Tag Archives: Faith

Believing in a Creator God (Part 4): Direct Objects

If you’ve traversed with me this lengthy tour of an ancient Hebrew verb, thank you, and we’re almost done! If you’re joining me for the first time on this (or any) post of mine, welcome!

To recap, authors in biblical Israel used their verb bārā’ to say that their God formed the world and its many inhabitants. They asserted the sovereignty of the LORD over all the complex occurrences of the world, both in nature and human history. God had created, was creating, and would continue to create. In this post, we focus on the direct objects of bārā’, because the objects of this action will tell us even more about what Israel believed about God creating.

Objects: What does God bārā’?

In case it’s helpful, let’s remember that, in English sentences, direct objects typically occur after verbs and are the nouns on which an action is performed, as in the sentence, God (subject) created (verb) the earth (direct object). “The earth” is the object of the action “created.” Quite often in biblical studies, we can study direct objects to tell us more about the verbs in which we’re interested.

In the Old Testament, then, what all do we find God creating, and what do these objects tell us about bārā’, “create”?

Humans. “So God created humankind in his image …” (Gen 1:27 NRSV). The story of Genesis 1 tells of God creating humans in the past, in the beginning. A similar view of God creating humans in the beginning is expressed in Deuteronomy 4: “For ask now about former ages, long before your own, ever since the day that God created human beings on the earth …” (4:32). Taken together, these two passages could convey the idea that God only created the first humans, and that bārā’ would not refer to subsequent generations of humans. Those subsequent generations may have been procreated by other humans, but not created by God.

Other passages tell a more complex story, though. In the Genesis flood story, God tells Noah that he created all of the people who are about to die in the judgment of the floodwaters: “So the LORD said, ‘I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created …’ ” (Gen 6:7). It is clear that presently-existing humans are the object of God’s creating. Similarly, one of Israel’s psalmists exclaims how God has created all humans who have ever lived: “Remember how short my time is — for what vanity you have created all mortals!” (Ps 89:47). God created the psalmist and all humans, not just the first humans that came into existence in the past.

Think of the implications of this. Once again, we see that God creating does not exclude the will, the choices, and the actions of natural agents — in this case, humans. (1) God creating humans and (2) humans making humans are not mutually exclusive actions, but different perspectives on the same set of actions. This coheres nicely with what we see elsewhere in the Old Testament (e.g., babies in Psalm 139). To be clear, the verb bārā’, “create,” is never used to refer to human reproduction. bārā’ is reserved for God. The point is not that both humans and God “create,” but that bārā’ was a way for Israel to look at a perfectly normal part of life, and to do so with an eye on affirming faith in God, and focusing attention on him.

God creating humans does not exclude the will, the choices, and the actions of humans in making themselves.

Human Moral Will. “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me” (Ps 51:10). In this prayer-psalm, a petition is made to God for God to create a clean heart. The way I understand the psalm, I hear the person asking God to act in relation to his human moral will, his resolve to do better than he did in those incidents that occasioned his pained confessions of sin (51:1-5). God’s act of creating is linked with human morality.

Israel. According to Israel’s authors, the LORD God was their Creator: he created them, and was continuing to create them and the events that transpired among them. “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel …” (Isa 43:1). Similar statements are made in Isaiah 43:7, 15. What do we know about the origins and history of Israel? Other authors in Israel make it abundantly clear that God took a man that already existed, Abraham, and worked in his life to give him offspring, and to give his distant descendants land (e.g., Gen 12 – Josh 24).

Even descendants living hundreds and hundreds of years after Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob (the man “Israel”) still considered themselves creations of God’s: “Have we not all one father? Has not one God created us?” (Mal 2:10). The calamities that the kingdom of Judah experienced were parts of God’s creative work among them: “I form light and create darkness, I make weal and create woe; I the LORD do all these things” (Isa 45:7). Even when the Neo-Babylonian Empire crushed the kingdom of Judah, God was confessed by the prophet to be the great and sovereign Creator of these woes. As an apt counterpart, then, Judah’s deliverance and redemption as a people are also viewed as an object of God’s creating:

Shower, O heavens, from above, and let the skies rain down righteousness; let the earth open, that salvation may spring up, and let it cause righteousness to sprout up also; I the LORD have created it. (Isa 45:8)

The LORD, Israel’s God, created the calamities that destroyed them (as responses to Israel’s sin, I should point out), and he created Judah’s liberation from oppressors and Judah’s rebuilding of its land, its temple, and its life. From the call of Abraham to the enslavement and liberation of his descendants, to their acquisition of the land of Canaan, to their exile from the land and destruction as a kingdom, to their return and rebuilding — God creates the people of Israel.

