Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Hebrew Creation Myth on "Who Is God?"

Many years ago I did a year of post-graduate study on an interdisciplinary team that studied the theme Creation and Cosmogony. The team included a geologist, a philosopher, an astrophysisist, an Old Testament scholar, and myself.

My role on the team, in part, was to translate Psalm 104, a creation Psalm, from Hebrew to English, and then compare that Psalm to ancient Sumarian, Akkadian, and Canaanite creation stories. Sumer and Akkad were ancient Middle Eastern empires whose myths were well known to the Hebrews. In fact, ancient Hebrew religious leaders actually rewrote those ancient myths to suit their own purposes. That is, the Genesis story of creation, and the Psalms of creation, are really ironic, almost sarcastic commentaries on the popular myths that the people living in and around the Hebrews believed.

So, in this post, I want to introduce you to an Akkadian scribe whose name was Ku-Aya. He is a real person who lived more than 2000 years before Jesus’ birth. Archeologists know that Ku-Aya was a real person because they have found his signature on a set of clay tablets that he copied for the Akkadian library. These clay tablets tell the Akkadian version of the creation story. This story is entitled the Ennuma Elish.

The world, as pictured in the Ennuma Elish is, in some ways, similar to the world as the ancient Hebrews understood it. Both Ku-Aya, the Akkadian scribe, and the Psalmist who wrote Psalm 104 shared the same primitive, mythic understanding of how the world worked. Ku-Aya thought that the gods lived up there, in heaven. And Ku-Aya thought that down there was an ocean of water on which the ground floated. Between the heaven above and the waters below was the world.

The Psalmist thought very much the same, and you can see that from the structure of this Psalm. In fact, Psalm 104 is actually a sort of map, where the words and structure of the Psalm, as well as its rhyme and alliteration (that can’t be translated), make the map’s design instead of the graphic lines and splashy colors that we’re used to on Google Maps.

At the top of the Psalm, that is, the top of the map, in verses 2-4, where heaven belongs, is a description of heaven. Heaven is where Yahweh—the Hebrew name for God—rides on the wings of the wind and where the winds are his messengers. Just before the Psalm's conclusion, in verses 24-26, at the bottom of the Psalm, the Psalmist describes bottom of the world, the sea upon which the world floats. In the sea are creatures beyond number, whales that frolic and play.

Like Ku-Aya, the Psalmist put the earth between the sea below and the heaven above. In verses 5-9 the Psalmist describes how Yahweh set the earth on its foundations, and near the end of the poem, just before the description of the sea, in verses 19-23, the poet describes how Yahweh orders the earth's seasons, night and day.

Finally, at the heart of his Psalm, in verses 13-15, the Psalmist describes the heart of his world, Judah. Judah is surrounded, in turn, by the Negev desert (10-12) and Lebanon (16-18). Even here, Ku-Aya would have agreed with the Psalmist—at least in principle, because if he had drawn a map, Ku-Aya would have put his empire, Akkad, at its center too.

Ku-Aya and the Psalmist shared the same mythical and prescientific understanding of the world. But the two stories they told about how that earth came to be represent very different religious understandings of the world. So let’s compare, in broad strokes, some of that myth that Ku-Aya told to the Biblical myth.

Ku-Aya's myth tells of a time before the creation of the world when the gods had to work for a living. Ku-Aya's gods planted crops and dug irrigation canals, but they detested this demeaning work. According to Genesis, however, Yahweh, the Hebrew God, enjoyed his six days of creative work, and only then, when he was finished on the seventh day, did Yahweh rest.

Ku-Aya's unhappy worker-gods went to their boss god, Enlil, and begged Enlil to find someone else to do their dirty work. So, to help the tired worker-gods out, Enlil created men and women to be slaves in the gardens of the gods. Humans were to work in the garden in order to grow food for the gods. According to the Genesis myth, however, Yahweh did it the other way around. Yahweh created Adam and Eve not as slaves, but as stewards, caretakers of the Garden of Eden, so that they could feed not the gods, but themselves. Yahweh made Adam and Eve co-rulers in the garden, rather than slaves.

