Dr. Philip Hefner is an ordained minister in the ELCA and is professor emeritus of systematic theology at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. He directed the Zygon Center for Religion and Science from 1988 to 2003 and is the former Editor-in-Chief of Zygon: Journal of Religion and Science. He has authored numerous books and articles, and is best known for his book, The Human Factor: Evolution, Culture, and Religion.

Epic of Creation: God’s Awesome Natural World / An Awesome Act of StorytellingWords, words, words — we are inundated with words these days. Words are everywhere, and with the power of Twitter, Facebook, and the internet, our atmosphere is permeated with verbal omnipresence.

I like words — I turn them over in my mind, fondle them with my tongue, explore their history and their nuances. In fact, it occurs to me that attention to words may be an entrée to understanding more richly what this Epic of Creation course series is about — its issues, its significance, its problems. The course explores the scientific story of our origins alongside the theological reflection of how creation came to be.

I want to focus on these words — “The Epic of Creation.” On the one hand, I’m discussing words and how they play out their nuances, but at the same time, the words lead us into an exploration of deeper meanings and issues.

What does the word Epic add? What is it that is Epic?
What do we mean when we say something is epic? Epic is both a noun and an adjective that carries echoes of the heroic, the grand and imposing. The word announces, “This is something big!” It can apply to a poem, like Homer’s Iliad, recounting the siege of Troy, or a novel — Melville’s Moby Dick has been called the American Epic. Then again, anything might be considered epic — a sculpture like Michelangelo’s David, or an architectural monument like the Kremlin, or a great struggle, like the siege of Troy or Stalingrad. A series of events or an historical epoch can be called “epic,” as when we say, “The winning of the West is the American epic.” It has become a commonplace in some circles to speak of evolution as an epic. The term ‘evolutionary epic” is quite common. There is a “gee-whiz” tone to the word “epic”; something out of the ordinary is about to appear.

What’s the “gee whiz” in this series of lectures? What’s so out of the ordinary? Is it the twenty-three presentations by twenty-two lecturers in twelve weeks? That’s an epic marathon by most standards.

It could be that epic refers to the world of nature, the natural processes that form the substance of the Epic Creation. “Wow, this world of nature is really something!”

Or is it the science that describes the natural world? Astrophysics is a gee-whiz science; so is genetics; so is the behavior of non-human primates and its foreshadowing our own behavior.

It could be that the scientists themselves are the awesome factor. Edwin Hubble and the telescope named for him and Albert Einstein and Charles Darwin. Their work did, after all, change dramatically how we view the world of nature.

What about the biblical and theological reflection on the natural world? Is that gee whiz also? I can imagine someone saying about the astrophysics lectures, “Wow, 15 billion years since the Big Bang — that is impressive!” Would you also say, “Creation of the world in six days — wow!” Or, “Now take Plato’s story of the demiurge or the stoic or Hindu concepts of a world soul — awesome!”

We use the word “epic’ in conjunction with “creation,” which implies for religious people an idea of God. Is that what makes this “epic”? That God is involved? Or is it the work that God has done? Is the religious perspective included in the series because it focuses on the work of a creator who is an epic figure? Or are we blown away by what this God has created? Or both?

I suggest that all of these are the epic in this series, but in different ways, with different meanings of the term.

The word Epic involves a judgment
In any case, the word epic carries with it a judgment, a point of view and possibly even a prejudice. The judgment is that this is big stuff — awesome stuff. This is not to pass without notice. When lecturer Fred Smith teaches human osteology at Illinois State University, it is listed as Anthro 371, with the following course description:

Detailed study of the biology and anatomy of the human skeleton with a focus on identification in forensic and bioarchaeological contexts. This is a course that covers the biology of skeletal tissues (how they form, develop, and break down), the identification of human skeletal elements, and the types of information that can be derived from the human skeleton.

There is no suggestion that this is gee-whiz or awesome in any respect. In contrast, when Professor Smith comes to this series every year and presents some of the very same material of that course, we list it under the heading of “Epic” — very big deal, truly awesome. What’s the difference between his sharing that scientific material in a classroom in Bloomington and doing the same here at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago in the Epic of Creation series? Is it a difference in points of view? Or is it a difference in context?

Scientists have frequently come to the Epic lectures insisting that they are just presenting their specialized knowledge, nothing more. They choose to ignore the theater marquee that marks what goes on in here as “epic.” The description of this series fills in the marquee in this way:

“Scientists will tell the scientific story of our origins as inferred from records in starlight, rocks, and fossils. Throughout we will explore the meaning of the stories, asking what they tell us about the nature of our universe, about human nature, and about our origins and destinies.”

It is rarely that Fred Smith’s course in Bloomington is scrutinized for meaning and for what it tells us about human nature, origins, and — here comes the really big item — destinies.

