Scapegoats

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Following a talk entitled ‘Evolving Biology, Evolving Theology’ that was presented in one of the southern suburbs of Melbourne last month, a person of Indian descent spoke to me about animals and spirituality.  He was concerned about the lack of understanding of the roles and importance of animals in our spiritual learning and, unlike Hinduism, he felt that modern Christianity does not know how to effectively extract wisdom from our fellow species.  This conversation has prompted me to watch and consider my goat, Holly, more carefully in recent weeks and seek an understanding of the concept of  ‘scapegoats’

So, Holly is a middle-aged, anglo-nubian she-goat.  She has been with us since kidhood and is tame, quite verbal, friendly, cranky at times and very-much a part of our mixed-species tribe.  When we first met Holly, someone informed me that goats were more like dogs than sheep; they like human companionship.  Although Holly does not get a lot of human interaction, over the years she has shared her paddock with other pasture-dwelling species including kangaroos, horses, sheep and an alpaca (called Rory) who seems to be a bit of a favourite.

What have I noticed about our goat?  She is strong, tenacious, wiry, versatile, adaptable, good-natured, guileless, simple-minded, willing to please and carnal.  She’s a goat!  I once heard a quote:  ‘If you want to know what it means to be a human, meet a goat’.  This wisdom probably only makes sense if you know a goat, and, it is almost impossible to put into words the meaning of this quote (so I will not attempt this).

Why then, do we have scapegoats, rather than scapesheep, scapedogs or even scapealpacas?  The original idea of a scapegoat goes back to a very old Hebrew ritual.  We have a detailed record of this ancient atonement ritual in the book of Leviticus (which is easily found in any self-respecting bible).  In the days when animal sacrifice was practiced by most peoples of the earth, it was usually done in the context of religious ritual and/or worship, or appeasement, of a deity.  It is hard for we pet-loving moderns to understand what ‘they’ were thinking in this archaic and cruel treatment of animals however, since we were not there, let us withhold moral judgement and focus on the symbolism.

We are told in Leviticus 16 that two unblemished, young, male goats were chosen and, by lot, it was determined which goat would be a sin offering (involving certain death and blood letting for the alter) and which would be the ‘scapegoat’.  The scapegoat was brought alive to the priest who was to lay both hands on the head of the goat and confess over it all the sins of the people.  The goat was then driven away from camp (away from it’s herd and secure food supply) into the desert.  Scripture tells us that ‘The goat will carry on itself all the people’s sins to a solitary place’.  So, a man was given the task of driving the goat away deep into the desert so it would not return to camp.  This ritual was conducted with intricate attention to the details once a year to ensure the cleansing and ‘acceptability’ of the Israelites.

The Christian understanding of this ancient ritual is that it preempted (or prophesied) God humbling Him/Herself and entering into humanity in the person of Christ to become the ‘scapegoat’; to take the blame and punishment for the sins of human beings.  Christ was to become both the sacrificial goat and the scapegoat to ensure our acceptability and holiness to live in an eternal relationship with a guileless loving God.

Other ancient peoples had similar practices involving goats.  In Ancient Syria, a she-goat with a silver bracelet around her neck was driven out into the wasteland to remove evil from the community.  This ‘elimination rite’ was connected with ritual purification on the occasion of the king’s wedding.  Ancient Greeks practiced scapegoating rituals using humans (instead of goats) based on the belief that the repudiation of one or two individuals would save the whole community.  A poor person of low-status would be chosen, treated with great dignity through feasting and adorning with expensive clothing to establish ‘worth’ (and/or purity), and then driven out of the city with stones.  This ceremony was expected to appease the gods and bring relief from drought, famine or plague.

The practice of scapegoating has survived the passage of time.  It may be observed all over the globe in families, classrooms, work-places, churches, clubs, communities.  Psychologists would define it using terms like projection; where we avoid our own shadow, darkness, shame and guilt, instead placing it onto another person.  This behaviour is often unconscious but sometimes it is quite intentional.  The chosen ‘scapegoat’ may have incited our jealousy; they may be free-spirited, beautiful, successful, strong.  Alternatively, if we are behaving with much cowardice, we may choose someone who is weak and undervalued to project our anger and inadequacies onto.  It can be cruel and often results in the ‘scapegoat’ becoming isolated and traumatized, struggling with poor self-esteem and paranoia.  Even in Christian families/churches scapegoating is common, especially when there is no understanding that Christ has removed our mental torture of guilt and shame along with the inpurities of human lovelessness (or ‘sin’ if you prefer that word).

