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Chapter 8

Cosmogony: Origins of the Natural and Social Order

Cosmogony can be defined as “an account of the emergence or creation of world order.”  How and if the world was divinely ordered has obvious implications for human beings. One’s understanding of how and why things exist will affect one’s view of the world, the natural and social order, the god or gods, and human actions. Many of the creation stories appear to be an attempt to answer etiological questions; that is, they are answering telling us why things are the way they are. In the religious traditions of the world, we can identify three types of creations stories.
Types of Cosmogonies:
Livingston lists five types of cosmogonies.  Although this is not an exhaustive list, it does highlight some of the more common types of stories of origin:
1. Emergence or Procreation from a Primal Substance or Being.

            These creation stories portray creation as a process which either happens spontaneously as a divine being comes out of the primal substance (mud, water, chaos, non-being, etc).  A very common theme in these stories is the emanation of primal elements from a watery chaos.  The divine being then creates other beings and object through a variety of means.

2. The Sexual Union of a Primal Male and Female

            These stories may view creation as spontaneous (as above). Unlike the stories mentioned above, however,  the rest of the gods, people, and creation are given birth  through the sexual union of divine beings such as the Sky God and Mother Earth. Livingston notes the prevalence of this type of creation in Japanese Shinto religion.  However, it also a theme in many ancient religions throughout the world.

3. Creation by Conflict and the Ordering of Chaos

            A theme present in many creation stories is the idea that the cosmos is created or ordered through a battle with terrible powers or monsters, generally represented by a Dragon, Serpent or the Leviathan. The best example of this creation story is the ancient Babylonian epic Enuma elish. In this story the god Marduk slays  Ti’amat, (the sea) and fashions the sky and earth with the body of Ti’amat.  Marduk then proceeds to bring order to the gods who build the city of Babylon. Finally Marduk creates human beings to serve the gods.


4. Creation by a Divine Craftsman

            A number of traditions believe that the cosmos was made by some sort of “divine craftsman” who took pre-existing material and fashioned all things from it.  This notion is prevalent in Greek philosophic thought beginning in the Sixth Century BCE. The important thing to remember about this understanding of creation is that the “stuff” from which all things are made is considered to be eternal.  The Greek philosophers differed over the exact nature of this eternal matter:  was it fire, water, or even “atoms”?  What was the force (the “eternal cause”)  that shaped this eternal stuff: Love, Hate, the Mind (nous)?  Plato called this eternal cause the Demiurge, or Craftsman who shapes the world according to pre-existent, eternal Forms or Ideas.

 5. Creation by Decree or from Nothing

            While present in other traditions, the concept of creation from nothing (creatio ex nihilo) is most closely associated with the creation story in Genesis 1:1-2:4a.  This story was probably given its final form in the sixth or fifth century BCE, although it may have existed in oral tradition for some time before it was written down.  While there are some similarities in this account to other creation stories, it differs from other creation accounts in several significant ways: 

  1.  God does not fashion beings and objects out of pre-existing material. Rather the Creator simply “speaks them into existence.”   (“God said, “Let there be light . . .  and there was light. . . ”).

  2. There is no account of the creation of other gods or divine beings. It is inferred from this that no object and no being is co-eternal with the Creator God.

  3.  In Genesis 1, there is no conflict or struggle between God and other beings. God alone wills the creation and there is no power that can resist God’s will.  God is conceived of as all-powerful, not needing anyone or anything else to create the cosmos.

  4.  Humanity is given a very, very high status.  Human beings are created in the image of the Creator and are given dominion over the earth.

  5.  The creation, being the result of God’s will, is not imperfect or flawed; rather it is declared to be “good.”


The Rejection of Cosmogonic Speculation


A number of religions have concluded that stories about the creation are irrelevant or simply too speculative. Jainism is one example.  The Buddha and his followers in Theravada Buddhism reject not only speculation about cosmogony; they also avoid metaphysical speculation about life after death, etc.