Based on a talk in November 2014, this article – together with essays by Pope Francis, Rick Warren, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, and others – appears in Not Just Good, but Beautiful: The Complementary Relationship between Man and Woman, edited by Steven Lopes and Helen Alvaré (Plough, September 2015).

One of the fascinating things about the Bible as we now have it – as you know, it was written over rather a long period of time – is that it begins and ends with the coming together of heaven and earth. Right at the beginning of the book of Genesis, we have those two complementary accounts of creation (Genesis chapter 1 and chapter 2, broadly speaking), and from the beginning we are told that God made heaven and earth, and that, so it seems, heaven and earth are supposed to work together. We in the Western world have often thought of heaven and earth as radically separate, as completely distinct. Indeed, some people have constructed whole philosophies in which heaven is so far away that it seems as though it has nothing whatever to do with earth. But in Genesis it’s not like that. Heaven and earth are supposed to be the twin inter­locking spheres of God’s good creation.

Then, as the story in Genesis 1 unfolds, we discover that there are all sorts of other things in God’s creation which mirror that, which reflect it, which are likewise supposed to be complementaries. So we have not only heaven and earth; we have the sea and the dry land, we have plants and animals – a different sort of differentiation, but a differentiation nonetheless. Then, within the animal kingdom, we have of course male and female, and indeed also within the plant kingdom up to a point. And then the story reaches its great climax with the creation of human beings in the image of God: male and female together. When we read and re-read this extraordinary account in Genesis 1 (and it is one of the most remarkable pieces of writing from the whole ancient world), then we see that these complementaries all reinforce one another, and are meant to work together, so that the man and the woman together are a symbol of something which is profoundly true of creation as a whole. Not that the man represents heaven and the woman represents earth. That’s a mistake that was made in some ancient paganism. The point, rather, is that the idea of these two being designed to go together, to work together, is a very profound reality at the heart of that whole story of God’s good creation.