If you were sending humanity its first message from another world, what would that message be?
Christmas Eve, 1968: My family’s TV was an old black-and-white set, but that didn’t matter since the live images onscreen were all shades of gray. At that very moment, a camera on a faraway spaceship was pointed out the window at the surface of the Moon, scrolling by mere miles below. Static-laden voices spoke of the universe as formless and void, exactly like what we were seeing. Then came the part about letting there be light and seeing that the earth was good. “God bless all of you,” one of the astronauts concluded, “all of you on the good earth.” I was never the same.
Though only 12, I had begun to get interested in big issues. This was thanks to a great teacher, whom I will call Mrs. B. She loved every kid in her classroom, which was why she insisted we do our best. Every week Mrs. B required us to bring in a newspaper article so that we could have a well-informed conversation about current events. Forgetting to bring your article—though this would displease Mrs. B—didn’t excuse you from knowing what was making headlines. And what headlines! I was following Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, not only because they were so honest about what was wrong with America, but also because they made us believe we could right those wrongs together. I cried for each of them when they were murdered, and cried more when the wrongs kept coming: city streets on fire; “the establishment” and “those damned hippies” facing-off; Soviets tanks in Prague; and drug abuse, crime, and poverty everywhere you looked. Heck, even the Beatles had gotten scary. Maybe worst of all, people just a little older than I was were being sent to a faraway place called Vietnam and coming back shattered if they came back at all.
But the space program lifted up my heart. Like so many kids in this age of the New Frontier, I wanted to be an astronaut. I was thrilled that we were close to landing on the Moon but a little sad too. Couldn’t they slow down just a bit until I was old enough to join them? Alas, no. But before a crew could land on the Moon, another crew had to prove it was possible to travel there to begin with. And that happened when the astronauts locked into lunar orbit on Christmas Eve. Now they were speaking on live TV. Surely some verbal trumpet blast was in order, some savoring of national will or technological triumph. But instead, the moment became something else.
A moral and existential vision took hold of me in that moment and has never let go. Though I couldn’t have articulated it as such then, it was a realization of original goodness.
A few months earlier, on the day before he died, a discouraged but determined Martin Luther King Jr. had alluded to the book of Deuteronomy. Like Moses at the end of his life, King had been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land. “I might not get there with you,” he said, “but I want you to know that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.” Less than 24 hours later, his words had the resonance of prophecy. That night, Robert Kennedy pleaded with a largely African American crowd in Indianapolis to rise above their anger, righteous though it was, and focus on the compassion and understanding that King would have wanted. He quoted Aeschylus about the kind of suffering that is the most heartbreaking because it brings wisdom against our will. As King had done, Kennedy tried to make sense of uniquely modern concerns by reaching out to some of our oldest stories and ideas. This not only articulated an otherwise inexpressible pain; it also reminded us that we were, for all our troubles, neither alone nor adrift.
Now the astronauts had used that same rhetorical strategy but on a planetary and even interplanetary scale. Speaking the words of Genesis, they sent a message of healing to a wounded world; they expressed a certain cosmic humility about our place in the universe; and, most of all, they shared goodwill, jaw-dropping in its simplicity, with “all of you on the good earth.” A moral and existential vision took hold of me in that moment and has never let go. Though I couldn’t have articulated it as such then, it was a realization of original goodness. The astronauts were only seeing what the wisest among us have always seen. When you view the world as a whole this way, you’re seeing, well, everything: every event, every person, every emotion, every idea is right there before you. And it’s all very good.
The idea of original goodness is among the most countercultural ideas ever proposed. That’s not surprising since Genesis began as a countercultural text. As I grew up and got to know Genesis a little better, first as a theology major in college and later as a literature teacher, I was always struck by what a profoundly human document it is. The outlines of the Hebrew Bible were largely sketched during a time of exile. For about 500 years beforehand, the Israelites had been vying to become yet one more power player on the world stage. Those centuries had been disastrous, culminating in the loss of their country. Now, “by the waters of Babylon,” they sat down and wept, afraid that they would soon vanish from history. So they set out to tell their story before they were forgotten. And what had that story shown? That empires rise and fall; that power is self-consuming; and therefore, there must be some other purpose for human life. But what? To answer that question, you have to go back to the beginning.
Creation stories serve two purposes: they show us how we started, and they remind us of our core values. This is how life looks before you take it out of the box and start using it. The authors of Genesis, in advancing the radical idea of original goodness, put forth an even more radical idea: life does have meaning. Everything that exists is the result of goodness on an infinite scale. Every life matters and human life is “very good.” This, in turn, means that time is linear because each life is unrepeatable, and that we are mortal, because each life has its own beginning, middle, and end. The price we pay for meaningfulness is that there is no going back; the gate to the garden is blocked by an angel with a flaming sword. But meaningfulness is itself the ever-present possibility of experiencing, each in our own imperfect way, that original goodness.
Genesis works out these insights fitfully. Like us, its characters are flawed. So is the text, which shows signs of many hands stitching it together from many sources. Details contradict each other (one Abimelech or two?), insertions come out of nowhere (“giants in the earth”?), and some moments just plain induce whiplash (Wait, what, Cain’s wife?). But, as is the case in our own lives, the truths of Genesis often emerge out of the broken places. For example, the story read by the astronauts is just one account of creation in Genesis. The other is the tale of Adam and Eve. These two accounts don’t quite agree—which may be the point. The Seven Days story, with its soaring poetry about a Being that creates not by power but by thought and word, shows us how the universe should be; the Adam and Eve story, with its muscular prose about loneliness and desire and the serpent that comes with the garden, shows us how the universe is. The rest of Genesis depicts people trying to move the latter closer to the former, often failing but never quitting. All their sorrows and joys follow from the “curses” placed on Adam and Eve, which feel to me less like the consequences of original sin—whatever that is—and more like a clear-eyed depiction of human reality: just staying alive can be hard work; parenthood can break your heart because your job is to ensure your kid won’t need you someday; human relationships are fraught with inequalities; and we know our time is limited. How therefore should we live?