Most people have experienced both sides of the equation; they have been the scapegoat and they have skapegoated others.  We can do better.  We can recognize when we are being treated as a scapegoat and refuse to play that role.  We can realize that ‘perfect love casts out all fear’ and face up to our imperfections, bad attitudes/behaviours. ignorance and darkness.  There is no need to be judgmental as ‘there is no condemnation for those in Christ Jesus’.  There is no need to pass the blame or guilt or shame onto another as we do not need to be perfect.  When I acknowledge the truth of my lovelessnessforgiveness flows and freedom grows.  My mind clears of the aggressive clatter of guilt and denial, and I have more time to spend with my goat!! Shalom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Evolving Biology, Evolving Theology

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Here are a collection of short essays that arose out of the Evolving Biology, Evolving Theology talks that we presented.

evolving image

Evolving Cosmology

By Tim Beattie

“In the beginning…” These words start the Genesis story of creation and also start the accepted mainstream science story of the origin of the Universe. Despite the best efforts of respected scientists in the early 20th century (including Einstein) to support a universe that was in “steady state”, all the evidence pointed to a beginning. Instead of stars coming into being, burning and then exploding to create new stars, the Universe had a definite start. (This of course raises the perennial question, what happened before the Big Bang?)

After about 10 billion years our own solar system formed – a modest star in a modest galaxy having a planet in orbit that had all the conditions for life. All of the key elements were present and water could exist as solid, liquid and gas. It only took an, as yet undetermined, event for the chemical soup to start on a self-perpetuating cycle of life, reproduction and death through the single-celled organism. After a few billion years of their ubiquitous reign, something happened for the single celled creatures to become more complex and to become multi-celled creatures. After that time it has been a relatively rapid avalanche of progress through the development of plant and animal species.

Even with five or six mass extinctions we still see today a vast and diverse array of plants and animals. And of course we see the existence of the one species that has the capacity to understand much of it and to wonder at its origins and its meaning.

Hand in hand with our growing knowledge about the mechanics of biology, physics and chemistry has gone our desire for understanding of the purpose of life and the universe. Our evolving scientific knowledge has informed us about the beauty of the cosmos and has yet to diminish the thirst in many for an understanding of the Creator.

These are the questions that Science does not try to answer and we search for our answers through prayer, meditation, reading the sacred text and interaction with others.

Our Evolving Lives

By Lyn & Tim Beattie

The verb ‘to evolve’ is one of the most beautiful words in the English language.  It means to develop, mature, move forward, grow, open out, unfold, unroll, expand, enlarge, extend.  The word holds the connotation that this unfolding, this unfurling, will happen gradually with a pace of development which is slow and natural.  As things evolve – whether it be a part of nature or our understanding of what it means to be human – the changes come gently and are usually accompanied with a sense of anticipation and gratitude.  We see the new thing, or new thought, arriving and are ready to receive it with celebration at the coming of something that we have waited for and pre-empted.  There are no shocks or traumatic shifts with an unfolding.  The unfurling of a fern is a predictable and controlled growth experience like coming to know a great truth slowly; gradually over time.

So, the development of life on earth has experienced long periods of unfolding as species have evolved certain traits and the environment has either favoured these characteristics or rejected them.  Size, colour, function, intellect and many, many other aspects of living creatures can be judged ‘good’ and carried on into the next timeframe or ‘unworthy’ and left behind.  There have also been cataclysms (sudden events of an extreme nature) including ice-ages that have suddenly cut off whole branches of species like some kind of cosmic gardener let loose with large secateurs.  Other species then take over the dominant narrative from the dormant nodes of earlier stories considered dead and buried.   This has been the dance of evolution on the earth over millions and millions of years.

And here we are today.  Humans are the dominant species on earth.  Some think this happened by chance, others wish we were not quite so dominant, and still others consider it quite miraculous (aided by the intentional hand of the Divine).

Like Dr Brian Cox, I think it was in some mysterious way INEVITABLE.

Evolving Theology

By David Sullivan

Deity in the ancient world

Interest in and worship of deity are probably as old as humanity itself. The ancients had stories about their various understandings of the deity, stories which have been powerfully influential on communities and cultures right down to the present day. I suggest that the constancy of the interest in deities and their stories in history, however, suggests a deep need within humanity for something transcendent that will help people make sense of the world as it is.

