Monday, March 5, 2007

Look Toward Heaven

"Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them." Then God said to Abram, "So shall your descendants be."


In his wonderful 1998 book, The Dream of the Earth, Catholic theologian Thomas Berry wrote: “It’s all a question of story. We are in trouble just now because we do not have a good story. We are in between stories. The old story, the account of how the world came to be and how we fit into it, is no longer effective. Yet we have not learned the new story.” (1

Most of us would consider the Bible, and particularly the Book of Genesis, a very old story. It is an old story of creation, sin, judgment and faith. It is regularly being disproved by science. But is that what it is, or is it just a very old reading? Is it possible to read this old story in a new and effective way? What if Genesis were less about creation, sin, judgment and faith and more about how to live with and through major, even catastrophic change? Creation is Change. Sin is change. Surviving a cataclysmic flood in an ark full of animals is change. Imagine the trauma when the Tower of Babel collapses. Indeed, we as a nation have experienced it. And so we arrive at Abram. When Abram was seventy five years old, God told him, “Get up and go.” Most people I know at that age are getting up and going to retirement homes. Not Abram. He set out with his household, his flocks, his tents, not to any place he could name, but “to the land that I will show you.” Simply on the basis of a voice from God, or so the story goes, Abram got up and he took everything he ever was and everything he ever knew and everything he ever had and he set out into the unknown, guided only by the word of God.

To set out like that, as science writers such as Jared Dimond have shown, is one of the classic responses to environmental collapse. It creates refugees. Father Abram was a refugee. The archaeological record suggests that the Ancient Near East was a highly fragile ecosystem in Abram’s day that was being subjected to big and destructive pressures. Cities were founded and then abandoned when irrigation systems failed or silted and killed the crops. Famines happened when the new royal warrior class swept through and took all the food. Mountains were deforested to build ships and the land dried up. People didn’t know how to use their newfound power and a lot got destroyed as they tried.

There’s a story in Jewish folklore that suggests that Abram in fact lived at a time when old stories were changing. According to this tradition, Abram’s family was the leading maker of idols in the city of Haran. Abram wasn’t so sure that this was a sustainable trade. So one day, when he was left alone to mind the store, he took a hammer and smashed all of the idols except the largest one. He then placed the hammer in the hand of this same big idol. When his father returned and asked what happened, Abram said, "The idols got into a fight, and the big one smashed all the other ones." (How many of you have heard similar excuses from your children?) His father said, "Don't be ridiculous. These idols have no life or power. They can't do anything." Abram replied, "Then why do you worship them?"

This is an example of a new story replacing an old story.

On February 2 of this year an international panel of scientists working with the World Meteorological Organization and the United Nations Environment Program released their Fourth Assessment Report on global warming. Stronger than its three predecessors, the Fourth Report offers almost incontrovertible proof that human beings are changing the very patterns of life and climate on our world. In another report, NASA researcher James Hansen said last year that we have a decade to reverse the flow of carbon into the atmosphere or else we will live – his words – on a “totally different planet.”

What kind of a future awaits us? Are we, like the characters in Genesis, at a time of catastrophic change? In that context, Abram’s childlessness, too, appears in a new light. What is a more powerful image of a future in jeopardy than a man with no children? Because sacred stories are always symbolic and metaphorical, the image of Abram going forth childless suggests that if he stayed home, he and the memory of him would have dissolved into the dust to lie forgotten as the hot winds blew over his bones.

But God, who is a God of life, had other ideas. And so he said to Abram, "Get up and go to the land that I will show you." The story takes many twists and turns as he and his household discover themselves and their path. There were still no children in sight when God told Abram to “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able. So shall your descendants be.”

The old reading would be that this so-called promise from God has resulted in today’s over population crisis. But that is the old reading, the reading without a future, the reading where life leads to death, and which, I might add, doesn’t give God very much credit. In the new reading, and here is where Abram meets Thomas Berry and his new story, the point is not how many stars there are, but the stars themselves. We are literally made from stardust. Who we are comes from a great stellar moment, a great clap in the heavens at the beginning of time, when from the primal chaos elements came into being and from those elements our earth and ourselves were formed. It suggests that just as we are conscious and graced with the gifts of memory, reason and hope, so the universe itself is alive, conscious, reaching out to us just as it reached out to Abram at his moment of not knowing where to turn. That may be, as Thomas Berry and physicist Brian Swimme suggest, where to begin looking for our new story. That our descendants will literally be as the stars.

1) The Dream of the Earth, Sierra Club Books, p. 123

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