Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Genesis. Lecture 1

1964 - 1966
Theme: The Old Testament, Creation of the world   Place: London Parish   Period: 1961-1965   Genre: Talk

The subject of this year’s talks will be Genesis, and most probably only the beginning of Genesis. And I should like to introduce these talks by a few remarks on the Bible and on the way in which I mean to approach it. The Bible is a complex book. One can approach it from a scholarly point of view, discuss authorship, dates, but this is not the point of view which I will take. For me the Bible is the Book of the Church, it is a Book which represents God’s word to his people and describes to us the history of mankind, not in terms of historical events, but in terms of an inner discovery of God and man by himself. What is more, the book is complex also because it contains parts of quite different quality. There are passages in which events are described, and they fall very much in the category of history. Other parts, although they are based on events, are not interesting for the events they mention but for the meaning which is attached by the writers of the Scriptures to these events. There are passages which give us examples to follow. There are passages which have none of these meanings, and the complexity of the Bible provokes a variety of reactions. I think one can see in it, on the one hand, the way in which the people of God has gradually discovered its God, beginning with approximation and ending with a very clear vision of what God is. But also in this process of description the writers of the Book have been extraordinarily plain and truthful about themselves and their people.

And this makes the Book difficult at times; people are shocked at what they read and they cannot understand why this can be called Holy Scripture. The only way I can explain it is by a comparison. When two friends meet and the one tells the other of his life, of all the glories of his life, but also of all the ugliness of it, the friend who listens and who receives these words into his heart is not shocked, because he is compassionate, because there is sympathy be­tween him and the one who speaks; but if this conversation is overheard by someone quite indifferent to the destiny of the speakers, he will probably find in what is told, ugliness, shocking passages, ugly passages. I think we must approach the Bible exactly in the same spirit. A whole people and individuals are speaking of their own life and the life of their nation, as one would make a confession to the closest possible friend. They speak of all they have got to say with the openness of one who speaks before God. And therefore if we wish to receive from the Bible what it has got to give, we must learn to listen to something which is told us in confidence, not pro­claimed, but whispered, shared, and shared very often with broken-heartedness and not with arrogance.

The aim of these talks is not scholarship. I am not in a position to improve your academic knowledge of the Bible. The aim of these talks is to take a certain number of passages and try, by looking at them, in their objective reality, to discover what the Bible has got to say to us about God, about ourselves, about the destiny of mankind, about the destiny of the world in which we live. And so to begin with, we will turn to the opening words of the first chapter of Genesis. These opening words are the only words which refer to creation. All the rest of this first chapter, which usually is described as the creation of the world, is really not an act of creation but an act of ordering of something which already is. `In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth.’ This act of God is essential, and practically every word of this passage has got its weight. First of all, the words `in the beginning’: it seems that there can be no talk of a beginning when before anything was, only God was, Who is timeless, Who is eternal. These words `in the beginning’ underline a fact which is essential for our understanding of our situation as creatures. With the first words of God that brought into being what was not, time began. This was the beginning of things, and this also was the beginning of time. Time with its flow is an essential category of our created being; we live within time, we are created together with time, and time together with us, because time is the category of being which makes us aware of the fact that we appear at a certain moment and we are thrown into being in a state of motion. God does not create a static world. He creates a world which from the very moment of its existence moves out of naught towards fulfilment, which is never stable, never immobile.

St. Athanasius in the 4th century said that God created all things in process of becoming divine, seeing already the end in the beginning, the fulfilment in the first command of God that we should be. We must dwell a little on this notion of creation. I am aware of the fact that we have not only touched upon it but spoken about it with many of you, yet I would like to take it up again because without it what will follow will be difficult for us to understand. The notion of creation is something which belongs, one may say, to the Bible exclusively. In the ancient world the creation as understood in the Bible, that is, the calling out of naught of what is absolutely absent, did not exist. Greek philosophical thought knew a chaos that gradually was transformed into an orderly being, which they call a cosmos. There was ugliness in the chaos, there was beauty in the cosmos, as there is ugliness in disorder, and aimlessness, and there is beauty in harmony and purposefulness.

The same thought can be found in St Paul, when he says that the Spirit of God is not the Spirit of disorder but of harmony; but there is a later stage in what happens: the chaos itself appears and it appears out of naught. This naught is something which we cannot grasp, we cannot grasp it either imaginative­ly or even philosophically: the radical absence is something which we can speak of but neither perceive nor imagine; but this radical absence which precedes the appearance of the first creature is not a void; before the first creature was, the plenitude of God was. And God commands something that was not, that has no roots, either in a pre-existing chaos or in Rim, God; He commands this something to be, to come into being. The naught out of which we are called is absence. And this is a notion which the Bible alone gives us with this sharpness and this clarity.

