Out of the Deep: Reflection by Jane Doull, Sept. 22, 2019

Introduction: This is the first of a series on Creation, with Climate Crisis especially in mind. They are particularly inspired not only by current events, but three excellent, complex, profound, poetic books by the process/feminist/ecological theologian Catherine Keller. This first of the series especially draws on her Face of the Deep: a Theology of Becoming [2003]. I can’t do justice to it, of course , in a Sunday segmentand I’m not sure I put across just why this reading of the first creation story mattered so much from an eco-justice perspective. It is probably better read than heard. I’ll preface my next piece with the little segue I wrote- to help offset any [quite understandable] lack of comprehension. I thought about fixing this piece before publishing it, but life is short and so I leave it as it was. The readings for the day were two translations of Genesis 1:1-2 , one mostly from the New English Bible and one from Hermann Gunkel, which I found in Keller’s book; then Job 38:8-12-  words from the “wild spirit of creation; then two short “modern” passages, from The Sound of the Sea by the Maine poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and from The Edge of the Sea by the New England biologist and biographer of the ocean Rachel Carson. As with all my Sunday liturgies, the theme was expressed in the choice of readings, the prayers and the hymns, so that people’s spiritual experience does not rest merely on a probably imperfect Reflection, which they may or may not follow. But enough prelude!

Here we love our land and our water. Especially  , there’s something very spiritual about our water- as Longfellow and Carson, further down the Atlantic coast would agree- the hidden depths, the mystery, lead us into a sense of Something More. 

So why are our waters in trouble?  Why are their populations in trouble?   And why do our waters threaten to overwhelm our land in times of stormy weather?  

It’s a long story, and scientists tell it better than I can. But part of our trouble- we  of Christian ancestry have forgotten our own Jewish-Christian creation story.   

You heard two versions of the very beginning of our first biblical creation story- written, we believe , by a priestly writer, at a turbulent time.   Israel was in ruins- many of the Hebrew people exiled or displaced, many to  Babylon, forced migrants in an alien culture,  The writer is looking for order in the chaos- God’s got this.   As might we , when we lie awake thinking about climate change and whatever else troubles us- 

We may have grown up hearing that God made the world out of nothing-a God who can do that can fix anything , right?  

But the theologian Catherine Keller says, look again, think again.  What was this old , old creation story really saying? 

Keller’s take on those first two verses: “ When in the beginning Elohim created heaven and earth, the earth was tohu va boho, darkness was on the face of tehom, and the ruach Elohim vibrating upon the face of the waters. “ 

For starters:  Tehom doesn’t have an exact translation- it’s something like the deep,  salt waters, even chaos.  Tohu va bohu- this is a unique turn of phrase, ]. Tohu means the “uninhabitable , formed condition associated with the wilderness of desert”. Bohu seems to be related to a name for Baau, a Canaanite goddess of the primal night, the mother of the first mortals” ”[Keller, Face of the Deep,  p. 183]

Whatever you make of this, it’s not nothing.  It’s more like a primordial soup [a phrase I’ve seen in various cosmological/universe story writings ].   Picture a pureed soup- you can’t see the lentils, carrots , garlic or water- but it’s still definitely Something.  Thank goodness a pureed soup just occupies a limited amount of space- you only want so much soup. But the primordial soup, the everything, in Genesis is all you’ve got, until God invites it to start separating itself out into light and dark and sky and water and earth , and so on..  

Elohim is the name of God in these first few verses- it’s a plural name so God here really is a they or a them- that’s intriguing, isn’t it.  And in these verses, Elohim , They, created not out of nothing but out of everything, like Jeremiah’s Divine Potter- who makes pots not out of nothing but of clay.

And what about the chaos and the deep, the not-Nothing?  Underneath all this is ancient mythology: a sense of deep, primordial chaotic beginnings, the divinity in that gave birth to other divinities- who often got rid of the earlier divinities. As in Babylonian myth Marduk does away with the earth mother- goddess figure Tiamat .

This mythology was known to many of the Hebrew writers.  The priestly Hebrew writer does not outright kill the primeval , primordial divinities.  But he soon moves on from Chaos , wilderness and the deep.  

Then as now, there’s often been a fear of Chaos in our world- a fear of Darkness- a fear of the water sometimes- sometimes expressed as a fear of other races , or of the power of women, sometimes a fear of nature itself getting out of control.  

Small wonder that we have often misunderstood another part of the creation story- where God tells humans to have dominion over the rest of creation.  Humans often take this to mean  domination- doing whatever we like to creation.  

That’s our story in Canada . From the first arrival of Europeans to this day, we’ve mined the land for fish and trees and wheat and oil, and  coal- and we do this in other countries, with gold mines, with benefitting from cash crops that have depleted Amazon rainforest and Chilean rivers.  Those in charge have asked us to put up with clearcutting and glyphosate in our forests, with oil spills, with industries coming in, polluting and leaving a mess.  One story after another of dominating nature , and especially letting big industry and big money dominate it.

But our true calling is not domination but stewardship- we are entrusted with the care of something precious- as if we are looking after a beloved family home or farm.  It comes back to love.   In the beginning  of the world as we know it was the relationship  {‘In the beginning was the relationship”- I first found this in Carter Heyward, The Redemption of God]. Elohim: this is a   relational God, a We not just an I.   Elohim within the chaos, the primordial soup, vibrating over the deep.  Elohim does not force or coerce – but lets the light be  ,the land and sea be, and so on down to humans-   And at every stage the Divine voice says “ it is good”, without rejecting the earlier stages  , it’s all good- all of it counts. 

As we prepare to baptize a little one in the sacred waters,  we are reminded of this original Creation story-original blessing-  setting free rather than forcing-  pronouncing it all good.  That’s the world our young people long for  a world that is good for everyone, a world fit for babies to be born and thrive.

And so- at the beginning of our Creation series- we begin by remembering- we are born out of the deep, out of all that is, it’s all good, it’s all to be loved.    And let’s all take a walk or drive past the waterways we love- and pause -pondering those deeps and remembering again the divine mystery birthing life out of water’s womb.

May it be so!  

Author: janedoull

I’m an eclectic writer and thinker . In the past I’ve been an adult educator and a United Church of Canada minister . Now I’m a freelance retiree.

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