At your command all things came to be: The vast expanse of interstellar space, galaxies, suns, the planets in their courses, and this fragile earth, our island home. By your will they were created and have their being. From the primal elements you brought forth the human race, and blessed us with memory, reason, and skill. You made us rulers of Creation. But we turned against you and betrayed your trust: we have turned against one another. Have mercy, Lord, for we are sinners in your sight.
[Eucharistic Prayer 4, Book of Alternative Services of the Anglican Church of Canada]
Table of Contents
Although this book is primarily directed toward my fellow Christians, the themes discussed here are pertinent to a broader group. Beliefs concerning our relationship with the natural world are present in all mainstream religions. And many of those who deny the existence of a deity yet have a profound relationship with the natural world and hold strong convictions of its importance to our lives. The call to live in compassionate relationship, to be alive to our environment, to be responsible for the natural legacy we’ve inherited are all broadly held beliefs, even if they are often hidden or buried by our religious and secular institutions. My hope is that what I’ve written here will provide some insight, some encouragement to expand our spiritual repertoire and experience, no matter what one’s background and belief system. As such, I have added some discussion questions at the end of each chapter, some of them specific to Christians, but others applicable to everyone.
This book is a celebration of Creation and some of the stories it contains are of great importance to Christians and others. It is an exploration of the implications of how our understanding of the history of our planet might pertain to our faith, to our personal walk, and to the path of the church. I, hope, more than anything else, that the thoughts that are presented in this book encourage my fellow believers to explore more deeply what God might be revealing to us through how he made this universe. It is the wish that we may all “grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18).
In this book I share my personal experience and journey as a Christian and an evolutionary biologist studying biodiversity, to illustrate how many aspects of the Creation enhance our understanding of our Creator. There are big themes that tie to our understanding of big biblical themes, showing how both Scripture and Creation point to the same God. My hope is that the reader will be encouraged to explore her/his faith and also experience fresh fresh insights. And then acting, helping to change the direction of the current environmental catastrophe that is enveloping our planet.
From the outset, it is important to state two basic assumptions that are central to everything written here. The first is that I am a Christian but, because of the times we live in, I must also say that I believe in the infallibility of Scripture (including its many myths), everything in the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds, the literal and physical resurrection of the fully human and fully divine Jesus Christ, the reality of sin and the need for redemption. In many ways I am a conservative Christian, holding to those principal beliefs and interpretations of historic Christianity. I also recognize that many of the stories in the Bible cannot be taken literally if they are to be truly understood. Second, I work as an evolutionary biologist and am fully immersed in research and the interpretation of the diversity of life on our planet and you can follow some of that in other pages presented on this site. There is no reasonable doubt that evolution has shaped life on our planet and the following chapters explore my walk through the Creation, sharing some of the pathways and discoveries that God has placed in my life. In the same sense that God is evident in the history portrayed in the Bible, He has expressed Himself in the history of the Creation, clearly evident in the evolutionary history of life.
In this book, I describe some of my experiences of the Creation as a source of revelation and wonder, experiences which have led to relationship, love and worshipful thanks. In describing experiences, ideas and conclusions, there is the explicit recognition that the Creation and Scripture make a powerful combination for a better understanding of our God.
It is obvious that our modern relationship with the Creation is fundamentally flawed. Too many people today are missing the blessing of personal experiences with nature and this affects our relationship with each other, with God and with our environment. Distancing ourselves from God’s gifts always results in loss at some level. There is, too, a desperate need to come to grips with the problem of how we should live on this planet, and how we should interact with our environment. We’re not taking care of the planetary home we’ve inherited and the current environmental crisis is only one conspicuous expression of that lack of relationship. Much of what I write here is to encourage a deeper understanding of how God has worked, and continues to work, in the Creation – and that can lead to a deeper relationship with our Deity.
Throughout this book I have referred to God as He. For some of you, instead of frowning as I repeatedly use this gender to describe the Deity, please be patient, in the realization that I recognize (and consider it self-evident) that God is not of any sex. My use is merely a simplified choice that eliminates the need to repeat “He and/or She”.
Some readers may not believe that evolution took place at all (a feature prevalent among many North Americans Christians). To you, I ask that you consider, for the length of this book, that God can do more than we can ask or imagine. My hope is that you might imagine, for a short time, what it might mean if God did use evolution to bring about His universe and what that might mean for you, for His church, and for this world we live in.
“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27: 4).
Edmonton, Alberta is near the 53rd parallel, far enough north that there are only six native tree species and winters often dip below -40 Celsius. Sandwiched between the northern boreal forest and central prairies in an ecozone called the aspen parkland, it is yet a region of striking diversity, particularly when one pays attention to the smaller life forms. It was here that the course of my life was changed by an insect, and where I understood for the first time that there was a connection between nature and the face of God.
In 1960, my large Dutch-immigrant family lived in an old farmhouse on the outskirts of the city in an area surrounded by meadows, woods and swamps. It was a busy household, full of life and laughter, immersed in work, study, and church. I went to a strict Christian private school and attended the Christian Reformed church twice on Sundays, plus one evening during the week for catechism, another evening for youth group. The adults in my world, and particularly my parents, were completely serious about their faith, treating the King of Kings as a given truth, and I believed the same. Prayer was (and remains) a daily part of my existence.
In the midst of this full social scene, my six year old ear heard the insistent siren call of the outdoors. I had discovered that natural wonders were waiting for me and I woke each day with the hum of excitement that all explorers know. I spent my time scouting out worms and beetles under logs, damselflies emerging from their nymphal skins at the edges of ponds, and bees and camouflaged spiders on the asters in the meadows. I loved the peace, punctuated by the calls of birds and grasshoppers. I was enthralled by the complexity and detail, the amazing myriad of new life forms exploding into being each spring, and the winter mysteries too – the fly larvae coping at minus 40 degree temperatures, still flexible inside galls, and an outlandish patch of growing grass kept warm by a burning underground bog. I spent hours rearing frogs from tadpoles, trying to make pets out of ground squirrels, and capturing a host of insects. Jars were filled with all sorts of different caterpillars and I fed them what I thought they liked to eat and studied them as they grew. Some died but others formed cocoons or chrysalises and I would be thrilled to watch them emerge later as beautiful moths or butterflies, feeling as if I had received little gifts, opening right in front of my eyes.
One afternoon, while watching a moth emerge from her cocoon, I had an electric revelation that demanded all of my attention. This marvelous moth, with its fully formed legs and antennae, and wings with swirling patterns of iridescent scales, had come from a rather non-descript caterpillar I had captured earlier. A transformation from worm to fairy. Although I’d seen this before, something was new to me here, for I was suddenly aware of a whole new facet of God; I recognized, explicitly, for the first time in my life, that there was an intimate relationship between God and His Creation, and that the Holy Spirit was present in the small creatures I was enamored with. This insect epiphany was a revelation that would bud and grow throughout the years. It was a vital part of my experience that provided an increasing awareness that some of my religious training and so much of my society had lost touch with many core truths regarding the Creation. I have always considered this a gift from the Holy Spirit that has led me into a deeper and deeper understanding of what relationships are about, with God, with my fellow human being and with the Creation itself.
While I spent my early years engaged in every aspect of nature I encountered, by the time I was 11 years old my interest became especially focused on insects. I spent hours collecting, rearing all sorts of larvae of different groups of insects, and preserving some of them on pins. I watched and learned and watched some more. My spiritual world was relatively simple – what I saw was amazing and God, as author, was magnificent.
When my family moved into the city I had the good fortune to meet Isobel Hendra, whose father Kenneth Bowman, had collected moths in Alberta for many years and she taught me how to gently spread the delicate wings of moths and butterflies and how to make a properly pinned collection, all neatly arranged in old cigar boxes.
When I was in high school another remarkable circumstance further directed my life – it turned out that the Department of Entomology at the University of Alberta, about 20 minutes from my home, was one of the best schools in North America to study the evolutionary biology of insects. I met Dr. George Ball, a specialist in the taxonomy of ground beetles and a generous man. He took me under his wing, inviting me to work for him on Saturdays during the school year. He’d pick me up in the morning at 7:30 and off we’d go together to the university. In a laboratory with frost swirls on the windows, I pinned and labeled thousands of beetles George had collected in tropical Mexico and imagined myself collecting insects in those very places as I added the accompanying labels. I wondered what it would be like to go on expeditions myself, discovering new species in the Mexican mountains of Oaxaca and Chiapas.
I worked my summer months for another professor, Dr. Bruce Heming, who was quite excited to be studying thrips, which are slender tiny insects that wander about in flowers. I went for coffee breaks where the professors and graduate students discussed their work, argued scientific concepts, described their field trips and were hugely excited by their experiences. Surrounded by steaming mugs and inspired faces, I learned that there were thousands of species of ground beetles, how their features showed how they were related to one another, how each of their distributions made sense if you knew how they were related, and how their fossil record fit into these pictures. I learned that thrips expand small membranous balloons at the end of their feet when they want to walk and how this allows them to traverse the undersides of flowers, how some wood-boring beetles can find dead wood by detecting dying forest fires with infrared receptors, and I learned all about the physiology of flight. How I loved those coffee breaks and lunch hours! I was completely drawn in and encouraged to share what I’d seen and thought, as if I was an equal – truly a gift to an aspiring young scientist. These hours of learning provided a wonderful focus because, slowly but surely, their evolutionary framework made sense of everything I’d experienced. It was like a series of lightbulbs going on in my brain. For the first time, I began to see how my observations were part of a much bigger historical story.