As we have seen often by this point, God’s creating does not replace the actions of others. God is “the Creator of Israel” (Isa 43:15), but biblical stories themselves tell us how God went about this creating. Isaac and Rebekah made Jacob, the man who would become “Israel” (Gen 25). Israel had twelve sons whose own marriages produced the twelve tribes that settled in Egypt (Gen 29-50). Moses and Israel’s tribes acted to leave Egypt and become the LORD’s nation (Ex 3-24). Foreign empires brought the calamities on Israel that God is said to have created (e.g., 2 Ki 17; 24-25). As a result, what Isaiah 43 calls God’s “creating,” we know from other authors in Israel to be actions and results that involve fully the actions of others.

Animals. In Part 3, we dealt in detail with Psalm 104:27-30. To refresh our memory, though, let’s look at verse 30 again: “When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground” (Ps 104:30). Animal birth is an act of God’s creating, and thus animals are God’s creations. Much as we saw in our treatment of humans earlier, we see here that God’s creating is not relegated to animals at the beginning, whereafter animals make more of themselves apart from God. No, this psalmist seems to believe that God creates every new animal that is born. Think of the implications of discovering more and more animals, past and present, for a belief that God has created them, and continues to create them.

“When you send forth your spirit, they are created; and you renew the face of the ground” (Psalm 104:30).

Natural Processes. When I say “natural processes,” I am already using language that Israel did not use, and so I need to be careful and nuanced here. The prophet Amos describes God as intimately present and actively involved in the natural world: “For lo, the one who forms the mountains, creates the wind, reveals his thoughts to mortals, makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth — the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!” (4:13).

“For lo, the one who … creates the wind … the LORD, the God of hosts, is his name!” (Amos 4:13).

The wind is viewed as a creation of God, as are mountains and darkness. How much Amos knew about how wind worked, we do not know. Nor do we know what Amos would say about God if he knew how to explain the wind in terms of physical forces and natural processes. And yet, given what we have seen from other authors in Israel, perhaps we would expect Amos to acknowledge God as the Creator of wind, no matter how much he knew about its operations. After all, we have seen time and time again that Israel used bārā’ to ascribe God’s action to things that they understood perfectly well (e.g., the making of humans, animals, and Israel’s nation).

Other objects. Other direct objects could be added to this selective list: the heavens and the earth (Gen 1:1); sea monsters, water swarmers, and flying creatures (Gen 1:21); the north and the south (Ps 89:12); individual persons (“the smith and the ravager,” Isa 54:16); a special cloud, smoke, and shining fire (Isa 4:5); and new heavens, a new earth, and a new Jerusalem (Isa 65:17-18).

Conclusion

What we learn from this survey of direct objects of bārā’ is that authors in biblical Israel could look at most things — maybe everything — in their world and identify it as a creation of God. If God creates all humans — the good and the bad, those in Israel and those outside of it — if God creates every animal — if God creates the heavens and the earth and everything in them — if God creates the good times and the bad times that Israel experiences, the judgment and the salvation — then it seems that we readers are not being given strict boundaries or limitations on what is or is not a creation of God. (I will not delve here into the question of whether God is the Creator of evil.) Given the emphasis of the verb on God’s sovereignty, this comprehensive scope of objects makes sense.

As a personal takeaway, try a thought-experiment: How would your view of the world take shape if you went an entire day identifying everything and everyone as a creation of God’s? Would it convict us? challenge us? confuse us? change us?

In Part 5, we will conclude this series with what I consider to be some implications of our study for the science / faith relationship, especially for Christians and their attitudes toward science.

Comments are welcome!

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5

Conviction and Complexity 3

Continued from “Conviction and Complexity 2.”


God is always more than we think we know about him. He is inexhaustible. The Bible is much more than any of our current views and interpretations of it. It continues to speak to people of vastly different beliefs and perspectives, to reveal surprises to receptive readers, both delighting and challenging them. These convictions about God and the Bible govern my approach to science / faith relations, and I commend them to you in these relations as well.

Truth. I believe in the ultimate harmony of all truth. I may or may not be able to see or hear that harmony at any given moment, but I suspect that each of us seeks it out, to bring coherence to the complex dimensions of our lives. Truth is complex, and the pursuit of truth is complex. Different people have legitimate parts to play in seeing and clarifying truth, even as different tools are needed to understand different dimensions of life.

