In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. (Genesis 1:1-3)
There are two ways of looking at the creation of people and things; two theological ways of understanding how the world came to be. First, there is the Western philosophic tradition, which is defined under the Latin term creation ex nihilo, which means “creation out of nothing.” The Greek and Latin theological fathers and scholars who, reflecting philosophically upon the creation, made a clear distinction between something and nothing, between being and nonbeing. They said: God created the universe out of nothing. That doctrine of the creation of everything by God out of nothing is an abstract theological declaration and spiritual witness that simply asserts that there is no matter, no energy, no reality, no time, no being, no person, no place, no thing that God did not create. If God did not create it, it does not exist. Plain and simple!
Nothing that exists is independent of God’s sovereign will and creative action. Nothing stands on its own. Nobody stands alone. All being derives existence from God. All beings owe their life to God. Nothing else is eternal. Everything and everybody but God is derived from God. There is no other God before God, with God, in God, besides God, but God. No matter how terrible and terrorizing may be the forces of evil in the world, no matter how overwhelming may be the destructive force of the split atom, no matter how captivating may be the addictive tenacity of crack cocaine, or nicotine, or caffeine, or any other substance, these threats are powerful, but they are not supreme. They are not God and they are not in charge. These powers are devastating, but they are helpless to prevent the realization of God’s creative intention and redemptive purpose. Nothing that people or demons or things can do can destroy being itself or life itself.
This doctrine of creation out of nothing is the desacralization of nature and the world. If God created, not generated, the universe out of nothing, then only God is supreme and not nature. If God created the universe out of nothing, the universe, which was once nothingness, is not to be feared nor worshipped; but examined, understood, enjoyed, developed, utilized, shared, and enhanced. . . but not exploited. We don’t have to worship the sun, moon, stars, earth, sky, or sea, as some ancients did, because the faith of the Hebrew Bible taught us that all these things are exactly that: things in nature created by God. We don’t have to check the horoscope or astrology to know our origin or destiny. Everything that has happened, is happening, or will happen has been fixed and arranged by God’s own power, authority, creativity, and love.
The doctrine of creation out of nothing desacralized and secularized the natural order so that it was made accessible to unlimited scientific inquiry, empirical analysis, and technological development. Thus, theology became the founder of science, and faith became the mother of understanding. Saint Anselm said, “Fides quaerens intellectum.” That means, “Faith ever searches for understanding.” The doctrine of creation by God out of nothing is thus a valuable, Western theological statement that helped produce science, technology, and capitalism.
The doctrine of creation out of nothing is the theology of Eurocentric scholars and Western church fathers. But, that is not the only way of looking at creation. There is an alternative doctrine of creation. It is the oriental option of Asian and African political and poetic consciousness and symbolism. The Bible was not written by Europeans. The Bible was written by Africans and Asians. The Bible is a product of Asian and African religion. In the ancient Asian and African worldview, of which the Bible is an expression, there is no such thing as a philosophical split or dichotomy between being and nonbeing, between somethingness and nothingness.
Those who wrote the Bible talked about not being versus nothingness, but they also talked about order versus disorder,
creation versus chaos,
or community versus disintegration,
or nonviolence versus mutually assured destruction,
or co-existence versus nonexistence.
The Bible does not speak about a clean category of sheer nothingness that existed before the creation of the universe. The Bible does not describe for us a state or a condition of absolute nothingness. Nothingness is hard to understand. Nothingness is very difficult to conceptualize. You can only conceptualize something that can be defined and named and described as discreet, knowable, and communicable. If it’s conceivable, it’s something, and if it is somethingness, it cannot be nothingness. The Bible is not so abstract and out-of-touch to speak about a clear, clean category of sheer and absolute nothingness. But the Bible in Genesis 1 describes for us a state of chaos, disaster, disintegration, and dislocation. Chaos is described as active, churning, oppositional chaos that preceded the birth of creation, life, and hope.