Early on, Enlil was crushed to realize that the humans he created were so fertile that the earth was soom overrun by them. In fact, there were so many humans making such a racket that Enlil and the other Akkadian gods couldn't even get a decent night's sleep. According to the Ennuma Elish, Enlil cries out: "Twelve hundred years has not yet passed, and the people have over multiplied. Their land is bellowing like a bull, and I am disturbed by their noise and uproar. I cannot sleep with all those humans and their horns."

Of course, in the Bible, Yahweh told Adam and Eve not to worry about fertility; in fact, Yahweh told them to be fruitful and multiply and enjoy it.

Enlil's solution for his insomnia was to kill off as many humans as he could. Ku-Aya tells us that Enlil sent drought and famine; Enlil sent a wind to parch the ground and dry up the springs. Hopefully these plagues would solve the overpopulation problem. The Psalmist, on the other hand, notes that Yahweh provides springs to pour water into the ravines of the Negev desert. The Psalmist smiles to think of how the ceders in Lebanon are well watered by mountain streams. But most especially, the Psalmist rejoices because Yahweh waters the mountains of Judah from his upper chambers, the clouds in the heavens.

In the end, Enlil decides to destroy the noisy humans with a flood in which only one human family, the family of Atrahasis, escape, by way of an Ark. In scripture, the flood is described not as a noise reduction measure, but as an attempt by Yahweh to flush the world clean of wickedness.

What do we make of these two pictures? Well, on the science front, the Psalmist and Ku-Aya had similar understandings of how the world worked. The world is like a meatball sandwich, with slice of sea below and a slice of heaven above.

On the religious front, however, the stories of Ku-Aya and the Psalmist show that they had radically different understandings of what the gods—or the one God—was like. As I said earlier, Psalm 104, as well as Genesis 1 and 2, were certainly written as ironic, sarcastic rebuttals of Ku-Aya's popular myth. Biblical accounts of creation seem to have been written as a point by point refutation of the popular religious themes of Ku-Aya's story, themes that the religion of the surrounding Canaanites were full of.

Consider. Where Ku-Aya's gods created human slaves, the Biblical creation myth says humans were created to rule. Where Ku-Aya's world was a prison farm, the Hebrew world was a garden of delight. Where Ku-Aya and his friends were much too fertile for their gods' liking, the Hebrew myth commands humans to be fertile and multiply.

Where Ku-Aya thought that the gods detested humans, Psalm 104 portrays a world where Yahweh blesses humans. Yahweh, for example, waters the mountains from his upper chambers; Yahweh brings forth food from the earth, too, for humans: wine for our hearts and oil to make our faces shine—one of my favorite Bible texts.

So, what do we make of the Bible's creation myth, and the God at its centre?

Well, I think that what the Hebrews wanted to say about God was radically different than what the peoples that surrounded them believed. In short, the Hebrews believed that God was for them. God loved and valued them. God wanted to bless them and see them thrive. God might be powerful and distant, shrouded in mystery and hard to get to know—but still, this God is fundamentally for humans, not against them. God is on our side, blesses us with great opportunity as citizens of this planet, and desires that we, like Him or Her, do the same for and unto our neighbors.

And so we should.

Monday, February 25, 2013

All (Bad) Pope News All the Time: Implications for Protestants

Judging by the press coverage, you would think that the Roman Catholic Church was selecting the king-emperor-president-premier of the whole world. Which it is not. In fact, as Frank Bruni points out in last week’s Sunday New York Times, the new pope won’t even hold much sway over most Catholics in North America.

Still, as Bruni points out in a memorable phrase, right now it’s “all pope all the time, a tsunami of papal coverage.” Bruni believes this is because the media loves the clear-cut drama of transitions. But, the truth is, even if the new pope is not the king of the whole world, he will have significant influence over many of the 1.2 billion people in the world that are Catholic—Western Catholics notwithstanding.

So what are Protestants—and maybe Hindus and Muslims and Buddhists—to make of this? What does this wall-to-wall coverage mean for us, and them? Especially the wall-to-wall coverage of scandal and intrigue in the Roman Catholic Church? Rumors of prostitutes, blackmail, secret gay lobbies and cover-ups in the hierarchy? Cardinals like Roger Mahony, who made a career out of covering up sexual assaults by priests sitting in the conclave to select a new pope? Billions of dollars in payouts to victims of sexual assaults? Many of those victims children? An out-of-control Vatican Bank that no one seems to be able to rein in, at least so far? The butler didn’t do it.

