Saturday, November 24, 2007

The Best of All Possible Worlds?

Genesis 1.1-5
Revelation 22.1-5

These two passages deal with the twin themes of creation and light. They are both about creation because the first passage, from Genesis, describes the origin of the universe and the second passage, from Revelation, describes its recreation. They are both about light because the writers of Genesis envisage the nothingness before the universe began as infinite darkness, and the writer of Revelation imagines the new creation as infinite light.

Whether this is a description of the physical reality in the time before creation and in the the new creation surely doesn't matter. It is a poetic description, which sums up our most basic hopes and fears.

Perhaps, like me, you hated the darkness when you were a child. When I was asleep in bed I always had to have the bedroom door ajar and a light shining on the landing. It symbolised order and security. If the light was on, and even if the narrow strip of light shining through the gap between the door and its frame was too dim to see by, I had no need to be anxious. But if the light went out, chaos descended – at least in my own mind.

One night the bedroom door blew shut. I don't know why. Suddenly I was engulfed in thick darkness. To say that I was afraid is an under-statement, but I was even more afraid of my mother. So it never occurred to me to get out of bed, tip-toe to the door, and open it ajar again. Instead, I lay in bed – moaning softly – for what seemed like hours, until my mother realised what had happened and opened the door ajar again.

If darkness represents chaos, nothingness, ignorance, doubt and fear, the opposite is – of course – perpetual light. Actually light doesn't seem so wonderful in our civilisation as it would have done to the writer of Revelation. If anything, we have a surfeit of light. There is so much light in our night-time cities that it causes serious light pollution, which upsets nocturnal and diurnal animals alike and prevents astronomers from studying the night sky.

It has been decided to build a new bridge over the dual carriageway which leads to Sheffield city centre from the south. Although it's only going to be a humble footbridge, the planners have decided to make it an iconic bridge – a gateway feature to the City. There are five designs under consideration, and two of them use solar-generated light to create a stunning night-time display. Why? Won't it just be distracting to drivers, and add to the existing pollution of the darkness?

Well, of course, the answer to 'why' is that we can't help feeling light is good. Not only does it symbolise the opposite of darkness, chaos, ignorance and fear, it is also the opposite of godlessness. In the heavenly city, the new creation, God will be the light that never goes out. And that light symbolises hope, trust, faithfulness, love and perfection.

In the original creation story the writers emphasise repeatedly that the universe is good, but are they just whistling in the dark? The universe we have got may be the best of all possible universes, but it's not without it's problems, is it?

First there is the whole nature 'red in tooth and claw' thing. As William Blake put it, 'Tyger, tyger burning bright, in the forests of the night, what immortal hand or eye could frame thy fearful symmetry...? Did he who made the lamb make thee?' And the ferocious but beautiful tiger is perhaps the least of our difficulties. What about tsunamis, volcanoes, earthquakes and pestilence?

And then there is the whole question of suffering, pain, ageing and decay! And the question I saw on the front of a book the other day, 'Does anything eat wasps?' Are these issues built into the fabric of creation because they are simply part of what it means to live in the best of all possible worlds?

As long ago as the Lisbon earthquake and tsunami of 1755, which killed 15,000 people, the philosopher Voltaire attacked the notion that we do live in a basically good world. But this wasn't such a new and radical idea as he imagined. The writer of Revelation had got there before him. Acknowledging that the universe as we know it is not good enough, he writes about a perfect universe that is to come – a universe in which not only nature is made perfect, with its crystal clear, life-giving waters – but human creativity, with its streets and cities, is made perfect too.

Whereas in the Garden of Eden, as it is described later in Genesis, fruit trees are not only a source of goodness but also the means by which doubt and disobedience enter the equation, in the new creation the fruit trees bear fruit every month – a bit like the cigarette trees in the Big Rock Candy mountains except that, instead of dealing out cancer, their leaves have special healing properties. They never bring harm to humankind. They only bring wholeness. What I think the writer is driving at here is that, whereas in the universe as we know it things can go wrong, in the new creation things will never go wrong.

And what is the link between life as we know it now, with all of its imperfections, and life as we are promised it is going to be one day when we live in God and he is our light? The answer is that the link between these two states of being is the Cross of Jesus, the place in history where God shared our suffering and pain, our fear and loneliness, and overcame them for our sake. The crucified Jesus is here called the Lamb of God because he sacrificed his own life – like a sacrificial lamb – to bring hope to a broken world by sharing its brokenness. It is because of him that the light shines and the darkness cannot put it out.

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