As I grew in my understanding of the Creation, my relationship with God also matured and deepened. Increasingly, I found I could hear God’s voice most clearly while outdoors. And I found that the more I experienced and learned about nature, the more I could see that the Creation itself was a source of vision, helping me to interpret what I saw and learned in the church, the way I looked at God, and how I understood my personal relationships. At the same time, my Scriptural training continued in a private Christian school and by going to church twice on Sundays, and attending catechism and, later, youth group. I memorized all the judges and kings of the Old Testament, the names of the books in the Bible, along with the wealth of Bible stories, learned the details of biblical history and ins and out of theology. I also learned about how the Christian Reformed church to which I belong, was superior to all other denominations (a fallacy that quickly fell as I met others in denominations from “the other side”).
As I developed into a scientist, I experienced a deepening tear between what my church professed and what humans had discovered about the universe. Growing up in Calvinist surroundings, I recognized that my experience of nature was not a popular theme within the church’s climate. Calvinism prides itself in a rigorous theology that interprets all of scripture and applies it to every perceived realm of our lives. It was striking and rather revealing to me that my experience of insects did not have a place within this strict and uncompromising religious environment. It was my first awareness that some of God’s truths that were present in nature were either outside the paradigm of the church, or appeared to be direct threats. Certainly, there was the recognition that the beauty of flowers and the stars reflected the glory of God and that nature was wondrously complex. But that was about as far as it went. Meanwhile, sermons included dire admonitions to those who would consider worshiping God in nature, rather than in the church. And, of course, there were the repeated themes of ‘Scientists say, but as Christians we believe ….’, as if discoveries in the Creation could undermine the true nature of God. In the midst of this swirl of ideas and warnings, I couldn’t find anything in my Bible to contradict what I was discovering. I discuss this further below.
By the time I finished high school, I was itching to go to university to study entomology. I wanted to learn how to think more logically and clearly about the insect diversity that I loved. As I studied more and more, both at the university and on my own, I learnt that evolutionary biology provides the basis for interpreting all features of life on this planet. As a basis for understanding the ancient and complex history of life, over and over again, biological patterns made sense only in the light of evolution, a statement made by a famous scientist Theodosius Dobzhansky many years earlier. Whether it was a given physical feature, a developmental characteristic, the distribution of a species, or the fossil record, all of it made sense only in the light of evolutionary relationships. It became obvious that the Creationist model I’d grown up with was fatally flawed. This turned into a hugely interesting question – could what I learned from the Scriptures and what I sensed in prayer and in spirit be reconciled with what I learned about the Creation? Could there indeed be a unified theory of the Universe, centered on a combination of science and faith?
Of course, during this time I became very aware of the conflict between Creationist and evolutionary perspectives within both my own denomination and the church at large. I read voraciously and covered a wide spectrum of interpretation and thought. Much of the literature was written by theologians while many of the scientists writing Creationist literature were associated with the Institute for Creation Research in California. Most theologians seemed to agree that there was no scriptural basis for a rejection of the belief that evolution was the means by which God created the world. They recognized that much of the language of the scriptures was not meant to be literal and that it was not to be treated as a scientific document. They knew that ‘factual’ inconsistencies in the Scriptures are unimportant because much of the language of the Bible is either poetical or points to themes and principles. Indeed, it is very striking that the two Creation stories in Genesis 1-2 give differing accounts, inconsistencies which must have been obvious to the original writers and compilers of Genesis and which they did not eliminate. They must have assumed that their readers would know that the stories serve to point to the nature of God and His relationship to us. The exact details were, and remain, unimportant as factual statements.
I spent further time investigating the Creationist school and found, to my chagrin, what appeared to be clear examples of fabrication and misinterpretation of data. I read Henry Morris’ book ‘The Twilight of Evolution’, a popularized Creationist account discussing what was said to be fatally flawed in evolutionary thought. I looked up the original source of each of his examples and quotes taken from the work of evolutionary biologists – and discovered that every one was taken out of context or had been misrepresented. I discovered that Creationist’s representations of dating techniques were inaccurate (e.g. failing to point out that radiocarbon dating was independently supported by tree ring analysis) and that the fossil record was actually becoming more and more complete (but with the logical result that every newly discovered intermediate fossil immediately made two new gaps in the record). Other statements regarding problems with the second law of thermodynamics, the presence of human footprints together with those of dinosaurs, the impossibility of the human eye having evolved, etc., etc., etc. are either just plain wrong or are serious misinterpretations of what scientists know. The evidence for Creationism and its descendant school ‘Intelligent Design’ is so inadequate that I could not find one example which supported a Creationist position.
I was also disturbed to be unable to find a clear testimony of the Creationists’ motivation. Was it their desire to serve God in their own interpretation of the Creation that led them to conclusions that differed from most theologians and the scientific community at large? Were they open to the possibility that God worked in more complex ways then they could imagine? There seemed to be no sense of divine calling and the further I looked, the more I became convinced that the tactics they used, their interpretation of data, and their motivations were suspect and manipulative, not characteristics I wanted to emulate. In addition to this, none of them had specific training in evolutionary biology, ecology, historical geology or any other arena of science which actually deals with evolutionary patterns. Having a doctorate in dentistry or engineering doesn’t give much background in evolution, just as my background in entomology and evolutionary biology is poor preparation for doing root canals or designing bridges.
As I read further, I also realized that there were some biologists who were using evolutionary themes to suggest that the Bible could not be true, that Christianity was fatally flawed and that God didn’t exist. I read such authors carefully but found their arguments unacceptable. They too were interpreting the Bible literally, took Creationists at their word, and seemed to take the position that some Christians represented all of Christian thought. I found their understanding of Christianity to be terribly weak and I could find no evidence within this camp that contradicted my convictions in either God or the Bible. However, in the same way that the Creationist position did not undermine my belief in the Bible, the overextended conclusions by some evolutionists that God didn’t exist did not undermine my understanding that evolution itself had taken place on the earth.
Having said that, this book is not about the conflict between Creationists and evolutionists. I take it for granted that scientific information supports evolution as a model for interpreting the diversity of life we see around us. The evidence for life having evolved on our planet is overwhelming and forms a highly integrated, complex story that provides an excellent basis for interpretating everything we know about life on our life. It would be a denial of all that I and many thousands of other scientists have learned about the Creation to reject that interpretation.
This is not, of course, to say that evolutionary biology is an area of science where there is little debate or argument. On the contrary, evolutionary biologists are, and certainly will continue to be, embroiled in many differences of interpretation. This is similar to the arguments among neurobiologists about the processes and functioning of the brain. No one would argue that the brain does not exist or that is not made up of cells. However, all these neurobiologists are involved in arguments about how it develops and how it functions. This is in the nature of doing good science. In the same way, we also recognize that the basic model of evolutionary biology is securely based on literally millions of observations that form a secure and integrated whole, but with the interpretation of many specific details yet being argued about. The investigations of morphologists, palaeontologists, embryologists, systematists (studying classifications and evolutionary trees), and studies of development, all point to the validity of recognizing that life has evolved on this planet over hundreds of millions of years. Such integration and complexity supports the validity of believing that life on this planet has evolved, that all life on this planet is related and has ultimately descended from a common ancestor. How that life evolved, what causes variation within species and how species split are still contentious areas of active research and debate. We have some reasonable clues to some questions but in other areas have only a poor understanding (e.g. the causes of extinction).
The portrayal by some Christians that such debate is a sign of weakness, and that evolutionary biology is therefore untrustworthy, is misleading and false. If we were not confronted by problems of interpretation, were we not confounded by some data, if we claimed to understand all problems, we would no longer be doing our job properly. It is in the very nature of science and our investigations that some of our current interpretation of how evolution works will be revised. In a sense, this is not very different than our process of understanding the Bible. Even after all these years, Christians are still studying and arguing about the details of Scripture, even though we all accept the basic tenets of our faith. In short, Christians no longer have any excuse for not accepting evolution as a reality of Creation and for ignoring the implications of what this tells us about ourselves and our God.
Over the years, I have come into contact with many students and colleagues in the Christian church and within academic circles who have struggled with the conflict between evolutionary concepts and those of the Creationists. Nearly all have found themselves in the frightening and awkward position of discovering huge differences between the training they’d received in their churches and the events they see in the world: real fossils, dating methods, homologous characters (features in different groups which have corresponding parts; like the front leg of a horse and the wing of a bird), embryological comparisons, zoogeographic patterns and much, much more, pitted against a depiction of a God from their church backgrounds who made the world in 6 days just 6,000 years ago. It is depressing and sometimes faith destroying to hold a Bible in one hand and a skull of Homo erectus in the other as mutually exclusive items.
It is very unfortunate that one of the most contentious scientific issue among many Christians today remains the question of the authenticity of evolution. It has caused an inordinate amount of strife within our religion and has driven numbers of scientists and students away from the church. In addition to this, Creationism and its offspring, Intelligent Design, are clearly viewed by nearly all in the scientific community as absurd and good evidence of how out of touch many Christians are. It is not a big step from viewing Christians as a superstitious, ignorant group to rejecting the validity of Christianity and the presence of God himself.
