Replenishing: A Riff on John Lisman’s Mural, “Creation”

Unveiled at Crossroads on the Charles, Ninth Floor, Watertown, MA, January 9, 2016

In the beginning God created heaven and earth. And the earth was without form and void. And God said, Let there be light. And God saw the light, that it was good. And God divided the waters into those below and those above. And God made two great lights; the greater to preside over the day, the lesser to preside over the night. God made the stars also. And God said, Let there be life to bring forth grass, the herb-yielding seed, and the fruit trees that yield fruit after its kind. And God said, Let the waters bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that have life and the fowl that may fly above the earth in the open heaven. And there arose great whales and every living creature that moves, which the waters brought forth abundantly, after their kind, and every winged fowl after its kind. And God saw that it was good. And there arose the human creature in God’s own image, male and female. And God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth.
– A paraphrase of Genesis 1 from John Lisman’s mural “Creation”

It’s a privilege for me to smash this bottle of words across the hull of this visionary work by my friend, John. I know that he sought counsel from others as he worked on his “Creation,” but he is surely the grand artiste of this remarkable mural. I smash my words over this work with gratitude to John for his willingness to venture far beyond his scholarly specialty as an eminent student of the human brain into the vast and mostly uncharted world of the cosmic imagination.

As I understand it, one day John was doodling at his computer, and he had a vision. For a moment anyway, he left the infinitesimal mysteries of the human brain, and began to contemplate the gargantuan mysteries of the whole cosmos. In due course, I don’t know when, John began to think about the creation narrative of Genesis 1. This turn in his thinking came as no surprise to me, since, although he has apparently distanced himself somewhat from the spiritual traditions of his fathers and mothers, as I know him he is a Rebbe at heart.

Along the way, John also kept interrupting me, again and again, while I was fixated on the New England Patriots’ games we both were watching – interrupting me with questions about Genesis 1. Hence I stand here, in the midst of this company of friends in this hallway, to help celebrate this unveiling. I was there at the beginning, although not always with all my mental capacities.

John wanted to portray a scientific image of our cosmos, I believe, informed by his paraphrase of Genesis 1. What most fascinated him from the start, however, was a phrase from the King James translation of Genesis, “replenish the earth.” The scope of John’s work, then, is both cosmic and humanistic, profoundly cosmic and urgently humanistic, as I read it. In our era, we stand awestruck, and perhaps overwhelmed to the point of spiritual fatigue, with the vastness of our cosmos, both temporal and spatial. Meanwhile, our cosmic home, this precious planet Earth, is at risk, in significant measure due to the greed of the powerful. So, replenishing is the human vocation of these times: replenishing hope for the cosmos, on the one hand, and replenishing hope for all the living creatures of this Earth, ourselves included, on the other. That is the scope of John’s vision.

Be reminded, however, that this kind of a cosmic and humanistic vision stands radically opposed to two major trends in modern western culture.

First, there is the debate between the so-called Creationists and everyone else. They say that Genesis 1 is about saving an ancient cosmology, when, in fact, I believe, God is all the more glorified by the findings of modern scientific cosmology, which John of course takes for granted. The time has come, then, to let the Creationists drift back into the 19th century cave, whence they first emerged.

Second, there is the debate between the cultural critics of Genesis 1 and more recent scholarly interpreters about the issue of anthropocentrism. The critics say that Genesis 1 – and its champions throughout Western history, down to our own day – is basically at fault for the current global ecojustice crisis, driven, as it has been, by a deeply seated and misguided fixation on human needs and human desires. Say the critics: if Genesis 1 is your rudder, if, for you, the whole point of life on earth is what is important for us humans, then you will guide our planetary civilization into a maelstrom of death.

Some elements of Genesis 1 lend themselves to that kind of critique, especially if the interpreter happens to be identified intellectually or otherwise with the spirit of capitalism in the modern west. Replenishing the earth, for example, is only part of Genesis 1:27. This is whole text: “God said to them, ‘Be fruitful and multiply and fill [replenish] the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.” (NRSV) Not for nothing does John not quote the full text. Not for nothing does he leave us just with the phrase replenish the earth.

But I want to make a case that John is right in his paraphrase and that the many cultural critics of Genesis 1 are wrong. To this end, let me begin by calling your attention to this amazing confession of Genesis 1, the phrase “and God saw that it was good.” We hear that phrase no fewer than six times (4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 24). This suggests a Divine affirmation for creatures, in themselves. I have called this, in my writings, “the integrity of nature.” All creatures, from the greatest to the least, have value for God in themselves. They are not the scenery for our world. They are not the property for our machinations. It was no coincidence, then, that St. Francis based his celebrated Song of All the Creatures on Psalm 148, which itself is closely related to the traditions we meet in Genesis 1. In the spirit of Genesis 1, St. Francis celebrated the integrity of nature.

Note further that in Genesis 1:3l, God is depicted as seeing everything that God has made, and seeing that everything is very good. Some historically influential Western interpretations of that text have been obvious misinterpretations, suggesting that when God had finally created humans, God saw the humans and then, in God’s eyes, everything was very good, as if the whole purpose of the universe was the emergence of humans. Wrong.

Then let me address the famous dominion text, Genesis 1:28, which John’s paraphrase omits – for good reason, I believe. Let me focus on the word dominion itself. If you see this word through the eyes of Adam Smith you will of course read the word to mean develop and exploit the Earth, for that’s what the spirit of capitalism requires. But if you catch your breath, step back, and read the word in context, you may be surprised.

Okay. Humans are given dominion over the earth, Gen. 1:28. But notice Gen. 1:18, too: God creates the sun and the moon and gives dominion “over the day and the night.” The same word is used in both texts. Which is to suggest that the word dominion means here: not exploiting other creatures, but a kind of presiding – the word that John uses in his paraphrase. Think of the High Priest presiding over the liturgy of the Temple. Or consider a conductor presiding over a symphony orchestra. This kind of “dominion” is soft and cooperative, encouraging and eliciting. So the sun and the moon preside over the day and the night. So the human creatures preside over other living creatures of the Earth.

I want to close here with a reference to another Genesis creation text, Genesis 2:15. Why did God place the human creature in the Garden? What is the human raison d’etre? The usual translation is this: God places humans on the good earth to till it and to keep it. A wonderful translation for the world of Adam Smith! Make the land productive! In dramatic contrast, the correct translation is to serve and protect it. This text, rightly translated, thus bolsters the kind of meanings I’ve identified in Genesis 1 concerning so-called human dominion over the earth. It also supports John’s use of the traditional King James Version English, calling us humans to replenish the Earth. To care and to serve, says Genesis 2. To replenish, says John, in his own suggestively archaic way.

With such understandings, I now salute the cosmic imagination and the ecological humanism that I believe informs John Lisman’s vision of The Creation. And I invite all who care about God’s good creation to do so the same.