Eco-Justice Ministries  

Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

Creation Stories
distributed 6/26/09 - ©2009

A Jewish friend startled me into a new way of thinking about creation stories.

We were talking about ways that the faith-based environmental movement looks at the stories which begin the book of Genesis. She pointed out that -- for Jews -- the real creation story is the Exodus. Earlier pieces of biblical history are just prologue. It is the Passover that is enacted in a yearly ritual, and which solidifies the creation of the Jewish people. The Exodus is the story that tells of their birth.

The creation stories we tell to ourselves and our friends are narratives that describe who we are, and what is most important about our world. When we stop to consider our roots, we'll discover that there are stories of "creation" in many places beyond a cosmic Big Bang and the biblical passages of humanity's entry into the world. I'm certain that we all have many stories of origins and identity, a jumbled collection of emotionally powerful accounts which shape our personal, social and ecological understandings.

Environmental theology that ponders creation only in terms of ancient cosmic events will not catch the richness and complexity of who we are. There are other creation stories that may speak to us more vividly and more frequently about our core identity and values. Realizing the diversity of those stories can enrich and expand our thinking. Reflecting on those stories may show us places where the compelling narratives of our origins do not speak truthfully for our current situation.

Dealing with creation stories isn't just about the environment. A church that seeks to do faithful ministry and responsible ethics will help its members sort out foundational questions of identity: who we are, and whose we are. One way to do that is to explore the mix of creation stories that inform us -- in our relationship with the whole Earth community, as nations, and as individuals.

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My own family's Exodus happened over 20 years ago when we moved to Denver. Every November, we schedule a family dinner around the anniversary of our move to celebrate the creation of our new lives here. When we speak of who we are as a family, and how we have chosen to live, the story begins in November, 1988.

For a decade before our move, my wife and I were co-pastors in parish ministry. Coming to Colorado was a vocational shift for both of us -- I became a student, and Allyson shifted into work with non-profit agencies. We entered into new communities of school (graduate studies for me, and kindergarten for our son), a radically different sort of local church context, a physical geography with both mountains and urban sprawl, and a network of new friends. The move to Denver started a series of insights and transformations that led me to start Eco-Justice Ministries.

My 35 years of life before we moved to Denver are not forgotten or insignificant. In terms of how I now understand myself as an "ecological evangelist", though, the earlier stages of my life journey are prologue. The new creation story, starting in 1988, is the one that tells me who I am.

Many of us can tell personal creation stories about life-changing events. I've often heard people speak of the birth of a child or grandchild as a transformational moment that broke open a new sense of responsibility for the future, and began a commitment to work for ecological health. Marriage and other committed relationships create new families and new life paths. Job changes, voluntary or not, can be the door to a new identity. People in recovery from addiction can pinpoint a moment of new creation -- and celebrate their anniversaries of being sober. Our personal creation stories may be far more important in shaping who we are and how we live than the biblical account of Eden or language about "have dominion."

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We also have a variety of collective creation stories that tell us who we are as a nation, or as members of a group. In the 1950s and early 60s, when I was a grade-school youngster in Nebraska, history classes taught us a "manifest destiny" story about the birth and growth of our nation. We learned that European explorers charted the coastline of America, and glorious colonies were established, most notably in Virginia and Massachusetts. From there, civilization and commerce spread west, providing opportunity to pioneering folk.

I came to critique that creation story because of the summer vacations my family took to Santa Fe, New Mexico. Along the Rio Grande, there was a world that my history books mentioned only in passing -- a city founded by the Spanish 13 years before the celebrated landing at Plymouth Rock, Pueblo communities that have been continuously inhabited for 800 years, and an archeological history that goes back over 10,000 years. A walk across the Plaza in Santa Fe exposed me to a tri-cultural heritage where Native, Hispanic and Anglo cultures all shape a diverse and pluralistic society. What I encountered in the desert southwest told me a different creation story, and provided a different message about "who we are."

The two conflicting creation stories that I heard about the United States both contain truth. (Maybe that's why it is so easy for me to find both truth and difference in the two stories at the start of Genesis.) Each of those stories gives a distinctive spin to the message about who we are as a country. Being aware of both stories provided an opportunity for me to reflect about the messages they convey, and to make choices about how I would weave those meanings into my own life.

We all can claim opportunities to compare and contrast stories, and to make choices. In a week, the United States celebrates its "birthday" with the Fourth of July, and our creation story will be told in many different forms. Listen carefully to the way various leaders speak about our nation's creation and growth. Some will spin an ongoing tale of movement toward rights and equality, noting the expansion of meaning in the self-evident truth that "all men are created equal." Others will assert that the Founding Fathers created a "Christian nation" of unchanging virtues, where faithfulness and citizenship are almost identical. Others will frame the ongoing creation in terms of economic prosperity, technological innovation, or global influence.

Each of those creation stories has an implicit assertion about who we are (joyously diverse in race, gender and beliefs; centered in transcendent values that all should accept; or defined by the things around us), and what forms of progress will continue our chosen path. The stories that we chose to tell to ourselves will shape the way that we live and act.

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The very-start-of-it-all creations stories told by science and faith traditions are immensely important in shaping our self understanding. Especially as we try to renew our ecological identity, we need to study and evaluate those stories.

My Jewish friend helped me realize that we also need to study and evaluate the other creation stories that shape our individual and collective lives. I encourage church communities to take that on as a part of their ministry. It can be done in a multitude of settings -- in classes and fellowship groups, in preaching and liturgy, and in pastoral care. Within the context of a faith community, we can explore how our many creation stories help and hinder us as we live in relationship with God, and Earth community.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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