John Elliott Lein

Writer, Artist, Designer and Theology Nerd

Merisms and the Non-Duality of Creation

InclusionJ. Elliott LeinComment

This is another rough-draft excerpt from the book I'm currently working on, about God calling us to include the full spectrum of creation in the church. It's at the beginning of the chapter on "Biblical Marriage"

The first creation narrative in the Bible (Genesis 1:1-2:4a) moves from the beginning with God alone to the grand finale with humankind. There is no reflection on a specific pair of humans, nor on marriage, but we can see that humans are the focus and end goal of the creative act.

“In the beginning when God began to create the heavens and the earth...”
— Genesis 1:1 (NRSV variation from translation notes)

Some understand the phrase “the heavens and the earth” as a metaphorical description of “everything”, as Shakespeare writes in Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth...”. We may think of it as a spectrum, with everything on every plane of our world, every string-theory dimension of reality, and both physical and spiritual understandings originating with God, the “alpha and omega” (again an inclusive spectrum concept). Some call this a “merism”, a figure of speech used in law, rhetoric, biology, and Biblical poetry:

“In rhetoric a merism is the combination of two contrasting words, to refer to an entirety. For example, when we mean to say that someone searched thoroughly, everywhere, we often say that someone searched high and low... 
“Merisms are conspicuous features of Biblical poetry. For example, in Genesis 1:1, when God creates “the heavens and the earth” (KJV), the two parts combine to indicate that God created the whole universe. Similarly, in Psalm 139, the psalmist declares that God knows ‘my downsitting and mine uprising’, indicating that God knows all the psalmist’s actions.”

This grand, majestic and poetic account cummulates in the making of humankind in the image of God (“our image, our likeness”):

“Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness...
“So God created humankind in his image,
in the image of God he created them;
male and female he created them.”
— Genesis 1:26a, 27

What do we know from this creation account? We know that humans are made in the image of God, not God made in the image of humans. That all humanity is created in the likeness of God the one and the formed-in-relationship (“our”). That all humanity, the spectrum included in “male and female”, are declared good:

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good.”
— Genesis 1:31a

Why could it be helpful to recognize a “spectrum” instead of a binary designation in the phrase “male and female”? Consider those who are born as Intersex (the “I” in the longer acronym “LGBTQIA”) with inconclusive genitalia. Or some transgender folks who have the physical genitalia of one gender, and the chromosomes and brain-structure of another. If we are all created in the image of God, and declared good, then maybe “male and female” is a non-dualistic container, a merism, of the variety of the good creation even while we recognize that the majority of people are comfortable closer to the traditional two ends of the spectrum.

To conclude our first passage, note that the entirety of the first self-contained creation account is about “humankind” in general, with no mention of a particular pair nor a description of marriage. There is also no hinting at any change in God calling his creation “good”. That comes in the second creation account starting immediately afterward.

To be continued...

Thanks to Alan Hooker for the original insight.