Deity of the ancient world was most commonly understood in terms of multiple gods or goddesses. The ancients also believed that the origins of the deity and of the cosmos were closely connected. The sun and moon and stars, for example, were often depicted as gods. In one well-known creation myth of ancient Babylon, the Enuma Elish, deities emerged out of the primordial waters, and the heavens and the earth were ultimately formed out of the carcass of one of the deities slain by another.

Ancient cultures understood the origins of the cosmos in what is best described as functional terms. People in the ancient world believed that something existed not be virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function within an ordered systems (John Walton). (In our modern world, because of the huge increase in scientific knowledge, we tend to think of existence primarily in material terms.) The author of Genesis, being an ancient, was no different from his or her contemporary world in having a functional understanding of what it meant for something to exist.

The ancient deities were not unlike human beings, with similar daily routines, desires, needs, and moods. Their anatomy was also similar, being equipped for sex and childbearing. Human beings in almost all of the ancient creation stories were made by the gods to be slaves for the gods, in which their role was to satisfy the needs and whims of the gods. Humanity, then, was not highly valued, and sacrifices to appease the gods often included human sacrifice, including sacrifice of children.

The Deity of the Bible

In the book of Genesis and the books that follow in the Old Testament we find a very different story from other ancient texts about the deity. Whilst the cosmology of Genesis is very similar to that of other ancient texts (e.g. flat earth with a dome over the earth to hold the waters), Genesis has a very different understanding of deity. Genesis 1 describes the construction of the cosmos as a temple. The deity, whilst deeply and lovingly involved in the running of the cosmos, remains separate. In the Genesis creation account, the cosmos, whilst not divine, is sacred.

It was common amongst the religions of the ancient world to place an image of the deity in the temple to represent the deity. Genesis is no different. The deity places an image in the cosmic temple, but in this case the image is the human person, whether male or female. The role of human beings as image bearers is to have dominion over and care sacrificially for the world.

In being made in the image of the deity each human being is exalted by the deity. Humans are not made as slaves to meet the needs of the deity, for the deity has no needs.

What is the deity of the Old Testament like?

It is clear from the foregoing that the deity of the Old Testament is unlike the deities of other ancient religions. The fundamental characteristic of this deity is goodness. Everything this deity has created is good, in fact very good, implying that the deity is also good. The goodness of this deity is manifested in blessing, particularly in the blessing of humanity (Genesis 1:28). The goodness of this deity is also manifested in steadfast love (psalm 36:5), compassion, as rescuer of humanity, and wrath against injustice. Some, like the atheist Richard Dawkins, may describe the deity of the Old Testament in negative terms, for example, as genocidal, or as a bully, but this does not square with the descriptions of the Old Testament itself.

Conclusion

Stories have a powerful influence on communities, nations and cultures. The stories of deities are no different. The question of deity addresses questions about the world, why it is like it is, who we are, and what our role in the cosmos is. We owe it to ourselves to take the subject of deity seriously. The question will be, then, which story makes the most sense to us, offers the most satisfying explanation for the world as we know it, and offers hope for the future. And perhaps not knowing where all that might take me, am I willing to take the chance of going down that road?

Evolving Relationship

By Tim & Lyn Beattie

Scriptures tell us that ‘God is the same yesterday, today and forever’.  The Divine’s character is ‘Faithful and True’ and able to be relied upon while the world around us changes.  The seasons of life and nature create the experience of constantly ‘shifting sands’ in our mortal human lives.  We struggle sometimes with our own adjustments and the way our closest relationships evolve and change with the passing of time on earth.

However, relationships must evolve; to remain vital, they must unfurl, grow, change, mature.  Imagine a romantic relationship continuing forever in the high-energy state of obsession with one glorious (but in reality, flawed) human being.  If nothing else, the limbic system would ‘burn out’.  Meaningful relationships, whether they be friendships, parent-child or lover partnerships, must develop with time.  So, what of our relationship with the Divine?

The Christian narrative tells us that in the beginning, when humans were freshly evolved (and/or created), God declared his/her delight in us: ‘very good’ and ‘made in my image; male and female’.  We began to make choices; some were good, some were bad and some were ugly.  Like an attentive parent of a young child, the Divine watched over us protectively, guided us and allowed us to discover our world in safety.  We were taught consequences and given rules (or laws) to help us make good choices and be kind to one another. The earth provided what humans needed to grow and develop into adulthood under the watchful eye of a loving Creator.  God spoke through nature, dreams, burning bushes, misty mountains, prophet/esses and even a donkey!

