Sunday, September 24, 2023

Gardening a Good Earth

In these past months, as we've taken Genesis as our guide, we've sought and seen the mighty hand of God work his generosity throughout all his works of creation. From the spark of a universe formless and void to the dawn of light, from the birth of stars and planets to the formation of our earth, from the diverse realm of plants to the fabulous lives of animals, and now to us strange creatures between ape and angel, established in the innocence of original righteousness and crowned with gifts beyond all expectation, God has simply been relentless in his inventive prowess and his kindly care. And every step of the way, Genesis has treated us to God's assessment of the fruits of his labor. Over and over again, he says that light and sky and sea and earth and plants and sun and moon and stars and fish and birds and livestock and wild things and even creepy-crawlies were good (Genesis 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). As Paul said, “everything created by God is good” (1 Timothy 4:4).

And now, with the creatures of the earth in place, and us made where and how the Lord of all wants us, he looks at this completed and crowned creation, he “saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Not just good, but very good, exceedingly beautiful in the eyes of the Lord, precisely suited to his purposes for all things. It's true that the world was plenty good before we stepped onto the scene. Already, even on their own, God said these things were all good, all valuable in themselves without any reference to us, valuable for far more than their mere usefulness. God already had touched the earth with beauty as he saw it.

But when we were added, that's when things fulfilled their deeper potential. That's when nature reached its high point. Creation is far more beautiful for having us in it than it is on its own – that's what God says. There are contributions we make simply by existing, simply by being here as that final slot between ape and angel in the great chain of being. But there are further contributions we make to this beauty by what we do.

Last Sunday, we began to meditate on life as it was meant to be for us. God had planted a special garden in an area called Eden, which means 'delight' or 'luxury.' We talked about the flourishing of fruits and flowers, about the abundance of waters in their freshness, about the open-handed provision that would meet all our needs. We heard how early Christians always pictured this life as care-free and at ease, a relaxing place of deep pleasure in which we could flourish beyond every daydream and every vacation.

But if we stop our thoughts there, we're liable to have a misconception of the Eden lifestyle. In God's process of creation, Genesis picks up its second look in a land where things yet fall short of their full potential because “there was no human to work the ground” (Genesis 2:5). Only then does God respond by shaping the dust and breathing it to life (Genesis 2:7). We were an answer to a shortfall of goodness, and gap would take work to close. In that much, the Bible answers the myths of Babylon, which imagined that originally the lower gods were forced to do the grunt work until they went on strike and rebelled, after which peace was only restored when their bosses invented humans to “assume the drudgery of god.”1 But where the pagans portray us as slaves created to do forced labor in a harsh world, Genesis shows us created to be caretakers of a gracious home. And so “the LORD God took the human and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it” (Genesis 2:15).

To some of us, if we – like the Babylonians – identify work too closely with hardship and drudgery, this is going to sound wrong. How could there be work in paradise? Isn't it a world without responsibilities we're longing for? But when early Christians read Genesis, they explained that “had Adam been relieved of all need to work, he would have fallen victim to great indulgence and at once slipped into sloth.”2 And that wouldn't have been a healthy condition. It would have corrupted his original righteousness. After all, “the mind is something that is in constant motion and incapable of total inactivity” – that's just how God made us, and so “there is in us a natural bent for work.”3 We are not naturally meant to just sit around and do nothing with our whole lives. And so our perfect garden couldn't have been a mere vacation home with nothing to do but laze about. And God did not put us there to be passive recipients of its splendors and enjoyments. God made us for more than that.

And so, as one saint put it, “like a loving father who prevents his young child from being unsettled by great relaxation and freedom from care by devising some slight responsibility appropriate to the situation, the Lord God in like manner ordered the task of tilling and guarding for Adam so that, along with all those delights, relaxation, and freedom from care, he might have – by way of a stabilizing influence – those two tasks to prevent him from overstepping the limit.”4 God made us to do these initially simple things for our own good.

That doesn't mean that we exist to work, that we live to work. No: we live toward the sabbath of God. But sabbath takes its meaning from the fact that we have six days to do our works in, to face God's world to minister to it, and therein does sabbath's sweetness grow all the sweeter. Even in Eden, weekdays were workdays. Work in itself isn't a dirty thing; it's pure and holy and good. A life with zero responsibility, zero activity in the world, isn't natural. Naturally speaking, we crave some sort of responsibility and activity, to the measure of our ability.

And the church taught this wasn't just natural but virtuous. They said “whoever works his ground will have plenty of bread” (Proverbs 12:11), but “whoever is slack in his occupation is a brother to him who destroys” (Proverbs 18:9). They taught people to “do their work quietly and eat their own bread” (2 Thessalonians 3:12). The church said Christ's faithful “should be constant in your work, so that through the course of your entire life, you are either continuing in the Lord's affairs or laboring at your work, and are never idle.”5

Now, that doesn't necessarily mean paid work, a 'job.' We're not just talking about economic work measured by use-value added to goods and services.6 We're not fussing over labor market participation rates.7 But even when not working for room and board, it's still natural to engage in some work. Being deprived of an obvious outlet for that impulse can be a big identity crisis in sickness or in the modern stage of life called 'retirement.' But as one author on aging points out, “retirement from one set of responsibilities and cares frees [us] to explore another set of obligations and to assume another set of concerns..., to assume more fulfilling work.”8

Working – not being employed, but working – is natural to what it means to be humans on earth. In the garden, though, it would have been obvious that this charge to work wasn't a burden. Early Christians pictured it as “some work that was painless and without difficulty,”9 bringing with it “no stress of wearisome toil but pure exhilaration of spirit.”10 Even Martin Luther suggested that “work... in the state of innocence would have been play and joy.”11 That sounds like fulfilling work none of us would have minded.