Genesis 1:1 is a temporal or relative clause. The correct translation should be, not, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth — period.” But, it should be rendered, “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth — comma.” Then the writer goes on to talk about, not nothingness, but the pre-creational chaos, out of which God produced order, organization, and continuity. The pre-creational chaos had three parts:
1. The Earth was a formless void — a shapeless, clueless, hopeless absurdity;
2. Darkness covered the face of the deep — the darkness was infinitely and intolerably lightless and hopeless;
3. The Spirit of God moved — the Absolute Source of life,
upon the waters. The Spirit of God, being hope, was intimately active on the surface of uncontrolled, unmitigated, and unlimited chaos. There was more going on than the groaning, churning, and crunching of the abysmal chaos. There was more going on than the oppositional thickness, toughness, and impenetrability of the darkness. There was more going on than the helplessness, hopelessness, and cluelessness of chaotic, unlimited darkness and the undifferentiated water of tragic, lifeless chaos. God also was there, actively, forcefully, determinatively present on top of the surface of the vicious and violent chaos. Before there was a when or a where, a now or a then, a this or a that, God was there as the “Ruach Elohim,” the Spirit of the Living God planting life and hope in hopeless, hellish chaos. The Spirit of God was not discouraged, disabled, or defeated by the chaos! The indomitable spirit of Almighty God moved radically, intensively, reflexibly, decisively, incisively, transformatively, mightily and masterfully upon the face of the water, and the darkness of hopeless chaos. The Spirit of God is present at the beginning of life and possibility in order to coax creation out of chaos. In the beginning when God. . . ! Chaos was chaos, but it was helpless to defy God, deny God, or prevent God from creating the cosmos out of the chaos. The threat of primordial chaos was only an empty dare against the power of our eternal, glorious, victorious, and omnipotent God.
Notice, in this world, every threat you face is nothing but an idle bluff, an empty dare, and a futile sound. God already has your back, your front, your bottom, your top, and all around you. Don’t worry about total darkness, danger, death, hate, nonsupport, sea monsters, dragons, demons, devils, and all the conflicts and confusions that swirl, yawn, groan, growl, and lash out at you on every side. There is a God who is strong enough and mighty enough to bring all chaos under God’s control. There is deep darkness, but there is also God. There is the deep, dark river of death, but there is also God. There is the threat of total annihilation, devastation, and extinction, but there is also God who can defeat all chaos, penetrate all darkness and transform all opposition.
If God was there, we know God is here. If God was present when chaos seemed to be having its way, and prevented all plants from growing, all animals from existing, and nothing was able to live or breathe or exist in the vicious, unlighted swirl of bestial chaos, we know God is here. We know God is real and we know God is able. Psalm 24:1 says, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world and those who live in it, for he has founded it upon the seas and established it on the rivers.”
The miracle of creation is not making something out of nothing, but it is the mightier miracle of making some order and some sense and some mercy and some meaning out of the mess that we already have on our hands. The miracle is to create order out of confusion, and to form human community out of dark and daunting difficulty. The miracle of creation is taking the wreck, waste, violence, and cruelty of jungle chaos and turning it into something that is beautiful, sane, saved, and safe.
Now tell me, brother Charles, why did the African-Asian mind of the Bible deal with chaos rather than nothingness? A good question. Glad you asked. This answer is: Because they knew something about chaos. They knew nothing about nothingness. You can’t know something about nothing. Nothingness is a meaningless category, in that it can neither be conceived, or imagined, or experienced. You can’t imagine total nothingness, total emptiness, and total lack of being. You can only speculate on that. You can’t point to it, remember it, or relate it to anything. You will not ever have to face total nothingness, not even when you die. There will always be something — something before death, and life after death. Even on earth after you die, something will be left behind: a body, a funeral, a grave, some ashes thrown in the wind, scattered in every direction, some memories and influences that will last for generations, and some people left who will remember you for about seventy years after you die; but not nothingness. Ah! but the chaos is there. We do know something about chaos, disorder, displacement, disruption, dislocation, disaster, discrimination, despair, lack of order, mass confusion, unmitigated mess.
The Africans and Asians knew much about the chaos of the Sea, which they conceptualized as Leviathan, Behemoth, or Tiamat in the mythologies of the Ancient Near East. That’s the dreaded sea dragon. They also knew about the chaos of the desert, the awful beast of the political oppression of the Roman Empire symbolized in Revelation 13. The African writers of the Bible knew much about the chaos of slavery, injustice, war, strife, interracial conflict, international hostility, violence, meanness, horror, greed, and terror. They were ex-slaves, remember? These were the chosen people — ex-slaves and their descendants, whom God had met in the churning waters of the Red Sea and delivered from racism, injustice, fear, slavery, and worry. When they had come through the chaos of the sea and of the wilderness, they remembered their suffering and they sang the songs of their deliverance by the strong arm of Almighty God.
