A parishioner in one of my classes decades ago was a confirmed creationist: one who believes in the literal and historical truth of the creation stories in Genesis. He attacked the idea of evolution with the demand to know the exact date when humanity became aware of God. I didn’t have a good answer at the time and the question bothered me enough to ponder it at length. Last Sunday I was asked if Neanderthals had any idea of God. It moved my pondering to write this short essay.
What I would say to him today is that the story of our relationship with God begins with Abraham, not Adam and Eve, who were never intended to be taken as literal persons in history. It was the man whom we know as Abraham who had a personal relationship with an unknown, invisible God, a God lovingly engaged with Abraham to become the first spark of a divine light to enlighten the nations and the glory of a yet to exist Israel. That’s where our story begins. But it is not the beginning of humanity’s awareness of the holy.
The oldest known records of religion come from about 3,000 b.c.e., a good thousand years before Abraham. The records are known because they existed in the first known writing. No doubt the idea of the holy goes much farther back than that. The obvious explanation for the invention of religion is that humans created gods to explain natural phenomena like weather, fertility, wars, and just plain bad luck. The gods were merely exaggerated versions of people who lived somewhere inaccessible to humans and to whom some form of immortality was attributed. True enough, but to come up with the idea of gods at all there had to be an awareness of something beyond human existence and natural phenomena that we call holy, sacred or divine. have no idea when that awareness came into being but imagine we may see remnants of it in primitive tribal animistic religions, and the more sophisticated version of them one finds in the religious understanding of a Great Spirit held by some North American Indian cultures. It’s just a guess of course.
In the end, I don’t think it’s fruitful to agonize over when or how humanity became religiously or spiritually conscious. The only question for Christians is when was the time right for God to act by engaging in a personal relationship with humanity to begin the process of progressive self revelation that would reach its penultimate blossoming in Christ Jesus. I have no idea what made a moment somewhere about 2,000 b.c.e. the right time but for us and for our sake it did come.
That is not to dismiss the origin stories in Genesis altogether. They have important meanings for an understanding of who we are as a people of God and they are not so terribly different from the origin stories of other peoples. Consider the stories of the ancient peoples of the American Southwest that say they arose from under the earth and are a people of the earth. Its makes the earth sacred for them, with certain places set aside for more intimate meditation and renewal of life. Our people did not arise from under the earth but were formed from the earth and given the breath of life by a loving God who also gave us the power of procreation. We exist more for relationship with God than with the earth per se, though we have been given dominion over the earth and its creatures it’s in the form of being given responsibility for its care and well being. It means the earth and its creatures are to be sacred to us as it is to those ancient peoples of the Southwest.
The early chapters of Genesis illustrate how we were created as autonomous self conscious beings who could decide for themselves whether to follow in God’s ways or not. We are prone to choose not and blame God for the consequences. I don’t know why God created us as sentient beings, but I do know God has given us guides to challenge and correct us toward greater maturity of thought and deed. It’s been a long slow struggle and we inch forward by degrees.It should be a warning as we plunge headlong into the development of A.I. with the intent of making it sentient as well. If God has found us difficult to manage, how much more dangerous will our own imperfect creation be. It reminds me of the ancient Gnostics who postulated a good and perfect God vs. an imperfect not so good god that messed things up. It seems we are that god. It ought not surprise us if the Lord God Almighty holds us accountable for our foolishness and lets us suffer the unintended consequences of it.
But again I digress. To return to the original question, the creationist was wrong about the literal historicity of Genesis. However we came into being, we need to start our story of the intimate relationship between God and humanity with Abraham. We need to grasp the truth that we are called to be a people of God not for ourselves only, but for the good of the whole of creation as we are led to understand that good through the prophets and most especially our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. That following Jesus is also the way to eternal life should be secondary to our responsibility to God for our stewardship of all that has been put into our hands. We Christians may be vessels to carry the message through word and deed, but it is not ours exclusively, nor are we permitted to browbeat others into ways comfortable to our localized culture and times.