And for Adam and Eve, working the garden would have been a fairly simple task at first: digging and planting seeds, watering the plants with short irrigation canals, pruning the vines, other basic orchard work. Maybe they would have been charged with making God's garden even more beautiful and diverse than they found it: finding new plants to bring in, breeding them, arranging them in decorative ways, trimming shrubs into fun designs.12 As one medieval Christian asked, “What could be more playful than cultivating paradise?”13

Then, beyond Eden, human history has been a story of increasing division of labor into all sorts of different kinds of tasks, different ways of working on the world.14 In Israel, every man would “go out to his work and to his labor until the evening” (Psalm 104:23), and those words encompassed not just what farmers did but also vinedressers and weavers and hired hands and everybody else. Later on, when Jews translated Genesis into Greek, they recognized Adam's task as quite broad, using the same word here as they used elsewhere to cover the economic labors of a housewife and her home business (Proverbs 31:18), the design work that went into the tabernacle and its art (Exodus 31:4-5), and more.

So our charge here in Genesis is to “cultivate the earth” through “creative, constructive work... expended for the glory of God and the benefit of others,”15 to pour our imagination and skill into God's world to bring it toward fullness.16 Work covers all kinds of disciplined activities that give input into God's world and leave an impact on God's world, ideally in ways that “bring out the natural fruitfulness and productivity” God seeded in it.17 By that definition, carpentry is work, cooking is work, sewing is work, driving truck is work, treating illnesses is work, teaching is work, organizing is work, coordinating the work of other people is work, researching and writing is work. Even hobbies can be such work, if they harness effort for input into and impact on the world.

We humans have reshaped the world around us in profound ways, and that in itself is a good thing, the way God intended it to be. It's good, too, for us to harness and harvest what God has sown in his creation, whether crops or minerals or other resources. Giving input and extracting a harvest are legitimate work, and so the Bible tells us that “everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil – this is God's gift to man” (Ecclesiastes 3:13). It's God's gift for us to take pleasure in shaping God's world and harvesting from its bounty.

But we also know that not all inputs and not all impacts we can have on the world are the kind God calls for. It is possible for there to be work that rubs against the grain of creation. One author says that “at its most basic level, a righteous job is one that does not exist to commit or promote sin, but to accomplish the tasks God gave to humanity from the beginning.”18 And not all work done out there, let alone the way it's done, fits that bill. Some speak, rightly, of the need to “align our labor with our human dignity.”19  But we can go further than that, even.   “Good work,” it's said, “tends and conserves both the conscience and the spirit of those who engage in it as well as the creatures among whom it is performed.”20 That's why, in the early church, there were rules laid down such that a person doing certain kinds of work would have to quit before they could be considered as candidates for baptism as Christians.21

To clarify good work, Genesis tells us that “the LORD God took the human and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it” (Genesis 2:15). That last word there in Hebrew has the sense of watching over something. It's used for what a bodyguard does for his client (1 Samuel 28:2), what a shepherd does for his flock (Genesis 30:31), what a friend does if you give him a prized possession for safekeeping (Exodus 22:7). These are all acts of protection and preservation which require some measure of attention, being wary of potential threats, whether external (like attackers and thieves) or internal (like decay and neglect). The psalms mentions how, by God's grace, a righteous person under attack “keeps all his bones; not one of them is broken” (Psalm 34:20). That is, God's act of 'keeping' the bones means that they're preserved intact, undamaged, in a healthy condition.

What might it have looked like for Adam and Eve to not only work the garden but to keep it? They'd have been watchful of the garden, attentive to it, observing and learning from it, so as not to force on it a vision detached from its God-given reality. They'd have taken pest prevention measures, keeping harmful influences outside the garden. They'd have been careful not to chop down thoughtlessly whole groves of trees, but made sure that their impact kept the garden as a garden. They'd have maintained a healthy balance in the garden's ecosystem, not letting one kind of plant or animal run rampant at the others' expense. They'd have watched to make sure that none of the valuable species of animals or plants God had entrusted to them went extinct on their watch, and that none of the mineral resources ran out. They would have protected everything from misuse, abuse, or overuse so that it could be healthy and flourishing now and as each future generation entered the scene.22

Too often, our society has been obsessed with working, but not with keeping the garden. Because if human activity is supposed to keep God's creation healthy down through the generations, our performance review isn't exactly promising. Our voracious hunger has been slicing down forests faster than ever to make room for cattle ranches and soybean fields, our farming practices wipe away topsoil ten to forty times as fast as it forms, our fuel-burning industries have put more carbon dioxide into the air than there's been since before God made us, and the damage to earth's climate is on track to becoming unbearable.23 One marine scientist says that “few if any residents of the sea can escape the toll that has been wrought by humankind... literally killing the lifeblood of the oceans.”24 On the whole, it's been estimated that since 1970, the population of earth's animals has shrunk by more than half.25 Just this year, a conservation research group estimated that four in ten animal species in the United States, along with one in three of our plant species, is at risk of going extinct.26 Actively or passively, we are choosing that, and worse, as the cumulative impact of our everyday decisions, callous and careless.