It’s much more difficult to take a mess and fix it than to take nothing and make something out of it. It’s much harder to start from something and transform it than to start from nothing and make a new creation. If you start with nothing, your way is clear. You can take nothingness and shape it and fill it with anything you may desire. But, when you come to a mess and find yourself in a mess that you did not create, then much more is required of you than if you had no mess, tragedy, or chaos going on in your life. That’s a hard gospel to preach. It’s much cheaper to build something from nothing than to take a wreck and make it beautiful. That’s what God, the Supreme Cosmetologist, is working with. It is not emptiness and nothingness. It is chaos, tragedy, sin, and death. The chaos that tragic human sin has made is the material out of which Almighty God is creating a new heaven and a new earth.
Everyone that lives in the world more than five minutes will learn something about chaos. We know something about it, because we have absorbed it, sucked it up, suffered it to be, struggled against it, fought against it. That’s what we dealt with all our lives, chaos. When you have suffered oppression, you know something about chaos. If you are disliked for no reason, you know something about chaos. When you are lied on, talked about, and scandalized irrationally and untruthfully, you know something about chaos. When you are hauled into court for doing nothing wrong. When you’re thrown in jail, even when you are innocent. When you get a bad decision from a judge who fell asleep during your testimony, you know something about chaos. Everybody in here has had a date with the devil and a bout with chaos. If you haven’t had it, get ready. It’s coming soon. If you live in this world, you will have chaos. You will have
Discouragement. . . just
Everybody in here must face the unmitigated mess of a sinful world. And whenever the world tries to alienate itself from God, separate itself from God, and isolate itself from people, look out for chaos. The African Hebrews of the Hebrew Bible knew a whole lot about chaos because they had met chaos face to face in their experiences with chaos in the form of racial hatred, the rejection of nature, wars, strife, interethnic conflict, international hostility, violence, meanness, horror, and terror.
The African Hebrews had been damaged by people, but delivered by God. They had been crucified by Gentiles, but resurrected by God, who claimed them, possessed them, empowered them, and prospered them. The African Hebrews were God’s claimed, called, and chosen people. These were the people who wrote about chaos because they were willing to take some responsibility for changing chaos and twisting chaos into a new creation.
Only the oppressor and not the oppressed can talk innocently and piously about “Creatio ex Nihilo,” Creation out of Nothing. That is nonthreatening, nonpolitical, trans-historical, noncontroversial, and ultimately irrelevant. Henry Hitt Crane, an anointed, prophetic, fiery white preacher, was pastor of Central United Methodist Church, downtown Detroit, from 1938 to 1958. He always talked about two primary and stubborn evils in every sermon he preached, and had the only truly integrated church in the city. The two evils he never neglected to mention were racial injustice and war. Martin Luther King, Jr., added another absurdity to Crane’s twins, and that was poverty. Poverty is not God’s will. Poverty is also not necessary. Poverty is caused by the deliberate, structured, intended, legalized maldistribution of resources and opportunities, and these avoidable causes of poverty should be condemned. They didn’t kill King until he condemned war and poverty. The biggest crime in America is for green money to be in Black hands.
We are dealing with a whole lot of chaos today. There’s chaos in our personal lives. There’s chaos in our communal life, the exploitation of nature, the despoiling of the ecosystem, and the depletion of the soil. There is the raping of the earth by strip mining and cash-crop monopolies; the production of atomic and biological weapons of mass destruction; the demonic idolatries of race, class, religion, and nature; cruel denials of truth and justice; systematic deprivations of opportunity and hope. The whole urban community is being attacked viciously and violently by chaos, abandoned by economic withdrawal on one hand and the invasion and implosion of illicit drugs on the other hands, leaving the dark ghettos drained of appreciated history, appropriated opportunity and apprehended destiny. We see trouble everywhere. That’s why I love the Bible. It doesn’t ignore the reality of the chaos we all have to deal with. It does not bypass chaos, but it faces it squarely. It says, “The earth was a formless void, darkness was upon the face of the deep,” but chaos is not supreme.