Such ruinous conflict reflects two aspects that demand examination. The first is that the church, in its breadth, has often mistakenly demanded that the Scriptures be scientifically accurate, a belief which most knowledgeable theologians would reject. Thankfully, a number of churches, at least formally, have relatively recently stated that evolution is theologically acceptable. Pope John Paul II accepted evolution in 1996 “as an effectively proven fact” and a number of other “traditional” dominations have done the same. Most evangelical denominations have not.
The second is the frequent failure of the church to train Christians in personal prayer. Christians are called to ask for maturity, insight, wisdom and knowledge and to accept the revelations that God provides. We are called to understand the nature of our environment (i.e. the Creation) and to interpret the Scriptures. In doing so, we should recognize that we have nothing to fear in our explorations of the world around us, when this is rooted in a prayerful relationship with God. And we should expect some major surprises in what God reveals if we are truly open to exploration.
John tells Christians to test the spirits to see if they are from God (1 John 4:1) – we can do so by opening our hearts to God’s revelations and by praying about what we’re experiencing (the promise is that prayers are answered). Revelation may be overwhelming and its implications powerful, but we surely have no choice but to run the race we’re called to. Although we’re often comforted by predictability and stasis, our call as Christians is to continue to examine and explore our relationships – and what greater call can there be than to explore our relationship with God and the universe He has placed us in?
The discoveries of evolutionary biologists provide serious challenges to some traditional Christian thought, especially in providing insight into human nature and how our natural world has been constructed. The following chapters deal with a variety of these themes and examine some of the implications they have on our understanding of the nature of God, and our relationship with Him, to the Creation and to each other. The standing invitation of Christianity is to seek to know God better and to live with the truth as God reveals Himself, not as we might wish or demand. My experience has been in accepting the invitation to “Taste and see that the Lord is good” that there have been some unsettling revelations in the midst of a wonderful journey. We shouldn’t expect anything less from our vast and awesome God.
1. Most Creationists also reject the idea that climate change is influenced by humans. How does a Creationist perspective spill over into family structure, political beliefs, and other cultural values?
2. Have you had experiences of nature that have connected you more deeply to God? What are these and what do they mean for your faith?
3. Do different Christians potentially have different experiences of nature? Are they all equally valid?
4. How does the Bible portray experiences of the Creation and their importance?
‘Apprehend God in all things, for God is in all things,
Every single creature is full of God and is a book about God.
Every creature is a word of God.
If I spent enough time with the tiniest creature
– even a caterpillar – I would never have to prepare a sermon.
So full of God is every creature.’
– Meister Eckhart (1260- 1327)
Nearly 400 years ago Galileo, in defending himself against the attacks of fellow Christians, suggested that the church had to acknowledge the discoveries of science. He pointed out that it would be “a terrible detriment for the souls if people found themselves convinced by proof of something that it was made a sin to believe”. This was surely a prophetic word. Instead of incorporating an increasingly detailed understanding of the Creation into our understanding of God, many church leaders and theologians dug in their heels, working hard at ignoring the messages coming from the Creation. They correctly perceived that scientific revelations describing the Creation conflicted with their rigid interpretation of Scripture and they were determined to either ignore or argue against those discoveries. As a result, numerous Christians today believe that the world is only 6,000 years old, that Noah had every species of animal on the Ark, and that every word (or nearly every word) of the Scriptures is to be interpreted literally and that climate change has nothing to do with the pollution humans generate. Some believe that the conclusions of scientists are ‘of the world’, inherently untrustworthy, and therefore not to be taken seriously.
Some modern Christians appear so divorced from the natural world that they are unaware in any significant way of where their food is coming from and that a healthy ecology is fundamental to the health of human communities. They seem blind to the reality that their lifestyle choices are contributing to the destruction of local ecosystems and those in other parts of the planet and that this results in devastating consequences for people living elsewhere.
Our failure to have a deep relationship with the natural world flies in the face of traditional Christian understanding. It is true that much of Christian thought and theology is based on the Bible, because it is recognized as the infallible Word of God, written by humans but inspired by the Holy Spirit. It is seen as the chief voice of God, giving direction and perspective to His people. Early Christians, however, also acknowledged that God is also recognized in the Creation, based on even earlier roots of Judaic understanding. Justin Martyr, in the early second century AD, professed God as ‘maker and fashioner of the whole creation, visible and invisible’. The opening line of the Apostles’ Creed, originating in the third century, is ‘I believe in God, the Father, the almighty, creator of heaven and earth’ and the Nicene Creed, first formulated in 325 AD and finalized in 381 AD, states ‘We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is seen and unseen’. Since those times, there have been many who have extolled the value and importance of the Creation as God’s voice to His people. Perhaps the best known and loved is St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), a Christian who lived with the central credo of loving all that was around him, committed to God, the people around him and the entire Creation. He wrote, as part of his ‘Canticle of the Sun’ the following beautiful description of his experience of God’s handiwork:
‘Most high, most great and good Lord, to You belong praises, glory and every blessing; to You alone do they belong, most high, and no one is worthy to name You.
Bless You, my Lord, for the gift of all Your creatures and especially for our brother sun, by whom the day is enlightened. He is radiant and bright, of great splendour, bearing witness to You, O my God.
Bless You, my Lord, for our sister the moon and the stars; You have formed them in the heavens, fair and clear.
Bless You, my Lord, for my brother the Wind, for the air, for cloud and calm, for every kind of weather, for by them You sustain all creatures.
Blessed be my Lord for our sister water, which is very useful, humble, chaste and precious.
Bless You, my Lord, for brother fire, gay, noble, and beautiful, untamable and strong by whom You illumine the night.
Bless You, my Lord, for our mother the earth, who sustains and nourishes us, who brings forth all kinds of fruit, herbs and bright-hued flowers.
Bless You, my Lord, for those who pardon for love of You, and who patiently bear infirmity and tribulation. Happy are those who abide in peace, for by You, Most High, they will be crowned.
Bless you, my Lord, for our sister, death of body, from whom no living man can escape. Woe to him who dies in a state of mortal sin. Happy are they who at the hour of death are found in obedience to Your holy will, for the second death cannot hurt them,
Praise you and bless you my Lord; give Him thanks and serve Him with great humility.’
These early expressions of the importance of God’s revelation in the Creation were followed by Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274), perhaps the greatest of the Middle Age theologians, who laid the detailed theological groundwork for recognizing the Creation as God’s revelation, a source of instruction that must be brought together with Scripture in the mature Christian’s faith and understanding. Since then, it has been explicitly understood by all mainstream churches that Christians know God through both the Creation and the Scriptures.
These and many other ancient writings were written as a result of serious reflection of what is written in the Bible. The Sanctus, a part of one of the most ancient of recorded Christian liturgies – ‘Holy, holy, holy, Lord God of hosts, heaven and earth are full of thy glory; glory be to thee, O Lord most high’ – is based on the words of the cherubim in Isaiah’s prophetic word – ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory'(Isaiah 6:3). The Bible is rife with other examples giving expression to God’s intimate relationship with His Creation. Perhaps the most poignant is in Job 38:1‑42:6, where God asks Job to reflect on his capacity to comprehend the depth and breadth of the relationship between God and the created world, asking in one portion ‘Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements “surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?”
A careful reading of the Scriptures shows how sadly mistaken we are if we place our knowledge of the Creation to one side. It is truly impressive to see how many Biblical references there are to God’s handiwork and its importance, from the days of Adam to the prophetic words in Revelations. Here is a small sampling:
Romans 1:20a: Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.
John 1-3, 10: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. … He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; …
1 Timothy 4:4-5: For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, provided it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by God’s word and by prayer.
Psalm 139:13-14: For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.
Colossians 1:16: … for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities – all things were created through him and for him. [Him refers to Jesus]
Psalm 104:24-25: O Lord, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. Yonder is the sea, great and wide, creeping things innumerable are there, living things both small and great.
Revelation 4:11: You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.
Ecclesiastes 3:11a: God has made everything beautiful in its time.
Psalm 145:4‑7: One generation shall laud your works to another, and shall declare your mighty acts. On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.
Recognizing that both the Creation and Scripture are God’s revelation provides us with an excellent and remarkable tool to better understand ourselves, the world we live in and the God we love. Just as the character of an artist can be better grasped when two works are compared, our God can be more realistically understood when we know that the same Almighty voice is present in these two works. It becomes quite impossible, therefore, for the Scriptures to be saying one thing, and the Creation to reveal the opposite. It is inconceivable for God to give us one truth in the Creation, and a conflicting version in the Scriptures. This is a tremendously exciting viewpoint because it allows the inquiring Christian to carefully compare the two messages. Knowing that we believe in one omnipotent God, having a relationship with one Lord of all, we have the opportunity to hear the same voice, expressing itself through two different media. If there are apparent conflicts, it can only be because of our ignorance and our restricted our views of God are. By examining these apparent discrepancies, we can develop an increasingly integrated hold of a God-based reality. Of course, such study would also mean that some of our cherished beliefs would need to be modified, that some theologies would need to be abandoned or seriously restructured, and that we would grow and mature in our understanding. What a great adventure this would be – to better know our God, ourselves and the universe we live in!