Does any of this sound like what we're here to do? Is this the impact God wants our work to have? At best, Adam's kids have fallen asleep on the job; at worst, we've switched sides and become the arsonists of Eden. If we are not caring for the world God made, if we are not serving it and keeping it, then in our work we are disobeying the purpose for which God put human beings onto this earth in the first place.27 And there's a word for disobeying God's purpose for us.  It's sin.

It was because of just such disobedient hearts and hands that we needed a sinless Savior. As Jesus faced the cross, he proclaimed in prayer that, with the entirety of his life, he had “accomplished the work that God gave him to do” (John 17:4). Yes, Jesus was a worker – and all his work was good work, work that saved, work that redeemed, work that kept and restored what was broken. And we were what he found broken. So, in doing his work, he said he'd “kept” his disciples for his Father. If God had placed the First Man in a paradise to work it and keep it, God placed the Son of Man into a world polluted by sin to work its salvation and to keep us. And he means us to learn from this Last Adam how to work and keep the goodness of God. In Christ, “the LORD... has blessed you in all the work of your hands,” if your hands work the works of his hands (Deuteronomy 2:7).

What are you and I on earth to do? We humans are gardeners of God's good earth. God puts us where we are, each one of us, with a charge: to work the world while keeping the world, to be forces simultaneously of change and conservation, of production and protection, of impact that leaves the world intact. That's what good work looks like: tidying the garden, farming the land, fixing the broken bridge, getting essentials cleanly from place to place, maintaining order and health in the world, all in ways that respect everything that God pronounced very good.

We know that, in a sad and broken world, sometimes we find ourselves pressed to work for a mere paycheck, whether or not the job is pleasant, whether or not the job is dignified, whether or not the job is meaningful. Then we hear the command: “Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men” (Colossians 3:23). But then sometimes we find ourselves asked to do work that's less than good for us, less than good for our neighbors, less than good for God's good earth. That's a hard place to be in, and it's easy to rationalize things to ourselves we maybe oughtn't make a living doing; perhaps you've been there, and never even thought about it.  Whether it's pays the bills or not, “those who have believed in God must be careful to devote themselves to good works” (Titus 3:8). And a good society – the human society we're all responsible both to call for and to cultivate is a world where everyone has, not just some work, any work, to do, but good work to do, to the measure of their ability, and where everyone can truly live off of doing their good work to the benefit of creation and the glory of God.

May we, each in our own lives and all together, do our part to be a good humanity, to “be joyful and to do good as long as we live” (Ecclesiastes 3:12), to work and keep God's good earth, until that day all the world shall “be radiant over the goodness of the LORD, over the grain, the wine, and the oil, and over the young of the flock and the herd; their life shall be like a watered garden, and they shall languish no more” (Jeremiah 31:12). Amen.

Sunday, September 17, 2023

The Garden of Delight

Last Sunday, when we began again our study of the works of the God of Genesis, we talked about what it is we are – what a human being is, what God made us to be. And on the one hand, whether in one step or many, God sculpted us from the dust of the earth, from the chemical properties of the matter beneath us. It was in this connection that we examined what Christians, both before and after Darwin, have consistently believed about our life in the body. It is good to have a body derived of dust, good to have senses and impulses and all this biological baggage. On the other hand, God caught this dust of earth up in the wind of heaven – we're set apart from other animals because ours is a spiritual soul, able to judge and contemplate and wonder, able to know and will and love beyond what any matter can itself sustain. We're each that odd overlap between angel and ape.

Today, we have to ask the question about where God ought to put such an odd critter as the human being. What place would be healthy for a miniature universe to be? What kind of life did God want for us from the outset? What's our natural – and more-than-natural – habitat? And now Genesis rolls on. For “the LORD God formed the man of dust from the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature; and the LORD God planted a garden... and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:7-8). It wasn't inside the garden that the human being got its start – it wasn't the garden's dust from which he rose, wasn't the garden's trees between which he came to life – but God led him there, put him there.

So maybe the first question we'd best ask is, what's a garden? The Hebrew word for one, gan, comes from a verb that means “to be enclosed, fenced off, protected.”1 To their mind, the defining feature of a garden was the notion of life within boundaries of protection, a cultivated space with structure, shape, capable of being locked or unlocked (Song of Songs 4:12). Later on, Greek-speaking Jews picked up a new word to translate this. The Persians had a word, paridaeza, a space surrounded by an enclosing wall, which the Greeks reimagined as a royal park cultivated to be a pleasant place for a king to take a stroll.2 Many kings took pride in getting exotic plants from all over for their personal pleasure park in their capital city, like a botanical garden.3 And it's from such paradeisoi, and this original garden of God pictured as one, where we get our English word 'paradise.'

