Saturday, October 3, 2009

EfM Year 1 Chapter 3: The Priestly Creation Story in Genesis 1:1-2:4a--Thoughts on Chaos and Order

The creation story in Genesis 1:1 - 2:4a begins with God hovering over the chaos:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. (Gen. 1:1-1:2)

God did not create from nothing but from chaos. This is quite an exciting thought. The course materials describe God's presence like this:

The "spirit" of God here should not be thought of as acting to create; it is simply there, a storm, almost part of the chaos itself in wildness, yet showing forth the presence of God about to create, to bring order into the chaos. The image of the "hovering" of the spirit is one of almost-life, of the care and tending immediately before birth.

It seems to me that this void is not chaos to God. To us, it is formlessness, patternlessness, meaninglessness, the void, the abyss, the darkness, the roiling waters. (The course materials tell us that waters represented chaos to ancient desert people because the sea appeared wild, untamed, uncontrollable, limitless in depth and breadth, the cause of deaths. And New Orleanians can probably relate to this because of Hurricane Katrina.)

But to God, the void represents possibility. God is comfortable with what is, in whatever form or lack of form it exists. All is well. This is a time before time--a time of biding, brooding, hovering, being--a time of being with the chaos and possibility--perhaps a sort of incubating.

It reminds me of what I've read of the corn dance of Native American Indians in the West. White people come to see the corn dance, but no one can tell them when it will start. White people operate on clock time and want to be given a time of the clock when the corn dance will begin. The Native Americans, however, do not operate on clock time, and they do not schedule their corn dance at a time of the clock. The corn dance begins, we might say, in the fullness of time. This means that no one has any idea at what time of the clock it will start. White people, if they want to see the corn dance, just have to come and wait for the fullness of time. So the white people are waiting and waiting and waiting and waiting, while the Native Americans are biding and brooding and hovering and being.

As God's physical representatives on earth, we can represent this hovering over the chaos in our own lives and for others. When my life becomes a seeming chaos, I can know that God is there biding, brooding, hovering, loving, being--and I can also adopt this stance, knowing that chaos is a necessary time that precedes creation. I can also be a biding, brooding, hovering, loving, being presence for others in their chaos. I think of these song lyrics:

Sister, let me be your servant.
Let me be as Christ to you.
Pray that I may have the grace
To let you be my servant, too.

I will hold the Christ-light for you
In the night-time of your fear.
I will hold my hand out to you,
Speak the peace you long to hear.

Doing what this song says is being God's presence for another in a time of chaos. Merry did this for me in the chaos of my move back to New Orleans from western North Carolina in May 2009. Donna Glee dld this for me in the chaos of my post-Hurricane Katrina move to western North Carolina from New Orleans at the end of April 2006. I think I did this to a small extent for my sister Janet in the chaos of her post-aneurysm brain damage in the winter and spring of 1996, and for my friend Yvonne in the chaos of her flooded home after Hurricane Katrina in October 2005.

Here are some additional thoughts on chaos and order.

PATTERN AND MEANING. Order is satisfying to us. Our minds like order. Order has to do with patterns. Patterns make meaning for us. We love to order things: to arrange what we see and hear into patterns. Oliver Sachs says that music is so deeply fulfilling to us because it is an unconscious counting, and mathematics is the epitome of order. I've also heard it said that vibration is at the heart of the universe, and we do love a strong rhythm, which is why drums and tap dancing are so satisfying. It is extremely satisfying to recognize a pattern and have meaning.

Chaos is the lack of order, of pattern, of meaning. Patrick Segal, author of L'Homme qui marchait dans sa tete (The Man Who Walked in His Head), says that, when he was flat on his back in a Swiss hospital following a shooting accident, he was forced to stare at chaotic dots on the ceiling--apparently the ceiling was made of white squares with random black dots in them--and that this visual chaos caused him a great deal of mental distress.

Yet chaos can also be exciting. We see this in music. The composer establishes a pattern, then moves away from it--we don't know what's happening, where the music is going. Then the composer gives us the deeper satisfaction of returning to the pattern after losing it, or even better, establishing a new yet related pattern. So we have the thrill of losing the meaning and then finding the meaning again. We seem to enjoy this kind of controlled chaos: allowing the chaos for the thrill of the return to order, perhaps even an interestingly changed order. Constant order all the time grows boring.