Since the renaissance beginning in the 14th century, scientists have been the primary source of information on how the universe is constructed and how it physically came about. They are the primary fount of knowledge regarding the nature of the universe for the Christian and we must recognize them for what they are: scholars studying the Creation. It doesn’t matter whether those scientists believe in God or not, the data and patterns they discover remain characteristics of the created universe. Discoveries that are repeatedly tested by fellow scientists and increasingly become part of a complex story do not depend on the faith of the scientists involved. Electrons flow through wire to heat your toast no matter what your theological stance (thankfully!).
This is no different, in a sense, than Greek scholars providing a more accurate interpretation of a word in original New Testament writings – whether they believe or not is a moot point. Of course, the spiritual and moral significance of that data or pattern to our lives is quite another matter. A physicist’s description of random motion of molecules in a gas cloud can be perfectly accurate but the conclusion that the direction of the universe is random and therefore that God doesn’t act, is an interpretation far beyond the observations. This would be just as unsound as arguing that the evidence of evolution indicates that God is not a Creator.
When all is said and done, science is nothing other than a description of what is seen to be happening (or has happened) in the Creation. It is a depiction of the patterns present in our universe. Although it is an innate human condition to be suspicious of outsiders, in this instance our job as Christians is to embrace the story of Creation as scientists are revealing it to us. Instead of accepting the regular presentation by many ministers and church leaders (particularly in evangelical circles) that contrasts Christian belief with scientific results, we need to reclaim our theologically profound position of accepting God’s word in both the Creation and Scriptures. Both are integral parts of God’s great story. When we reject a discovery from the Creation because a scientist doesn’t believe in God (or is perceived not to believe), we have allowed that blessed revelation to be buried because of our rigid stance, not wanting to hear anything which conflicts with our interpretation of Scripture.
In part, many Christians have already made steps in this direction. We generally are able to give thanks to God for the work of doctors and nurses in bringing about healing to ourselves or loved ones. However, we do not know, in most cases, whether those medical personnel who helped us are Christians or not. We merely know that those professionals know something about the Creation – in this instance, of the human body and what can go wrong with it – and we’re grateful for their knowledge and skills in bringing healing into our lives. We recognize that God has revealed a portion of His Creation to us through these people, no matter their theological stance.
It is important at this point to make a clear distinction between science and technology. Science itself provides a description of the Creation but technology applies that information in a concrete way to our lives. Science provides the means for us to understand God better through His created order, but it also provides the means to use that information to develop technology. And as is so often true in our history as humans, once we know something, we often start to think of how we can use that information for manipulation and power. It is a wonderful thing to have knowledge about atoms and subatomic particles, but the resultant technology consequently developed atomic bombs that allowed hundreds of thousands of people to be killed. That petroleum can be used to generate energy is an interesting part of the created order, but subsequent technology has resulted in combustion engines that produce enough pollution to choke our global atmosphere. Some technology has obviously been of great benefit to humans. A steady supply of food, better insulated homes and the availability of medicine have made the lives of many people more comfortable and secure. However, equally true is that many of our technological advances have been to the serious detriment of our lives and our environment. We as Christians should be seriously discussing the impact of technology on our lifestyle and those of others. Much of what is called progress actually undermines our communities, families, and individual lives.
It is sometimes difficult for the average person to distinguish between what scientists discover and what scientists say the results mean. Discoveries are increasingly complex and detailed and it is challenging for many to know the difference between a report of a pattern which is present in the Creation and further interpretation as to its moral or spiritual significance.
This is actually not much different than the challenge of interpreting Scripture. We have a long history of Biblical scholarship which has provided highly detailed analyses of each portion of the Scriptures. As part of that analysis, scholars have pointed out that some of the towns in the Exodus story as given in Genesis did not exist until long after the Exodus was purported to have taken place. There are numbers of other problems where archeology does not confirm Biblical accounts. Some may conclude that this is good evidence that the Scriptures are inaccurate and therefore suspect. Other, more simple comparisons, show that the Bible is internally inconsistent – Judas Iscariot died in two different manners (Matthew 27:5; Acts 1:18); there are two different sequences in which plants, animals and humans were created in the two creation stories (Genesis 1-2), there were either one or two angels in the empty resurrection tomb (Matthew 28:2; John 20:12), the disciples fell asleep either one or three times in the Garden of Gethsemane (Matthew 26:40-45; Luke 22:45), and either Jethro or Hobab was Moses’ father-in-law (Exodus 3:1; Numbers 10:29). Again, some may take this to mean that the Scriptures could not be Holy Spirit inspired because it obviously includes errors of detail. We count, therefore, on a spiritual perspective, good theology, and wise Christian leadership to point to the reality of the meaning of Scripture, teaching that the Bible includes only certain historical realities (such as the birth, death, and resurrection of Jesus) but is primarily about teaching us principles and values. Many (but not all!) of the details are absolutely insignificant and unimportant and when we are caught up in their verbatim interpretation, we lose the central biblical message. Literalist interpretation misidentifies poetical language as literal truth, also missing, thereby, the underlying meaning.
It is often difficult to interpret the moral and spiritual meaning of some scientific discoveries – witness the recent turmoil over stem cell research. We therefore need committed Christians who are scientists in our churches who are well versed in the details of science to help us to understand the significance of what science has and is discovering about the Creation. We need geneticists to address issues regarding genes, palaeontologists to address questions about the fossil record, electronic engineers to speak about telecommunications, economists to speak about economics and a host of others to provide spiritual perspective on a wide array of issues, if we are to be engaged in depth as Christians in our world.
John the Evangelist suggests that we should ‘not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God’ (1 John 4:1) and this is as valid in our interpretation of the Creation as it is of the Scriptures. Testability should be our general guide to our understanding of reality; we should test our thoughts and feelings with both Scripture and the Creation, pray for discernment to understand God’s voice and listen to the wise voices in our church leadership. Science has shown the value of understanding our environment and ourselves through the discovery of repeated patterns in the Creation. Scientific concepts of reality need to demonstrate these repeatable patterns before they are broadly accepted in the secular world. When they are, inquiring Christians should apply the same techniques as they do to their Scriptures, asking God to make His discernment present in our hearts. We should encourage those with this gift of discernment to bring their testimony regarding the Creation to His people and we should listen carefully. God promises to be faithful in revealing Himself when we seek Him out and this is as true in our pursuit of understanding the Creation as it is of our Scriptures.
Christians should never be in a position of needing to defend ‘Biblical’ truths based on narrow Biblical interpretation for something that we can clearly see is not true in the world. Not only does it look ridiculous to those who are outside of our faith, but it drives many of those who heed the call and who think deeply about their world to leave the church. Most of all, such cultivated ignorance must be repugnant to God. He wants us to worship Him with all of our hearts, souls, minds and strength. He put us into the world to fully grapple with what He has revealed. As we develop an increasingly detailed understanding of the structure and history of the Creation and see apparent conflicts with our Scriptures, we must ask ourselves what God is trying to say to us. It is important to remember that the Bible is not a scientific document. It was never meant to be a strict depiction of either the structure of the universe or of history. It is a revelation of God’s story to us of who and what we are, and how we are to view our world. It is a call to be in deep relationship with a living, vibrant God. By comparing the story of the Bible and the Creation, we can eliminate gross errors and refine our theology – indeed, most often when we are adamant about the scientific accuracy of a particular Bible verse or set of verses, it suggests that we have missed the point of the story – what God is really trying to tell us.
Modern Christians have generally paid only lip service to what revelation from the Creation actually means. For many, the created universe merely indicates that God is remarkably powerful and that there is value of acknowledging the wonder of a sunset, the beauty of a flower and the mystery of a new-born baby. This level of reflection is more shallow than that of our religious ancestors, who had a much less detailed knowledge of the universe than we do today but could more fully appreciate what was in their immediate environment. Our modern understanding calls us to something much more than this. In part because Christians have delegated the interpretation of the natural world to scientists, who are often viewed as outside of the faith, we have failed to see that God has been revealing Himself to us in a rather spectacularly detailed way, so that we now know the charge of an electron, the density of the sun, the DNA sequence of humans and fruit flies, and the distance to each of the stars in the Big Dipper. It should be obvious that we can learn a great deal more about our Lord if we are prepared to examine the Creation in some detail. Some conclusions may challenge our traditional interpretations of scripture or doctrines but if these conclusions are based on real observations, we must surely deal with them as revelations, grapple with them and continue to expand our understanding of the nature of God and His work. Most of all, Christians want to study both the Bible and the Creation because we want to improve our knowledge of God. By understanding more about the handiwork of God, we come to a better understanding of the modus operandus of God – it is another expression of who and what God is.
For most of our history, Christians have gone back again and again to study the Scriptures, reflecting on the nature of God and what it means for our lives and our relationships. Knowing God and His will helps us to live a holy life, a life that reflects God’s wishes for us. But if the Creation is also the voice of God, one that has become remarkably detailed with the advent of the scientific revolution, what does that say about our collective ignorance as Christians? If we are disregarding God’s revelation to us in the Creation, we need to sit bolt upright in our spiritual chairs because to ignore God’s voice is nothing other than what the Bible calls sin. If we choose to listen only to the Bible to the exclusion of the Creation, we have decided that we need to listen only to part of God’s story. It would be no different than believing only in the New Testament, or picking just a few verses from preferred Bible books to live by.