As a young man, Jacob dreamed of a ladder between heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending. Now his dream comes true. In bestowing a love worthy of the angels, we too, if only for a moment, can connect heaven and earth.
When people ask me if I believe in God, I usually say no—not that I’m an atheist. Rather, the question usually proceeds from a conceptual model of God as a being like other beings (albeit infinitely stronger and smarter) with whom you can therefore have a personal relationship, to whom you can pray, from whom you can expect certain favors if you pray or live the right way, etc. So, no. Yes, however, to what Genesis articulates to me: there is a Reality so extensive, so beautiful, and so mysterious that the more we try to name it, the more its nature eludes us. But it need not elude us utterly. We can make this Reality palpable in our lives when our thoughts and actions follow from a belief in original goodness.
Consider Hagar, the slave who bears a son for Abraham. The world in which Genesis was written didn’t have a problem with Hagar’s reproductive system not belonging to her. If we lived in that world, we would perceive her thus: she’s a woman, so a second-rate human; she’s an Egyptian, so an ancestor of the people who enslaved our ancestors; she’s a slave, so really not human at all—and an uppity slave at that. The text all but forces us to dismiss her, which Abraham does when he has a son with his wife: sending Hagar and her child out into the desert to die. She is saved when a spring of water comes bubbling up from the sand. This happens only after the narrative shows us, in painfully vivid detail, what’s going through Hagar’s mind: the anguish any mother would feel who is forced to watch her son die. Not until you and I see this woman/Egyptian/uppity slave as a human being is she saved. No, we didn’t cause the spring to rise up, but the effect is the same: we revolutionized our consciousness so that we could rejoice in her survival.
Or think of Jacob on his deathbed. A lifetime before that, Jacob had stolen his father’s blessing from his older brother, in another deathbed scene that this one mirrors. And Jacob’s children have all similarly acted out of their very human fear that there’s just not enough goodness to go around. In some respects, this fear has been present almost from the start of time itself: God looked with favor on Abel but not on Cain; see how that turned out? And now, generation upon generation later, we have a very old Jacob, who has lived a life filled with accomplishment but also with struggle and suffering, with despair and deceit. Jacob’s brother Esau—whom the text once made us see (and smell) as a big dumb, hairy lunk (“Gimme some of that red stuff!”) before showing us that even he could have a broken heart (“Bless me, too, father!”)—had forgiven that deceit unconditionally. Perhaps Jacob is remembering how this undeserved grace felt. Perhaps he is remembering the heartbreak he himself caused. Perhaps it’s just the original goodness in the human heart coming through. In any case, Jacob bestows a blessing not just on one of his sons but on all of them, having just blessed, in a deeply moving scene, his half-Egyptian grandchildren.
This episode is all the more moving for being one of the last in Genesis. Think of this and the Seven Days story as bookends. Between them is a progressive distancing and defamiliarizing. First, God was everywhere, and God’s goodness was in everything; then, for Adam and Eve, God walked in the garden in the cool of the day; for Noah, God was the kind of friend who makes you realize you don’t need enemies; for Abraham, God was a voice or a mysterious visitor; for Jacob and Joseph in their respective youths, God was glimpsed, if at all, in fleeting and numinous visions. But for Jacob on his deathbed, the long-gone God of Genesis 1 is again present, in the form of unconditional love. As a young man, Jacob dreamed of a ladder between heaven and earth with angels ascending and descending. Now his dream comes true. In bestowing a love worthy of the angels, we too, if only for a moment, can connect heaven and earth.
A literal connecting of earth and the heavens got me started thinking about these issues. Looking back on my own origin narrative, I wonder how that moment in front of the TV in 1968 has played out in the way I’ve lived my life. The failures far outnumber the successes; I’m no Mrs. B., but, like the characters in Genesis, like Genesis itself, I continue groping toward original goodness. I’ve been a teacher for almost 40 years, with the latter half of that time in a Quaker school. Genesis is often on my syllabus. It’s such a demanding text that the many skills of critical reading—attention to detail and nuance, textual scholarship, concerted reflection, respectful listening—all get developed. More important, this particular act of critical reading helps us articulate so many of the values that are central to Friends education. One of the blessings of a career in the classroom is that every day you have another chance to receive humanity’s first message from another world because every young person is a brand new way for the world to be very good.
I have a poster on my classroom wall, a large reproduction of a photo taken by the astronauts of the Earth rising over the Moon. This image has become so iconic that it’s hard to remember what a revelation it was. No one anticipated the bottomless blue of the oceans, the hemisphere-spanning clouds, the continents unmarred by borderlines. No one anticipated what it would be like to see the planet itself as a wayfaring vessel, at once vibrant and fragile, glowing serenely in the infinite dark. And yet, haven’t we always known? Hasn’t Genesis been trying to tell us? The first thing created was light so that we could see, and each of us carries that Light Within. So let there be light still. “God bless all of you, all of you on the good earth.”
One of my students recently summed it up even better. We were talking in class one day about the differences between the first and second creation stories, and I wondered what it would take to really see the universe as Genesis 1 asks us to see it.
“How do we get to that world?” I asked.
A student pointed to the earthrise poster. “We’re there already,” she said.