And then a time was reached when the Divine chose to presence her/himself alongside those image-bearers in human flesh.  Jesus Christ was born as a baby onto the earth as fully human and fully God, and the Divine was now dwelling in human flesh amongst the people he/she loved.  This was an intentional step (or evolution) towards intimacy; the distance between a perfectly loving God and mortal imperfect humans was being eroded.  Christ lived, died and rose again to bridge that gap and secure a guiltless friendship between humankind and the Creator.  People could now freely receive/give devotion in relationship with God based solely on belief in Christ and the love of God shown through him.  And surely, this would have been enough for us.

But the Divine had even more generosity planned for us.  When Christ returned to the heavenly realms, the Spirit (God’s Holy Spirit, the Spirit that was in Christ) was sent to the earth to dwell within each person that chose to have faith in Christ, the God-person.  The Spirit was given to comfort, guide, teach, counsel and be a guarantor of God’s eternal life within us.  This level of intimacy between humans and the Divine is extraordinary and I am often overwhelmed by the deep respect and honour that has been given to us.  Along with the constant companionship of the Spirit, God has also given us advocacy through prayer, spiritual gifts and the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc).

I am greatly moved and thankful for the way God has chosen to evolve his/her relationship with human beings over time.  My hope is that we may all continue to grow into this profound love relationship with our Maker, and that the freedom intended for us becomes a reality.

God of the Gaps

By Lyn Beattie

As we have come to understand our world differently through science and knowledge, we have also come to perceive the Divine differently.  The patterns of ‘the heavenly bodies’ are governed by the rules of physics and do not require the hand of God to literally move them around each day.  The water cycle does its thing and rain waters our crops, snow fills the mountaintops, mist rests in the valleys.  We have seasons because of the tilt of the earth.  We heal from meningitis because we have antibiotics.   We enjoy biodiversity because we protect (and nourish) the habitat of other species.   All these activities were considered the direct responsibility of God at various times in human history and He/She was worshiped based on the belief that the character of the Divine was linked to these activities on a regular basis.  So, if the rains came, ‘God was pleased with us’.  If the rains did not come, ‘God was punishing us’.  If our child healed from fever, ‘God’s favour was upon us’, but if they died, ‘God has removed His/Her favour from us’.

So much of what we now understand as natural law was attributed to the direct action of the Divine in previous times.  And, many people extrapolate this to presume that science will eventually eradicate any need for God at all.  They believe that ‘the God of the gaps’ will disappear altogether.

My problem with this kind of thinking is that it presumes that the Divine Being exists primarily to perform tasks; tasks that we humans cannot or will not attend to.  What if this is not true?  One of the modern beliefs in the West that I find most extraordinary is that which belittles the Divine to being subject to the whims and fickleness of human creation/opinion.  If God/dess does in fact exist, I suggest that He/She has a self-defined set of character traits, and also determines what daily activities and interactions are deserving of His/Her personal attention.

People who believe ‘the God of the gaps’ is dying simply because the Divine is not directly involved with the things that we previously believed He/She was about, perhaps need to alter their thinking about God/dess.  Maybe the Divine is about other things?  Maybe S/He sees different gaps?  Maybe S/He is about relationship?  Maybe S/He is about Love?

What happened to the Great Goddess?

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I am currently reading a book called Goddesses in Everywoman, written by Jean Shinoda Bolen.  It has taught me that:

‘Dating back at least 5000 years (perhaps even 25,000 years) before the rise of male religions, “Old Europe” (Europe’s first civilisation) was a matrifocal, sedentary, peaceful, art-loving, earth- and sea-bound culture that worshiped the Great Goddess.’

So, in some parts of the world, the ancients (and more recently, some indigenous peoples) worshiped and understood the Divine to be feminine in nature instead of masculine.  And in regards to the Great Goddess of Old Europe, it is interesting to note that:

‘The snake, the dove, the tree and the moon were her sacred symbols.’

And, what were Her defining characteristics?

‘The Great Goddess, known by many names … was worshiped as the feminine life force deeply connected to life and fertility, responsible both for creating life and destroying life … was regarded as immortal, changeless and omnipotent.’