Of course this has been done numerous times in the history of the church, leading to the development of a variety of heresies. Here are a few example. The recognition that it is our responsibility to protect the diversity that God has created in our world led Christian Reformed churches in South Africa to support apartheid. They argued that keeping blacks and whites separate was preserving the differences that God had created. More recently, Prosperity Christianity, proposing that real Christians will be blest with abundant material possessions and good health, is a modern example of skewed Christianity based on very limited Bible verses. Another would be the popularity of apocalyptic literature, using biblical prophecy as the basis for a detailed guide to the immediate future – when a careful reading of the Scriptures shows that the end days will come as an unpredictable surprise and that prophecy itself is for encouraging hope and steadfast faith. The rise of right wing Christians support of Trumpism from 2017-2021 in the USA was intimately tied to economic and cultural perspectives that clearly were elitist and divisive and in conflict with the central message of Jesus to love one another.
Similarly, Christians cannot just pick and choose only that information from the Creation which fits their preconceived ideas about how to interpret Scripture and which supports their own cherished beliefs. The Big Bang origin of the universe fits rather nicely with God’s command on the first day of Creation in Genesis 1, “Let there be light”, but radiocarbon dating conflicts with a literalist interpretation of many dates in the Old Testament. The discovery that a 0.0001% change in the charge of electrons would mean that the universe could not exist shows how perfectly God has made the universe, but the discovery of random physical processes makes us uncomfortable. Our God wants to be fully accepted in all of His works and selecting comforting texts from Scripture and reassuring data from the Creation is contrary to living a full and open relationship with our Lord.
There is a great appeal to be absolutely certain of our beliefs. It helps to fend off feelings of misgiving and insecurity in a rapidly changing world. It helps to battle feelings of doubt and inadequacy and, when we can take a rigid stand, especially if it is shared by the group, we can cultivate an aura of righteousness, standing solidly on the Word of the Lord or rigid doctrine, and simultaneously feeling superior to those who do not share our beliefs. Unfortunately, the Bible suggests something else – that there is great mystery and uncertainty and that because we cannot hope to understand too much, we need to have our faith rooted in a real relationship with our God. Prayer, then, becomes, the modus operandus for the Christian, asking for God’s direction about what the Scriptures and the Creation are saying for one’s own life and the world we live in. The alternative is a life driven to absolutes in both religion and science – in which Bible verses are interpreted rigidly and science is portrayed in a very skewed manner, with only select observations being accepted. This may work for a given individual but the structure is a house of cards – our offspring and outsiders often reject what is clearly a closed system of beliefs, impervious to the mystery presented by our God and the complex reality of the world around them.
A central theme of this book is an examination of some of the implications of biological evolution for the Christian. More than any other area of the sciences, evolutionary biology concerns itself with an examination of the genealogical relationships that exist between all organisms (i.e. evolutionary relationships) and the history of life on our planet. It reveals that all life is related, all sharing the presence of DNA; that life is ancient, with the earliest life forms known from 3.5 billion years ago; and that species have speciated over and over again to produce what is likely at least 5 million species currently on our world. Ever since Darwin published his “Origin of Species” in 1859, scientists have explored literally hundreds of thousands of characteristics of, and patterns produced by evolution. As such, we now have a highly detailed model providing us with an elaborate and delightful story explaining the diversity of life around us. Many years ago Theodosius Dobzhansky, the father of fruit fly genetics, said ‘Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution’. His point has been so amply supported that today we have literally hundreds of thousands of evolutionary scenarios explaining the diversity of structures and species from a historical perspective. The fossil record, embryological information, distribution of species, the structures of all organisms, and many other features all make fascinating evolutionary stories.
If stars in the night sky and the beauty of flowers reveal the majesty of God, if the whole earth really is the Lord’s, and if our God is truly omnipotent and present in every corner of the Creation, then every discovery of science, every detailed peek at our complex universe, every unveiling of a part of the universe should reveal something about the Creator. Evolutionary biology, as a subset of science, therefore gives the Christian the opportunity to examine how God portrays himself in creating life (including us) on our planet. Surely God wouldn’t bother providing us with such knowledge without expecting us to pay attention – surely He must be trying to say something to us!
The patterns that scientists have uncovered concerning the history of life on our planet are, therefore, revelations of the Creation – they are indications of how God has worked and is continuing to work in putting our planet together. We now have a detailed history in the biological world of who and what we are and we have an excellent record of how God developed the whole of Creation. An understanding of that history gives us a vital and important source of revelation for our lives today. These patterns have ramifications for our faith, our relationship with God and others, our relationship with the Creation itself and our understanding of the Scriptures.
Some Christians feel that much of what is portrayed by science and particularly by evolutionary studies is ‘of the world’, pointing to such scripture as ‘Do not love the world or anything in the world’ (1 John 2:15) and heeding warnings about ‘Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up’ (1 Corinthians 8:1). Although the Scriptures actually honours and promotes the concept of knowledge, many Christians are wary, believing that study of the Creation leads one into the realm of ‘the world’. This, unfortunately, is a sorry error – for the world that the Scriptures warns of is not the created order but the world of sinful humans. The world to be wary of is made of the constructs of human thought and action. The discovery of about 20,000 human genes is not ‘of the world’ – it is God’s revelation to us. Rather, it is the belief that science can explain all of reality, that discoveries can prove God doesn’t exist, that we should selfishly cultivate our base desires, that we are nothing more than naked apes, that we can justify rape, murder, genocide, or need to be content with injustice, that are actually ‘of the world’. It is those beliefs that eliminate God, deny the redeeming work of Jesus or reject the working of the Holy Spirit that we need to be alert to. The distinction between Creation knowledge and ‘the world’ remains a serious misunderstanding in many Christian circles today.
One of the results of this perspective, so prominent in evangelical circles, is that these churches, powerful as they are in pursuing spiritual expression, are generally missing poets, economists, painters, historians and scientists. Of course, there are Christians with these professions within these churches but they are not seen as a vital resource. In my experience, most have their heads down regarding the work they do and how it may impact their Christian experience and those of others. As is true for every generation, there is a need for a renaissance within the church at large to cultivate a new appraisal of what it means to be a Christian within our current society. One of those important areas is a modern understanding of our relationship to the Creation.
1. How does your knowledge of nature influence your faith?
2. Can scientists be believed when they discover something and report it to society? Can we conscientiously thank scientists for advances in medicine but ignore what they discover about rocks or stars?
3. If “the whole Earth is the Lords”, how can we best put together information from Creation with what we understand about the Bible? Should one modify the other as we learn more?
4. If God made the universe, would His handiwork tell us something about who our God is?
‘Change is the nursery
Of music, joy, life and eternity’ – John Donne
One of most basic messages we learn from evolutionary biology is that the modern world has appeared through a complex and convoluted maze of historical events that has shaped and impacted every thing we see around us. Our entire world is a consequence of immense changes over time. The diversity and distribution of species in time and space, the behaviours they exhibit, all of their features and characteristics, and the coexistence of species in particular habitats, are all consequences of their history. Our understanding of their evolution gives us a complex and extraordinary story of how the Creation has unfolded. It is a marvelous account of great upheavals and tremendous change, shaping and modifying life through the ages to bring about our current world. It is God’s story of the history of His Creation. It is a description of processes to bring about His Earth and universe.
In 2001, my wife Annette and I were standing on the edge of a golf course in Yanchep National Park, just north of Perth in Western Australia, our faces being attacked by hundreds of little biting flies known as no-see-ums, and we were responding with exclamations of joy and wonder. We realized that we were being attacked by a species considered to be an extremely rare ‘living fossil’, a member of the genus Austroconops which was surviving only in this small corner of the globe. We had traveled from our western Canadian home to seek out this genus for a good reason. Of the estimated 15,000 species of the family of flies called ‘no-see-ums’ or ‘biting midges’ on the planet today, there are only two species of Austroconops living and both are restricted to the very southwestern corner of Australia. Despite their restricted numbers and distribution, they hold a special place in the evolutionary tree, for they represent the earliest lineage within the entire family – the first branch in the complex tree of the evolution of no-see-ums.
Scientists working on no-see-ums are particularly fortunate in having a remarkable fossil record. Because amber, as fossil resin, contains mostly small insects, no-see-ums are particularly common, with thousands of specimens available for study. And amber specimens need to be seen to be believed, for most of them are in excellent condition, looking as if they were embedded in yellow or orange plastic just last week. Most details of their antennae, wings, legs, head, thorax and abdomen are clearly visible and can be studied in almost the same detail as those living today. And best of all, ambers come in many different ages, with some as young as 15 million years ago from the Dominican Republic, to the oldest, 127 million year old amber from Lebanon. These different ambers provide small windows to the past diversity of no-see-ums through the various ages, not that different than if I could time travel and go back to collect them myself with my insect net!
Of all these ambers, fossil Austroconops are most abundant in the most ancient Lebanese amber, with 21 specimens representing four species. It is truly an amazing experience to compare these fossil specimens, so old, with the two species yet living today and see that they can be separated only on the basis of some very small details of the antennae, legs and male genitalia (a common difference between closely related insects). This similarity between the fossil and living species strongly suggests that the behaviour of the fossil species would be very similar to the ones living today. Before our expedition to Australia the only behaviour that had been previously reported was that the females preferred to bite on the face of humans. Nothing was known about their mating habits, their life cycle, or their habitat. As we studied the living species, seeing how the females discovered and bit us, how they were also biting the local western grey kangaroos, discovering their eggs, larvae and pupae for the first time, and seeing how the sexes found each other, we were struck with awe, recognizing that this was probably how these insects were living and handling their world 127 million years ago!