Well, perhaps most importantly, this sort of news coverage makes all religious institutions look bad. That is because the eruption of scandal and intrigue from the Catholic Church, like the ash and lava of any volcanic eruption, rains down on the whole religious landscape, indiscriminately.

But before Protestants and people of other faiths bemoan this as an undeserved fate they ought also take a peek at their own dirty laundry. Here in Canada we’re not that far removed from the Residential School scandal, for example. Thousands of First Nations children forcibly removed from their homes and sent to boarding schools, where far too many of them died with no good explanation. But thousands of children were also assaulted, and nearly all of them emotionally scarred while being robbed of their culture, language, families, and religion. Who was the guilty? Well, the Canadian government, of course, shares a lot of the blame. But so do the major Protestant denominations besides the Roman Catholic Church in Canada. But that’s not all.

Google “pastor (or imam or rabbi) charged sex Canada,” limit the search to just the past year, and you’ll come up with hundreds of press stories of not only Roman Catholic but Protestant pastors who have used their positions of power and authority to assault, dehumanize, diminish, and abuse parishioners.

Of course, such stories don’t tell the whole truth about the church, or even the main story about the church. That makes the tsunami of negative coverage doubly galling. Mostly, churches—including the Roman Catholic Church—do great things. The health care system in much of Sub-Saharan Africa, countless orphanages and schools for the poor, Catholic and Protestant social service agencies, billions in charitable giving and millions of hours in voluntarism flows from the church and other religious communities every year. It’s wonderful, compassionate, glorious stuff. We need churches and synagogues and temples to keep it up.

But even if we know it isn’t the whole story, the flood of news coverage about the underbelly of the Roman Catholic Church will continue unabated. And for us in churches, it hurts all the more because the stories are too often true. It will undoubtedly lead to tidal waves of skepticism about, and rejection of, all religious institutions. And people who do so will, at least in part, only be doing what the Bible suggests they do. They will be judging the tree by its fruit.

Our institutional Christian response? Well we’ve heard all these suggestions before: more transparency, police checks, safety policies, reparations, and so on. I’m for all of it and more of it. Bring it on.

But really, what more can Christians who love the community, the prayer, the care, the preached morality, the social justice witness, and the God of the church do? Not much but clean up the wreckage and rebuild. There are no shortcuts back to business if you live in Fukushima or Pompeii.

The news coverage of Rome’s underbelly and the selection of a new pope coincide with the Season of Lent. In my church, Lawrence Park Community Church in Toronto, and all around the world, we’re singing one version or another of the “Kyrie Eleison.” That’s a Greek phrase that means, “Lord, have mercy.”

We sure need it. And not just because of that tsunami of negative press coverage.

Monday, February 11, 2013

Cardinal Ouellet the Next Pope? I Hope Not.

            Pope Benedict XVI has resigned. The Canadian press is full of speculation that Quebec’s Cardinal Marc Ouellet might be his successor.

            But the next pope is going to face momentous challenges. This is especially so if the Roman Catholic Church chooses another pope in the traditionalist mold of Pope Benedict, which Ouellet, by all accounts, certainly is.

            In the wake of Benedict’s resignation, the challenges facing the Roman Catholic Church are also getting a lot of press coverage. For example, two weeks ago courts forced the publication of thousands of pages of secret files from the archdiocese of Los Angeles. The files concerned decades of child abuse by clergy. Two or three days after the forced release of the papers, in a show of hard-heartedness, the Archdiocese of Los Angeles admitted that it had nevertheless still withheld key documents. These were mostly related to Cardinal Roger Mahony’s role in the cover-ups. As usual, while the Roman Catholic hierarchy has sometimes been long on apology, it remains terribly short on action that looks and feels like true repentance.

            Another issue the next pope will face is the growing divide between people sitting in the pews in the West and those in the “Global South,” countries like The Philippines, Nigeria, and Brazil. A number of religious experts point out that the “energy” in the Roman Catholic Church today mostly comes from the South.