Nowadays, in most countries of the world that embrace a monotheistic understanding of the Divine, these three attributes are ascribed almost entirely to a masculine God.  Judaism, Christianity and Islam use male language exclusively when referring to their one true god.  Patriarchal language is embedded in the Jewish and Christian traditions where God is referred to often as being ‘like a father’ or more directly as being ‘our Father’.  In contrast, when (and where) the Great Goddess was worshipped:

‘Fatherhood had not yet been introduced into religious thought, and there were no (male) gods.’

So, how did this change occur?  Bolen describes this shift as it:

‘ … reflects the encounter and subjugation, of people’s that had mother-based religions, by invaders who had warrior gods and father-based theologies.’

Who were these peoples and where is the evidence for such encounters?

‘Evidence gleaned from burial sites show that Old Europe was an unstratified, egalitarian society that was destroyed by an infiltration of semi nomadic, horse-riding Indo-European peoples from the distant north and east.  These invaders were patri-focal, mobile, warlike, ideologically sky-orientated, and indifferent to art.  The invaders viewed themselves as superior people because of their ability to conquer the more culturally developed earlier settlers, who worshiped the Great Goddess.’

And haven’t we seen this happen over and over again in human history?  Indeed colonialism is marked by this pattern; only the invaders saw themselves as the more culturally developed!  (Our indigenous Aboriginal people were treated with the same disrespect here on Australian land.)

When did this subjugation occur?

‘Successive waves of invasions by the Indo-Europeans began the dethronement of the Great Goddess.  The dates when these waves began are given by various authorities as between 4500 B.C. and 2400 B.C.  The goddesses were not completely suppressed, but were incorporated into the religion of the invaders.’

So, what followed was a shift in theology from a monotheistic belief in a feminine deity to a patriarchal, polytheistic theology in which gods were bestowed with greater powers than goddesses.

‘The invaders imposed their patriarchal culture and their warrior religion on the conquered people. The Great Goddess became the subservient consort of the invaders’ gods, and attributes or power that originally belonged to a female divinity were expropriated and given to a male deity.’

And, interestingly:

‘ … myths arose in which the male heroes slew serpents – symbols of the Great Goddess.  And, as reflected in Greek mythology, the attributes, symbols, and power that once were invested in one Great Goddess were divided among many goddesses.  Mythologist Jane Harrison notes that the Great Mother goddess became fragmented into many lesser goddesses, each receiving attributes that once belonged to her: Hera got the ritual of the sacred marriage, Demeter her mysteries, Athena her snakes, Aphrodite her doves, and Artemis her function as “Lady of the Wild Things” (wildlife).’

Why is this significant for those of us who are interested in theology?  How can this history of the understanding of deity be helpful for determining who God/dess is?  And, can this storyline contribute to the discussion of evolving theology in the Christian context of today?

At first glance, it would appear that Christianity has contributed to the subjugation of feminine deity and, in doing so, the suppression of human rights.  Bolen writes:

‘According to Merlin Stone, author of “When God was a Woman”, the disenthronement of the Great Goddess, begun by the Indo-European invaders, was finally accomplished by the Hebrew, Christian and Moslim religions that arose later.  The male deity took the prominent place.  The female goddesses faded into the background, and women in society followed suit.  Stone notes, “We may find ourselves wondering to what degree the suppression of women’s rites has actually been the suppression of women’s rights.”‘

So, what are we to do?

During 2018, I have been following prophecies (and yes, I do believe the gift of prophecy is current) spoken, and written, in Australia throughout the year.  Many of these ‘words’ have spoken of a major shift occurring in the Christian world and, one recent prophecy, suggests ‘We are not entering a new season, in fact, we are entering a new era.’  Of course, prophecy must be tested for its accuracy before heeding it.  However, it has got me thinking.  Maybe it is time we merged the Great Goddess with the Empathetic God of Christianity?

What’s the good in Christmas?

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Maybe it’s the gentleness

 of a God who cares

 

Maybe it’s the compassion

of a God who wants things to be better …

fairer …

kinder.

 

Maybe it’s the humility

of God as a baby

 

Maybe it’s the vulnerability

of God entering humanity.

 

Maybe it’s the justice

of telling poor shepherds first.

 

Maybe it’s the miracle

of the unsuspecting virgin giving birth

… her husband confused

… and both misunderstood,

yet bold enough to trust

to trust in an unpredictable

and totally trustworthy God.

 

The God of Love

The God of Comfort

The God of Grace.

 

Maybe it’s the inclusion

of rich foreigners,

who do not  know the Jewish God

who have not heard of Jehovah

have not read the Book

are not expecting the new king to be God.

