We’ll do this call-and-response style—I’ll sing a line and demonstrate the motion that goes with it, and you repeat after me.
In the beginning, God made the sea
And the forest filled with trees;
He made the mountaintops so high,
And on the top he placed the sky.
God’s fingerprints are everywhere,
Just to show how much he cares;
And in the end, God had some fun--
He made a hippo that weighs a ton!
Hip-, hip-, hippopotamus
Hip, hip, hooray! God made all of us!
Hip-, hip-, hippopotamus
Hip, hip, hooray! God made all of us!
I love this song, not only because it’s fun but also because it teaches kids about creation. God made everything, from the sublime to the ridiculous. God made the oceans and forests and mountains, and God made hippos and lemurs and platypi. And, of course, God made all of us.
But exactly how God made us is a question that is debated in the religious and scientific communities—or, rather, between them. A Gallup poll conducted earlier this year showed that 4 in 10 Americans believe that God made humans in their present form about 10,000 years ago. Many American Christians interpret the days in the Genesis story we just read as literal 24-hour-days, and these Christians push back against scientists who point to evidence that the earth is billions of years old and that humans evolved from other creatures.
Now, I didn’t know people actually thought this way until I was maybe in high school. As a child, I loved science. I thought I might even become a scientist—until I took calculus and determined that whatever my calling was, it wasn’t that. But I was fascinated by rocks and dinosaurs and endangered species and genetics and viruses.
More than any of those things, I was fascinated by outer space. My childhood bedroom had glow-in-the-dark planets on the ceiling, surrounded by stars arranged meticulously into the major constellations. My siblings and I have many memories of our dad dragging us out of bed in the middle of the night to observe some astronomical phenomenon—a meteor shower, an eclipse, a passing comet. I subscribed to an astronomy magazine for a while, and I remember once getting to peek into a telescope and see the rings and moons of Saturn.
For me, there was never a division between science and faith. Both astronomy and Scripture taught me about the majesty of God and the wonders of creation.
It has never occurred to me to interpret the “days” in Genesis as actual 24-hour period. Some fundamentalist Christians would say that my willingness to interpret the creation story metaphorically undermines the authority of Scripture. But if we’re reading the Bible like a science textbook, we’re reading it all wrong.
The creation story in Genesis is not about how; it is about who. Ellen Davis, a professor at Duke Divinity School, says that Genesis 1 is “a liturgical poem that seeks to form our imagination.” Genesis 1 is not a scientific account. Genesis 1 is a poem that draws us into worship of the God who created everything that was, that is, and that ever will be.
Recently, I’ve gotten really into watching Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey. This TV series features astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson. It’s a follow-up to the 1980 series Cosmos: A Personal Journey with Carl Sagan. It takes you from inside the atom all the way to the far reaches of space and time. It’s TV I feel good about watching. I can sit on my couch with a pint of ice cream for hours and come away with obscure facts about space and history and the environment.
As much as the show is about learning, over and over again in Cosmos, Neil deGrasse Tyson says there is so much we don’t know. I love that. I love how he says it with excitement and anticipation. Not knowing is exciting. It keeps our minds open and searching. And not knowing is a central part of faith.
Hearing Tyson say again and again how much we still don’t know made me realize what it is that puzzles me post about a fundamentalist interpretation of the Bible and about the myth of certainty in general. Too often, Christians want to say that we know everything. We want to pin down exactly what truth is and build a fence around it so that nothing gets in and nothing gets out. Anything we do not understand gets a simple “God did it,” and that’s that.
A few years ago, one of the political pundits on Comedy Central picked up footage of Bill O’Reilly using and reusing what he believed was indisputable evidence for the existence of God. O’Reilly claimed that since there are some things that science can’t explain, there must be a God. That’s all well and good, but he chose some unfortunate examples. Again and again, O’Reilly insisted there had to be a God because we can’t explain how the tides go in and out and how the sun goes up and down.
The problem is, science can explain those things. In an interview responding to O’Reilly’s comments, Neil deGrasse Tyson said he should have picked a different example—say, that there is dark energy that is causing the universe to expand at an accelerating rate. That’s something science can’t explain.
But if we pin our faith on being unable to explain specific scientific phenomena, what do we do if their causes are discovered? At one time, we couldn’t explain how the tides moved. Perhaps one day we will understand dark energy. The important thing here is not what we don’t understand. It’s the fact that we don’t understand everything. Even when science uncovers answers, it always leads to more questions. This is what Albert Einstein observed when he said, “The more I learn, the more I realize how much I don’t know.”
God is like that. The more we learn about God, the further we press into the mysteries of the divine, the more we must fall down in awe of how little we understand. But rather than defeating us, this lack of knowing invites us to keep looking. Neil deGrasse Tyson says that he’s perfectly comfortable with people of faith pointing to the unexplainable and saying that’s where God is, but he warns that if we are so content with the “God did it” answer that we stop looking, we have lost something truly precious.
At one point, while watching Cosmos, I had a sort of vision. Tyson was describing the Big Bang. He held up a marble, a little bigger than this, and he said, “This is how big the universe was when it was a trillion-trillionth of a second old.” I had to press pause as I saw Tyson standing with the tiny sphere, because to be it bore an uncanny resemblance to this icon of Julian of Norwich that usually hangs in my office.
Many of you will have heard me talk about Mother Julian before. Julian of Norwich was an English writer and mystic who lived in the 13th century. When she was a young woman, she became very ill, so sick she was expected to die. During her illness, she had a number of visions that she called “revelations of divine love.” When she miraculously survived, she wrote them down in what is the earliest existing English writing by a woman.
This icon represents what Julian saw in one of her visions. In it, she is shown something small, something the size of a hazelnut that she holds in her hand. She asks what it is and receives this answer: “It is all that is made.” And she says this:
“I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God. In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it.”
God made it. God loves it. God keeps it. Those were the words that flew through my mind when I saw an astrophysicist holding a marble representing the entire universe coming into being. For Julian, “all that is made” might have meant simply England, perhaps parts of Europe. As scientific knowledge expanded, “all that is made” came to include more of the earth, the moon, the stars, and eventually whole galaxies hurtling through space at hundreds of thousands of miles per hour. However much our definition of “all that is made” might change or expand, these three things remain true: God made it. God loves it. God keeps it.
Part of what I love about the show Cosmos is that however far it may take the viewer, whether down to the molecular level or out to the edges of our galaxy, it always brings you back to Earth. Exploring the heavens makes us more aware of the preciousness of this planet we have been given, and of our responsibility to take care of it. For if Genesis 1 is a story not of how but of who, we must take seriously every relationship in it—between us and God, between one human and another, and between humanity and the land itself.
In the original Cosmos, Carl Sagan asked viewers to take a look at Earth from far out in space. This is the picture he shows—in it, our planet is barely visible. He says this:
“Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every ‘superstar,’ every ‘supreme leader,’ every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam. […] It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”
God’s fingerprints are everywhere—from the invisible atom to the far reaches of space. How we understand our place in the creation story determines how we will be in relationship with one another and with the rest of creation.
As you come forward for communion, I invite you to pick up one of these marbles. Take it home with you, and keep it somewhere you might see it every now and then. Let it be a reminder of our responsibility to treat one another and this precious planet well. Let it stand for all that is made, and let it remind you that whether we consider the vastness of our expanding universe, the fragility of the Earth, or the preciousness of our own hearts, God made it, God loves it, and God keeps it. Amen.
Sarah S. Howell