Science reveals truth. As I understand it, “science” is both a process and a result. It is a way of seeing the world, exploring it, analyzing it, and testing one’s grasp of it. It is a way of knowing. It is also a result: the data, the findings, the analyses, the conclusions. In my own engagements with science, I have tended to focus on natural sciences (e.g., geology, biology), as opposed to other fields of study (e.g., social science, political science).

Faith reveals truth. In addition to studies of the Bible and life experiences, the writings of Karl Barth, an early- to mid-twentieth-century Swiss theologian, have taught me much about faith as a way of knowing, especially in his work on St. Anselm. In effect, Barth argues that one cannot fully know the Christian faith until one commits to it and tries living life as a disciple of Jesus. Only then can one know what it is like to see the world and experience it as a follower of Jesus. Only then can one discover whether there is truth in Jesus’ teaching, for example, to love one’s enemies. One cannot try to establish that truth from a different position in relation to Christ. One must love one’s enemy to know if the teaching of Jesus is true. In this and analogous ways, faith is a path to truth.

Science / Faith. Science and faith both reveal truth, and they are both legitimate paths to truth. Some (not most!) scientists and science supporters are inclined to dismiss faith as a legitimate truth pursuit. Now, to be sure, I have witnessed versions of faith that I would consider illegitimate, but one should patiently seek the wisdom to discern good and bad forms of faith, and not dismiss all faith just because some people live theirs rather poorly, or even just fail to articulate their faith in ways one finds compelling.

I also cannot help but wonder, when there are such lashings out at faith, if these reactions stem from frustrations or pains that are not immediately obvious on the surface? Maybe it runs deeper and is more personal than we sometimes realize? Complexity.

On this note, do not buy into stereotypes of scientists. For a more factual, scholarly study of what scientists really think about religion, read Elaine Howard Ecklund, Science vs. Religion: What Scientists Really Think (New York: Oxford, 2010).

On another side, some people of faith dismiss science, even if they claim to support science. Such believers often support a redefined version of science. That is, I have not seen any Christian in my context think of himself or herself as “anti-science.” In my experience, no one wants to be “anti-science.” Instead, some Christians redefine “science” and make their own judgments as to what does and does not count as real science. Convenient.

Many Christians simply do not understand science: how it is done, who is actually doing it, what the results really are, and how to make sense of it. This lack of understanding does not prevent some Christians from forming strong opinions about science, however. A word of caution to Christians who handle science, however: if you misrepresent what science really is and does, is this not a violation of our shared command not to bear false witness (Ex 20:16)?

Real Christian faith has nothing to fear from science. After all, if God is more than even our best and hardest-earned thoughts about him, and if the Bible is more than even our best and hardest-earned understandings of it, then what should people of faith be afraid of? Does God disappear if the earth bears record of things we did not know happened? Should the Bible be tossed in the garbage can if we find that a formerly-clear interpretation is now inadequate, and we find ourselves pushed to read it again?

Christian responses to science should be carefully thought out and provisionally enacted. I might be wrong. You might be wrong. Being wrong may deliver a blow to my ego, but it does not mean that truth is not real, or that my pursuit of truth was not worth it. The relationship is far more complex than this. Truth is far more complex than this. By all means, let people of profound faith explore science / faith relations. Let them proceed with conviction, but let that conviction include the commitment to understanding the complexity of life, of our world, and of what it takes — and whom it takes — to understand our world more faithfully and more truly.

Conviction and Complexity 2

Continued from “Conviction and Complexity 1.”


I could describe here my science / faith relationship in terms of specific topics and what I think about them (e.g., climate change). Some blog posts will do this, I am sure. I have come to realize, however, that I have core convictions and assumptions that guide and govern how I think about scientific topics. Everyone has such convictions and assumptions, even (especially!) those who deny that they have them or pretend to be objective in the matter. Here, I offer a glimpse into convictions that guide my science / faith relationship.

God. I believe in God, but I also believe that God is always more than what I think I know about him (I adapt the Bible’s masculine pronouns for God without believing that God is male as such). This belief means that any number of experiences may change my view of God. My understanding of a Bible passage may change my view of God. Contemplating people’s experiences of suffering or claims of healing may change my view of God. And, more to the point here, scientific findings may change my view of God.

Lest this sound like spineless, conviction-less, wishy-washy theology, I contend that true faith admits when it is inadequate, and especially when it has crammed God into something smaller and more manageable. This, of course, is the sin of idolatry.

