In the beginning.
In the beginning, some of us learned the story of creation from the first story of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible. How in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. And how the earth was a formless void, there was darkness over the deep, and God’s spirit hovered over the water. And how God then decided to let there be light and that was called day, and the darkness night, and then the waters and the dry land. And the waters were called seas. And God saw that it was good.
Not so many of us learned the story of creation from the second, very different, story in Genesis, the one that starts with there being no water upon the earth. Until there was a flood which watered all the surfaces of the soil and God created a garden and great rivers that flowed from it.
For many of us, many of you, that “let there be light” story with its first and second and third and fourth and fifth and sixth day — and the seventh, when God rested and made it holy — was the only explanation of creation we heard or read, at least until we took a science class, and perhaps then only in high school. And even so one of you told me that in biology when you got to that chapter in the textbook, the one on evolution, the teacher, who was also the baseball coach, took the Bible (which the chapter he would have called was from the Old Testament), dropped it in the middle of the table in front of the class and said that everything you need to know about creation is in here. And moved on to the next chapter.
One person said simply The Big Bang, because her father was a physics major. Another friend said nature (of course) because her mum (and she did say mum) was a Unitarian. And a ministerial colleague of mine, a good twenty years younger, who comes from Minneapolis, said (and you could hear the pleasure of this memory, even in a text message) that she grew up UU, so at five they studied creation stories from all over the world, and one Sunday made these little sandboxes for Dinosaurs. It was very cool.
I also grew up just U, just Unitarian, before the grand coupling with the Universalists, and went each week to a Sunday School, before we called it religious education. And on those Sunday mornings in the upstairs-downstairs times before intergenerational services together, before stories were told and meant for all ages, like the one we heard told this morning, we too learned the stories of “in the beginning” or really before the beginning, probably when we turned five as well.
The adults may well have been up in the sanctuary with the baby grand piano and Bach, listening to the minister or some guest speaker talk about atomic theory or reading from Walt Whitman. But far as I know, they were not listening to the stories we in the classrooms were being read, and then asked to make pictures about: the ones on butcher paper with big thick swaths of primary colors and stick figures: rainbows and gardens and blue and green oceans, or starry skies, when we could still see them from houses in cities and suburbs.
Stories like the one about Miria the Wonderful, the Goddess of Creation, whose first breath swayed her into motion and from her energy, each beat of her longing, she gave birth to the world.
Stories about how the rainbow came to ride across the sky, how the Earth was made from a rolled ball, or held on the back of a giant tortoise.
The tortoise story is still a very ingrained one, I was reminded this week by my brother, who posted on Facebook what he called some righteous cosmology:
A well-known scientist (some say it was Bertrand Russell) once gave a public lecture on astronomy during which he described how the Earth orbits around the sun, and how the sun, in turn, orbits around the center of a vast collection of stars called our galaxy. At the end of the lecture, a little old lady at the back of the room got up and said: “What you have told us is rubbish. The world is really a flat plate supported on the back of a giant tortoise.” The scientist gave a superior smile before replying, “What is the tortoise standing on?”
“You are very clever, young man, very clever,” said the old woman, “But it’s turtles all the way down.”
Many of these stories when I was a child came from the collections put together by pioneer religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs, including her classic, Beginnings of Earth and Sky: Stories Old and New. In the introduction, she talks about the evolution of the stories of creation and the human desire to explain the world around us:
Long, long ago, around a campfire in the evening twilight, a tribe of shepherds sat talking. They looked out across the valley — and over the hills — at the changing colors of the sky — rose and orange beams spreading overhead — pink, fleecy clouds floating among them — golden light coming from beyond out of nowhere — or was it out of everywhere?
There was too much greatness around for anyone to speak. These shepherds of old felt themselves a part of something very large and high and wonderful.
At last someone asked, “From where has this great beauty come?”
Then another asked, “And how did it all begin at the very beginning?”
What she was talking about was the human tradition of myths, creation myths, in particular, which one contemporary mythologist has called the earliest form of science; speculation on how the world came into being, a first fumbling attempt, perhaps, to explain how things happen, and why things happen.
Very generally, myths, we are told, are constant among all human beings at all times, because myth is a shared heritage of ancestral memories, related consciously from generation to generation, perhaps even encoded in our genes. The characters and narratives vary but they contain parallel themes and common threads. A universal story, buried, as one writer described it, in the depths of the human spirit.
What I remember about these creation stories, these myths, that I learned in that sunny classroom with windows opening out to the Maryland woods, was how they stirred my imagination, triggering drawings, clumsy as they were, and my first poems captured on wide-lined pages. And how what we were being taught on Sunday mornings there did not in the slightest bother my father, the humanist scientist, who in fact, along with my mother, made sure their children were exposed to many more of these stories, and visits to Native American villages, where we watched dances depicting other tales of the beginnings of things: of the sky and stars, of the rivers and mountains, of animals and people. Of this planet, this Earth.
It is telling, to me, anyway, that there was so much emphasis on this kind of storytelling, this emphasis on creation mythology in Unitarian religious education programs at the height of our humanist movement, when people who would describe themselves this way philosophically and religiously were in the vast majority. And it wasn’t because there was no clamoring outside our congregational walls for an end to teaching evolution as science, even if the opposition didn’t call the alternative creationism. They were there, they were loud, and they were banging on the schoolhouse doors.
The difference, I would maintain, between my experiences as a child in Unitarian Sunday School and perhaps some of yours was that we were not fed, as it were, just one imaginative story of how this world began and has evolved, but multiple ones, from across the street, across cultures, and across time. And they were told as stories, understood, perhaps, as fleeting, literal truth, as children will at a certain age, like flying reindeer, tooth fairies, and Paul Bunyan, but never with that intention.