In the midst of all the unformed chaos, watery chaos, vicious chaos, endless chaos, above all of that mess, on top of all of that senseless absurdity, the Bible shouts that the Spirit of God, the Ruach Elohim was moving, radically and intensively and reflexively on all that chaos. God does not run from chaos, but jumps in the middle of chaos, leaps up and down on top of chaos, bringing life out of death and hope out of hell, meaning out of misery and creation out of chaos! God Almighty, the Holy Spirit, worked on top of chaos, until order arrived, until the day made a debut, until light and life were brightly revealed and upheld. The good news it that chaos is terrible, mean and powerful; but chaos is not supreme. Chaos is not God! Only God is God! Don’t worry about the chaos. There’s going to be a whole lot of drama and chaos in your life and my life; but there is a God, working on top of chaos, covering every inch of it. You don’t have to run from chaos. You can reach for God’s hand in all the chaos and drama of this deluded world.
God’s Hand will hold you.
God’s Light will guide you.
God’s Love will lift you.
God’s Spirit will build you up.
God’s Presence will bless you.
God’s Wind will move you.
God’s Joy will strengthen you.
God’s Fire will empower you.
Don’t get too upset when folks lie on you and tear down your good name. God is still God. God is still working with all the chaotic, castigating distortion of truth, in order to reveal in you the whole truth that will set you free. Don’t be defeated by racism and sexism on your job. Don’t let that mess drive you out of your job and out of your mind, because God is still real, God is still there, and God is still good. God will bring out of occupational chaos your creativity as a worker, your ability as a thinker, and your victory as a child of God.
Don’t play dead before the chaos of alcohol, food, sex, or any other addictive force, because God is walking, leaping, and working on top of your stormy sea of chemical dependency and other dependencies to make you independent of everything and everybody but God. Don’t let the chaos of an ugly divorce mess up your mind or ruin your life. God is still God, even in your most embarrassing loss of security and companionship, and God will surely bring you out of your most painful times. God will give you
your dignity as a woman,
your might as a man,
your character as a Christian,
your power as a person and
your penitent self-improvement as a child of God.
Don’t let injustices in the courts or in the elections wreck your soul because God is on top of that too. God can take the injustice of dirty politics and the failure of jurisprudence and turn all that big time chaos into your resurrection of
compassion, and hope.
God will meet you in the chaos of tragedy, calamity, and adversity to show you
how great God is,
how good God is,
how wonderful God is,
how creative God is,
and how mighty God is!
Never give up. Never cop out. Never cave in. There is a God who can lead you, bless you, fix you, deliver you in all the chaos and monstrosities that you must face. There is a God who is able to keep you from falling and present you faultless before God’s presence with exceeding joy. How do I know? I know because of Jesus. I know because of Calvary. I know because of a hill of chaos, shaped like a bony skull. I know because of one Friday afternoon when Jesus was dying on an old rugged cross, the super chaos of death, the devil and hell tried to take Jesus out: the sun burnt out like a cinder. That’s chaos. The moon turned red like blood. That’s chaos. The moon turned red like blood. That’s chaos. The stars dispersed and fell down in a purple streak. That’s chaos. The whole world was tossed into a tizzy of tragic convulsions. That’s chaos. The land vomited up its righteous dead. That’s chaos. Darkness covered the earth like a thick blanket of impenetrable gloom. That’s chaos. Right was on the scaffold: Chaos. Wrong was on the Emperor’s throng: Chaos. Jesus was nailed to the cross: Chaos. Innocence was crucified. Death was glorified. Love was slain. Hate was strutting. Darkness was ruling. Light was retreating. Evil was reigning. Justice was being denied. That’s chaos on top of chaos. But, look again and see what God did with all that chaos. God took all that maddening meanness to create your salvation and my salvation. God took chaos and fixed it, finished and furnished my salvation and yours. God took chaos and:
Verified Descartes’s intuition;
Magnified Hegel’s hope;
Clarified Plato’s idea;
Satisfied Socrates’s question;
Purified Kant’s categories;
Justified Abraham’s faith;
Gratified Amos’s justice;
Fortified Hosea’s love;
Sanctified Micah’s mercy;
Beautified Ezekiel’s vision;
Edified Job’s confidence;
Dignified the Whole Creation;
Glorified the Whole Church;
Rectified the Whole World; and
Qualified the Whole Human Race.
Hallelujah it’s done!
Hallelujah you’re saved!
Hallelujah you’re blessed!
Hallelujah you’re free!
Hallelujah you’re sanctified!
Hallelujah you’re justified!
Hallelujah you’re a child of God!