Transcript of the Rev. Dr. Jules Gomes speech

Bishop Tom, with all your twenty years on Thought for the day, I must say you are a difficult act to follow. I used to do Thought for the day for BBC radio Cambridgeshire and they threw me out after I made a strong statement about the Iraq war. Never mind – our talking together this evening reminds me of a story of a theologian who met an astronomer. The astronomer was frustrated with the theologian for making religion so complicated. “Why are you fellows always making religion so obscure?” he asked the theologian. “ You talk about theandric union and hypostatic union, you quibble over the fine points of pre millennium post tribulational and post millennium pre tribulationalism. For me religion is simple: it’s the golden rule – do unto others as you as you would have them do unto you.”

“I understand your frustration”, replied the theologian, “You astronomers often confuse me with your talk of expanding universes and exploding novae. You are always talking about astronomical perturbations and galactic anomalies. For me, astronomy is simple: it’s ‘twinkle, twinkle little star.”

 

I liked what Sister Miriam said about contemplation

I gazed and gazed but little thought

What wealth the sight to me had brought.

The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the creation proclaims forth his handiwork. (Psalm 90 verse 1 and Haydn’s Creation)

Why are cosmologies and cosmogonies[1] so important for the way we live our life?

And in my response to the scientist and the Dominican Sister I find myself greatly challenged but also somewhat disturbed. And I am disturbed because somewhere along the line, I’ve bought into a cosmogony: the cosmogony, or the cosmogonies of the Judaeo-Christian tradition. But much before that my own ancestor had bought into a very different cosmogony. I come from India, and my ancestors came from the highest caste, the highest of the highest priesthood caste in India, the Brahmins. And we had a terrific cosmogony. In the beginning, God created the world and then God created people. And God created different people differently. The Brahmins he created from his shoulders. They were supposed to be the highest and dominate everybody else. The Kshatriyas or the warriors he created from his chest. The Vaishyas or the traders he created from his thighs. And the Shudras, those who did menial tasks he created from his feet. And the untouchables – well I don’t have to tell you about them. And that cosmogony has brought untold oppression to millions and millions and millions of Indians who have been treated worse than slaves for more than three thousand years.

A slightly different dimension to the cosmogony my ancestors bought in to has tremendous ecological implications and ramifications for a world that is on the brink of ecological catastrophe. And that is the cosmogony of the Advaita Vedanta, Shankaracharya’s school, one of the greatest schools of Indian philosophy. And that cosmogony was that everything was unreal. Matter in effect does not matter. Something diametrically opposed to the Judaeo-Christian tradition which tells us that matter matters.

I am not so sure, however that all matter is filled with spirit, but I am sure, dead certain, that all matter is good because in the first story of creation in Genesis – six times “God created this and it was good, and it was good and it was good and it was good” and then God creates Adam and Adam is very good. Now that is the reason why I think it is so important for us to absorb what is coming from these cosmogonies that not only talk about the beginning of time but also but also talk about the consummation that had the dimension of the eschaton to them. If we look at the beginning and we look at the conclusion, then we begin to contemplate what is in between. The sad thing with our approach to the bible is that being brought up, you know, as children we were told about Adam and Eve and the apple tree we have a constructive division between what we think is theological and what we think is scientific because we have looked at the texts of creation in the old testament and in the new testament with a scientific or literalist or fundamentalist point of view and we have not understood what they are really talking about. And what the old cosmologies of the Judaeo-Christians really talk about is liberation: liberation from oppression, liberation from . . . I mean, take the first story of Genesis – we talked about dark matter and in the second verse we have the great phrase (. . . in Hebrew) chaos, darkness, anarchy and the great wind Ruath Elohim, which can also be translated as the spirit of God hovering over the face of the water and of all images, that of Chaos, dark matter being transformed into an ordered creation: chaos being liberated from its chaotic state and being brought into order. And many of you here I am sure know that this first creation story was written during the Babylonian exile and it was written as a polemic against the Babylonian cosmogonies that really said in effect that the gods were fighting among themselves, there was a great deal of violence in the heavens and one god killed the other god and out of her body he created the universe and if you read Walter Wink, the great peace activist, you will note that Walter Wink consistently draws themes of violence out of the Enemialeesh(spelling?) stories and he draws us to the Judaeo Christian understanding of a cosmogony that can produce peace.

 

Look at the plagues in Exodus. Ecological destruction when slaves are kept oppressed for four hundred years. He entire creation demonstrates solidarity with the oppressed slaves and rebels against the authority of Pharoah, whose cosmogony has the sun god Ra at its centre. And the climax of the story of course is that the sun is darkened.

 

Look at Isiah chapter two 40 – 55 and you have exuberant stories of new creation. The crocus blossoming in the desert. The child play of the viper’s hole. The lion lying with the lamb. And as we come closer to Advent, we will hear more and more of those stories.

And so I would echo what all three of you were saying that we do not have a static view of creation, we have a dynamic view of creation and scientists like you only add to that great palette that has come down to us from the past.

 

Let me close with these words: this is what Walter Bruckermann says:

Israel settled on no single articulation of creation as a proper one, but daringly made use of rich and diverse vocabulary in order to make its normative utterances about God. Old testament theology, when it pays attention to Israel’s venturesome rhetoric, refuses any reductionism to a single or simple articulation. It offers a witness that is enormously open, inviting and suggestive rather than one that yields settlement, closure or precision. Israel, nonetheless I add, faced a demanding task. The demanding element of this testimony is not to claim creation faith as its own. It is to claim creation for the God of Israel as willing, as willed, gifted and governed by Jahweh and made for glad dependence and fruitful obedience to Jahweh. It is to articulate creation faith in a peculiar way, so that it is congruent with the rest of the normative testimony that Israel would utter about God.

 

And I close by asking us, can we dare to articulate a creation faith, a cosmology, echoing what we have received traditionally with what we now discover in science; and can we dare to articulate a cosmology that will be liberating, life giving, immensely subversive, greatly surprising, and that will bring great delight to us as we continue to contemplate the mystery of creation?

 

Thank you.



[1] Cosmogeny – knowledge of the process of creation