DARKNESS AS CHAOS. Darkness is associated with chaos. In darkness, things lose their ordinary shapes and edges. We also know that those intent on evil often emerge under cover of darkness because they are less visible and can work their evil unseen.

On the other hand, in darkness, things not visible in our lighted, predictable, daytime world are free to come out. The stars, for example. The daytime sky is full of stars, but the sun's light renders them invisible to us.

It's also worth remembering that light and darkness can be thought of as part of a whole, or a continuum. Extreme light hinders vision just as does extreme dark. Extreme light is blinding.

CALM IN CHAOS. To act effectively in chaos requires inner stillness. There may be no sensible pattern outside of us in a time of chaos, but we can tap into the pattern, the meaning, within ourselves. In the chaos of war, flood, earthquake, or other disaster, we can let ourselves be overwhelmed by the outer chaos or we can draw on our inner order.

CHAOS AS RELAXING. At times, a certain kind of chaos can be relaxing. I find this to be true at large events with many noises. If I let the many noises and voices become a swirl or hum of meaningless, unordered, patternless sound, I find it relaxing. Perhaps this is because there is no pattern to attend to. Perhaps we attend to the patterns around us, even if unconsciously, and a chaotic babble of sound frees us momentarily of so attending.

MARDI GRAS. Societies need times when the usual order is suspended and when people can indulge impulses that are usually suppressed. This is the purpose of carnivals. During carnival, the usual social order is overturned, and ordinary rules of behavior are suspended. People can let go, be crazy for day or so, act wild. I think that older societies held carnivals because they recognized the need for the servant classes to be free for a time.

Mardi Gras is certainly a time when we can step out of who we usually are and be someone else for a day, even someone forbidden. We can try on being a member of the opposite sex. We can try on being an evil character. What's it like to be a member of the opposite sex? What's it like to be an evil frightening creature? What's it like to dress as a prostitute? What's it like to be an animal? Mardi Gras is a healthy way to experience the chaos of impulses that we normally keep under wraps.

CHAOS AND THE CREATIVE PROCESS. Chaos is full of possibility, and for that reason, it can be exciting and stimulating. It is raw material. There is a mystery within chaos. How will we shape it? What will we create?

On the one hand, chaos can sharpen us. On the other, chaos can overwhelm us and paralyze us with its lack of apparent meaning. Some people are overwhelmed by a cluttered room; others see many possibilities for arranging it.

The artistic process needs chaos, needs raw material full of possibility, needs the artist to be comfortable with chaos for as long as it takes to generate ideas and to shape and re-shape and re-shape again.

Some people cannot tolerate this creative chaos. If they are writing, they want to arrive at a resolution too soon; their writing may be orderly, but it will lack the rich nuance it could have if they had explored all the contradictory possibilities. If they are researching, they want their research to fall into an orderly pattern when it doesn't; they may force a pattern on contradictory research findings rather than looking at the richness of what is there, and they may even at times falsify their research--all because they simply can't bear chaos.

We might picture the creative process as a circle. The center of the circle is a swirling mass of chaos, of raw material. The radii of the circle are the creative shaping process. Each radius represents a different way of shaping the chaos, the raw material, and each radius leads from the center to a different point on the circle's circumference. Order is these points of the circumference. The same raw material can be shaped in many different ways (the many radii), leading to many different creations (the many points on the circumference).

In the creation story of Genesis 1:1-2:4a, I sense a growing excitement in God's creating. As God works with and shapes the chaos, more and more possibilities emerge. Once light is created, we can have a visible world. Once the waters are contained and separated from the dry land, plant life can be created in all its myriad forms--such color, beauty, diversity, and joy! Even the many shades of green are exciting! Once we have plants, they will feed fish, birds, animals, and humans--all of whom can now be created, making the world even more exciting.

As we create, as we make order out of chaos by shaping creatively, other exciting possibilities for creation open to us.

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