So God himself is pictured as the king planting his royal garden, his special paradise. Where? “In Eden, in the east, and there he put the man whom he had formed” (Genesis 2:8). So somewhere east of Israel, the garden is inside a larger territory called 'Eden.' We're also told that “a river flowed out of Eden to water the garden,” and that this river “divided and became four heads” (Genesis 2:10). That's probably not a view downstream at a river that flows into four; it's likely looking upstream at four rivers merging into one River of Eden.4

When early Jews and Christians read this, some took it as pure allegory, saying the rivers represented the four cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance.5 But most insisted that Eden was a real place on earth.6 And Genesis spends several verses trying to explain where, by mentioning four rivers. The last two are easy. “The name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria” (Genesis 2:14). The Tigris rises in eastern Turkey and flows into Iraq. It's over a thousand miles long, and Nineveh and Baghdad are on it. “And the fourth river is the Euphrates” (Genesis 2:14). Further west than the Tigris, it's formed in southeast Turkey by two rivers called the Karasu and the Murat, and then it passes through Syria, picking up a few smaller rivers that join it there, before getting to Iraq and flowing down to meet up with the Tigris just before the Persian Gulf. It's over seventeen hundred miles long, and Babylon was built on its banks.

So far, so good, right? But “the name of the second river is Gihon, the one that wound through the entire land of Cush” (Genesis 2:13). And “the name of the first is the Pishon, the one that wound through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold, and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx are there” (Genesis 2:11-12). Before modern times, most people guessed that the Gihon was the Nile in Egypt and the Pishon was the Ganges in India – even though these four never touched.7 But prehistorically, the Tigris, the Euphrates, a third river that flowed through Cush in western Iran, and a fourth river that flowed through the gold-rich territory of Havilah in Arabia used to all come together in a single river valley full of freshwater springs. Where? In what's now the bottom of the Persian Gulf, but which – long, long before recorded history – was a massive oasis.8

So what if you could go back? What if you could step through your Bible like a door, and find yourself in the garden as Genesis pictures it? The name 'Eden' comes from a verb whose primary meaning is “to make abundant with water supply.”9 One early Christian understood it as “a most delightful place..., shady with groves of fruit trees..., rendered fertile by a huge spring.”10 Another pictured it “thick with evergreen trees, full of fragrance, flooded with light, and surpassing any conceivable sensible loveliness and beauty.”11 They all imagined life there was one of “enjoying the beauty of visible things... and gaining much pleasure from that enjoyment. Consider, after all, how great a thrill it was to see the trees groaning under the weight of their fruit, to see the variety of the flowers..., and all the other things you would be likely to chance upon in a garden, especially a garden planted by God.”12 In other words, Eden is Longwood on steroids, “a rich mosaic of wetland environments, river floodplains, mangrove swamps, and estuaries.”13

But while the gardens around Middle Eastern temples were there so humans could grow food to feed and care for their gods, this garden is different, because God planted it so that he could feed and care for his humans!14 In this realm of special protection, we were meant to live off of perfect providence. To meet your every need, just reach out and take what God has grown. Unlike even in the promised land, there was no need to dig a well – the river's so close, the springs are all around you.15 To eat, we've got “every plant yielding seed that's on the face of all the earth, and every tree with seed in its fruit” (Genesis 1:29), so “eat of every tree of the garden” (Genesis 2:16), to pluck all the veggies, harvest all the spices. With provision like this, early Christians pictured a life there of “wearing a body yet being fortunately rid of any bodily needs.”16 They imagined the garden as “a wonderful existence..., a life free of any care,”17 a “state of perfect ease.”18 We were meant for that peace!

And the mention of precious minerals like gold and precious stones up the river also suggests a place of luxury and wealth, of the fine things in life. In fact, the word 'eden' entered Hebrew as a common noun meaning luxury like fancy clothes (2 Samuel 1:24), even a delicacy like gourmet cuisine on your dinner plate (Jeremiah 51:34), or the pleasure of an ice-cold drink on a warm day (Psalm 36:8). So it was “a life of freedom and great affluence.”19 Every vacation you've ever taken or ever wished to take, every daydream of enjoyment and satisfaction – that's a glimpse at what God wanted to give us, of where we were meant to be.

But better than where we'd be is how we'd be. If nothing had ever taken us away, if you'd been born and raised in the garden, what would it be like to be that version of you? For centuries, Christians have spoken about “that original righteousness wherewith at first we were created.”20 Sometimes the same phrase was also translated as “original justice.”21 “And this rightness of man, as he was divinely established at the beginning, consisted,” it was said, “in the lower parts of his nature being subject to the higher, and the higher not being hampered by the lower.”22 With everything in you working as God intended, there'd be no virtue you wouldn't have had, and so you would've had “not only an exact purity from all spots of unrighteousness, but also a disposition to perform cheerfully all offices of charity and justice.”23 There'd be no good thing you wouldn't find it delightful to do!