“You shall not make for yourself a carved image, or any likeness of anything….” (Exodus 20:4 ESV)

In my experience with Christians, many Christians carry around with them their images or likenesses of God, even if those images have been carved in their minds. If such images influence the way we relate to our world, then they function as idols. God is no idol. He is always more than what we think we know about him.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways, declares the LORD.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:8-9 ESV)

The Bible. I have always believed in the inspiration and authority of the Bible, but what these terms mean has changed as I have learned more about the Bible. In my experience, many well-intentioned believers confuse inspiration (how God has related to the production of a biblical writing) and interpretation (how a passage should be read, understood, and appropriated).

Before I ever considered how to read the Bible in relation to scientific findings, I found my interpretation of various biblical passages changing in light of rigorous studies required of college Bible majors and graduate students. In short, my church tradition’s way of reading the Bible turned out not to have exhausted what the Bible actually contained and conveyed. To my dismay and delight, the Bible was much more than what I knew or expected.

This has continued to hold true in my studies of science / faith relations. Some people (some Christians and atheists alike) read the Bible with kindergarten-level maturity. Still, I am repeatedly pleased to find people, when pushed by scientific findings, going back to the Bible to see if there is more to it than they had imagined. Lately, I have seen not just biblical scholars and theologians doing so, but even scientists and agnostics. Again, if we will look and listen, we will find complexity in people’s science / faith relationships.

In the future, I will have more to say about how I read the Bible in relation to scientific findings. For now, I continue to find in the book of Isaiah a helpful way of thinking about our attempt to hear God’s word when we read in the Bible a collection of passages that were not, originally, written to us, but still have something to say to us:

“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.”
(Isaiah 55:10-11 ESV)

Whether God’s word (spoken or written) accomplishes our purpose in the science / faith relationship or not, there is the claim here that God’s word will accomplish God’s purpose. The Bible may have for us messages lurking we had not considered because we had hastily committed ourselves to particular interpretations of particular passages. In this complex relationship, my conviction is that the Bible has much more to offer than we often give it credit.

Lastly in this section on the Bible, I contend that changing one’s reading of the Bible in light of scientific findings is not a case of giving up on the Bible, but rather a case of keeping the Bible. It is not a case of losing faith in the Bible’s truth, but persisting in one’s belief that it does, and will always, have truth to convey to us, and that its truth cannot so easily be snuffed out. Some Christians can be made to feel that their change of interpretation is a loss of faith, when, in fact, and quite to the contrary, their change of interpretation is a clear sign of the perseverance of their faith. They keep holding onto these texts for a reason, and their faith may be greater as a result.


To be continued in “Conviction and Complexity 3.”

Conviction and Complexity 1

I did not begin encountering nature, science, and science / faith relations with a blank slate. I met them with convictions already sown and growing within me: God had created, was active, and was worthy of worship; I needed to live my life God’s way; the church was supposed to do good in the world; and the Bible continued to speak to me and teach me.

These convictions anchored and oriented my experience of life, giving me a way of seeing. Inherited at first, they would be tested against cumulative life experiences. Naïvetés would mature. Encounters with different people and perspectives would teach me the limits of my knowledge and understanding. Unanswered questions would find a home within faith.

My relation to science / faith interactions grew from mere awareness to inquisitiveness to sustained study. Undergirded by conviction, I have come to understand the complexity of science / faith relations. Although there are definite trends and patterns in the ways people work out these relations, these trends and patterns may conceal the true complexity at work in people’s lives, a complexity that mirrors the complexity and idiosyncrasies of people themselves. This should not surprise us, but it is, in my experience, all too often absent from treatments of the topic. As a Christian who strongly disagreed with me once said to me, “It’s nothing personal, Daniel.” Indeed. It wasn’t. And that was part of the problem.

Perhaps this response reflects a struggle we people often have with the balance between conviction and complexity. We want to live out what we believe to be true, and do not always know how to manage that very natural, personal urge in relation to people who seem compelled to think, see, and act differently. On some occasions, I have managed conviction and complexity poorly. On others, I have managed them well. The challenge is to develop the habit, the discipline, of listening to other people to understand the complexity of science / faith relations in their lives.

As a person of faith, of conviction, listening changed my views of science. In the next posts, and in many posts to come, my specific science / faith convictions will become more apparent, and are already somewhat evident in my Science / Faith Bibliography. (But do not assume you can construct my views from my bibliography.) I make no pretensions of being objective or unbiased. I have convictions, after all. Can you listen to the complexity of my convictions, and of the convictions of others? Can I listen to yours?

“A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing personal opinion.”
Proverbs 18:2 NRSV


To be continued in “Conviction and Complexity 2.”