I tried an experiment with some friends a while back. I asked them to name some fellow worshippers.
They all started naming people in our congregation. A few added friends who had moved away and family members. But all limited worshippers to human beings.
Then I asked them, “What about your dog? What about that bird chirping out on the balcony? What about the grass? What about the dandelions? What about that rain you were complaining about? They looked a little puzzled, and then basically agreed that pet dogs and probably the bird might be able to praise God, but they weren’t sure about the grass and the rain, and they were pretty sure that the dandelions couldn’t (they’re just weeds!). Moreover, the reason they became positive that dogs and birds might be able to praise God was that “they make noise.” In other words, their view was that “praise” has to be vocal — like OUR praise.
My friends are not anti-science. They believe that scientific facts are important and provide a truthful understanding of nature. However, I believe that what science has told us about God’s creation and what Scripture has said about God’s creation either has not been brought into a single, integrated whole or has some gaps or errors that prevent what they think they know from science helping our understanding of theological truth.
I want briefly to call to our attention to some concepts we may need to address to help remind the church — including ourselves — of God’s relationship to Creation and Creation’s responses to God.
First, God values Creation. The first chapter of Genesis makes it clear, moreover, that God places intrinsic value in it. This means that the responsibility God has given humans to care for Creation must be carried out with the understanding that Creation has more than the utilitarian or aesthetic value we often place on it. It is good in and of itself. Now I must admit that after having had malaria eleven times when I was in the DRC, I have trouble seeing intrinsic value in mosquitoes and Plasmodium vivax, but that’s my problem. Scripture is clear what God’s view is.
Second, Creation worships God. We may question that when we observe destructive forces of Nature like hurricanes and earthquakes, just like I have reservations about mosquitoes. However, there are too many passages in Scripture like the passage from Luke that refer to parts of nature worshipping or being able to worship God to ignore this truth. While the manner of worship is described metaphorically, the fact of worship is clear: trees of the field clap their hands; mountains and hills sing; heavens declare God’s glory, and of we don’t praise God the stones will. Moreover, we don’t question if sinful humans can worship God, and so we shouldn’t question if a Creation affected by human sin can still worship.
Third, redemption is not a gift just for human beings. The Apostle Paul said that creation is groaning as are we, waiting for redemption. Too often we articulate a theology of the cross as though humans are the only ones redeemed. The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck said that faith in Christ can be summarized this way: “God the Father has reconciled his created but fallen world through the death of his Son and renews it into a Kingdom of God by his Spirit.” “The created but fallen world.” God’s redeeming work through Jesus Christ applies to the whole cosmos and not just to individual Homo sapiens. The God who creates and redeems, calls the redeemed to serve their Redeemer, to minister to others who have been saved, and to proclaim the message of reconciliation to those who have not heard the message.
And this leads to my fourth point. Christians who understand the first three points should recognize that we have a special relationship and responsibility to the rest of Creation. I believe that none of us would refuse to help a member of our congregation who needed a dinner brought in, transportation to the doctor’s, or even just a hug. We would see that as part of our ministry to fellow believers. Likewise, we have a ministry to the cosmos. Our concerns over the effects of climate change or the decline in bumblebees or mounting space debris should be more than applying utilitarian values, more than worrying about what these problems mean for us and our children and grandchildren. Science can show us more effective ways to interact with Creation, but its rationale is generally utilitarian. Only a faith derived from a theology based on good scriptural exposition can lead us to seeing our efforts as Christian ministry to Creation.
But more than this, we need to recognize that the whole of Creation has the possibility of possessing a sacramental character. Sacraments provide a picture of God’s promises to us. Fourth-century theologian St. Augustine called sacraments “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace.” Normally we restrict the sacramental elements to water, bread and juice from the vine, those elements necessary for the sacraments of baptism and the eucharist. But aren’t we supposed to be such signs of grace to each other and to the world? I want us to consider the possibility that Creation may also provide signs of God’s grace. Scripture indicates that the rainbow was such a sign to Noah, and I wonder if we looked with spiritual eyes, we might see such signs of spiritual grace as we minister to and are ministered by God’s Creation.
Take for instance when we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. As you take the bread and drink the cup, may I encourage you to see the elements not only as “outward and visible signs of an inward and spiritual grace,” but also to see the bread and the cup as representing elements of God’s Creation that are joining us in worship and waiting for their redemption, even as we are.
Dr. Sara Miles has her Ph.D. in History of Science, with one of her fields being science and religion. She is Secretary/Treasurer of the Presbyterian Association on Science, Technology, and the Christian Faith (PASTCF) and contributes regularly to their newsletter SciTech✝. She is currently retired, and she and her husband live in Kenosha, Wisconsin.