In addition to scientists, the Epic description also mentions biblical scholars and theologians. Biblical scholars “will present exegeses of the biblical story of the world’s beginnings and continuing creation as found in the Old and New Testaments and in the myths of other civilizations that shaped biblical concepts of creation,” while theologians “will reflect on issues and questions raised by the stories and their implications for Christian understandings of the world, humanity, and God.” Are these disciplines awesome? When Professor Ed Krentz of the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago teaches a New Testament course at his seminary or when Anna Case-Winters at McCormick Theological Seminary offers a theology course at hers — even in the seminaries, the course description reads more like that of Fred Smith. Prospective students see no tip-off that the material is “epic.”

What is the focus of the Epic?
Or does it have multiple focuses? Do we focus on the processes of nature? Or on the narratives, past and present, that tell the story of nature? Or do we put the focus on the creators of the various narratives, on their motives, point of view, and the quality of their work? Different perspectives bring out differing focuses. The scientists focus more on nature itself, less on the narrative, and much less on the authors of the narrative. The biblical scholars and theologians concentrate more on the narratives; much of their work is analyzing the narratives in detail; sometimes they focus on the authors of the narratives — the Jahwist, for example. They keep their eyes on the scientific descriptions, criticizing the ancient narratives when they are not adequate when judged by the science, providing new interpretations that may be more adequate.

What is “real” in the Epic?
The question of focus leads us directly to the question of what is “real” in the Epic. It is not always clear whether the epic refers to anything real. Are we attaching the epic label to the content of the natural world or to the stories we tell about the world? Is it the evolution from Big Bang to Homo sapiens that is awesome? Or is it the stories we tell? The Epic description on the marquee speaks of stories and reflections on them. There is no suggestion that the stories are about something real.

This may be a postmodern spin. I think the scientists do believe that they are dealing with a natural world that is real. Some of them may hold that belief with a sophisticated awareness of what is involved in moving from scientific description to real world, while others may hold to what is called naïve realism. I am pretty sure that the scientists would say that the object of their research is what is real and therefore awesome.

I am not so certain about the biblical scholars. We might ask Bernard Batto of Depauw University what is real about the Babylonian Enuma Elish and its portrayal of slaying the dragon; or ask Professor Krentz what is real about the account of the cosmos in Colossians. What would they answer? What is “epic” about the Babylonian myth or the Pauline worldview? Certainly their responses would be different from University of Chicago biology professor James Hopson’s response to what is real about the Cambrian Explosion or astronomer Grace Wolf-Chase’s, to what is real about the ongoing creation of stars. In other words, the Babylonian myth is epic in quite a different way than Big Bang cosmology or the appearance of Homo sapiens from primate forebears. The gee-whiz factor in astrophysics does not mean the same thing as the gee-whiz of Marduk slaying Tiamat or Colossians’ paean to the cosmic Christ who redeems the entire creation.

The biblical scholars and theologians concentrate almost exclusively on their stories, unlike the scientists who focus on the natural world they are observing. So the epic factor will be introduced in ways appropriate to these two contrasting preoccupations. The biblical scholars and theologians also want to take the real world of nature seriously, as well as the scientific stories about it. Science alone, however, cannot exhaust the question of what is real about the Akkadian or Babylonian or Platonic or biblical myth. Even when these myths are discredited for their obsolete descriptions of nature, there is something real in their accounts that science does not include in its purview.

The myths should be analyzed in detail, but I will sketch a few strokes. All of them ponder the mystery of evil in human life; they offer differing interpretations. The Gilgamesh is especially concerned with the meaning of death; the Enuma Elish with chaos and order and human purpose; Plato, with human finitude; the Bible, with all of these, as well as containing a sense of wonder at the natural world and generally praise to God for creating it. These are the realities that matter to the ancient narratives — a dimension that is every bit as “real” as the empirical nature that science describes. This issue of what is real in the Epic deserves much more attention.

Where does God figure in the Epic?
If the book of Job or the Psalmist were introduced, there would be no question that the epic reality is the God who has brought creation into existence. God is the gee-whiz factor above all.

Let me share portions of Psalm 147:

God fixes the number of stars,
calling each by name.
Great is our God and powerful,
wise beyond all telling….
The Lord stretches the clouds,
sending rain to the earth,
clothing mountains with green….
God speaks to the earth,
the word speeds forth.
The Lord sends heavy snow
and scatters frost like ashes.
The Lord hurls chunks of hail.
Who can stand such cold?
God speaks, the ice melts;
God breathes, the streams flow.

Does it seem strange that God, as epic figure remains in the shadows in this series? There are a number of reasons to account for the muting of God’s presence.