You in the garden would've been “blameless in your ways from the day you were created” (Ezekiel 28:15). However many lived in the garden, there'd be “no domineering pride, no malice, no envy, no falsehood, no brawls or contentions among them, but all harmony and love, each seeking the welfare and happiness of his fellow-creatures as well as his own.”24 There'd be no arguing, no shame, nothing to stop us from fully enjoying everybody else's company, nothing to stop us from fully enjoying just being ourselves. You would be thrilled just to be you. And God meant for this blamelessness, this original righteousness, to be a gift handed down as an inheritance to all generations, both“divinely bestowed upon all human nature in the first parent” and “transmitted along with human nature to the descendants.”25 Had all gone right, you were meant to live all that!

Not only that, Ezekiel pictures those in the garden as “full of wisdom and perfect in beauty” (Ezekiel 28:12). In some traditions, these came to be called 'preternatural gifts' that came along with original righteousness – gifts of God that are beyond human nature, but which he wanted us to have even in our life on earth in the garden. “No distresses of body afflicted them,”26 so that in the garden people didn't get sick or hurt, much less die in any sense we'd recognize. We would have just “kept suffering away,”27 or, to whatever extent some sort of pain as “a disturbance of the nervous system” might have been necessary and healthy for us, it would've not only preserved our comfort but been more than balanced by the great pleasure of being alive.28

Because of how God would've kept you ordered inside, in the garden you wouldn't have been troubled by out-of-control passions or feelings, but would've always had total control of your inner self.29 All your inclinations would have been directed consistently toward the best good, instead of toward other lesser goods.30 Nothing about you would be out of order or out of control or bent out of shape, nothing about you would be selfish, nothing in you would settle for being only kind of kind or for chasing after trifles. You'd have integrity.

And not only have Christians pictured life in the garden as one of immortality, impassibility, and integrity, but also one of infused knowledge. Think about it: Adam doesn't waste his time in baby talk. He doesn't wake up and spend his first few hours trying to guess what a stick is. Genesis doesn't picture him learning as slowly as we do. As a gift, God had directly infused into him “all that knowledge both of God and creatures which was needful for his happiness.”31 And it's likely that, had we stayed at home in the garden, had we inherited original righteousness, then from birth you would have simply recognized the world, recognized God in the world, had a deep and profound insight into the nature and character of everything around you. You would've just 'gotten it.' You'd have had the light of God shining in your heart and mind from the instant he formed you there.32

In giving us these gifts, God would've been throwing grace all over us, pouring out his Holy Spirit to sanctify us and make us holy, lifting us up toward our supernatural purpose found only in him. In the garden, you'd always have been moved by a supernatural trust in God, expectation of God, love for God. As Isaac Watts put it, a human in the garden would have been graced so “his will must have an inward bias and propensity to holiness and virtue..., an inward inclination to please and honor that God who made him, a supreme love to his Creator, and a zeal and desire to serve him, a holy fear of offending him, with a readiness to do all his will.”33

And that's fitting, this holiness, because Genesis presents the garden as more than a garden. Think back on how Israel's temple in Jerusalem was decorated like a forest, coated in gold and jewels, and how the prophets even imagined a river running from it.34 No wonder some Jews said “the Garden of Eden was the Holy of Holies and the dwelling of the Lord” (Jubilees 8:19). This is a garden of “holiness in which all was perfect, ideal, and unblemished, immune from the ravages of time.”35 To understand the garden, look to the tabernacle. What did God say in Leviticus? “I will make my tabernacle among you..., and I will walk among you and will be your God, and you shall be my people” (Leviticus 26:11-12). And that's because it was an echo of Eden, where we'd have daily “heard the sound of the LORD God walking in the garden in the breeze of the day” (Genesis 3:8).

Yes, the best thing in the garden wasn't the protection or the provision or the pleasure, not the loveliness or the luxury, not even the gifts that exceed our nature. The best thing about the garden was that it was a place to meet God without shame or reservation, to live with him as his people. To live there was a nearer and dearer walk with him, a clearer hearing of him, a better sighting of him, than I can even imagine. I doubt even Moses and Elijah, for all they lived and heard and saw, could have even fully gotten their minds around it. This garden was a place where God would be with us every day, available for us to walk with him and talk with him and hear that we're his. He'd have been with us there as our best friend, as a Father to whom we'd all have been born as sons and daughters. We could have interacted with God, and with each other, on a basis of uninterrupted friendship and fellowship, of radical trust, of unobstructed intimacy.