And never as singularly miraculous, but as one manifestation of the wonder of human creativity and exploration. The human mind and spirit were also amazing and miraculous. What we could see and hear and touch, experience directly, was miraculous. What researchers like my father had discovered, and what was discovered about this living planet earth was miraculous as well.
Our children in their chapel this morning are being told a couple of other creation stories besides the one we heard at the beginning of our service, and then they are being asked to draw their own creation story. Who knows what combination of fantasy and scientific facts (as we now understand them) they will be. If we are being effective and impactful in our faith development work with them, they will be weaving in both, with as much young joy and intensity.
They will, some of them, be bringing bits and pieces of creation tales they have heard on other days, as we use them in a variety of ways to encourage their spiritual growth, as is appropriate to every age and stage. They will, some of them, be bringing what they learned about creation, about this world we live in, from the visit they made with their science- (and our fifth principle) based religious education class this past summer to a giant telescope, or what they saw when they looked through a microscope lens.
In an article she wrote several years ago, Unitarian Universalist liberal religious educator and self-described “evolutionary evangelist” Connie Barlow told a story about a time when she was guest teaching a class for young teens at a UU congregation in Florida, and decided to test a hunch. She asked them to tell her some creation stories from around the world.
Hands shot up and she heard about the Garden of Eden and about classical Greek myths and one Native American story.
Good, she congratulated them. Now tell me, she asked, what’s your creation story? Not one hand went up.
And then she began to tell her creation story: about the Big Bang, which is also called the Great Radiance, about cosmic evolution, geological evolution, biological evolution, and human evolution, a story that is being told less and less in public school classrooms, and most likely never in what she describes as a grand and inspiring way, what she believes is humanity’s best collective understanding of the way Reality is, and how our history really happened.
A story of the universe, as early childhood educator Marie Montessori wrote so beautifully, which gives a child something a thousand times more infinite and mysterious to reconstruct with his or her imagination, a drama no fable can reveal.
Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything, which is our adult study book this year, and the accompanying A Really Short Story of Nearly Everything, a version for children, is really, especially in the remaining chapters we will read, a gradual and thorough telling of this grand story, a story, as Connie Barlow again maintains is the most miraculous of all. A story of a living cell being forged, she writes, from the residue of exploded stars, of a reptile taking to the air and becoming a bird, a mammal slipping back into the sea and becoming a whale.
Or back more than four billion years ago, way before 400 million years ago, when living things crawled out of the oceans and became land dwelling at all, it is a story of amazing cosmic fortune that the Earth came to be our home. Bryson reminds us that when you consider conditions elsewhere in the known universe, the wonder is not that we use so little of our planet, covered over as it is so much with waters and uninhabitable land mass, but that we have managed to be on a planet that we can use even a bit of, appreciating that most places are much harsher and less welcoming to life than our mild, blue globe.
He reminds us that, so far, space scientists have discovered 70 planets outside our solar system of the ten billion trillion or so that are actually out there, but he tells us it appears that if you have a planet suitable for life, you are awfully lucky, and the more advanced the life, the luckier you need to be.
The miracle story in this is that you have to have an excellent location — the right sort of distance from the right kind of star and to orbit in the right manner. Too much nearer to the sun and everything on Earth would have fried or boiled away. Too much further and everything would have frozen.
It helps a lot to be a twin planet, with a moon like ours that keeps the Earth moving at the right speed and angle, otherwise we might be wobbling like a dying top.
It needs to be the right kind of planet, the one we have, with a molten interior which created the outpouring of gases that helped build an atmosphere, and a magnetic field that shields us from cosmic radiation, and outcroppings that gives us land, instead of just a covering of water.
But enough waters, enough oceans, bodies of water that not only transport the heat that we and other living things need to survive, but they do a huge favor to us — they keep the world cool and stable. The trillions upon trillions of tiny marine organisms that most of us have never heard of capture atmospheric carbon when it falls as rain and use it to make their tiny shells. This keeps it from being re-evaporated into the atmosphere where it would build up as greenhouse gases.
It is here that Bryson talks about global warming without naming it a such; warning us that the previous story of perfect sustainability — organisms absorbing carbon for their own living purposes, which when they die becomes limestone, rock that stores the carbon in a balanced kind of way — is changing, changing rapidly and alarmingly, as we keep putting carbon into the atmosphere in overwhelming amounts, an increase of seven or more billion tons a year.
A different story, a disruptive story, a story that could and will kill trees, plants, and creatures. A story that may reverse itself eventually, perhaps in a mere 60 thousand years.
My hope, and those others of us whose most powerful, believable, and morally useful creation story is The Universe Story or evolution theology, is that if and when it becomes deeply embedded in our collective conscience and unconscious, in our mythic DNA, this oldest of stories will impel us to a more insistent caring for this earth.
Philosopher of Religion Loyal Rue wrote more than a decade ago that this ancient and evolving evolutionary story, including the wonder that this Earth could sustain life so long and so diversely, more than any other humbles us before the magnitude and complexity of creation. He said that, like no other story it bewilders us with the impossibility of our existence, astonishes us with the interdependence of all things, and makes us grateful for the lives we have.
That’s why I believe that Blue Boat Home, the song by UU composer Peter Mayer, is so beloved in this place. It has a mythical quality, evoking our ancient and enduring tie to this particular earth and waters.
Listen to this verse:
Sun, my sail, and moon, my rudder
As I ply the starry sea
Leaning over the edge in wonder
casting questions into the deep
drifting here with my ships companions
all my kindred pilgrim souls
making our way by the light of the harbor
in our beautiful blue boat home.