 

Maybe it’s the peace

of a sleeping newborn,

who promises to save us from our selves.

 

Maybe it’s the joy

of knowing the friendship of God,

a friendship that can’t be earnt

… only received.

 

Maybe that’s the good in Christmas!

 

(by Lyn Beattie)

Sheba

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I was a real person

My name is synonymous with sin

like Eve (I guess) and others

My name means ‘Man’s sin’

That is my legacy

That is the shame I must now shed

 

I was a real person

And when he saw me bathing

he thought I was an object

He wanted my hollywood-good-looks

He was a king, entitled

he thought – to own me

 

I was a real person

I had a beautiful husband

Uriah, who took my feminine flower

and  loved me – with delicacy

I loved him

and I was his one and only

 

I was a real person

After the assault, I felt dirty

I hung my head in shame

I could not look into Uriah’s eyes

my beloved Uriah

Then, they sent him to death

 

I was a real person

After the murder, I was numb

On the inside I was dead

buried beside my Uriah

But I was summoned to give pleasure

to a king who didn’t have enough

 

I was a real person

After my baby died, I wept

This time I was allowed to grieve

the king had also lost a son

A prophet came to speak words

the long-awaited justice

 

I was a real person

I picked up the pieces

I birthed other children

learnt to live with strangers

washed and dressed like a queen

tried to comfort my soul

 

I was a real person

Had I said no at the beginning

like Vashti, or Abigail

the story would have differed

But I was young

And I wanted to live

 

I was a real person

My name has another meaning:

daughter of my oath

I made an oath once

It was a sacred oath:

‘Only you shall I love’

 

I am a real person

 

(Lyn Beattie)

God of the Gaps

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As we have come to understand our world differently through science and knowledge, we have also come to perceive the Divine differently.  The patterns of ‘the heavenly bodies’ are governed by the rules of physics and do not require the hand of God to literally move them around each day.  The water cycle does its thing and rain waters our crops, snow fills the mountaintops, mist rests in the valleys.  We have seasons because of the tilt of the earth.  We heal from meningitis because we have antibiotics.   We enjoy biodiversity because we protect (and nourish) the habitat of other species.   All these activities were considered the direct responsibility of God at various times in human history and He/She was worshiped based on the belief that the character of the Divine was linked to these activities on a regular basis.  So, if the rains came, ‘God was pleased with us’.  If the rains did not come, ‘God was punishing us’.  If our child healed from fever, ‘God’s favour was upon us’, but if they died, ‘God has removed His/Her favour from us’.

So much of what we now understand as natural law was attributed to the direct action of the Divine in previous times.  And, many people extrapolate this to presume that science will eventually eradicate any need for God at all.  They believe that ‘the God of the gaps’ will disappear altogether.

My problem with this kind of thinking is that it presumes that the Divine Being exists primarily to perform tasks; tasks that we humans cannot or will not attend to.  What if this is not true?  One of the modern beliefs in the West that I find most extraordinary is that which belittles the Divine to being subject to the whims and fickleness of human creation/opinion.  If God/dess does in fact exist, I suggest that He/She has a self-defined set of character traits, and also determines what daily activities and interactions are deserving of His/Her personal attention.

People who believe ‘the God of the gaps’ is dying simply because the Divine is not directly involved with the things that we previously believed He/She was about, perhaps need to alter their thinking about God/dess.  Maybe the Divine is about other things?  Maybe S/He sees different gaps?  Maybe S/He is about relationship?  Maybe S/He is about Love?

 

Evolving Cosmology

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“In the beginning…” These words start the Genesis story of creation and also start the accepted mainstream science story of the origin of the Universe. Despite the best efforts of respected scientists in the early 20th century (including Einstein) to support a universe that was in “steady state”, all the evidence pointed to a beginning. Instead of stars coming into being, burning and then exploding to create new stars, the Universe had a definite start. (This of course raises the perennial question, what happened before the Big Bang?)

After about 10 billion years our own solar system formed – a modest star in a modest galaxy having a planet in orbit that had all the conditions for life. All of the key elements were present and water could exist as solid, liquid and gas. It only took an, as yet undetermined, event for the chemical soup to start on a self-perpetuating cycle of life, reproduction and death through the single-celled organism. After a few billion years of their ubiquitous reign, something happened for the single celled creatures to become more complex and to become multi-celled creatures. After that time it has been a relatively rapid avalanche of progress through the development of plant and animal species.

