8 Dec 2016
Feast of Divine Love
Today, December 8th, is the Feast of Divine Love. This is a profound liturgical statement of our earlier church in opposition to the theology of original sin, which is the concept that we are all sinful by our very nature. Our church is not naïve. We realize the prevalence of sinfulness in our world, but we reject the negative anthropology associated with it.
Let’s take a brief look at Romans 5. Paul assumes that sin and death are linked together as cause and effect. He draws this conclusion from the creation story in Genesis … but there are two creation stories and both should be understood as analogies not science or history.
The first story, the familiar seven-day creation story, is from the Priestly Source. In the P-account, God creates humankind in his image. God is not only holy; God is wholly other. His image does not equate with physical or gender appearance. This is made clear when P writes: “…in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” (1:27) Both genders reflect the image of God in their own way so God is neither male or female. His is otherness. Human knowledge is incapable of capturing the nature of God, but as paltry as it is we are awakened from the certainty of the ordinary by the discoveries of quantum mechanics, relativity, talk of a possible “multiverse,” an increasing rate of expansion of space, the advances in computer science and robotic technology, the increasing personal intercourse with information technology, the huge preeminence in our universe of dark matter and dark energy, genetic engineering, cloning, the promise of artificial intelligence, etc. Who knows what intelligent life will be in a millennium and beyond. It is to make God so very small to imagine that The Ineffable is merely a grander expression of us.
The first divine commandment is then shared: “Be fruitful and multiply…” (1:28) The second commandment is to “subdue” the earth. (1:28) This does not mean take advantage of God’s creation, which to this point he has called “good” on four separate occasions for emphasis. We’re about to enter a time of political retraction on environmental protection. It is not our privilege to harvest creation’s resources for our own selfish use, to deny that they are “good” in and of themselves. Creation itself has merits in the plan of God. Life in general is so sacred to God that the story shares the message that vegetarianism is the rule and practice. (cf. 1:29, 30) This idyllic imagery returns in Isaiah’s prophecy of the end-time reign of the Messiah. (11:6-9) This coexistence is called by God in P’s creation account “very good.” (1:31) P’s account is of life and order. What I would like to highlight is that death is not mentioned as of yet.
The Priestly source account returns to the Bible’s first book in Genesis 5. The message is repeated of “[m]ale and female he created them.” (5:2) This theme and vocabulary are carried forward with the act of human procreation, with the given limitations of the human experience. The P source cares little for the rudiments of biology as it shares theology. Adam, says P, “became the father of a son in his likeness, according to his image …” (5:3) The descendent-list of Adam continues for numerous generations and includes the repeated refrain: “[A]nd he died.” Human mortality is not a consequence of sin, but is recognized simply as a characteristic of human nature. Death is a natural part of life with no moral – or immoral – overtones.
The linkage of death with sin is found in the J source’s myth of the Garden of Eden and its fanciful trees of life and of knowledge. In this legend, God forms Adam out of the dust of the ground. (2:7) From this same ground, God forms the trees (2:9) and the animals (2:19). Adam is created as a single part of creation’s whole. This union is severed when a talking, walking (The snake is only later condemned to slither along the ground at 3:14.) snake tempts Eve to eat of the Tree of Knowledge. A rather doltish Adam shares in the fruit, but not in the dialogue. If this allegory were found anywhere else except in the sacred text, it would be read without hesitation as a fable. It is the fallacy of biblical literalism that forces us to have the conversation with some that this may have been our original reality. Nonetheless, with the acquisition of knowledge and self-awareness (3:7), Adam and Eve are separated from the rest of creation. The vegetarian harmony gives way to a predatory relationship. (3:21)
P’s God, you may recall, is wholly other. J’s God, on the other hand, is extremely anthropomorphic. Before forming Eve, J’s God imagines incorrectly that a cow or a bird will be an adequate companion for Adam. J’s God walks in his paradise garden “at the time of the evening breeze” (3:8) not unlike Adam and Eve may have done. When J’s God is confronted with an aware Adam and Eve, he must ask how this is possible. (3:11) And most poignantly, J’s God appears apprehensive of this unexpected human potential. J is also behind the story of the Tower of Babel. God thwarts human progress in that account by sowing confusion among humankind, and the reason appears to be angst: “The Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which mortals had built. And the Lord said, ‘Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.’” (Gen. 11:5-6) And God puts an end to it before they can ascend into the heavenly abode. This is the same God who looks upon Adam and Eve still in the Garden and worries what will happen if these now knowledgeable and self-aware creatures could live forever. (Gen. 3:22) “Therefore,” says the Bible, on account of this, in other words, the Lord drives Adam and Eve out of the Garden so that they may no longer partake of the Tree of Life. (For some unexplained reason the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge abides, but the fruit of the Tree of Life must be consumed regularly or its effect lapses.)
