Bishop John Shelby Spong ~ June 16, 1931 – September 12, 2021
Bishop Spong provided a much needed place for those of us who did not connect with traditional theology. We love you Bishop Spong. You will be missed! Funeral services will be held at St. Peter’s, Morristown, NJ and at St. Paul’s, Richmond, VA. Dates and times will be announced as soon as they are available

“The Story of Creation: Shedding Some Light”

SCRIPTURE: Genesis 1.1-5
1In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, 2the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while God’s Spirit swept over the face of the waters. 3Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. 4And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.5God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

Ever wonder how everything came into being? Ever wonder why? Was it merely a random chance occurrence, or was it something done with a purpose? And how does your answer to such questions determine how you look at the world and life? People have considered such questions for all of recorded history, and perhaps as long as there have been people.

Even with our evidence based science which conjectures theories based on what current techniques have taught us about our world and its beginnings, we still don’t, and may never with certainty, know such mind boggling truths that require much more understanding than we have now.

How do we live not knowing for sure? Is life diminished with uncertainty, or is it perhaps enhanced?

Ancients lived with mystery, not facts. They told stories not to reveal what actually happened, but what could serve our own lives so as to help us to experience the divine in life, to give us meaning and purpose as we go about our daily lives, and to make sense of the things they knew could never be known. They were humble in their acceptance of the uncertainties of life, and thus had less concern about accurate histories and empirical evidence for their beliefs. They sought how to live life well given their circumstances rather than defining their circumstances based on the type of life that they were living.

God was recognized as mostly unknowable, yet encompassing the whole of reality, rather than as our modern and postmodern minds conceive of God as more knowable and definable. We don’t perhaps honor the mystery of life live our ancient ancestors did. But then they accepted some possibilities that God could do that we would find difficult to stomach.

Their idea of God was not as boxed in as ours, allowing them to think of God performing actions that we would see as abusive, racist, sexist, nationalistic, etc.

Ironically, though they were more open to God performing contradictory actions to God’s character, they were more restrictive in another way. The ancients had a more dualistic view of life, good or bad, light or darkness, right or wrong, than most progressive Christians do today.

Interestingly though, they had more flexibility perhaps in seeing other realities and perspectives and engaging in substantive discourse than many people today who are sometimes avoidant of in depth discussions about their faith with others – perhaps in fearing disagreement or judgement by, or of, others for having a different perspective. They seemed to enjoy debate more than we did, and saw it not as a cause for tension or conflict, but as a means to be in community and learn from others.

But perhaps most importantly, they understood that faith was faith, and not certainty. This helped them to be more playful and creative with their storytelling than many in our society might be who like to stick to the facts, repeat what exactly happened, and add nothing extra. Of course, there are exceptions to the rule and you may know of such exceptions within your own family.

Take my uncle Bill: now he was a real storyteller! The first time you’d hear one of his stories you couldn’t help but at least smile if not chuckle at his wit in making the story funny. His timing, turn of a phrase, and other humorous devices always made it a joy to listen to him for as long as he decided to speak. But in hearing the story a second, third, or fourth time, it would only get better as he perfected his art. If you were fortunate enough to hear a particular story a 5th time, he had mastered the story so well, changed as it was from the first rendition, that you were unable to keep from exercising your diaphragm beyond what you thought were its limits in a gut-wrenching belly laugh. People would laugh so hard they’d cry, that’s how good he was. Granted, we who knew him recognized that while the essence of the story may have been factual, it was the obvious embellishments that were so entertaining.

Storytelling is an art form, and the best storytellers have been those who could read their audiences and make the proper adjustments to make those stories meaningful, inspiring, educational, or humorous.

Myths are stories– stories that point to some greater truth or meaning beyond the words themselves…that speak to some universal or transcendent reality that words can only approximate. Yet despite this mysterious nature of myths, they open us up to understanding reality far more extensively than we ever could if we believed they only had one meaning.