Even with five or six mass extinctions we still see today a vast and diverse array of plants and animals. And of course we see the existence of the one species that has the capacity to understand much of it and to wonder at its origins and its meaning.

Hand in hand with our growing knowledge about the mechanics of biology, physics and chemistry has gone our desire for understanding of the purpose of life and the universe. Our evolving scientific knowledge has informed us about the beauty of the cosmos and has yet to diminish the thirst in many for an understanding of the Creator.

These are the questions that Science does not try to answer and we search for our answers through prayer, meditation, reading the sacred text and interaction with others.

Evolving Relationship

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Scriptures tell us that ‘God is the same yesterday, today and forever’.  The Divine’s character is ‘Faithful and True’ and able to be relied upon while the world around us changes.  The seasons of life and nature create the experience of constantly ‘shifting sands’ in our mortal human lives.  We struggle sometimes with our own adjustments and the way our closest relationships evolve and change with the passing of time on earth.

However, relationships must evolve; to remain vital, they must unfurl, grow, change, mature.  Imagine a romantic relationship continuing forever in the high-energy state of obsession with one glorious (but in reality, flawed) human being.  If nothing else, the limbic system would ‘burn out’.  Meaningful relationships, whether they be friendships, parent-child or lover partnerships, must develop with time.  So, what of our relationship with the Divine?

The Christian narrative tells us that in the beginning, when humans were freshly evolved (and/or created), God declared his/her delight in us: ‘very good’ and ‘made in my image; male and female’.  We began to make choices; some were good, some were bad and some were ugly.  Like an attentive parent of a young child, the Divine watched over us protectively, guided us and allowed us to discover our world in safety.  We were taught consequences and given rules (or laws) to help us make good choices and be kind to one another. The earth provided what humans needed to grow and develop into adulthood under the watchful eye of a loving Creator.  God spoke through nature, dreams, burning bushes, misty mountains, prophet/esses and even a donkey!

And then a time was reached when the Divine chose to presence her/himself alongside those image-bearers in human flesh.  Jesus Christ was born as a baby onto the earth as fully human and fully God, and the Divine was now dwelling in human flesh amongst the people he/she loved.  This was an intentional step (or evolution) towards intimacy; the distance between a perfectly loving God and mortal imperfect humans was being eroded.  Christ lived, died and rose again to bridge that gap and secure a guiltless friendship between humankind and the Creator.  People could now freely receive/give devotion in relationship with God based solely on belief in Christ and the love of God shown through him.  And surely, this would have been enough for us.

But the Divine had even more generosity planned for us.  When Christ returned to the heavenly realms, the Spirit (God’s Holy Spirit, the Spirit that was in Christ) was sent to the earth to dwell within each person that chose to have faith in Christ, the God-person.  The Spirit was given to comfort, guide, teach, counsel and be a guarantor of God’s eternal life within us.  This level of intimacy between humans and the Divine is extraordinary and I am often overwhelmed by the deep respect and honour that has been given to us.  Along with the constant companionship of the Spirit, God has also given us advocacy through prayer, spiritual gifts and the fruits of the Spirit (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, etc).

I am greatly moved and thankful for the way God has chosen to evolve his/her relationship with human beings over time.  My hope is that we may all continue to grow into this profound love relationship with our Maker, and that the freedom intended for us becomes a reality.

Evolving Theology

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By David Sullivan

Deity in the ancient world

Interest in and worship of deity are probably as old as humanity itself. The ancients had stories about their various understandings of the deity, stories which have been powerfully influential on communities and cultures right down to the present day. I suggest that the constancy of the interest in deities and their stories in history, however, suggests a deep need within humanity for something transcendent that will help people make sense of the world as it is.

Deity of the ancient world was most commonly understood in terms of multiple gods or goddesses. The ancients also believed that the origins of the deity and of the cosmos were closely connected. The sun and moon and stars, for example, were often depicted as gods. In one well-known creation myth of ancient Babylon, the Enuma Elish, deities emerged out of the primordial waters, and the heavens and the earth were ultimately formed out of the carcass of one of the deities slain by another.

Ancient cultures understood the origins of the cosmos in what is best described as functional terms. People in the ancient world believed that something existed not be virtue of its material properties, but by virtue of its having a function within an ordered systems (John Walton). (In our modern world, because of the huge increase in scientific knowledge, we tend to think of existence primarily in material terms.) The author of Genesis, being an ancient, was no different from his or her contemporary world in having a functional understanding of what it meant for something to exist.

