“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1: 31a). More on this beautiful, almost poetic expression of faith in Genesis chapter 1 in a moment.
One of my great passions in life is singing. The reason I try and sing loudly in our Chapel services is not just to attempt to coax some more sound out of the students … it’s mainly because I genuinely enjoy it. Over the years I’ve been a member of several choirs. If you’ve sung in a choir with a conductor, or played in an orchestra or a concert band, you will know that you have to come in on the conductor’s downbeat.
Because I’ve sung mainly in small choirs, getting your entrance right is absolutely crucial. I currently sing about once a month for an Anglican Evensong service, but put on by Pilgrim Uniting Church in the city on Saturdays. It is truly an ecumenical experience! The conductor, Peter, knows, immediately, if you are late with your entrance. If you, or your section, are late, you just know that he is going to say, “Basses … I just want to check your entrance.” Some singers actually raise their hand, if they make a mistake during rehearsal, so the conductor knows, that they know, that they’ve made a mistake. We have to concentrate on Peter’s downbeat. We rely on the downbeat to get the timing right and to know exactly where we are, especially in relation to the other parts.
Hold on to the story about the downbeat. In the first week of the holidays Alison and I had the opportunity to attend the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra concert in St Peter’s Cathedral. The orchestra was conducted by a brilliant old scholar from several years ago, Anthony Hunt. The very first piece was Vaughan Williams’ “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis”. It is a truly beautiful piece of music. The inside of the Cathedral was looking particularly lovely. So, as we settled in, I waited expectantly for Anthony’s down beat, and for the orchestra to start.
We were sitting right at the back of the Cathedral and so I didn’t actually see his very first downbeat, but when I did pick up on where his downbeat was, it seemed to bear no relationship to what the orchestra was doing. I’m not talking about those moments with a community band, when you might think, “I reckon the drums are just a split second behind the beat.” I’m talking about the orchestra appearing to be playing to a completely different beat from what the conductor was doing.
My rational brain knew that sound travels slower than light, so there would be a delay, because we were sitting at the back of the Cathedral. My rational brain also knew that some larger orchestras don’t always come in exactly on the downbeat, believe it or not – sometimes they are closer to the up-beat. So, my rational brain could explain it, but the rest of my brain simply refused to compute what was happening. I was sitting in one of the most beautiful buildings in the country, surrounded by waves of incredible music, which I was aware of and enjoying, but my brain was having a bit of a meltdown.
It was only when I looked away from conductor, focussed on the majesty of the building, and let the sound wash over me, that I could finally, truly, appreciate the beauty of the experience.
We have to trust the process of God leading us to beauty. However, it’s not blind trust. It’s not blind faith, which brings me to the first chapter of Genesis, and especially the phrase, “God saw that it was good.”
When the Jewish priests wrote this inspired account of creation at some point in the 6th century BC, weaving it together from the existing stories of creation that the people of Israel had told in their homes and in the Temple for centuries, they did not do so from a sense of naivety. They knew that life could be tough. This creation story was not written to be a scientific account, a critical point to note, especially given the really interesting information about evolution that has emerged over the past 160 years or so. Neither was this account of creation written from of a sense of blind optimism. The Jewish people knew that life in God’s creation could be tough. This account of creation, at least in the final form we have it in the Hebrew Scriptures (what Christians call the Old Testament) was written in the midst of slavery. The people were suffering in slavery in the city of Babylon, fairly close to where Baghdad now is in Iraq. In the midst of suffering, in the midst of total loss, as the people languished by the waters of Babylon under the yoke of their oppressors. In the midst of all this, these ancient Jewish priests could say, “God’s earth is beautiful and God’s love for us does not disappear.”
In the history of ideas, just like in the history of the evolution of the universe and the evolution of life on Earth, there are threshold moments: moments when something new happens: often something genuinely new. We cross the threshold from one place to another: a new idea emerges and it changes the world. For the people of Israel, this was a threshold moment. Their understanding of God evolved. Their stunning Temple had been destroyed and, yet, they could say, God was with them in Babylon. God was with them in their suffering, and the world was beautiful and good.
As we walked back to Rundle Street to enjoy a really nice pizza, I reflected on my experience of letting go of the need to rationalise everything that was happening, when surrounded by the waves of music in the Cathedral. This doesn’t have to be an anti-intellectual experience – quite the opposite in fact. It is simple awareness … attentiveness … to the moments of beauty around us.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall