My grandmother was 4’11” tall. She weighed 95 pounds; if she was wearing a hat. She was a little bitty thing. However, no one would have considered her weak or fragile. Nor would anyone have considered her incompetent, incapable, or unintelligent. She was just the opposite: very competent in a number of areas, quite capable in many things, and very broadly read and informed. She could talk about any subject and hold her own in a wide variety of scholarly disciplines. She loved books and instilled in me the same devotion to learning and discovery that she enjoyed. I could take any book from her library as long as I talked to her about it following my reading of it. In turn, I shared with her some of the “radical” literature that I read in the 1960’s. Of course, we talked about it.
One of the things my grandmother loved to do was talk philosophy, theology, and Scripture. I remember one such discussion as though it happened yesterday. I was probably 13 or 14 when we got into a discussion about Genesis, the first book in both Hebrew and Christian holy literature. She began by reminding me that the story of creation was “mythology.” I knew that and dismissed her comment. She wanted to underscore the fact, emphasizing that mythology does not mean “untrue.” Just the opposite; “mythology” is “true-er than true.” It refers to a situation that is so important, so significant, that the only way to make sense of it, the only way to talk about it, is with a story.
Her discussion of Genesis swept up a number of topics. We talked about poetry and literature in general. We talked about the concept that there is no present tense of the verb “to be” in Hebrew. The significance of this, of course, is that one’s reality (in fact, our very being) is to be viewed as an event or condition that has happened or is in the process of becoming. It is not static. You “were” or you “will be.” You are not “are.” So God’s name, therefore, an acronym like NASA is depicted by the Hebrew letters YHWH. We have come to vocalize this acronym “Yahweh.” (It is absolutely incorrect to say “Jehovah”). The acronym refers to the way the ancients thought about God. A long-winded way of saying God’s name, therefore, would be “I am the One who is becoming the One who will be.” My grandmother pointed out: “this is significant because it reflects the basic quality of God. Namely, God is always becoming, always unfolding….always evolving, as we might say.”
Then she brought in a discussion of biology, physics, botany, geology and general science. She pointed out how evolutionary biology told us how creation unfolded. For example, we know that fish and reptiles preceded the existence of birds and mammals. It just confirmed what we read in Scripture. Thus, for her, science and religion were far from opposites. They were partners in telling the story. She said that science could tell us “how” things unfolded but not “why.” That’s where we need story, mythology. To tell us “why.” She noted that at the end of each day of creation God said that it was “good.” After people made the scene, God looked at everything and said that it was “very good.” “What does that say to you, Greg, about the nature of the world around us and the nature of humanity?” “All creation is good and people are very good.” “What does it say to you about God?” I thought for a while and came up empty. She asked it a different way. “Any thoughts about why God created people…especially if everything so far was ‘good?'” Again, I was stumped and so asked her in turn. “I think it says that God was lonely,” she said. “I think God wanted to be in relationship with us.” A very big “why.”
That conversation informed my world view – of the world around me, about the nature (and value) of human beings, and about how important it is to maintain this fragile earth our island home. I also appreciated how important science was and is in our overall growth and intellectual development. I’m not threatened by scientific discoveries. I rejoice in and marvel at the creativity, indeed the brilliance, of intelligent, sentient beings, exploring, discovering, understanding things and making our lives better. Where would we be, for example, if no one had understood the danger of germs and therefore the importance of simply washing our hands before eating?
This little bitty woman was my hero. To be sure, a cape-less hero. Very few people met her or knew of her much beyond the boundaries of our little town in Minnesota. She was born in the 1890’s, lived a very traditional life for her time, and would be seen as unremarkable or indistinguishable as a woman of that age. If you saw her, you might not know how many thousands (yes, thousands) of books she had in her house, nor the depth and breadth of her knowledge. Who has conversations like we did – especially with a teenager? She challenged me to think but also honored my intellectual acumen. That’s a very courageous thing to do, especially from a woman whose experience taught her that children should be seen and not heard. She did not follow social norms along that score and I am very much the richer for it. I knew something was special about her at the time. Over the years, I have seen how much so. She is my hero. My cape-less hero. I would tell her now: “Gram, you’ve got this! Atta girl!”