Is it possible to be human without having and experiencing a story of origin framing the reality of our existence? I do not believe it is. Ever wonder at the child’s question: Mommy, where did I come from? Some might name this aspect of being human as a gestalt – or the essence of who we are is greater than the sum of our life experiences. Stories of our origin (or creation stories that shape the identity of whole societies) are integral to the formation of how we see the world – in other words, a world-view – a gestalt.
Reflecting this way, consider the ancient Abrahamic story of the Hebrew people. Imagine a little child sitting around the fire, cuddling close to others for warmth while listening to the stories being told, shrinking from the cold night as well as stars overhead. In one of the shelters Abram’s aging wife Sari is crying out in the act of giving birth to her first child. Concerned, the child sitting with the others asks: What is happening in the tent and why is she crying? A reply might be a story such as: In the beginning, God created ... And at last formed man and woman … and blessed everything to be good. The story might continue to explain the experience; e.g., retell the story of the man and woman in the garden hiding from God who seeks them. In this way, an oral tradition gets passed on and the ancient stories of origin of a nomadic people begins to provide a lens of normalcy, helping people make sense of their life experiences.
My concern here is not to discuss the matter of how these stories take form in the human mind and spirit, as every culture has a story that defines their origin. Nor is it my wish to prescribe but only to describe. My need here is to simply state what is apparently true – somehow these rich and vibrant stories take shape in the life of a community and become a forming influence in social reality and behavior. It may be that such stories come out of the human mind –based purely on non-reflected experiences that result in a creation of a deity in their own image(s). Or quite possibly such stories of origin are truly revealed to “our” human ancestors from a personality outside themselves – e.g. from God. Such is the matter of faith. What is relevant here is this: Matters of faith shape how we act in our world; where faith is hope for the future grounded in the experience of life.
Deeply embedded in stories of origin are images of powers or forces beyond our reach such as angels, archangels, gods, goddesses, and beings of light and darkness – good and less than good – life giving and life taking away. Such images affect our relationships, how we treat other people, our environment as well as our own bodies.
For cultures that believe in God, these images (ranging from a deistic prime mover, monotheistic, or polytheistic) are especially important in how human beings employ power dynamics. Two ancient examples help to explain this: First consider the ancient Babylonian Creation stories http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/~humm/Resources/Ane/enumaA.html (as old as 1200 BCE). According to this story, all came into being through the warring of two major Gods – Apsu, the sweet water and Tiamat, the bitter water. There were also lesser gods involved – evidently these were the offspring of Apsu and Tiamat – the last, Marduk, is begotten out of the decaying flesh Apsu. Two epic stories have risen – first, human flesh was created out of the dying flesh of murdered gods (killed in treachery) to the end that all human beings were created solely to serve the gods. The whole of creation was set to be in continual conflict. Is it possible that such a story simply explained the experiences of violence and life and death issues of an ancient people? An important question I bring to this story is whether this is a revelation (coming from the gods) or is it an embellished projection of human experience (or desire) on the story?
Another story developed in the same era is the famed Babylonian flood story Gilgamesh http://www.wsu.edu/~dee/MESO/GILG.HTM (see the alternative Noah story http://bible.oremus.org/?ql=69599320 in the Hebrew Bible), where [T]he Flood is so great that even the gods are frightened. In this story the lesser gods decide to play with the forces of creation and in so doing things get out of hand resulting in a major flood that covered the earth thus destroying most everything on earth. Consider a people creating a society based on stories of reality such as these? The king becomes the direct representative on earth of the gods and rules over human affairs, and the gods cannot be trusted because their playfulness destroys human life. And, let us remember, human beings have been created out of death and destruction with the intended purpose to serve the gods – and in this case the king. Such an interpretation of human origin easily sets into play a power dynamic of horrendous domination and human exploitation all justified by the gods’ use of violence in the act of creation and what appears to be the governing force of life -- fatalism.
I believe world history is filled with such story-supported systems of domination designed to justify forms of governing that exploit others. I imagine that the various cast systems in Asia as well as class systems around the world have been, and even still today continue to be justified by such stories of origin propped up by religious beliefs and / or national traditions. But these stories and / or traditions are not the culprit. It is the absence of humility on the part of people that gives birth to a fundamentalism or absolutism of the “rightness” of a system of belief that opens the way for such darkness to enter our human politics.
These days there is much discussion concerning how monotheistic belief systems set up dark-sided domination systems. As suggested in the Babylonian creation story, setting up political systems of domination and control is the darker side of politics and seemed to have nothing to do with monotheism. In fact, it appears everything points to the human king who demanded a system of domination supported by “his” story of origin.
However, consider the Hebrew people caught up in the Babylonian captivity (around 500 BCE). The Hebrew witness to this is found in their book of songs (Psalms for example) where they lament the difficulty singing praises to their God who is now with them in captivity as well and seemingly under the foot of a foreign God (forgive me for being loose with my interpretation). Even though they lamented, they remembered their One God who created, not as an act of violence and warring or ruthless play getting out of hand, but with the spoken Word http://bible.oremus.org/?passage=Genesis+1 seemingly breathed out over the expanse of “nothingness” … the Spirit hovered … God said “let there be ... and it was … and it was good … What is revealed here is a God who creates through the act of speech and whose simple command Let it be is obeyed with the result being a blessing – It is good.
Remember the second parallel Hebrew flood story as well. In the Noah flood story the flood comes as God’s controlled judgment against sinful people. Evidently human sinfulness has a negative impact on the whole of creation – judgment on humans brings judgment on all of creation. It appears that only through grace a remnant survives. In the Noah story the judgment of God is a controlled and intentional act. It has a starting point and an ending time. In this story, the destruction of creation is a serious matter and not the result of the childish willfulness of meddling gods.