But this notion of creation is not only a notion that belongs to the becoming of things; there is a background to it, there is a depth to it. God wills us into being, He wills us completely, there is no reason for Him to will us except his desire that we should be. We are not of necessity for God. His plenitude is unimpaired before we exist. His plenitude is not augmented since we are. The divine fullness depends on nothing; as far as the fullness divine is concerned we are unnecessary, we are superfluous, and this superfluity, the fact that we are not of necessity for God, is a very precious, a very dear feature of our existence: because we are willed by God freely. He is not forced into calling us into being. And also, as we are not of necessity for Him, we are not – if I may put it this way – a by-product of His existence, we are not a shadow in His shadow. We possess our individual being because there is between us and Him radical absolute otherness. We are not Him and He is not us. He is uncreated and eternal. We are in time and we are created. Nothing forced Him into creating us and therefore there is between Him and us a relationship of sovereign freedom. And God calls us into being, each of us and all there is, there was, there shall be – all is willed into being by God. This is the beginning of a relationship between Him and us, even before we are, as it were. We are not accidental, we are concretely, personally, individually willed into being, and we are willed into being not as an ephemeral phenomenon, we are willed into being for ever, because what God has created never can or will return to non-being.

And each of us, we must be aware that being personally willed by God we are willed by Him for ever as companions of eternity to Him. The first creative word of God that brings into being the first atom of matter – if this is the way in which we should speak – implies already a personal attitude, a personal relationship between us and Him. And the relationship is possible because of the otherness that exists between Him and us, because one must be two to have a relationship. There is no such thing as a relationship with oneself. Willed, and willed as companions for ever – and when I say this I obviously mean primarily us human beings capable of understanding and possessing a destiny of which we are aware – but I think that this applies in the same way to the same extent to everything that was created, to every material created reality, to every spiritual created reality. All things are called into this relationship If we could, out of this notion of creation, retain only this fact, it would be enough for us. We are created within the divine freedom, as God is not compelled to bring us into being for His own sake. We are brought into being profoundly different from God, and therefore possessed of an individual personal existence, not as a poor shadow of our Creator. We are willed into a relationship for ever, but a relationship within this category of dynamic creation which I have underlined when I said that we are created in time which flows, which moves, which goes ahead, which never stands still Our creation within this dynamic relationship implies immediately that what we are today, we are called to outgrow tomorrow.

St Athanasius was right: we are created in the process of becoming divine, in the strict and precise sense in which St Peter in his Epistle General says that we are called to become partakers of the divine nature. And called out of naught, we are throughout history, throughout our personal becoming, hanging between two abysses. The image belongs to Philaret of Moscow, who says that, called into being by God, under our feet we still perceive the looming abyss of non-being and ahead of us another abyss, looming also and as frightening for us: the depth of God. We are called out of the one and have no way back into it; we are called into the other and it depends upon us whether we enter into it and how deep we penetrate into this mystery divine, which we can do only by communing more perfectly with the God whom we discover. And when I say “whom we discover”, I really speak of all that Holy Scripture has to say to us, because if we read the Old Testament attentively, we will see that it speaks of a gradual discovery by men of God, of our Lord, a discovery that gradually leads us to Christ and makes us , in Him, the sons of the one who has created us, communing more and more perfectly with the God whom we discover. And when I say ‘whom we discover’, I really speak of all that Holy Scripture has got to say to us, because if we read attentively the Old Testament, we will see that it speaks of a gradual discovery by men of God, of his Lord – a discovery that gradually leads us to Christ and makes us, in Him, the sons of the One who has created us.

We must, however, be realistic about our situation. When I said that God creates us in an act of perfect freedom, I meant to say that nothing of any kind either limited or defined the freedom of God. But what is the creaturely freedom that is ours? This freedom is both great and limited. And we would gain a great deal if instead of romantically imagining that it is enough for us to will in order to be able to achieve, we realised that even in its most basic reality, created freedom is conditioned freedom. Only freedom divine is absolute and unconditioned. Our freedom is limited and conditioned in 3 ways: a) we are called into being, out of radical and absolute absence, i.e. without having either power or a right of refuse to be. In that respect our freedom begins when we enter into being, but it does not precede it. b) Whatever our tastes, our desires, our views are, what­ever our judgement is about the divine act of creation, we are all going to stand at the end of our own life and the end of history face to face with God, and we are to render account for ourselves and the destiny of the world to which we belong.