I like the way one old hymn put it, and I sorely wish I'd come across it sooner, else we'd have sung these words today: “There was an Eden once on earth / beyond conception fair, / where mortal beauty had her birth / ere sin had entered there. // What flowers perfumed the balmy gale / all bursting into bloom! / What fruits enriched the happy vale of cool, but grateful gloom! // There our first parents clothed in grace / the velvet verdure trod, / and loved in all they saw, to trace / the vestiges of God! // Oh! life divine – when day retired / and closed her golden eye, / and genial evening gently fired / the curtains of the sky, // then would the Voice that made them all / flow downward from his throne, / and sweetly on his creatures call, / to walk with him alone! // Holy communion! matchless joy! / How freely it was given – / that bath of bliss without alloy, / an antepast of heaven!”36

That's the life we were meant to live, with God and with each other, blameless and growing in grace, enjoying perfect delight with our perfect Lord. And as the Lord Jesus bled and choked on the cross for us, with what words did he comfort a crook who saw this neighbor in crucifixion as King of God's kingdom? “Truly I tell you: Today you will be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43), to “repose in Eden-land,”37 in that “spiritual garden..., that immaterial and intellectual meadow which never grows old and is never defiled.”38 May you, even now, begin in spirit to be with God your Gardener; and live in “fervent hope of receiving again the Paradise in Eden, as well as the dawn of the brightness of the second coming of Christ our God, from the east.”39 For there's no limit to the beauty and goodness you were made for. And if you cling to Christ in faith, and settle his spiritual paradise called the Church, you won't miss out. Thanks be to God! Amen.

Sunday, September 10, 2023

Dust of Earth, Wind of Heaven

“What does it mean to be human?” That's what the words on the wall asked me to consider. The other week, as you all know, my wife and I went on vacation to our nation's capital, and while we were there, we spent a few hours in the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Now, among the permanent exhibits there is a section known as the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins. I wanted to be there, to see it for myself, before I came back to preach this sermon today. We've been working together for a while now through the Book of Genesis, God's word on beginnings. But to many American Evangelical Christians today, when they think of Genesis, one thing looms large: controversy. That controversy is often put in the language of 'creation' versus 'evolution.' And as much as I originally wanted to preach through Genesis without this topic, I realized that it isn't really possible. As I walked through the Hall of Human Origins, it was obvious that Christians from the same church could stroll those same exhibits and have very different reactions to the fossils and artifacts and reconstructions and, above all, the answers the museum offers for how we got here and, more daringly, what it all means.

To some Christians, the story of humanity the Smithsonian tells is helpful and largely true, even if incomplete. These Christians agree that all living things stand in a family relation going back through several billion years, and that the human branch emerged only with millions of generations of processes like mutation and natural selection, but all of which took place in the hands of our loving God, the God of Genesis. Meanwhile, to other Christians, the story of humanity the Smithsonian tells isn't just incomplete but fundamentally false, maybe even deceptive. These Christians deny one big family tree for all life; they say we've got one all to ourselves, and that God's creative work toward making the first humans involved no suffering at any point along the way.

Each position faces its assorted challenges. Those who reject evolutionary stories, especially if they do so in the name of a 'literal' reading of Genesis, have to deal, on the one hand, with tricky questions about apparent gaps or oversights in the Genesis text (e.g., Cain's wife), about the anthropocentric description of the world it presents (e.g., animal kinds coming pre-divided into domestic vs. wild), about Genesis' commonalities with ancient Near Eastern mythical accounts, and about preserving a literalist reading while not resorting to too many 'background miracles' not suggested by the author; and, on the other hand, with the overwhelming weight of scientific consensus drawing on the many lines of scientific evidence cited in favor of evolution, such as developments recorded in the fossil record, genetic linkages among creatures (including indications that the second human chromosome is a fusion of two ape chromosomes preserved as distinct among chimpanzees), etc., etc.

Meanwhile, those who accept evolutionary stories have to deal with tricky questions about how to harmonize those evolutionary stories (with their preference for gradualism) with the theological significance that the Church has always read in Genesis, including at least two necessary non-gradual events of spiritual or moral significance: the transition from pre-human hominins not made in God's image to full theological humans made in God's image, and the transition from a state of original righteousness to a fallen condition of sin that needed a Savior. Some Christians who accept evolutionary origins will do so at the cost of one or both of these necessary events. Thankfully, others refuse to abandon clear historic Christian teachings – but they may come up with some different suggestions on the related questions of when Adam could've lived or even what biological species he might have been.1

The point here, though, isn't for us to get sucked too deep into all the nitty-gritty details. It's to remind us that each position has real questions to wrestle with. As for which camp is right, I don't think this pulpit's put here for me to spout off my latest opinions. I will say I've known pastors in our denomination who are convinced strongly against the kinds of evolutionary stories you'll see at the Smithsonian, because they're deeply concerned to uphold the Genesis story as God's inspired word. I will also say that I've known other pastors in our denomination who are convinced strongly for those same sorts of evolutionary stories, and who are just as comfortable championing Genesis as the inspired word of God. And what goes for our pastors goes for our people. It's not a reason to divide fellowship or be suspicious of our fellow believers. We can (and should!) pose each other the tough questions without losing the spirit of unity in Christ.

