How our Judaeo-Christian Heritage should nourish a wholesome relationship with the Universe
Our Judaeo-Christian heritage is steeped in exquisite history; a history that spans over five thousand years. It is an history of serenity and turmoil; liberty and captivity; love and hate; war and peace. Yet it has never succumbed to despondency, because this heritage was built upon an impregnable foundation, God. As the Psalmist put it: “In God is my safety and my glory, the rock of my strength” (Psalm 62:7). It is an heritage that sees the glory of God present in all of His creation, from the smallest to the greatest, everything proclaims the splendour and majesty of Yahweh. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the vault of heaven proclaim his handiwork” (Psalm 19).
The Book of Genesis is renowned for its creation accounts, yet throughout the centuries, it has been misinterpreted to condone the exploitation of the natural world. However, if we look carefully at chapters one and two of Genesis, we gain a deeper appreciation of the bond that exists between God, man and the natural world.
The first thing we learn is that God created the world perfectly and each time He brought something new into creation “God saw that it was good” (Gen. 1: 10, 12, 18 & 25). Yet God did not stop there because after He had created the fish in the seas and the birds of the air, He “blessed them, saying, ‘be fruitful and multiply’” (Gen 1:22). Whatever God has blessed is made holy, it is sanctified through His approval. After God had created the plants, birds, fish and animals, He proceeded to “make man in the image of Himself; in the image of God He created them” (Gen. 1:27), so that he (man) might “fill the earth and subdue it” and “be masters of all the living creatures”. Yet this command to subjugate creation can in no way be taken as a charge to maltreat the natural world that, in Gods’ eyes, was “very good”. If we turn from the ‘priestly’ account of creation in chapter one to the ‘Jahwest’ account in chapter two, we begin to understand why man was put in charge of creation. In verse 5 we are told that “Yahweh God had not sent rain on the earth, nor was there any man to till the soil”. So it was that God created man and “settled him in the garden of Eden to cultivate and take care of it”. In a certain sense, man can be understood to have been the consummation of creation. Made in Gods’ “image and likeness”, man was given a prominent place in the natural world – because he was the image of the creator – Gods’ representative on earth, so to speak. God entrusted man to share in His creative process. This idea is very much in harmony with what we know of the universe: the process of evolution is on-going and we, mankind, play an enormous role in determining the track that evolution will take. It is our duty to nurture and care for our environment because the natural world is a reflection of Gods’ divine and awesome wisdom, indeed one could go so far as to say that nature is a revelation of God. The story of creation was written in mythical language (as was the norm at the time) to convey a very important message; creation is a divine teaching method, that goes out from God and returns to God. The main point of the creation account, as told in Genesis, is that man, far from being master of the earth, is called to be a co-worker, with God, in bringing about a sustainable, vibrant, and healthy planet.
Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of Gods’ covenant between Himself “and every living creature on earth” (cf Gen. 9:16). Through Jesus, the Word of God, all things came into existence – “He was with God in the beginning [and] through him all things came into being” (John 1: 1-3). Jesus is, very much, the architect of creation; He is the wisdom of God who “made the circuit of the earth and walked through the depths of the abyss” (Wisdom 24:5). In his epistle to the Romans, Saint Paul remarks that “the whole of creation, until this time, has been groaning in labour pains” (Romans 8:22). What a marvellous thing it is for us to realize that Jesus, the architect of creation, became a child of creation, formed from the same dust as we are. Whenever we consider the Incarnation – God becoming flesh – how is it possible to consider the natural world (through which God becomes man) anything but good, pure, and blest? Through His incarnation, Jesus reconciled not only man, but the whole of creation to God. Saint Paul tells us that “God wanted all fullness to be found in him and through him to reconcile all things to himself, everything in heaven and everything on earth”. As Christians, it is our responsibility to ensure we treat all of creation with respect and loving care, for “everything there is comes from God”, through Jesus, and everything “is caused by him and exists for him” (Romans 11:36). Jesus, therefore, is the summit of all creation, not just mans’ summit, but the whole of creation. Perhaps that is why Jesus used so many images of nature, especially in His parables: “the birds of the air”, “the lilies of the fields”, “the true vine”, “the planter”, “the darnel and the wheat”, “the mustard seed”, “the yeast”, etc. All of creation belongs to Jesus and our respect for nature should stem from our love of Jesus Christ. If we profess to be Christians then we must turn our attention away from orthodoxy (right though) to orthopraxy (right action) and stop the destruction of our environment. We cannot truly love Jesus if we do not love His creation!
Let us now turn our attention to the wonderful heritage of mediaeval Monasticism, a tradition that brought about a rich diversity of creation-orientated spirituality. The then accepted organic paradigm portrayed the whole cosmos, that is, the earth, the heavens, and all living creatures, including man, as an integrated and animated whole.