Myths are multivalent: they reveal multiple truths, depending on the era, culture, mores, and individual life experiences of those who live by them. This is one of their beauties – that they can adapt to a multitude of different circumstances.

Unlike science, which attempts to define and describe reality, myth seeks to suggest reality and give us understanding on how to live in accordance with reality. Science tries to be objective so as to discover the facts, but myth seeks to be empowering—no matter what the facts.

The ancients were more concerned with the connotations of words than with the denotations. When they talked about a formless void, they were not thinking in literal, but figurative, terms. We might imagine a formless void to be the vacuum of space, or perhaps that which lies beyond space as we know it. A formless void for them might signify a unified, but undifferentiated whole, that which was mere matter without spirit, or substance without life. For them, such a lifeless void was utter darkness, perhaps even sheol, the place of nonexistence that they imagined we might go when we die.

When they say that darkness covered the face of the deep, they not only meant it was without literal light, but that it was also devoid of meaning, purpose, organizing principle, truth, insight, imagination, awe, reverence, and beauty. Morality, spirituality, ontology, theology, politics, aesthetics, and cosmology were all intertwined.

God, the indescribable force of all existence, the ineffable creator of all that has come to be, was made of spirit – that which is just as unexplainable and mysterious. In the Genesis creation myth, one that mimics other creation myths in the ancient world, God’s spirit, the Hebrew word for spirit also meaning wind or breath, swept over this primordial void bringing life, purpose, function, meaning and such to that which was inanimate. Where once everything was a singularity, now divisions and dualities co-arised to create the world as we now know it. Now there was light and darkness, waters and lands, skies and underworld, life and death, good and evil, etc.

God was the explanation for how all this arose from nothingness, how order derived from chaos, and how from an indifferent or unconscious cosmos came caring design and enlightenment.

As Joseph Campbell says, as long as we don’t get stuck with the words surrounding the myth, but focus on the meaning behind the myth, a meaning that will change through time not only for individuals but for healthy, thriving societies, the myth can guide us through the experiences of life and help us to make sense of that which we will never know for sure.

This ancient wisdom of seeing the world and reality mytho-poetically may come as an epiphany to we who are accustomed to looking at things historically and scientifically. We are a culture so absorbed in discovering the facts of the matter that perhaps we have lost our talent for interpreting them.

Or maybe we have lost sight of the importance of imaginatively creating myths that keep us living sustainably and with reasonable harmony. The more we lose our ability to create, nurture, and sustain myths that give an increasingly complex world order, meaning, value, and worth, the more we devolve into people looking out for our own interests—even at the expense of others. In other words, the more we fall back into primordial darkness.

This creation story is not the truth about exactly how things happened at the dawn of existence, but a truth about how our understanding of the beginnings of things informs and edifies our lives in the here and now – for all generations. It is a way of understanding how in our own lives that order can be brought out of chaos, how light can arise amidst darkness, how meaning can be applied in a universe that so often feels indifferent, and how that spirit overcomes substance, and life is so much more than the material reality we see around us.

The power of this and every myth is that we can gain insight into what it means to be human, and divine – and perhaps these are not so distant as some of our predecessors imagined. We can learn how to live nobly in our lives because of the meanings revealed within the myth.

Myths give us no facts, yet they are full of truth. They may not reveal the actual existence of anything, and yet they aid us in experiencing the reality of that which our words and understandings can only suggest. They are not truth themselves, but point the way to the truths that help us along our ways.

No matter how you may interpret this creation story, its validity lies not in whether your reading accords to the facts of the beginnings of the universe, something we may never know with any certainty, but with its ability to be for you a guiding star along your life’s journey. This is not only how light can come into being in your life, but how you can share that light with others.

In this epiphany season, may we be filled with the same spirit that swept over the void and overcame the darkness. May we be light to all around us. As our creation story prods us to mimic our creative and wonderful God: “Let there be light.”

Rev. Bret S. Myers, January 6, 2018

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