Of course, no-see-ums in the past didn’t live on their own but were vibrant members of a community shared with other organisms. On the basis of thousands of other fossils in the amber, as well as other fossil deposits, we are able to make a fairly good picture of what life was like in ancient Lebanon 127 million years ago – a steamy tropical swamp with a substantial forest of conifers and ferns. There were dinosaurs, pterosaurs, primitive mammals, birds, turtles, crocodiles, lizards and amphibians and a tremendous number of other insect groups ranging from terrestrial to aquatic and including plant feeders, parasites, predators, and much more, as well as other plants and microorganisms. There are even parasitic mites on the bodies of the fossil midges.
While Austroconops and a few other genera, mostly extinct, represented the no-see-ums 127 million years ago, since that time, the family exploded with diversity so that today we have 110 genera of no-see-ums on the planet. Most of these genera evolved in the past 50 million years.
The story of Austroconops is just one of hundreds of thousands of evolutionary stories in which biologists have discovered that the abundant diversity we see about us today has ancient roots. A few species and groups such as Austroconops, tuataras, coelacanths, and horseshoe crabs remain as living fossils tucked away in special habitats but the vast majority of organisms have gone through great changes during a long and complex history on our planet. During this time, seas have come and gone, volcanoes have arisen and subsided, continents have moved hundreds or even thousands of kilometers, our climate has gone through extraordinary modifications (so that our Arctic and Antarctic regions were once tropical), asteroids have slammed into the earth, ice ages emerged and melted away again, and there have been at least five major extinction events in which much of life was eliminated from the earth.
We have discovered that life originated 3.5 billion years ago, multicelled organisms 1 billion years ago, the insects 450 million years ago and the earliest flies arose 240 million years ago. The history of life over these time periods was one of continuous speciation, with single species dividing into two or more further species, coupled with both local and some global extinction events which allowed only a percentage of species to continue living. The evolutionary relationships of organisms is similar to a huge multibranched tree rooted in the distant past, with both small branches and major limbs pruned off on a periodic basis, and with many moving to other places on the globe during that time. Ecologically, whole groups of species have been replaced by other groups of species – mammals replaced dinosaurs, flowering plants replaced most of their non‑flowering predecessors, and the group of no-see-ums which commonly bite us today replaced most species of Austroconops and other, now extinct groups of no-see-ums. At the same time, there has been, especially among the insects, adaptations to whole new habitats. The plants and animals we see today came to be through a hugely complex course of continuous change.
Although each group of organisms has an evolutionary story of its own, it is important to remember the reality that every species is part of a community shared with other organisms. A species of no-see-um living today may suck blood from a crow as an adult female and have a parasitic worm inside her own body. Her eggs will develop into larvae which feed on nematodes and protozoa in the mud, and some, after becoming pupae on the mud surface, will become a tasty snack for a voracious ground beetle. And humans are in the same boat; we are dependent on other life forms for our food and health and we have a number of parasites such as head lice, pinworms, and fleas which depend on us for their existence. Species in the past were no different and scientists have discovered that there were unique types of communities present in the past. We know that musk oxen and oak trees were living together 25,000 years ago in Wisconsin during the last ice age, even though they are now separated by more than 2,000 kilometers, and that dinosaurs, small mammals, no-see-ums, dragonflies, and treeferns lived together in southern Alberta 78 million years ago. This knowledge adds another level of complexity to the history of our planet. Not only have species evolved but they did so by travelling through a milieu of complex communities that have shifted and changed in composition during the years.
In our understanding of the history of life, there is one feature which is absolutely clear. If we accept that God has brought about the diversity we see around us and that the story from the creation is valid, we must acknowledge that our Creator used an immensely complex history to bring us to our present position. Millions of species have come and gone, the world has changed tremendously, and through all that, God brought us and abundant diversity into being. It wasn’t a direct line of development, it wasn’t a straight forward, simple story, but rather one of exceptional upheaval and convoluted transformation. On the path from single celled organisms to becoming humans, our ancestors went through a great barrage of challenges. The story is so filled with disturbing events that some scientists have claimed that our presence on the earth must be the result of incredible luck. As Christians who believe that the Bible says we are meant to be here, an obvious message from the Creation is therefore this: God has spent a lot of time and a huge amount of process to bring us to this point in our history.
To learn that God works through history should be no surprise to those who know Scripture. The whole Bible is a description of an elaborate and intricate history through which God brings about His will. The route is rarely as simple ‘Here’s the problem, and here’s the solution’. The original promise of a Saviour to our early ancestors who fell into sin required the birth of a nation of believers through Abraham, the ups and downs of the kings of Israel and Judea, numerous invasions and conflicts for the nation of Israel, the dispatch of many prophets, till finally a poor Jewish baby was born in a manger in Bethlehem. By the time Jesus was hung on the cross, His disciples were truly disillusioned, and it was only His resurrection and subsequent appearances, followed by the anointing of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost that the church was subsequently established. And then the following years of church development were as complex as the history of the Old Testament. In hindsight, we see the hand of God bringing about His plan of redemption but the path is so circuitous that we wouldn’t have a hope of being able to predict it, were we living at any time in the past. It is striking that God used a whole series of Biblical settings to accomplish what He wanted. What could have been done instantly with a single word, actually took a great deal of time, involving the will and actions of a host of people and a wide variety of circumstances. This, of course, is a pattern throughout Scriptures which has been expounded on by a host of theologians. God works through history.
The same has been true of the history of the church since Biblical times. Modern Christians take it for granted that there are 27 books in the New Testament, that we believe in the Trinity but only one God, that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine and that He was born of the virgin Mary. In the first three centuries of the church, however, there were Christians who believed in two Gods and others who believed in 365 Gods. Some considered Jesus as entirely divine and others as completely human but infused with God’s presence for a time. There were Christians who considered Joseph to be Jesus’ biological father. There were Christians who considered the God of the Old Testament to be an incompetent and partially evil Deity. In addition to the books we now know in the New Testament, there were at least 16 other Gospels, six other ‘Acts’, 12 epistles, three other Apocalypses, and an assortment of other literature that various groups of Christians used as a basis for understanding their faith. It was out of great debates and power struggles that our current orthodoxy arose. It took a great deal of process to come to the central truths of Christianity in the Christian church. Of course, after the Nicene and Apostle’s Creeds were formalized, there were further debates and changes in the church. One’s stand in the church today, whatever denomination one belongs to, is the result of profound changes in the past. Without a doubt, the struggle to know the nature of our beliefs will continue in the future.
It is small wonder then, that evolutionary biologists have documented the same reality: God used a complex history to bring about the natural Creation. The same God that inspired the Holy Scriptures, also wrote His story into His Creation. It has been through a host of processes, an untold number of events, changes and permutations that God has brought about both the abundance of life forms with whom we share our planet.
So why should the discovery of the complex history in the Creation itself disturb so many people? No doubt there are many factors but one aspect is that it is part of our human nature to seek out a stable environment. We work hard to provide a safe home for ourselves and our families, we seek regular employment, a steady school environment for our children and a consistent format for worship in our churches. Much of this may be good but, for the times we live in, the drive of technology and push of materialism has meant that our lives have become increasingly predictable in many regards. Because we are creatures of comfort, we have constructed for ourselves a homogenous environment that is increasingly resistant to change. For many Christians, we too have been driven to seek stasis in our lives. We have developed Christian codes of conduct for the present, we like our comforts, and look forward to the promise of a uniform heaven later. When changes come into our lives, we are naturally traumatized and are most often discouraged by the upheaval.
This stands in stark contrast to the message from the Scriptures. It would be wonderful if God would change me, mold me, make me wiser and a more mature Christian through contemplation, reading good books and prayer. These are important tools for the faithful but the reality is that God often teaches the most important lessons in our lives by making us go through a process in which we experience trauma, pain and turmoil. It is the mature Christian who realizes that these are the tools of the trade – that it is no good asking God to change us without expecting such upheaval. God modifies us through the events in our lives, through the people we know, the work we do, the church we belong to. In the mature Christian life, we realize that we are molded. Our relationship with God changes and matures as we have real experiences in life. Very rarely (and, of course, miracles do happen) are changes instantaneous.
All of this requires a recognition of the vital importance of process. The old adage that it’s not the destination but the journey that is important, is true. If we are seeking God’s presence in our lives and trying to grow in love and wisdom, we invite change. What is truly in our hearts and what become our true motivations are the basis for the development of a sound Christian life. If that is true, what else can there be but change and process? Process is how we grow, develop and cultivate relationships. Otherwise we’re stuck in a dull stasis, living by a set of rules and expectations (Jesus had problems with the pharisees over that issue) and seeing this life as primarily something to get through, till we finally reach the Pearly Gates. If we are not in a process with our God and the people around us, our experience of events can become very dry and empty. The alternative to a God-dependent life is to fill in the blanks of what our societies and/or churches tell us, leaving us with that depressing feeling of it all being rather empty. Without the process of seeing all of our life in terms of our relationships and cultivating the discernments that come into our hearts, we may be doomed to live out physically comfortable but spiritually shallow lives.