In Ireland there was a strong appreciation of holy places where God could be experienced in a privileged way. Mediaeval Irish devotion consisted of Mass, meditation upon Scripture and oneness with nature. The 9th century Irish scholar, John Scotus Eriugena wrote: “God is both above everything and in everything: He does not cease being in the world”. St Columbas and St Columcille are portrayed as having special relationships with the wild animals, and it is said that flocks of birds would hover around St Kevin whenever he was at prayer. Indeed, such was the caring relationship between the Irish people and nature that it was praised in song and poetry. There even sprung up a movement called “The Culdees” or “Ceili De” (meaning, “Companions of God”), who were enormously skilled in writing poetry, illuminating manuscripts, undertaking penitential practises and living close to nature as “the sacrament of God”
European Monastic tradition focused particularly on the figure of Christ as the centre of creation. The Benedictines emphasized the harmony of work and prayer – “Laborare est Orare”. They believed that respect for the earth was of paramount importance and wherever they established Monasteries they would always cultivate the land using sustainable methods. Cardinal Newman would later write: “they made an Eden in the wilderness…….and converted it into a cultivated country”. The Franciscan love of nature is captured in the Canticle of St Francis – “Brother Sun, Sister Moon, etc”. Likewise, the Dominicans showed great love for nature and St Dominick founded the Order to rebuke pessimistic notions of the earth. St Thomas Aquinas, Dominican theologian, argued that “Grace builds upon nature”, therefore an insult to the created was an insult to the Creator. Each day we encounter the Divine in nature, but if sections of nature are destroyed then we are losing an irreplaceable link to our Creator God. Our fore-fathers recognized this and we ignore it at our peril.
So far I have examined three important aspects of our Judaeo-Christian heritage that should lead us to a wholesome and harmonious relationship with the universe. 1. The Genesis Creation accounts, 2. Jesus Christ & 3. Mediaeval Monasticism. Now I shall endeavour to redress the problematic notion that Evolution, in some way, impedes or contradicts our concept of Creation.
Many Christians have grown up believing that God created the heavens and earth in six days. It is a view that is prevalent among many evangelical denominations, where science is looked upon with suspicion for contradicting the Bible. Fortunately, most of us now accept and appreciate that the Bible is not an historical record; its language is mythological and, as such, must be interpreted in light of its context. Myths are not fairy-tales, rather they are symbolic truths used to explain matters of deepest importance; so even though the creation accounts in Genesis are not to be taken literally, the truth is still expressed through the symbolism employed.
Copernicus, Kepler and Galileo all brought about an end to the previously accepted organic paradigm. Their understanding of an ‘heliocentric’ universe (whereby all the planets moved around the Sun with mathematical precision) put an end to the mystique of the cosmos, which then appeared as a cold and uninviting place. Contemporary scientific thought, however, dispenses with the notion of all things moving in mathematical precision and, instead, believes the universe to be constantly changing and evolving. Relativity, Quantum and Chaos Theories all lend to the idea that it is impossible to be certain of anything. To an extent, the ‘uncertainty principle’ of Quantum Physics is akin to our Christian concept of ‘Mystery’. Perhaps it was this similarity that prompted the eminent theologian, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, to embark upon a journey to reconcile science with Christian theology. De Chardin put forward creation as continually evolving and moving toward a point of future fulfilment, that he called “the Omega point”. He goes even further by identifying this ‘Omega point’ with Jesus Christ as the One who will bring all of creation to unity with God. Because creation is an on-going process of evolution, we must never become complacent with our understanding of it. New ideas will emerge as science delves further in to the complex questions of our existence and we, as Christians, must be open to interpret scientific finds in light of our faith in a Creator God.
In conclusion, we can surmise that our Judaeo-Christian heritage contains such a deep respect for the natural world that it should motivate us to a respectful appreciation of our environment. Unfortunately, this isn’t the case because rather than appreciating our beautiful world, man continues to exploit and abuse it for personal pleasure and gain. The world is suffering from mans’ abuse, one need only look at ecological disasters as proof of this, and unless we, each one of us, changes our approach to the environment, then we are guilty of wanton destruction of Gods’ creation. Furthermore, we are inhibiting creation from evolving as God desires and, in doing so, are stopping ourselves, as human beings, from reaching our full potential as stewards of this world. Life is a gift from God – it does not belong to us and, one day, we must give an account of that life. It is the same with the natural world – it does not belong to us, but has been entrusted to us for future generations – it is to be shared with over a million different species of animals and plants and, as with our lives, we shall one day have to render an account for our role in the creative process.
It is my sincere hope that this essay provides food for thought. Christianity spends a great deal of time reflecting on the life-to-come but it is, as a religion, equally involved in the here-and-now. We need the environment in order to live, but the environment does not need us. Is it not time that we begin to respect that which greater than all of us and without which our very existence would be impossible? To finish, let me quote some beautiful words from the Book of Wisdom:
“You spare all things because all things are yours, O Lord, lover of life” (Wisdom 12:1-2).