The reason we bring this up is that in today's text, we're introduced to Genesis' close-up look at what a human being is. (Questions about who a human being is, or why a human being is, will unfold over the next couple months.) Among our brothers and sisters in Christ who might feel least at ease in the Smithsonian's Hall of Human Origins, sometimes one of the many motives for that discomfort is the sense that there's be a big problem for human dignity if the ancestry of our bodies included lower lifeforms. In the years after Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species, one critic expressed umbrage at “tracing descent from an ape,”2 another critic called “degrading” any theory that “herds us with all four-footed beasts and creeping things,”3 while a third adamantly rejected any “genealogical table which begins in the mud” and which would tie the human family to “a race of obscene and dirty little brutes.”4 In 1925, when the whole thing got tied up in court, the Christian prosecutor of evolution insisted that for humans to “have come from below” and to “link their ancestors with the jungle” would be an unacceptable demotion from “the high plane upon which God put man.”5

So what does Genesis say? “The LORD God sculpted the man from the dust of the ground” (Genesis 2:7). First, we can see this involves at least some figurative language – Christians always knew God doesn't literally have hands for sculpting with or a mouth to breathe out with.6 Second, we should see Genesis describes human creation this way because it would be easy to understand. In Israel's neighbors' stories, human beings were often sculpted by the gods out of clay.7 Long before evolution was on anybody's radar, Christians pointed out that Genesis uses the images it does because it was, they said, “written for a primitive people.”8 In this case, the image of God as a potter emphasizes his total authority over what he's shaping: “Who are you, human, to talk back to God? Will what is molded say to its maker, 'Why have you made me like this?'” (Romans 9:21).

So, third, as much as some of us worry about outside ideas that would make our human ancestry 'lowly,' our own Bible's psalmists confess that “we are dust” (Psalm 103:14), Job's friends describe humans as “pinched off from a piece of clay” (Job 33:6), Paul says we're “from the earth, of dust” (1 Corinthians 15:47), and Jesus says humans are naturally “from below” (John 8:23). It's hard to see how an ancestor swinging in a tree would be any lower than an ancestral dirtball! Really, it's Genesis we should find humbling! And early Christians saw it that way, saying: “From these words spring no little instruction in humility... whenever we consider where our nature derived the beginning of its subsistence.”9 Our “genealogical table,” either way, “begins in the mud.”

But, fourth, where does Genesis picture animals coming from? In chapter 1, God commands, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures” (Genesis 1:24). Here in chapter 2, we read that “out of the ground, the LORD God shaped every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens” (Genesis 2:19). The earth produces, but it's God who sculpts – from the same ground whose dust is also where Genesis gets us from. This is actually one of the things that sets Genesis apart from the creation myths of Israel's neighbors: the emphasis on how much humans have in common with the animal world.10 So no matter which camp of Christians we fall into on the evolution question, the Bible binds us all to agree that, in some way, God made us from the same stuff as other creatures.

That's why, long before Darwin hit the streets, it was Christians who were saying that, when it comes to the human body, “man and the other animals have the same kind of origin,”11 that “the human being takes the beginning of its composition from the earth, as do the plants and the irrational beings.”12 And now we know, after all, most life shares with us the same basic cell structure, with nuclei, membranes, mitochondria. As animals, we live by breathing oxygen and by consuming organic material. You can map the bones in your hand onto those in a bat's wing or a dolphin's flipper. We have similar eyes and ears, mouth and stomach, liver and lungs, kidneys and brain – in fact, almost every animal has the same eleven organ systems you or I do. Martin Luther said, in light of all this, that in such bodily functions “there is no difference between man and beast.”13

And none of this is bad, shameful, or unchristian! It was good that the Potter made his clay into animal bodies with beautiful biology. God didn't decide to give us “affinity with lower bodies” without a reason.14 Early Christians testified that God wanted to “link together the different natures by small differences, so that the whole creation is one and akin, by which it is particularly evident that the Creator of all things is one.”15 Yet the human body was “made in no other way than by the great wisdom of God,”16 and “if there seems to be any fault in the human body's constitution, it must be taken that such a fault is a necessary consequence of the material used.”17 Or, as Darwin put it, “man still bears in his bodily frame the indelible stamp of his lowly origin.”18 But even such a body, in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “belongs to a person's essence. … People who reject their bodies reject their existence before God the Creator.”19

God made us bodily, biological beings with a grand purpose. That isn't to be rejected, no matter what condition your body has come to, or what design improvements you might have suggested for it. The human body is part of what God proclaimed “very good” (Genesis 1:31). And biologically, it makes sense to understand the human body as animal. Early Christians read even Genesis as teaching that “your body is related to the beasts.”20 The Bible itself, in Ecclesiastes, directly warned that God tests human beings “so that they may see that they themselves are animals” (Ecclesiastes 3:18). But we are, in one scientist's words, “the paragon of animals.”21

So if we hear people in the world say that humans “are animals and subject to the same rules and limitations... as all other forms of life,”22 or that scientific research can “shed light on the question of what it is to be human,”23 Genesis reminds us that that's at least partially true. ...But only partially. Because there's a lot to our existence that Genesis reserves as only partially touchable by science, whether by biology, chemistry, physics, psychology, sociology, anthropology – these can only get so deep into the human mystery.

The day after visiting the Smithsonian, my wife and I headed to the Museum of the Bible, which happens right now to have a special exhibit on Scripture and Science. Little sooner had we set foot there than the wall asked us a question not unlike the Smithsonian's: “What makes me human?” And as you might guess, the Museum of the Bible reminded its visitors, without rejecting anything from the Smithsonian, that there's still more to the story: that, though humans and other animals share “close similarities,” yet “our sense of morality discerning what is fair and just, our spirituality and worship, storytelling, and our unique accumulation of knowledge and culture over time sets us apart from other species,” for “only humans are made in... 'a little lower than angels.'”