            Perhaps. But these churches are not without their own issues. When I visited Brazil, fifteen years ago, a bishop had just written a book about the dangers of putting the Bible in the hands of the laity. This attitude might explain why Evangelicalism is growing exponentially in Brazil. But Catholics in the South also do and believe what they want. When I lived in Manila, The Philippines, I was always amazed at how many vendors sold traditional (and absolutely unsafe) herbs and concoctions to induce abortion in the courtyard of the main cathedral. Meanwhile, the Filipino hierarchy was working hard against government plans to begin birth-control education. In my travels through Africa I’ve often heard about and seen Catholics mix traditional religious practices and Catholicism.

            But there are surely even more serious issues simmering under the surface in the Global South. The abuse scandals that have exploded in the secular West are waiting to do the same in the South. The difference is that for now, in the South, the cultures are generally more conservative, more accepting of authority, and less able to make use of the courts and public advocacy to get their stories out. Does foot dragging and resistance on the part of the Catholic Church in the West not hint at a similar, and surely more successful strategy in the South? Are we to believe that powerful, politically well-connected leaders in the Global South are not keeping their dirty laundry under wraps?

            Another oft-mentioned challenge is that the Roman Catholic Church is a shadow of what it used to be, at least in the West. In Quebec (as in Ireland, or Spain or even Italy), for example, after putting up with generations of cultural and even political control by the church over every aspect of Quebecers’ lives the Quiet Revolution of the sixties ushered in an era where it is now hard to find anyone who goes to church anymore, even when Ouellet was the Archbishop there. Were it not for immigration by Catholics (and priests) from the Global South to Canada and the United States, most Catholic churches would probably have to be shuttered.

            Even more difficult for the next pope is that fact that Catholics who still go to church don’t buy what it teaches. Survey after survey shows that when it comes to birth control, or homosexuality, or women as priests, or immaculate conceptions, Catholics believe what they want and not what they’re told.

            But one further challenge faces the Roman Catholic Church, a challenge that ties all these others together. The Roman Catholic Church is hierarchical and male-dominated, thus coercive, secretive, and preoccupied with power and political structures to maintain that power. Some of this preoccupation is almost laughable.  Robes that clergy wear have more to do with the clothing of officials in the collapsing Roman Empire over 1600 years ago than anything in the Bible. Such robes, of course, put power on display (albeit in a rather comical way). The ongoing resurrection of Latin, the language the pope used for his resignation speech, reminds the laity that what the clergy says is for the clergy first. The laity has no say about who their priests will be, or whether doctrines should be re-examined or changed. But the concentration of power in the hands of a few older men is nowhere as frightening and coercive as it is when it is used to assault children and then protect its own, the perpetrators.

            So remind me—why is it that in Ontario we think the Catholic Church ought to run a school system on the public dime?

            Of course, Protestant Churches have their own issues—including their own abuse scandals. For that matter, the Canadian government, armed forces, police forces, and even the Boy Scouts also all have had their own well-publicized scandals surrounding abuse of power. Male dominated, secretive, old-boy cultures that preserve power in the higher ranks are a common thread that runs through most of these scandals. Still, it isn’t the case that such scandal means that the church, or the armed forces, or the Boy Scouts ought to be disbanded either. Organizations can and must change.

            What is more, the Catholic Church has other, more hopeful and grace-filled stories to tell as well. Pope John XXIII, who called Vatican II, was a bright light of renewal—even if the church since then has tried to put him and his council out of mind. Many Catholic saints gave their lives for the sake of the poor and marginalized. My favorite is Father Damien, who ministered to Hawaii’s lepers until he himself died of the disease. I’m grateful for towering Catholic scholars like Canadians Marshall McLuhan and Charles Taylor. Where most religious conservatives are anti-science, at least when it comes to things like climate change and evolution, the Catholic Church has learned a lot since the days of Galileo. It now leads the way in showing that faith and science don’t need to be at war.

            So, in the end, if there is a God, I’m pretty sure he or she will find a way to help steer the Catholic Church beyond the whirlpool of its present problems and on to what Margaret Avison beautifully describes as “more ample, further waters.”

            Still, that coercive, hierarchical, male-dominated structure that is especially well designed to protect its own at great cost to innocent children has to go.

            Which also means that if he is all that he is advertised, a doctrinaire traditionalist like Marc Ouellet most-certainly should not be given the helm.