There is another aspect of our lives as Christians that is touched upon by the knowledge that God works through historical processes. In general we view our conversion, baptism, or confirmation as the point where our position in the universe changed, where we came into a concrete relationship with God. Many of us can point to a few further events when God changed our lives in one manner or another. We’ve come to see the changes in our lives as sporadic, with the intervening time filled with a steady state. The message from the Creation, however, is that evolution is a continuous process, showing that God is continuously creating. There are times of upheaval and great change but the process continues even when environments are relatively stable and predictable. So too with our lives. Times of great change may have a profound influence on us, but the reality is that God is working in our lives continuously. In all of these changes, we each have the opportunity to to realize that He is always in our lives, changing and modifying who and what we are. So too, times of predictable peace are an opportunity to seek out what God wants us to explore and experience, how He wants us to change and live more holy lives and to contemplate the meaning of the tumultuous events we’ve experienced in the past. We should expect continuing revelation of who our creator is because He is continuously present in His Creation and in our hearts! Revelation is not just a process of historical analysis of the Bible and Creation – it is continuous.
All this evidence for a God who works with natural events to create processes, suggests another characteristic of the Deity: God is integrated. Unlike so much of our lives which can be (or appear to be) disconnected components, the God of the universe does not work piecemeal. Everything works as a united whole. At any given time, animals and plants form communities. These change over time and organisms evolve. Using processes of which we have a significant understanding, God has developed this entire universe, from the Big Bang to the moment you are reading these words. Such integration can only be recognized as one of the most astounding of deeds. The diversity of the creation is not the result of fitting together pieces of a complex jigsaw puzzle but rather one of changing one complex picture into another and another and another, each built on the preceding picture. This historical revelation how much big and awesome our God is.
We as individuals, of course, are part of the Creation and we’re part of the grand scheme of things as well. The work we do in our world and all of our interactions with our environment are part of the huge process of history – God’s history. Such knowledge is somewhat overwhelming but can also be comforting.
This awareness has many realistic applications and here’s one from our families history. Our daughter Lydia was adopted from South Korea when she was 14 months old. She grew up in our family knowing all about her Asian roots but it wasn’t until she was 15 years old that she first had serious questions about her background. My wife Annette was working an evening shift at the hospital, our two sons were off elsewhere and Lydia and I were at home alone to have supper together. As was our periodic custom, we made a special meal, lit some candles and sat in front of the fireplace for some time to share. Upon sitting down, from out of the blue and for the first time, Lydia asked if we knew whether she had any siblings in Korea. We talked for some time about what we knew about her early history and the prospects of reconnecting with her birth mother and the possibility of brothers or sisters. And then she asked me another important question: what would have happened to her if we hadn’t adopted her years ago? Of course, from a mechanical point of view, there are any number of possibilities – she may have been adopted by some other family, she may have ended up staying in South Korea with all sorts of possible outcomes there. But there is another answer that I believe to be the truth and it is this: that 13.7 billion years ago God saw that Lydia would come into our lives and that we would come into hers. He saw, long, long ago, that through the rise of animals, dinosaurs, mammals, primates and then humans, through continental drift and mountain ranges arising and being worn down, that we were meant to be in loving relationship.
The question ‘What if ….?’ is a sign of growing maturity. It’s primarily in the adult world that we wonder what would have happened if we’d finished high school, what would have happened if we had moved to Halifax, what would have happened if we hadn’t met our current spouse at the laundromat? But when we are in the realm of relationship, we can be confident that we are part of a greater purpose and that this is part of God’s plan for His Creation. We are part of a huge process of the Creation continuing to unfold. If it is true that God saw us 13.7 billion years ago (and the Bible tells us that God did know), the gifts that come to us gain in status and we must exercise them. Our relationships, then, are meant to be and we should work them, celebrate them, and pursue them. The working of these gifts, always in a prayerful context, is a holy work, the acceptance of the Holy Spirit in our lives, and the call from God.
Knowing the scope of our vast universe that has been brought into being over the space of billions of years tells us something about how we should respond to the Holy Spirit. Because we know that the processes are so complex and so convoluted, it would be impossible to stand at any particular point in the past and be able to predict the future. It is therefore quite impossible to know what my place in the story is and I can’t possibly see what my ultimate role might be. It may be that my role is be a good wife, mother and worker, and to participate in my local church. As a mechanic it may be the one person you change oil for who was struck by your smile and happy service, who then goes on to come to know God, and then become a great national leader, bringing peace to the world. It may be that your loving relationship with a youth group so influences a young woman that she goes on to write a poem that changes the heart of a person living 100 years from now. The point is that we can’t know from the work we do or events in our lives what our influence might ultimately be. There is only one possibility of knowing what we should pursue, and that is through the process of asking God for His direction, His discernment and to make His will known to us (which He often does not do immediately!). The complexity of history shows that we can only rely on listening to God’s voice to seek direction. The reality is that we are immersed in a great mystery, that God knows the story, and that we can only fulfill our role when we are in loving relationship with our God.
This is the essence of Jesus’ parable of the talents – we are called to use what we have in front of us – not on what we think the future might hold. This is difficult for us in our goal oriented society. We are so used to working toward a certain product, whether it be a car, a perfectly proportioned body or a happy marriage, that we forget that it is in the path that we are blessed, it is in the process that God is with us, providing the Holy Spirit to guide us through every step, if we have the ears to hear.
In the ancient Greek myth, Sisyphus had irritated the gods and was punished by having to spend eternity pushing a heavy rock up a steep hill but always having it roll back down just before he reached the summit. Many have taken the story as a lesson in futility. The renowned author Albert Camus, however, provided a different interpretation. He suggested that we could view Sisyphus as content because he recognized what it was that he had to do, even though he knew the ultimate goal was hopeless and therefore not important. The pursuit was sufficient – his job was to roll boulders uphill. This is somewhat similar to the Christian’s walk – even though we think the goal may appear hopeless to us at present, it really remain unknown to us how God will unfold the future. This is what holy work can be and we need only look at the history of so many saints to see that reality.
A sometimes irritating component of not being sure of our own ultimate role in the universe is that we must be very, very careful how we look at others. Many Christians are quite confident of what they think the Christian life should look like. We are often quick to evaluate, judge and condemn those who are different. In a drive to homogeneity, we forget that we don’t have a clue what role God has given to our sister or brother to play out in His great history. We may view a particular behaviour as immature, irresponsible, unbecoming, thoughtless, stupid or, the most popular, ‘unchristian’, but we need to examine the source of our own discernment. Are we really sure that the other person is not acting out their understanding of God’s will? Have we even asked whether that person sees God in their life or that particular event? Can we be sure that God isn’t helping that person through a process to bring them to a greater wisdom and knowledge? The base line here, is whether each of us is pursuing God or not – the rest are merely forgivable sins.
The recognition of the importance of process as a characteristic of the Christian walk is also vital to the future development of the church, regardless of culture, form of worship or liturgy. Of the great diversity of Christian expression, within each domination there is a drive to keep things the same. Of course, the riches of our traditions are important and being rooted in an ancient church history is essential to our future, but not if they keep us in limbo. The purpose of the liturgy is to worship and learn, and if these are not happening in the hearts of the members, something is wrong. If we are not in a process in our churches we are in trouble. If we are driven to homogeneity, we have circumvented a God who is continuously changing the world and wants us to grow and mature.
Within traditional churches a uniform liturgical form can lead to absolute stasis in which the responses and structures are totally dull and lifeless. It is when we see in each call and each response that there is an opportunity to hear God’s voice, to know that in this worship form we need to be changing and growing, maturing as Christians, that we can see the freshness of the words and how they are being portrayed. Being aware that we are in a process should heighten our awareness of what is actually taking place, of what our true involvement is in worship. It can allow us, within a conventional context, to be open to new expressions, acceptance of a changing youth, and acknowledgment of the changing needs presented by our culture. It can allow for variation and change in the context of God’s call.
Within some evangelical churches, leaders have applied an equally rigorous church model but in this group of Christians, it is the application of a pattern that has undercurrents of a belief in both business and materialism. Programs are implemented that are promoted within this circle, taught by the most skilled within the congregation, youth programs are led by youth pastors or someone with a PhD in child psychology, using the latest cutting edge programs, with all this hopefully guaranteeing an increase in numbers and a greater satisfaction in the clientele. Church budgets are administered with the latest of business models and many of the buildings are shiny, with excellent flooring and a brilliant sound system. We can readily point to a growing congregation and increased contributions as signs of success of these methods.
Regardless of our worship orientation, there is often a repeated attempt to place much of our faith expression on the externals, relying on either a long or short tradition of behaviour and response. Much of this is important and valuable but not if it circumvents the most central tenet of the Christian walk and that is asking God what He wants out of our lives as individuals and as churches. Many goals of our church life may indeed be worthy but if they are rooted only in human psychology and sociological phenomena (it always feels good to be an intimate part of a group), we fail in our primary pursuit of God’s purpose for our lives. We so often hang our hats on arguments that have to do with tradition, evidence of growth that worked for other congregations elsewhere, logical deductions about what obviously needs to be done, or group consensus, that we sometimes forget that we are operating under the auspices of the Lord of the Creation. It is when we ask Him what He would like, when we ask Him to give us wisdom and insight and discernment, when we begin to talk about what each of us is understanding from their prayer life, that our churches will be changed to the vibrancy of a more Christ-centered life.
