I’ve been teaching a lot of creation related stuff in RE lately. For those who don’t know, RE is ‘Religious Education’ at my children’s (public) school. It’s a privilege I have, but one I take very seriously. I don’t want to teach the kids (10-12 years old, for the most part) dogma, but I do want them to learn to explore God for themselves.
Creation’s one of those things I don’t really look forward to, because my beliefs on the matter are at variance to the ideas many other RE teachers teach. In short, I fully believe the universe is 13.7 billion years old, I believe the earth is about 4.5 billion years old and I believe my first ancestors came into existence as primitive single celled organisms 3.5 billion years or so. Give or take ten minutes.
Kids of that age can be fairly black and white in their thinking. I teach from the Bible every week—how do I get up and suggest that the first few chapters of Genesis didn’t actually happen and keep a straight face, not to mention credibility? As I said, I don’t look forward to this subject.
Another question is: how do I reconcile the two accounts of creation in my own mind? I can allegorise the biblical version away fairly easily, but that’s never been that satisfactory, because it feels like I’m fudging the issue. ‘Day-age’ theories (where each biblical day is understood to mean an epoch of universal history) also fall over when you realise they don’t fit the facts they’re supposed to.
I’d pondered this for many years, until I read the Enuma Elish. I’d heard about this before—it was the Babylonian account of the origin of the world. It bears some resemblance to the Genesis account of creation. For example, it assumes that the world is flat and sits on a body of water. However, I’ve ignored Enuma Elish in the past because I’ve heard people say that the Genesis account and the Babylonian account can’t be related. The Babylonian account talks of many gods, and the world is created in its current form as a by-product of fighting and strife between various divine beings. This is completely opposite to the Genesis account, where everything is done in an orderly fashion according to the sovereign will of God.
After years of thinking about this, it occurs to me that this is a great proof that the Genesis account is based on the Babylonian. The starting point was the same (contrary to popular belief, Genesis 1 doesn’t teach creation ex nihilo. The first few verses make it quite clear that there was a primordial ocean—just like in Enuma Elish.) The big difference between the two is the important one. According to the author of Genesis 1, the world wasn’t created when many gods decided to start fighting. It was created when the One God decided to create a world, which he saw was good. In other words, the author redeemed the popularly accepted view of the creation of the world. ‘We’re here,’ (s)he said, ‘because God wants us to be. We are not an accident of the gods.’
Understanding this helped me understand how Christians of the 21st Century should approach the question of our origins. Just like the ancients redeemed their story of creation and attributed it to an orderly God, we can redeem the modern story of the universe by placing God at the centre of the action.
The universe started with a Big Bang. It may have been chaotic, but it was ordained by God. God saw it was good.
The earth formed when God caused a disc of material around a nascent star to coalesce into a sphere, according to the physical laws he had ordained. God saw it was good.
God populated this planet using a set of very simple chemicals which could be arranged in incredibly complex ways, and which could replicate and recombine in a way to produce more and more varieties of creature. Even though death always threatened to undo it, life was irrepressible. God saw that it was good.
You get the picture.
The incredible thing is that four classes of pre-adolescents understood and accepted this. Just because it took me twenty years, I shouldn’t assume kids will find rational explanations of the things of God too hard to understand at all.