‘Nature is soulful and capable of praise’

Column by Mary Lee Talbot.

The opening verses of Genesis are clearly the hits of Scripture.

“People who decide to read the whole Bible make it that far. Even those who are not familiar with Scripture can say one sentence. God said it, it was so, and it was good. It is so easy to get it wrong. We think we already know it, or we learn it second-hand. Scripture always comes out neater or simpler than it really is, like math without fractions,” said the Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor at the Monday morning 9:15 a.m. Devotional Hour. Her text was Genesis 1:1-10, and her title was “In the Beginning was the Water.”

“I always thought that humans got one full day of creation. God got up after a good night and on a good morning made humans. If you read the text carefully, we are tucked in at the end of day six, after the cows and creeping things. God ran out of horns, and fur and antenna and only had opposable thumbs left,” she said. “God did not say it was good after every verse. In verses two and seven God did not say it at all, and in verses three and six it is said twice.”

Taylor asserted that God’s workshop was not empty in the beginning. There was wind blowing over the face of the deep, the water, and everything was made in the presence of the deep.

“I am not speaking of science, but of divine imagination. The ancients were interested in how their world worked and how it came to be. Genesis is a confession of faith, not a physics text,” she said. “The question is not ‘Did it happen that way?’ but ‘What does it mean?’ Let the wind of God sweep over you, too.”

The preexistence of the deep is not part of the doctrine of creation ex nihilo. Taylor said that was a fourth-century doctrine that sterilized the physical world, which leached out the spiritual from the natural world. But early rabbinic Midrash said that the separation of the waters was very traumatic. The waters began to weep because they did not want to be separated. The waters below resisted until God threatened a return to chaos if “they did not cut it out,” Taylor said. The lower waters tried to go back up, and God pushed them under the mountains.

“But they were not unrewarded for their cooperation. The waters above must ask permission to come down,” she said.

Celtic spirituality, with creation ex deo, is closer to the original. In Celtic spirituality, the trees cry out and the mountains skip.

“Nature is soulful and capable of praise. God’s breath stayed in them. John Scotus Eriugena said that we need to read the little book of Scripture with the big book of nature. We must learn the grammar of the thunder clap and the bird song, otherwise we risk hearing only half of what God has to say,” Taylor said.

John Phillip Newell, scholar of Celtic spirituality, has said that if we listen to Scripture without creation, we lose the vastness, and that if we listen to nature without Scripture, we lose intimacy.

“We have to listen in stereo; listen to the deeps in both,” Taylor said. “We will have five whole days of water. The more we have than necessary, the more it is taken for granted. The well-watered are in touch with it all day long.”

She noted that various religions use water: Christians for baptism, Muslims for ablutions, Jews in the mikvah, Hindus in sacred rivers and Buddhists in small cups before statues.

“Who thinks about where it came from? In John’s Gospel, ‘In the beginning was the word’ — God’s life-giving speech. In Genesis, before God speaks, there is water with a face, swept by God. In the beginning was water — water that God lets bring forth swarms of living creatures. Water became a partner in creation. Seventy-one percent of the earth is covered in water. Humans contain five and one half gallons of water, 83 percent of our bodies,” Taylor said.

None of that water is new, she continued.

“It was delivered over 4 billion years ago from deep space. It has been here forever, even if it came from the cleanest spring or was caught in a storm, it has been around,” she said. “In southeastern Colorado, there is a bathtub-sized depression left by a dinosaur. From one squat came 40–50 gallons. It has been cycling around ever since in storms, showers and trout streams. Our tea, bathwater, beer and tears come from the waters of the deep.

“A river stills flows out of Eden, if we read the big book. You can see it in the tears of a child getting its first bath; they begin a love affair or heal a broken heart. A cup of water given to a thirsty person is a holy act. The sacred text of the little book points to the sacred realities of the big book. If you want to know the trajectory of the week, we will move from a river, to a well, a basin, then a cup. We will get smaller but never get less.

“Water could use more loving, and we won’t save what we don’t love. Think about that dinosaur when you brush your teeth. There is just one God, there is one water that is a gift of God for all life.”

The Rev. Joan Brown Campbell presided. The Rev. George Wirth read the Scripture and will serve as liturgist for the rest of the week. The Motet Choir, under the direction of organist and worship and sacred music coordinator Jared Jacobsen, sang “Bring, O Morn, thy Music!” The text was by William Channing Gannett and the music by Howard Helvey.