The ancient deities were not unlike human beings, with similar daily routines, desires, needs, and moods. Their anatomy was also similar, being equipped for sex and childbearing. Human beings in almost all of the ancient creation stories were made by the gods to be slaves for the gods, in which their role was to satisfy the needs and whims of the gods. Humanity, then, was not highly valued, and sacrifices to appease the gods often included human sacrifice, including sacrifice of children.

The Deity of the Bible

In the book of Genesis and the books that follow in the Old Testament we find a very different story from other ancient texts about the deity. Whilst the cosmology of Genesis is very similar to that of other ancient texts (e.g. flat earth with a dome over the earth to hold the waters), Genesis has a very different understanding of deity. Genesis 1 describes the construction of the cosmos as a temple. The deity, whilst deeply and lovingly involved in the running of the cosmos, remains separate. In the Genesis creation account, the cosmos, whilst not divine, is sacred.

It was common amongst the religions of the ancient world to place an image of the deity in the temple to represent the deity. Genesis is no different. The deity places an image in the cosmic temple, but in this case the image is the human person, whether male or female. The role of human beings as image bearers is to have dominion over and care sacrificially for the world.

In being made in the image of the deity each human being is exalted by the deity. Humans are not made as slaves to meet the needs of the deity, for the deity has no needs.

What is the deity of the Old Testament like?

It is clear from the foregoing that the deity of the Old Testament is unlike the deities of other ancient religions. The fundamental characteristic of this deity is goodness. Everything this deity has created is good, in fact very good, implying that the deity is also good. The goodness of this deity is manifested in blessing, particularly in the blessing of humanity (Genesis 1:28). The goodness of this deity is also manifested in steadfast love (psalm 36:5), compassion, as rescuer of humanity, and wrath against injustice. Some, like the atheist Richard Dawkins, may describe the deity of the Old Testament in negative terms, for example, as genocidal, or as a bully, but this does not square with the descriptions of the Old Testament itself.

Conclusion

Stories have a powerful influence on communities, nations and cultures. The stories of deities are no different. The question of deity addresses questions about the world, why it is like it is, who we are, and what our role in the cosmos is. We owe it to ourselves to take the subject of deity seriously. The question will be, then, which story makes the most sense to us, offers the most satisfying explanation for the world as we know it, and offers hope for the future. And perhaps not knowing where all that might take me, am I willing to take the chance of going down that road?

Evolving Biology, Evolving Theology

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(written by Lyn Beattie and Mitzi Tuke)

On the last day in September, a group of eight brave people organized (and implemented) a public presentation in the North-Eastern region of Melbourne.  ‘Evolving Biology, Evolving Theology’ was the title they used and the forum was held in an Anglican Church hall.  Seventy people attended the forum and it was comprised of two 20-25 minute talks followed by a comment/question time with a panel of four (three scientists with active Christian faith and one Vicar).

Here is a summary of the kind of material that was handled during the talks:

The goal of the evening was to explore how humankind seeks to understand the matter of the universe and how it was formed.  The first presenter (a scientist with faith) focused on the unfolding of matter and life on earth.  We looked at human stories, myths and narratives that arose to comprehend the universe and our place in it, and also how modern science developed and evolved to examine and understand the physical nature of the universe.  The speaker invited us to ponder how it is that life emerged from the dust so that it may speculate and observe itself.  So the first talk considered ‘science’.

The second talk explored our spiritual intuition and God’s creation and belief that the universe has agency in God.  The speaker (an Anglican Vicar) took us on a journey through history looking at how mankind has understood, and related to, Deity at different times up until the present day.  The concept of atheism was considered and we were given a fresh look at the creation story recorded in Genesis.  The presenter contended that science and spirituality can, and should, complement one another and draw synergy from each other.  It  was demonstrated that the theological underpinnings of science are that God created a rational and intelligible universe which humankind can investigate.

evolving image(image by Natalie Tuke)

These talks, therefore, were concerned with the ‘middle ground’ between science and spirituality, and invite us to consider that science and belief in God are in fact complementary and draw strength from each other.  Often people experience challenges in reconciling the two and feel that they are mutually exclusive.

Over the next six weeks, we will further explore this topic.  The posts will be written by a variety of people and we would encourage you (the reader) to engage with the discussion and express your opinions through making comments or asking questions.  Everybody’s contribution is valuable and adds to the wisdom of ‘Evolving Biology, Evolving Theology’.