  1. It might be that we do not believe that God is the epic author of the natural world. We look at the photos from the Hubble telescope, or the parade of skeletons that anthropologist Fred Smith sets before us, or the evolving body plan that Gayle Woloschak presents to us as a molecular biologist — and we simply are not moved to exclaim, What a marvelous work of God! Who believes that God hurled the ice at us in our most recent winter storm?
  2. Or, it might be that we do believe very deeply that God is the epic creator, but we cannot find the words and concepts to relate God’s work to the detailed descriptions that the scientists present. Anna Case-Winters is devoted to the effort of creating a new language and fashioning new ideas that can relieve us of our speechlessness — but such efforts are still at an early stage.
  3. We may also be overwhelmed, even embarrassed because we feel that the classical stories of creation that are contained in our western traditions and in the Bible are not credible or adequate, and we do not know where to turn. Plato’s demiurge, the Babylonian, the Sumer-Akkadian Gilgamesh — these are powerful and gripping stories, but we would not consider them to be epic descriptions of the natural world in the way that scientific stories are. Since science is our conversation partner, it is not clear how these ancient stories can serve us. The same may be said for the Bible. We seem always to be apologizing for the Bible as “poetry,” not realistic description. We seem to be playing catch-up, insisting, for example, that the seven days of Genesis 1 is only figurative. We are embarrassed and play catch-up, that is, if we are not comfortable with the more conservative views that insist on the adequacy of Scripture and challenge the science as being defective.

Earlier ages believed that the Bible is about God, comparable perhaps to the scientific belief that science is about nature. Today, in the academic world, we are more likely to believe that the Bible is a human book and that it is about human perceptions of God rather than directly about God. Therefore we may also be more likely to marvel at the epic quality of the stories rather than the epic character of God as source of the stories. The scientist is convinced that her stories have a real referent — they are sourced in nature.

Whatdo we mean by Creation?
Ordinarily I think of the act that Merriam-Webster describes as “making, inventing, devising, fashioning, or producing” something, as when we say the designer creates a new gown; or we refer to the result of that act, as when we refer to the designer’s exciting new creation.

There are agents involved here, and they are making things. This is as far as the M-W Unabridged Dictionary goes. However, we also use the term to refer to that which has simply come to be. Physicists, for example, have a theory of pair creation, which the dictionary describes as “the simultaneous and complete transformation of a quantum of radiant energy into an electron and a positron when the quantum interacts with the intense electric field near a nucleus.” The description of this lecture series begins with the presentation of “the scientific story of the emergence and evolution of the universe, life, and humans.” Neither the physics nor the course description has in mind an act of that has resulted in an electron and a positron or in the emergence of the universe and living things. We are arguing these days whether tax cuts will create jobs. There is agency in these examples, but not agents in the way that can be identified in the example of the fashion designer.

These nuances and the differences between them are important for the Epic of Creation series, because the scientists will most often not want to describe nature as the product of an agent’s work of creating, while the biblical scholars and theologians will want to include an agent namely God. Many other ancient myths do, as well. The demiurge is an agent, and so is Marduk. There are many variations. Christian theologians have argued that the word for create in Genesis, bara, is used only for God’s creating, never for human works. Some scholars have insisted that bara refers only to that which is created out of nothing, while others dispute that.

God’s agency in creation has been a major theme in the history of theology. In some circles, God’s agency in creation is a major issue today, as well. Robert Russell, founder of the Center for Theology and the Natural sciences, in Berkeley, has put “divine action in the world” at the top of the agenda for that Center and the thinkers that it gathers. Among other major theologians of our time, Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne also have devoted a great deal of attention to reflecting on how God has brought the world into being and continues to sustain it. They remind us that the Christian concept of creation concerns itself not only with origins — originating creation — but also continuing creation. Russell is also trained as a physicist; Peacocke and Polkinghorne spent many years in their scientific careers, in biochemistry and physics, respectively.

These three thinkers arrived at quite different hypotheses about God’s act of creating: Russell has developed ideas of divine agency around a theory of quantum indeterminacy, which allows God to tweak the physical processes without resorting to ideas of divine interventionism. Peacocke employs ideas of emergence, non-linear thermodynamics, and top-down causality to speak of God’s agency; Polkinghorne brings in information theory, along with top-down causality. The major recent work in this area is Philosophy, Science and Divine Action edited by F. LeRon Shults, Nancey Murphy and Robert John Russell. (Brill 2009). This book presents the work of the thinkers I have mentioned, plus others who are members of the Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action group organized by the Berkeley Center and the Vatican Observatory.

Of the presenters this semester, Anna Case-Winters is the only one to my knowledge who has given concentrated attention to concepts of divine action. She draws upon the resources of Process philosophy and theology. The originators of that school of thought, Alfred North Whitehead and Charles Hartshorne, presented very detailed hypotheses for conceptualizing God’s action of creation.

