Thursday, April 26, 2012

Thinking about The Creation with a poet's help

Spring term is all over but the shouting, which is as good a metaphorical image for exam-taking as any other I could come up with.  No more class meetings remain, and since all of the exams are take-home this term I have the liberty to spread out their writing at a pace and in an order that works for me.  It shall keep me plenty busy between now and next Friday, but it shall be done, no problem.

Today, though, was given to a small but interesting step on the way not only to a grade for this term, but a thing I shall have to accomplish as part of the ordination process.  At this approaching termination of the second semester of the theology sequence, it was time for me to put forth a brief, beginning theological statement of my own, and demonstrate some capacity to talk about it coherently and even explain it a little.  At this point it's just a small statement, only a page, and hardly complete, but it's a start, and a thing to build on.

In one page I was not going to cover every theological subject available, particularly after spending a good bit of time laying out a Christology.  To be blunt, I mostly ended up working on Christology, the church, and soteriology, with a few other topics addressed off to the side, so to speak.

I was aware in writing it that I wasn't getting to everything.  No talk about the Trinity, for example; I'll have to get to that before this goes to a presbytery committee.  And nothing on creation.  I realized after the fact that I should probably have squeezed something in on that, not because it's necessarily the most important topic to cover, but that some of my other statements were affected by an implicit set of ideas about God's creation, particularly of humanity, that I had not stated.

Thinking about creation, in a somewhat more relaxed way than in discussion of that statement today, allowed several other treatments of the subject to flit through my mind.  Obviously a few bits of Haydn's oratorio came to thought; I've always been a sucker for the chorus "The heavens are telling," and the "overture" to that work, what Haydn called "Representation of Chaos," was always to me one of the more striking things that composer ever did (and Haydn is a favorite of mine; I didn't stay in musicology long enough to develop that Haydn seminar I wanted to do.  By the by, that second link seems to include a pretty good chunk of oratorio for your listening, if you have the time.  Too bad about the artwork).

Ultimately, though, my mind settled more fixedly on another creative response to the Creative Event: the poem "The Creation," by James Weldon Johnson.  I don't remember the first time I heard or read that poem, but it has managed to retain a foothold in my mind for lo, these many years.  If you know the poem yourself you can probably imagine why; it's striking stuff.  On the principle that theologians* should occasionally listen to poets instead of merely critiquing them or finding fault with them, this felt like a time to let the poem do its thing again.

*I am in no wise claiming "professional" theologian status for myself.  Yes, part of the pastoral calling does involve being a kind of theologian-in-residence, you might say, but I do not conceive of myself ever being identified primarily as a theologian, or frankly ever getting paid to be primarily a theologian. By all means keep that disclaimer handy not only for this post, but pretty much everything that appears in this blog.  

Of course, the poem does an awful lot of anthropomorphizing of God.  The first thing that God does is look around and say, "I'm lonely."  I can imagine a lot of people--not just professional theologians, but professional and semi-professional scolds and self-appointed arbiters of theological purity, ruling such a response on the part of God to be anything from naïve to offensive to the majesty and sovereignty of God to out-and-out heretical.  I'm guessing Calvin would have had a stroke at the very suggestion.

On the other hand, is the idea that God would want some kind of fellowship so off-kilter?  Even thinking of God as a Triune Being, and imagining God surrounded by angels or cherubim and seraphim or whatever other heavenly creatures one might imagine: what kind of fellowship would that be?  Is it so beyond the realm of conception that God would want a different kind of fellowship; one freely given, not mandated or built irreversibly into the function of the being in question?  What could created humanity possibly provide for God that God did not already have in divine sufficiency, and that God might actually want?  It seems to me that freely given companionship is as reasonable and coherent an answer as any.  Your mileage may vary.

With God's resolution to make a world in place, Johnson unleashes a full arsenal of poetic description; this creation is a dynamic act.  God smiles so brightly and broadly as to unleash light on the world.  God rolls light around -- wonderful image -- to create the sun, and hurls the leftover light against the blackness to set the stars in the sky.  With light and darkness in place, God hurls the world into the space between.  It is vigorous, active language.  Things move -- and not just move, but move with power, with real force and even explosiveness.  Theologians would occasionally be well-advised not to let their theological language get so holy and splendid and systematic that the very holy stuff of which we speak is robbed of its rough power and dynamic energy.  God worked in Johnson's poem.  Things happened.  Even if one prefers the whole speaking-into-being literalism of Genesis, those things did not happen statically when God spoke.  Let it roar.

Johnson continues: God walks and treads the mountains and valleys into place, and spits the oceans into place (depending on how old I was at the time I may have gotten a good giggle out of that picture).  Still the dynamic pictures; still the vigor and energy and things moving and shaking.  Some of the images are gentle; lakes cuddle into their places, the rainbow curls around God's shoulder.  Some is sensory overload; the moment when living beings are called into being is an avalanche of imagery and a torrent of activity all in one nano-instant.

And after all that, God says, "I'm still lonely."

Time to make a man.

If God was a dynamic, working God in bringing creation into place, for the act of making this unique companion God truly rolls up the sleeves and breaks a sweat.  That word toiling may be somewhat lost to us, but it is a word that smells of sweat and labor and feels like aching muscles and weary joints.  The use of the "mammy" image is probably a game-ender for some of you; feel free to take it up with the very African-American Mr. Johnson in the afterlife, should the two of you meet.  Still, it introduces into this labor and toil just the touch of tenderness that makes the scene.  This is different, even from all that bountiful and exuberant and roisterous creation we've just seen; this is personal.  God toils and sweats over this last piece of creation as much, maybe more, as over all the rest.  The God Who stepped out into space, who flung the stars into the sky, who strode across the face of the earth--all these works of majesty, grandeur, splendor--now gets down on knees, rolls up sleeves, toils, sweats, mammys over this missing piece of the Creation.  This matters.

Johnson rounds off the poem with echoes of Genesis, as "man became a living soul.  Amen.  Amen."

Amen, indeed.  There are theological claims in here, one might say.  One doesn't have to buy them all to be moved by them, but if nothing else Johnson does introduce the note of God's extreme passion for this human creation.  Far from being obsessed with keeping Godself all pure and pristine, this God is down in the dust to make this new thing--well beyond a thing; this creature, this new living being--in God's own image.  Down and dirty, toiling.  Do we rightly appreciate this in Johnson's words?

And the one recurring theme, all through the poem just as through the Genesis story, God sees what is created and says, "That's good."  Yes, it is.

I am reminded, now matter how suicidal it sounds from here with exams to write, I have got to read more non-required stuff, listen to more music, see more paintings and sculpture, be with more people, lest I turn out to be a misshapen theologian.

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