In the context of deep time mankind is a relative newcomer, a real Johnny come lately. With his tool-maker swagger and speech-making smoothness, he treats the planet as if he owned it, denuding forests, strip mining, polluting, cultivating and over-populating. He lords it over the rest of Earth’s residents, convinced his kind sits at the top of the evolutionary tree.

It’s a supremacy complex that’s echoed in our creation myths and salvation myths – our beginnings and ends – confirming that we sit at the centre of things, that we are the very point of creation.

There’s not much humility in play here, even if we do understand that we were gifted existence, fashioned and fed by prior entities, or else nurtured (for the godless among us) in primordial darkness.

In her wonderful memoir of spiritual encounter and experimentation, A Book of Silence, Sara Maitland takes another tack and considers the place of silence in our creation myths. She asks why silence is so often portrayed as a nothing that needs to be broken, whether by the word of God, the explosion of stars, the ructions and commotions of universes being born.

Our group read a particularly lyrical part of the book in which Maitland free associates on the cultural differences between one creation myth and another, highlighting the fact that cultures unlike our own produce myriad creation myths in which silence is portrayed otherwise, where it is generative and enabling: a life giving force and not a nothing.

Maitland relays a Maori myth in which a whole lot of action happens in silent darkness (copulating, reproducing, growing and separating),  and also a Norse myth in which the Great Cow, Authumla, licks a giant out of ice and suckles him until he grows to adulthood and spawns a race of giants using material from his armpit.

She also outlines an Aboriginal myth that depicts a land everlasting. The land has always been there, it has no beginning or end, and it evolves from featurelessness into shape and meaning as the ancestors travel its paths. Each generation re-traces the paths, creating new meanings as they go. ‘The paths must be walked. The creation work must be done’.

Maitland picked these myths because they contrast so sharply with the verbal, intellectual, monotheist rendition of creation in which silence is dumb, and where a shattering instant of noise and action bursts through to front the creative drama. It’s ironic, she says, that when we understand human creativity we don’t tend to see it as a violent, sudden act, but rather as a gradual process involving thought, both conscious and unconscious, and a blending of ancestral influences with contemporary ones.

I very much like this idea of transposing the metaphor backwards, from artistic to divine creativity, so that creation more closely resembles evolution rather than revolution. It’s more humble, less jarring, and more appealingly human.

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