These examples of ancient Mesopotamia stories of origin and parallel flood stories are just a few of many stories shedding light on the opening premise: stories of origin are integral to forming how we see the world and the impact it has on our living together. As noted some stories of origin justify the exploitation of human life as well as the use of utilitarian approaches to the environment while others speak to a softer way of walking on the earth and relating to others. Thus the matter is not so much whether one’s life is built around monotheistic or polytheistic system of belief, but how these beliefs are realized in the ordering of societies. A schoolboy’s playground debate over whose daddy is bigger and stronger can easily degenerate into violent action and when conducted at an ethnic or national level can become extremely brutish. But this has more to do with the limitations of being human than it does with monotheism.
Thus far this conversation has left out the need of reaching vertically – or allowing for the reality that there might be a God who is trying to reveal God’s self to the cosmos. The missio Dei (mission of God) is principally revelation. Of course this presumes a belief in God or in a mystery that is beyond our human capacity to understand. Therefore, our awakening to the awareness of the existence of God depends on God’s very action of self-revelation.
Usually we become vulnerable to this awakening when faced with awe (humility). But, you may ask, what about atheists, those who do not believe in a God? Even an atheist believes in something whether that is science, such as the theory of evolution, or some other abstract belief system. In this regard, such system of believing become their ultimate concern (higher power to use the Alcoholic’s Anonymous terminology – their God), and provides the lens through which they look to understand their experience – their reality. Even here, revelation remains a functioning characteristic (mission) of such abstract thinking. It is as if the “unknown” reaches out to be discovered.
Leonard Boff says that it is this mission of revelation that has cut across all civilizations from the very beginning resulting in the many varied understandings of the Godhead (Monotheists, Polytheists, Trinitarians, e.g.) that we see today. It is my opinion, however, that often our human-centeredness (our fear to be vulnerable) skews such revelations – with the result of our making a God or system of gods into our own images – based on our own human-centered experiences.
Let’s face it, a God who has no intention (or ability to) of revealing God’s self to us is not a God worthy of our human attention and is not likely a God after all. This is why Boff believes revelation is at the core of God’s mission. Why would anyone chase after a hide-and-seek God? If you ask me, this is not a god. Even so, to be misunderstood is the risk taken by a self-revealing God.
Here comes the rub and the need for humility, all revelation must be accepted on faith. Actually, the advent of faith demands an event of revelation of some form. Even the earliest scientists accepted on faith the basic principles of science until further exploration could begin to justify their faith. Thus if one is to accept the idea of God’s self-disclosure, it must be accepted on faith until further experiences (encounters) begin to illuminate the faith born of revelation. For me personally, discerning the truth of revelation is based on Truth of the highest order. For example, is it reasonable to believe that human beings are created in the image of slaves (as in the Babylonian story), or in a revelation that justifies brutish behavior? What is more [T]rue?
Thus arguments about belief in monotheism giving voice or birth to hierarchal politics that dominate and exploit simply are not accurate. What is true is that humans choose to interpret in favor of their own desires, class, cast, race, or national origin. I believe it is true, however, that it is easier to draw the parallel between domination and monotheism – yet at the same time we can just as easily justify waging violent conflict through a belief in many competitive and jealous gods.
While I do not want to prescribe a belief system here in this essay, I do hope I have been able to describe what I believe is at the core of being human – we need stories of origin if societies are to be whole. What those stories are shape the ordering of our lives and the logic behind it. It is important for us to critically evaluate the truths presented in these stories and with great humility seek to discover its [T]ruth for us. In the final analysis, what we choose to be True about our life will play itself out in the actions we take.
However, I am supposing the reader wants to know how this plays out in my life. Because the world did not start with me I must accept two initial data points; 1) the written scripture text (this is my story of origin), and 2) the traditioning of this story of origin created over historical time – because my ancestors have something to say to me about how this story shaped their lives. With these as starting points, I now have a safe place to explore my life experiences in a reasoned (rational) way.
Ultimately my Christian life-journeying process has connected me with two realities, the reality of God’s Divinity and God’s Humanity. I have learned that there are two human realities: God’s humanity and our humanity. For me personally, both are real but the ultimate question is which one is MORE TRUE? Hebrew Scripture, as well as the world’s literature, is filled with lamentations wondering when truth and justice will kiss.
For the Christian this began on Christmas when God’s Divinity came down and kissed the earth giving birth to the measure of God’s humanity – Jesus born of an innocent young girl. Thus, when I am asked what does God’s humanity look like? I point to them the person of Jesus and say there it is. Might we all strive to be this “human”? Thus, for the Christian, Jesus is the self-revelation of God. It is this story, for example, that forms the Christian community and gives meaning to the experiences of my life as well. This is my story. When asked, "What's your story?" how do you respond?
1. Leonard Boff, Trinity and Society, Orbis Books, 1988. 2. Something tells me that we want to believe only what we see with our own eyes leading us ask, What do we need to do? When instead we first need to ask, Who must we become? What sort of community would we need to become that we might be empowered to stand together with others whose stories differ?
Story forms a community and a formed community is empowered to make changes in their larger world. However, until we are held together by a story that is TRUE, we cannot begin to be truthful. If we are held only by a story that is fearful, we will never find the strength to stand together.
Leonard Boff names this self-revelation the Economic Trinity. The term speaks to the governing policies of any community. This language then implies a “community of God” that embraces the concept of the Holy Trinity – One God manifested in God’s Divinity, God’s Humanity, and God’s life-giving Spirit. This is the model intended for the ordering of the Christian society. The implications are tremendous.
In my essay I have hyper linked the Babylonian and other stories but could not do so here ...
Posted by John Fair on Thursday, January 17, 2008.