If these kinds of theological and philosophical efforts were brought more centrally into the Epic of Creation, it would alter the conversation in a decisive way. First, it would take up directly the task of interpreting the scientific descriptions of nature. It would not modulate the discussion towards the classic mythic stories, but would rather insist on providing interpretations of nature that could directly engage scientists.

We should be clear, however, that the efforts to provide interpretations of nature that can include divine action are also preoccupied with stories of creation — not with the classic stories, whether biblical or not, which are considered to be mostly unhelpful and even unusable, but rather with new stories that are more adequate. Hence Case-Winters entitles her work, “Reconstructing a Christian Theology of Nature.” We are brought back to issues that were noted in our discussion of the word, epic. Yes, the creation involves the natural world and the divine creator, but it also brings alongside them the constructing of stories, narratives of God and world, and inevitably it shines attention on the human creators of those narratives.

We seem to be left with three classes of stories — the stories told by the scientists that purport to describe the world, the classic stories that require analysis, and new reconstructed stories. These stories also qualify as creations — and they are all epic in that they stretch human capabilities to the maximum. The dedication, perseverance, and hard work of scientists are legendary. The classic myths emerged from the hard soil of centuries of human experience and the poetry, songs, and philosophy that grew from that experience. The contemporary story-construction requires enormous learning and creative thinking. The effort of story construction and the end result are awesome — they all carry a gee-whiz factor.

A Postscript on Passion and Awe and God
The lecture schedule lists my topic as “The Epic of Creation — What Does It Mean?” I hope to have offered some ideas about this theme. I close with some comments on why the Epic of Creation also means passion and awe and God. Let me explain:

One reason that Fred Smith’s material — and this applies to all of the presentations — is described on his home campus in matter-of-fact, even dry, terms, is that the pursuit of learning in our schools sets boundaries on the expression of the passion that goes into research and creative thinking and mutes the expression of awe even more. God doesn’t appear out in the open at all, except in specialized courses that talk about God, most often in terms of what selected texts say about the divinity. Even the description of this course mentions God only as one of several topics the theologians will discuss.

The classic stories of creation are nearly all stories of passion and awe and God. Bernard Batto’s Near Eastern myths are vivid examples of this. Marduk’s act of creation through the murder of his mother Tiamat and the subduing of the forces of chaos that she birthed is one of the bloodiest and most gruesome texts I have ever read. The Hebrew scriptural texts spare us the blood and guts version of creation, depicting instead a God who creates in a magisterial calm and intentionality. But the awe and passion are there. Put Genesis 2:7 on a Pixar movie screen, and the image of God scooping up a handful of dirt and breathing into it, to form human being — that image will be awesome. Or picture Job, in all his suffering, crying out to God with accusations of injustice, only to be met by the words of Zophar,

Can you find out the deep things of God?
Can you find out the limit of the Almighty?
It is higher than heaven — what can you do?
Deeper than Sheol — what can you know?
Its measure is longer than the earth
And broader than the sea. (Job 11: 7-9)

Or the voiced from whirlwind

Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation?
Tell me, if you understand.
Who marked off its dimensions? Surely you know!
Who stretched a measuring line across it?
On what were its footings set,
or who laid its cornerstone —
while the morning stars sang together
and all the angel shouted for joy? (Job 38: 4-7)
“Have you ever given orders to the morning,
or shown the dawn its place,
that it might take the earth by the edges
and shake the wicked out of it?
The earth takes shape like clay under a seal;
its features stand out like those of a garment.
“Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been shown to you?
Have you seen the gates of the deepest darkness?
Have you comprehended the vast expanses of the earth?
Tell me, if you know all this. (Job 38: 12-18)

Passion and awe and God are in this story of creation, because Job did not want simply a description of nature, he wanted to know why there is a nature at all and why its evolving processes include so much pain and suffering and death. The Babylonians asked those same questions in their creation story, as did the Akkadians. I hark back to the earlier comments that the story of creation has perennially asked for more than causal descriptions that can be provided by science — and this something more required the element of myth.

It may be that passion and awe and God cannot appear in the Epic of Creation unless myth is allowed a space. This space for myth will go beyond the critiques of scientific inadequacy into a discussion of the something more that we ask of creation — a consideration of the meaning and destiny of human existence, and of the entire natural world.

I am constantly amazed at how rich and provocative this Epic of Creation series is. Little wonder that it has continued for so many years. I hope my comments this evening deepen your appreciation of what we are doing here.

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Subscribe To Our Newsletter

Join our mailing list to receive the latest news and updates from our team!

You have Successfully Subscribed!