Wednesday, July 11, 2012

#4: Creation Provides Knowledge of God

Romans 1:19-20 reads, '...since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them.  For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.'

I have to admit, I've been putting off writing this particular post.  Paul is so vague in this passage - what does he mean, that God's eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen in the created world?  Isn't it dangerous to try to learn anything about God from looking at the natural world?

The dangers of looking to nature to learn about God were exemplified in 17th century Britain.  Britain had just emerged from a denominationally-driven civil war between the Roman Catholics and Anglicans on the one side, and Puritans on the other.  After the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, people took to examining nature to learn about God, as a means of setting aside religious differences.  According to Ian Barbour, God as Creator rather than God as Redeemer became their main interest, and these defenders of Christianity focussed on the three products of natural theology: the existence of a Supreme Being, the immortality of the soul, and the obligation to live morally.  All of these sound like great things (although I would probably quibble with the second point), but by looking to nature to learn about God, they neglected the central concept of Christianity: the incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection of Jesus.  Their watered-down universal religion was not Christian at all.

Charles Darwin's life also shows us the danger of looking to nature to learn about God.  Darwin saw the beauty of natural law, and it caused him to believe, in accordance with Paul, that the universe had to have been made by an intelligence and for a divine purpose.  But Darwin did not take a Panglossian best-of-all-possible worlds view of nature.  He did not turn a blind eye to suffering.  The natural laws might look beautiful, but the products of these natural laws, evolved wasp species that lay their eggs in paralysed caterpillars, juvenile wasps that ate their living hosts from the inside out, were horrible.

Help us out here Paul.  A grand inspection of the world seems to point to intelligence, but a close inspection reveals horrors beyond count.

I can offer no real way out of this problem, except to suggest two things: first, had suffering in the natural world been truly grappled with in the seventeenth century, perhaps the need for redemption would have become the fourth aspect of the universal religion.  Second, and in contradiction to the first point, perhaps suffering in nature is amoral instead of immoral.  Perhaps it fits into God's plan, without taking away from God's goodness.  God's speech to Job seems to indicate this: God is shown as hunting alongside the lioness, being with the hawk as she hunts for prey to give her young.  In the Psalms, God is praised for ensuring that all living things have their food, and this would include the carnivores and the cannibals and the wasps that burst alien-like out of the chests of their caterpillar prey.  Perhaps we could even call this dance of hunter and hunted, parasite and host, virus and cell, good, as God does in Genesis 1.  But what would such a thing mean for the goodness of God?

Maybe I'm overthinking Paul.  He certainly does not say that we learn about God's goodness from nature.  We learn that he is real and powerful, according to Paul; nothing more.  This does, indeed, seem more in line with the book of Job, in which the world is described as being so much more vast than mere humans, and God as all the vaster.

Environmental degradation, then, works against knowledge of God.  It is difficult to see God's power in a ruined landscape.  If anything, God looks weak - where is his protection of his creation?  Given that it is the church's mandate to care for the environment, the appearance of God's weakness is really a product of Christian inaction.  The church was chosen to reflect God's presence; a strong environmental ethic should help to display that presence and divine power to a sceptical world.

What do you think?  How do we learn about God from nature, without neglecting the need for redemption or God's goodness?


Anonymous said...

Thanks for the thoughts Matthew. For me a piece of the puzzle has to be the fall, I think when we read "Creation Groans" it shows that all is not right in nature. Nature seems to now by fractured just as humanity is.

That being said; it doesn't seem like sharks were ever created to be vegetarians. Some how God seems to always rest in tensions. Danger and Beauty while not a true dichotomy do seem to hold a certain degree of tension... to us.

Matthew said...

I feel that the 'Creation groans' statement reflects that what is not alright with nature is us. If God made us to rule over nature, than our fall is nature's fall as well. The fall simply does not speak to the origin of cancer, carnivory, natural disasters or the like. The fossil record shows this quite simply. Yes, if everything was good and perfect we would learn nothing about God's danger, an attribute that can, as Lewis showed in the Narnian series, be connected to goodness.

Matthew said...

So then, do we need to rethink 'good' to include the dangerous?