From this point of view again, our freedom is conditioned and we cannot do as Ivan Karamazoff wishes to do, and give back to God his ticket for life because he disapproves of it. We may approve, we may dis­approve, we are in it, and in that respect we cannot escape it. c) And then our freedom is conditioned – and I use the word ‘conditioned’ rather than ‘limited’ because I think it is more adequate to what I mean to convey – our freedom is conditioned by the fact that both our own nature and all that surrounds us is a God-given situation. It is given to us, we do not choose it, we cannot reject it. We can, at times, transform it, and usually when we attempt to do so, instead of transfiguring it, we make it revert nearer to the chaos and farther from the cosmos And so we are conditioned by the fact that we were called into being without being asked, that we will be answerable at the end and that both our own nature and all that surrounds us is a given situation. We will see later whether this means that we are not free at all, or whether, on the contrary, the resolution of the problem lies in the fact that we were created in motion towards our fulfilment and not in a static state, and that therefore when things will be fulfilled we will acquire the freedom which incipiently, germinally, we were given in the beginning.

Speaking now shortly of the following passage, that is, the creation of all things, – or I would rather put it, the ordering of all things – I would draw your attention to one feature of this passage which is I think very seldom underlined and also very seldom used to make nonsense of this passage of Scripture: creation develops day after day, but, strangely enough, the days of creation begin with the evenings. This is the basis for the Jewish conception of the liturgical day beginning at 6 o’clock. It is the basis of the liturgical system of Orthodoxy in which the day begins with the second half of Vespers, which is already breaking into the events of the next day.

But this should be looked into. What do we see? We see that we begin with the earth that was without form and void, and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moves upon the face of the waters. Next time I want to take up that question of the waters as a special point, but for the moment let us see that what we are confronted with in this first act of creation is the chaos, which God is going to order. And there is darkness, and the first action of God is to create light, i.e. to call light out of the darkness. He does not create, make something new, as it were. Light and darkness are there, implicit in one another. And light shines. And every step in the act of creation is a step from darkness into light, from a light that was darkness compared with the previous one, to a new fulfilment in a greater light. It seems as though the Bible was describing to us the creation of the world as a gradual unfolding of all the possibilities, so that yesterday’s fulfilment appears to be the germinal beginning of today’s and tomorrow’s greater plenitude.

It is not days in the sense of periods of time, although one may also take it from that point of view, but it is mainly stages of an increasing blossoming out of all the possibilities which we find in the created world. One after the others, the possibilities of this chaos are called to appear and to manifest themselves freely and to serve as a background to a greater manifestation of new possibilities on the next day.

This may become useful later if we wish to discuss things from a more scientific point of view But what I want to underline now is that all this passage speaks of an unfolding of things and does not attempt at giving us a description which could or could not fit with natural history, or with history altogether.

I would like tonight to make a last point. We will have to study first of all the three first chapters of Genesis, which are in more than one way a puzzle. How can we approach them and what do they mean to us? Is it a myth? Is it pure symbol? Is it history? I think the answer to these questions was given with depth and simplicity by one of our Orthodox theologians of this century, Father Bulgakoff when he said that in the same way in which we speak of metaphysics as something which is beyond physics, we should speak here of metahistory as something which is both history and more, or perhaps also less than history. What these chapters of Genesis have got to tell us is history in the sense that they speak of things that did happen, but they speak of a world which is a world gone by, they speak of the world before the fall of man, a world which no one of us can imagine, which belongs to the lost experience of man before the fall. In that respect there is no vocabulary which can adequately describe what was, and there is no experience within us which is capable of adequately understanding what was and what did happen.

These first chapters of Genesis are an attempt to put into the images and the words of the fallen world, of the world after the fall, what was and did happen in a world which is completely unfathomable for us. Certain passages so obviously are inadequate to convey what is meant to be conveyed. When God speaks to Adam and Eve and says that men should not eat of the fruit of the tree of knowledge and says that they will die if they eat, obviously He says in this text something that could not be understood by men before death appeared as an experience. Yet, for us who know what death is, the image is quite clear and simple: we understand that something was conveyed in terms of a world which we do not know, which was a warning. There are many other passages of that kind, so that when we read the first and second chapters of Genesis, we must be aware of two things: on the one hand, they speak of what was and happened; on the other hand, they speak of those things in terms of a world that is completely inadequate to give us a sense of what happened and what was.

Well, I think I will end here this introductory talk into our talks on Genesis And I would like you to rethink what was said today in terms of your personal life. I have spoken of God the Creator. I have spoken of the fact that God created us with a relationship and within a dynamic relationship. I have stressed the fact that we are both willed and dear to God, yet not of necessity for Him. I have stressed the fact that we are both free and con­ditioned, and a few other things of which these I believe are the most important. Think of these things and see how they affect your inner life and your relatedness to God. Try to make of this a basis for a deeper understanding. And if within your thinking you discover that what I said is inadequate or contradicts your experience, bring your experience and your contradiction into our discussion next time.

Listen to audio: no Watch video: no