God the Connoisseur

Did God create the universe because God loves beauty?

I have been preparing a set of talks on the two creation stories we find in Genesis 1-3. A recurring note in the first story (Genesis 1:1-2:3) is that after each day’s work in the creation process, God pauses to survey what he has done. He finds it good.

When the whole work of creation is complete at the end of the sixth day, God not only finds his creative work good, but declares it “very good”. This places a superlative judgment on all of God’s work.

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Like a precious pearl: The earth seen from outer space. Photo credit: NASA.

The Hebrew word we translate as good in this text is the word tov. It is helpful to understand the specific associations of this word. Tov does not carry a primary association of moral goodness. Rather it seems to mean more precisely good as something that pleases us, something that delights us, or something that gives us pleasure because it works the way it is supposed to. It has an aesthetic connotation rather than a moral connotation.

So when we read in Genesis that God looks upon his creative work and declares it tov, the text is signaling that God looks upon his creation like an art connoisseur. God sees it working as it is supposed to. He appreciates its beauty. That fills him with pleasure.

When we attend church, we don’t often hear ministers talk about God as one who delights in beauty. But I think we should. For the one who creates us as sensuous creatures is one who appreciates the power of beauty to move us deep within.

What Evokes Our Feeling of Awe

I know there are many ways people think of the power of beauty. I think of it, however, as the power to evoke in us a spontaneous response of pleasurable awe. When we stand in the presence of something beautiful, we catch our breath. Why? Because it seems so right as it is. For whatever reason it exists, it fulfills that reason perfectly. It is what it is meant to be.

That’s why, for example, a mathematician may describe a particular mathematical formula beautiful. It is what it is meant to be, often with the greatest of simplicity. When we look at a painting or a sculpture and proclaim it beautiful, we are in awe of what it is, precisely because every aspect of it–whether color, line, shape, or texture– contributes to that right being.

That is apparently the response of God in the Genesis text when God surveys the world he has created. In God’s vision, every aspect of this world is as it is meant to be. Therefore it is exceedingly tov or beautiful.

I think humans get in touch with that same feeling when we see some of the images of heavenly phenomena that have been captured by the Hubble telescope. Some of the images of galaxies or astral clouds just shimmer with color. They dazzle us.

Is that why on the seventh day God rests? God takes time to enjoy the beauty of the work he has just completed. Maybe that is also one reason why God created in the first place. God enjoys beauty and cannot help but be an artist.

Certainly the beauty of creation is cause for praise, according to the psalmist. One of the great praise psalms is Psalm 148. It soars as a song praising God for all the beautiful diversity of the universe. The psalmist moves from the glories of heaven, with its sun, moon, and stars, through the sea monsters and other creatures of the deep, through natural phenomena like fire, snow, and stormy winds, through the majesty of mountains, to the abundance of animals and wild beasts, to the diversity of human beings.

When we seek to create things of beauty, we humans show ourselves to be images of God, as the Genesis creation text says we are. We too take delight in creating things that shine out a glory because they are what they are meant to be.

The Divine Breath of God

God is close and present to us in every breath we take.

I don’t read the Genesis creation accounts as history or as scientific descriptions. I regard them as myths. But when I use the word myth, the word does not mean for me something that is untrue. A myth does not provide a scientifically factual account. Instead it provides an insight into the truth by means of a story. That’s why myths are such potent vehicles of revelation.

Genesis 2:4b-3:24 provides the second of Genesis’ two creation accounts. In contrast to the majestic poetry of Genesis 1, Genesis 2-3 provides a more homely tale, but a tale laced with some powerful insights into the nature of humanity. Let me highlight one.

Near the beginning of the account, we encounter this description of the creation of human beings: …then the LORD God formed man from the dust of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life; and the man became a living being. [Genesis 2:7]

This statement does not envision God snapping his fingers and creating human beings out of thin air. This is not a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing). God forms human beings out of the existing dust of the earth. The language suggests the work of a potter shaping a clay image. The image remains inert until God breathes the breath of life into it. Then the material image becomes a living being.

This sentence reveals a fundamental component of the Hebrew mindset that runs through all of the Old Testament and even into the New Testament. Human beings are fundamentally material bodies animated by the breath of life. This breath of life comes from God as a gift. Our lives are always a gift, whether in this life or in the life of the resurrection to come.

This mindset does not deny that human beings are a part of the natural, material world. They have material bodies just like the rest of the living creatures on the earth. And therefore they are subject to the many natural forces that drive the material world of nature.

What keeps them alive is their incessant breathing. They breathe air in and they breathe air out. When human beings exhale their last breath and do not take a new one, they die. This is real fact.

Human Beings as Integrated Persons

Two things move me about this account. First, it suggests an understanding of human beings not as bifurcated persons, but as integrated beings in which body and spirit combine to make a whole person. We have a bodily dimension to our lives, but we also have a spiritual dimension. The two cannot be easily separated. They are intertwined. This means our bodies contribute to our identity as individuals just as much as do our psyches. Truly we are psychosomatic beings.

This contrasts sharply with the understanding of human nature that we inherit from Greco-Roman philosophy. For the Greek philosophers it was a pervasive belief that human beings consist of a divine, immortal soul imprisoned in a material, mortal body. The two are in constant tension, for the soul is the source of a human’s higher nature and the body the source of his or her lower nature.

This conflictive dualism runs as well through human culture and social relations. It has shaped our common attitudes about gender relations, the value of various occupations, and our bodily activities.

For myself, I find the Hebrew concept of human beings a healthier one. Yes, it can see body and spirit in conflict at times, but it does not see the solution as an eternal divorce between body and spirit, but rather their integration in a transforming union. The culmination of this vision is to be found in the Christian understanding of incarnation. The incarnation of Christ foresees the ultimate destiny of all human beings. As the ancient Orthodox fathers put it, “God became a human being so that human beings might become divine.”

God Present in Our Breath

There is a second reason why the Genesis account moves me. It identifies the life-giving force in human beings as the “breath of life” breathed into them by God. The Hebrew word for breath here is nishmat. We find it sometimes in parallel with the Hebrew word for spirit or wind, which is ruach. Both refer to something invisible that is life-giving, powerful, and ultimately beyond human control.

That power comes from God and as the thought of the Bible evolves it is named as the Spirit of God. The Spirit does many things in the thought world of the Bible, but one important function is to breathe the gift of life as we incessantly breathe in and out.

We find another expression of this insight in Psalm 104, where the psalmist expresses awe at the wisdom of God’s creative work as found in all living creatures. The psalmist says:

These all look to you

            to give them their food in due season;

when you give to them, they gather it up;

            when you open your hand, they are filled with good things.

When you hide your face, they are dismayed;

            when you take away their breath, they die

            and return to their dust.

When you send forth your spirit, they are created;

            and you renew the face of the ground. [Psalm 104:27-30]

All this suggests to me that the presence of God is always with us, though invisible, every time we take a breath. It is through the air we breathe in and breathe out that the Lord breathes the spark of life into our material bodies, and we live. We may feel God is absent from our lives. We may long constantly for a vivid sense of God’s presence with us, when all along God is as close to us as God can be every time we take a breath.

This suggests, says the Franciscan writer Richard Rohr, why many prayer practices, especially in the contemplative prayer traditions, place so much emphasis on how we breathe. He writes, “When considered in this way, God is suddenly as available and accessible as the very thing we all do constantly–breathe…And isn’t it wonderful that breath, wind, spirit, and air are precisely nothing–and yet everything.”*

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* Richard Rohr, The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See, New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2015. Page 26.