In this creation story, and in this creation myth alone, is sin linked with mortality. To understand Romans 5 and its association of sin with death we have to accept that Paul has made a conscious choice to believe J’s story and to ignore the equally inspired account of P. Additionally, a modern reader of the Bible, one not of the literalist bent, can recognize immediately that the tale of the Garden is a teaching story. It is not history. It is imagination and never was reality. As such, this allows us to trust in God’s revelation through his actual creation. This is exactly what Paul says in his opening thoughts in Romans: “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.” (1:20) When we turn to actual creation, the evidence takes us in another direction.
Geologists have determined the earth to be approximately 4.5 billion years old. The name given to the first epoch of terrestrial creation, which lasted about 500 million years, is Hadean, from the Greek name for the underworld, Hades. The name reflects the hellish conditions of earliest earth with a molten surface caused by volcanoes and constant impacts with other solar system bodies. We did not emerge in paradise and were then relegated to the world now familiar to us as in J. The earth was born in uninhabitable conditions and then through a miraculous series of beneficial occurrence life was able to slowly and tentatively emerge and evolve. The conditions allowing for the miracle of life, even that of single cell life, are extraordinary. And the conditions that make the possibility of intelligent life feasible are nothing less than awe-inspiringly remarkable. I’d ask you to read Rare Earth by Ward and Brownlee for a more thorough treatment of this grandest of mysteries.
If universal creation were laid out as a calendar, human evolution begins around December 31st at 10:30pm. That’s about 2.5 million years ago, but only about 90 minutes ago on a year-long calendar of universal creation. Anthropologists have documented a human history not only of evolution, but of dead ends. Some branches of human evolution failed to succeed and they simply died out. Others, such as the Neanderthals, interbred with our homo sapien ancestors. Since 2010 scientists have known, for example, that people of Eurasian origin have inherited between 1 to 4 percent of their DNA from Neanderthals, a now extinct human evolutionary population. This revelation of actual creation stands in opposition to the biblical theme that all human life descended in orderly fashion from Adam and Eve.
This, in turn, undermines Romans 5’s proposition, first, that sin and death are linked concepts, and second, that Adam’s original sin has been passed along as moral DNA infecting every single one of his descendants with the plague of original sin. Augustine, however, was so hellbent on introducing the concept of inherited sinfulness that he mistranslated the biblical text at Romans 5:12. His argument required a rewrite of sacred scripture. Just as “fake news” is a current fad, Augustine changed the text of “because all have sinned” to “in whom [Adam] all sinned” to fit his theological peccadillo, and original sin was thrust upon believers.
Paul’s “because all have sinned” reflects his belief that Adam the first individual sinned and so has every other individual since Adam. As argued above, we do not need to accept Paul’s anthropology, but we do need to take seriously the obvious observation that sin is prevalent. Sin has not been committed collectively in Adam (original sin), but all have sinned like Adam. This means that we cannot link sin with human nature. Sin does not necessitate mortality, for example. We cannot equate sin with human limitations. It is hurtful and counterproductive to associate the absence of some idealistic perfection with fallen human nature. Fallen human nature is in fact human nature. Moral progress does not have to be swamped with talk of sinfulness. Moral progress is to accept the challenge of the hard work to be truer to our original self which was created in the image of likeness of God. Morality is about choice not nature.
This is where the Feast of Divine Love steps into the story. Our young church inherited the Feast of the Immaculate Conception of Mary, which simply means that Mary was born by divine decree free of the original sin that every other human birth passed along from generation to generation. It was felt that this was a necessary innovation (This was not dogmatically promulgated until 1854.) so that Jesus’ mother would be pure and morally undefiled since she shares our human nature with her son, which by the way calls into question Jesus’ full human nature and thus his full salvific connection with us. Rather than perpetuate the celebration of Mary’s solitary isolation from original sin, we celebrate the Divine Love expressed in creation in general and in the Incarnation in particular.
I have in front of me a 1994 translation of the Polish for this feast day. It was published by the Eastern Diocese. Trusting the translation, the original has not a single reference to Mary’s conception. It becomes a non-issue. The prayers fall under two headings: the call for us to love God and also the love shown by Mary as Jesus’ mother. The Lesson is drawn from Romans and rejoices in the absolute love of God for us. The theme of worship may be summarized by sharing a portion of the second Collect Prayer: “Lord Jesus Christ, who through the purest love of God was formed in the womb of your most holy mother, then raised by her, and who was strengthened by this same love so that it could flow into the hearts of your disciples and all who choose to follow you.”
Our church sees creation and the Incarnation as evidence of and an expression of Divine Love. The universe, the earth, human life, are all far from perfect, but the old adage rings true: don’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Creation and life are miracles. They are signs of Divine Love. They are most certainly not testimony of some original sin that infects every aspect of physical existence. In God’s Temple in Jerusalem, the Jewish people, who have shared with us their two stories of creation, sang in their liturgy: “The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4)
This was the progressive theology our church once professed and the Feast of Divine Love was one of our proudest liturgical innovations and statements.
Fr. Randy Calvo