In this, they're echoing the many scientists who admit that “there are innumerable ways... in which we human beings are distinct from even our closest relatives in nature,”24 that even our nearest parallels are “incapable of making sophisticated tools or using conceptual language,”25 that “human beings, alone among the creatures, speak, plan, create, contemplate, and judge,” or “can think about the whole, marvel at its many-splendored forms and articulated order, wonder about its beginning, and feel awe in beholding its grandeur and in pondering the mystery of its source.”26 I think my cats are precious and personable (and full of 'personality,' though not personhood), but God didn't place eternity in their hearts like he did in yours and mine (Ecclesiastes 3:11). You'll never meet an elephant engineer, a poodle poet, or a horse historian. We've sent chimps to space, but none ever knew what space was. There's no such thing as an eel with existential dread, a philosopher piranha, or a penguin priest; neither will you find a sinful skunk or a sainted squirrel. But humans can know and will the infinite.27 Different from all other animals “in kind and not in degree,” we are, it's been said, “not merely an evolution but rather a revolution.”28

Why? Because there's more to us than dust. The myths of ancient Babylon agreed, but they thought the other ingredient was the blood of a sacrificed god.29 But listen to Genesis: “the LORD God... breathed into [the human being's] nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living creature” (Genesis 2:7). Not violence, but gentleness! And Christians understand this other ingredient to be, not demon blood, but the human soul. Now, every living creature has a soul of some kind, a “primary principle of life” that “actuates its body.”30 If you've ever asked whether animals have souls, consider that the word 'animal' literally comes from the Latin word for 'soul'! Yes, every animal has a soul, from mammoths to mosquitoes. But we're unique in the kind of soul we have. Other animals have “souls... produced by a certain material force,”31 souls “coextensive with matter,”32 but ours is described as a 'rational' or 'intellectual' or 'spiritual' soul. It isn't made from stuff or produced by stuff. For each human who's ever lived, God directly created their spiritual soul out of nothing at the very start of their lives.33 God “breathed into him the breath of life” (Genesis 2:7), and Christians always said that “this became the origin of the soul's being.”34 Because this soul is the special form of the body, even our bodies, with all they share with animals, are a suitable “instrument” to “raise a fitting hymn to the Lord.”35

Since the start, Christians always defined the human being as “the living thing composed of soul and body.”36 On this account, it's been said that, if in our bodies our nearest parallels are apes, in our souls our nearest parallels are the angels and archangels, powers and dominions, cherubim and seraphim! Think about that: for all science might ever discover about what parallels they can draw between you and other animals, the story isn't complete until we factor in all the parallels between you and the host of heaven! Between ape and angel, simian and seraph, chimp and cherub, we're the unique and miraculous overlap of two vastly different ways of being God's creation. That's because God saw it fitting that “a combination of the two should take place... as a kind of binding together of the visible and invisible natures.”37 Each of us is a sampler platter of the creation, “material and spiritual at the same time,” with “one foot on earth and one foot in heaven.”38 It's almost incomprehensible that you are “such an earthquake as the image of God in dust..., a cloud of dust shaken up into a shocking miracle of life.”39 But this dust of earth has caught the wind of heaven, and it can never be the same.

The mystery is that we're “made from dust and yet destined for glory.”40 And the main place the Church, down through the ages, has worked out these truths of what a human is, is in one place above all: Christ. What did the Son of God take on to become one of us? In the Church's most solemn answers, she said that “the Word... united to himself flesh animated by a rational soul,”41 and so became “truly man, of a rational soul and body..., consubstantial with us in respect of the humanity.”42 In Jesus Christ, who as God is beyond every category and is from above, he became also from below, condescending to a genealogy of mud, to the indelible stamp of a lowly origin, to adopting our Homo sapiens biology with its 23 chromosome pairs, its common chemical composition, its history stretching back to the dust by whatever route ours took from there, and hence he came to share with every animal who ever lived a common physical source in the earth, herded with four-footed beasts and creeping things and you and me even as he himself is “the man of heaven” (1 Corinthians 15:48). And along with that flesh, he took for its form a real human spiritual soul, a soul he created the same way he makes yours and mine. Anything less than everything laid out in Genesis, and he wouldn't have been human.

That's why we talk about this. To know what we are, what a human being is, is to know not just an earthquake but a heavenquake: that the hands nailed to the cross had the same bone layout as the foreleg of a lamb, that the flesh and blood that bought our salvation was animated by a spiritual soul like yours and mine, that a 'human animal' body with brain and heart has been raised from the dead and taken up in splendor, that his humanity – now a “life-giving spirit” (1 Corinthians 15:45) – is hope and awe to every ape and to every angel. And so he pronounced our dusty bodies of earth, our windy souls breathed from heaven, the entire miniature world that each one of you is, to be too good to leave outside his glory if you're willing to come in. Glorify him! Amen.