christians have the best invitation of all to think God’s thoughts after Him, to ponder His creation.
Unlike other ancient creation stories with their ambivalent, battling, capricious gods, Genesis lays out the wonder of what God has made, the rationality that imbues all creation. And unlike modern creation stories with their materialist, random, accidental view of the cosmos, reducing everything to equations of chemistry, physics and biology…against them Genesis rejoices in the gifts of science, yet offers so much more than mere science. Genesis shows us the goodness, the beauty of God’s handiwork.
Martin Luther once captured the good beauty of the creation from his vantage point of confessing Christ: “Now if I believe in God’s Son and remember that He became man, all creatures will appear a hundred times more beautiful to me than before. Then I will properly appreciate the sun, the moon, the stars, trees, apples, as I reflect that He is Lord over all things.”
This Genesis text calls on us, demands of us that we confess, study, weigh and ponder, test and prove, sift and winnow what Christian faith has given us to see in this vast created realm. And who knows what discoveries a person who confesses Christ might yet find in this good, good cosmos. “For is anything too hard for the Lord?”