The command to share our faith with others, to feed the poor, to care for the Creation and to seek justice for everyone, are tasks which require much work, thought, prayer and action. It’s a messy business to seek out God’s process in our lives, actively exploring, experimenting, and acting on the best of our discernment. It is difficult to operate as churches in a loving manner that celebrates a variation of expression and deals with conflicts in a loving manner, that repeatedly points people to seek God in their lives. We live, though, with the promise from God that if we draw near to Him, He will draw near to us, the ultimate promise that our lives will be blessed.
1. How has your family history shaped where you are today?
2. Are there stories from your background that suggest the hand of God at work?
3. Is there Biblical evidence that ‘bad’ or traumatic events contributed to the unfolding of God’s plan for your life? What about God’s plan for the church?
4. Why does the Bible include numbers of genealogies?
5. Is your church open to new ideas and/or expressions? Why or why not?
“You are worthy, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.” – Revelations 4:11
‘All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly’ – Thomas Aquinas
Last spring while going for my morning walk I noticed another hiker some distance ahead stopping periodically to look up at the surrounding trees. As I caught up to him, I asked what he was looking at, and he suddenly looked sheepish and embarrassed. He told me that he’d heard a large bird but couldn’t see it clearly. When I replied that I thought it was likely the resident red-tailed hawk, he looked relieved that I understood his interest, reassured that he didn’t look stupid.
In a thousand different ways, this reaction is central to how many of us function. The fear of looking ignorant, out of the ordinary, incompetent, or of being the brunt of jokes, can permeate our lives. We often look outward at what seems to be a proficient world, filled with knowledgeable and superior individuals. In this society, many of us grow up learning that we are inadequate in one subject or another, quickly understanding that we are inferior or inept in one or more arena of life, be it reading, math, memory recall, music or leadership skills. Often our personal relationships also send this message, deficient as parents, as children, as spouses or as a friend.
The possibility of appearing stupid or inadequate can keep us trapped in social boxes that can impede our lives. Ironically, it is an acceptance and celebration of our ignorance that can be quite liberating. One of the gifts that comes with being an expert on those biting flies commonly called no-see-ums is a profound awareness of the limits of my knowledge. In spite of having spent the last 37 years studying these little creatures, I am deeply aware that my understanding is only the tip of the proverbial iceberg. Worldwide, researchers have named 6,267 species of no-see-ums so far, but I estimate that there are at least another 8,000 species that have not yet been described. Of the named species, we know the larvae or pupae of only 15%, meaning we don’t really know where the remainder live for most of their lives (catching a flying midge doesn’t tell you where its larvae are living). We don’t know the food habits, mating sites, flight characteristics, dispersal abilities and a host of other biological features for the vast majority of these species and it appears likely that each species of no-see-ums carries about the same number of genes as you and I, suggesting further levels of complexity. And I can hardly wrap my head around how these species are part of their communities, shared with thousands of other organisms. Then there is a final shot – we have a fossil record of no-see-ums that goes back even beyond the amber record to 142 million years. During all that time, species have been living in their habitats, adapting, diversifying and speciating in response to a complex environment. In short, I may think I know a lot about no-see-ums, but the truth is that I know only the tiniest fraction of the reality that is out there. Although I’m grateful the Creator has shown me a great deal in one small corner of nature, He’s also let me know that my knowledge is quite restricted and, further to this, that I regularly need to revise my interpretations. I don’t have a hope of knowing the whole story, not the whole truth, not even what amounts to a very small fraction of the reality of no-see-ums. And that is just no-see-ums, which make up only one of about 160 families of flies, and flies are only one of 31 orders of insects, and then there are all of the other life forms on our planet, to say nothing of other aspects of our planet, our sun, other stars and galaxies. Doing basic research, therefore, is at once both tremendously exciting and profoundly humbling. Those tiny midges, revealing so much, also let me know that they, and my whole world, are more complex than I can actually imagine.
This is a characteristic of virtually every area of science. Being human, many scientists portray themselves as knowing a great deal – and many do. Our politicians often portray the same self-assurance. However, behind closed doors, or for those few who feel comfortable doing so in public, researchers reveal that their knowledge is only a small part of the true reality of their field. Whether it is physics, geology, medicine, or sociology, nearly all scientists know that so much more needs to be studied before we will have comprehensive knowledge of their area of specialization. We should understand, therefore, that even the most knowledgeable authority has only a small part of the total picture, even in his or her own area of expertise.
If we can accept that there are severe limits to our understanding of the Creation, what does this mean for us as Christians? What might happen if we truly realize that we know comparatively little and have such a minuscule understanding of the broader picture? What are the implications of knowing that the true story is vastly greater than we can imagine?
First of all, it drives home the point made above of the necessity to be humble. Many people know the intense feeling that comes from standing under a star-studded night sky or gazing at a brilliant sunset, from being surrounded by sparkling snow-covered mountain peaks, or perhaps the pounding waves along a shoreline, where we can sense the immense power of raw Creation, making us realize how small and fragile we are in the face of such presence. Although these experiences are mostly fleeting memories restricted to a romantic encounter or an extraordinary road trip, the real story of Creation is that we are continuously surrounded by wondrous mystery. Our awe of a million stars is also available in seeing each leaf on a tree, in bird song, and in the movement of raindrops running down a windowpane. Each of these common experiences is filled with immense mysteries that we do not understand. We still don’t know all the processes involved in photosynthesis, how starlings can adapt to such a wide array of habitats and aggressively eliminate so many other birds, or how a trickling raindrop takes the path it does on a window pane. We’re all still babes in the woods!
If all knowledge is so limited, it is clear that we humans are all in the same boat – we’re all pretty limited. Obviously some know more than others about certain aspects of the universe (and are worth listening to and learning from) but none of us know enough to warrant feeling superior to others. The message from the Creation is that each of us has such restricted awareness of the true nature of the universe that it should be embarrassing to be anything other than humble.
God apparently likes us to become comfortable with the idea of being limited (but not unlearned). The scriptures consistently point out how vast the Almighty’s knowledge and power is when compared to ours, and there are repeated warnings to avoid the sin of feeling superior, haughty, and trusting in one’s own cleverness. So where can that lead?
A modest and unpretentious spirit is fundamental to truly loving. It is when we realize our own limitations that we can more fully experience the remarkable love that God has for all beings – that in the vastness of this universe, He comes to us. If we recognize our limitations, we must depend more and more on a loving discernment that is based on prayerful study of the Scriptures and Creation. It is with a humble spirit that we can see all those people around us as they truly are: individuals who God loves as much as He does us. It allows us to see the face of Jesus in our workplace enemy, a homeless beggar, or our lonely spouse – and also the needs of a groaning Creation. If we know our own limitations, it is very difficult to look down on our fellow human beings, and nearly impossible to look superior, no matter how relatively gifted we are.
These reflections on our limited understanding of the universe ties also ties to our interpretation of Scripture. The acknowledged limits of our scientific understanding flies in the face of the confidence that many Christians have regarding specific Biblical interpretations. While researchers spend an inordinate amount of time and energy to interpret a given scientific phenomena, testing their concepts over and over again to ensure accurate observations and better and better interpretations, some Christians are rigidly uncompromising in their interpretation of even rather obscure texts, where there is often very little context and data to base a certain conclusion.
Our Christian community now has over 23,000 separate denominations, each professing a unique spin on a given doctrine, many based on a handful (or less!) of Bible verses. Many Christians are very adamant that their version is God’s truth and that others have it quite wrong. They tend to treat the Scriptures as if it is a complete description of the nature of God and how He works and, further to this, that their interpretation must be correct. The message from the Creation, however, is that we should be very circumspect in our explanations interpretations of the mysteries of the Scriptures. We know how limited our knowledge of the Creation is and this is obviously incompatible with a dogmatic stance on every theological item, with an absolutist explanation of each verse in the Bible. God, as author of both the Word and the World, is certainly deeper and more complex than we can possibly imagine and we should expect, as we do for the Creation, that many of our plain interpretations of Scripture are either wrong or highly simplistic. I am not suggesting that all doctrines should be equally accepted, nor that we can sit back in an ‘I’m OK, you’re OK’ attitude, wallowing in the hopelessness of getting it right. We are indeed called to pursue God with our whole hearts, souls and minds (Matthew 22:37), and to prayerfully attempt to see what God’s voice is saying to us through the Scriptures and Creation. Careful study of texts and careful theological analysis are vital. But loving pursuit and making qualified conclusions is quite different than applying our limited abilities to Biblical interpretation and drawing rigid dogmas on each and every topic or theme.
Within the context of our badly split Christian church, obviously not everyone can have the correct doctrine, and if we believe that God seeks unity, we need to develop a loving tolerance that recognizes in most (but not all) instances the possibility that we are wrong. Indeed, knowing our highly limited understanding of our corner of the universe means that the Christian church must also be filled with a high level of diversity. Each of us may be experiencing significantly different aspects of our complex world and this should be part of our testimony to our fellow Christians – what it means for us to experience God in the small things in each of our lives. We need to share our own voice and listen carefully to those of others, each sharing a different part of the story. It is in this diversity of experience, shared in loving tolerance, that we can truly live out an ecology of love. Jesus himself pointed out that it wasn’t a big deal to love your friends. It’s when we love our enemies (real and perceived), including those who differ significantly in the church, that others will know Christians by their love.
In science, we work hard to interpret the information we have at hand, knowing that further investigation will modify, provide a better interpretation and even, in some instances, completely change the conclusions we have come to. We know that our interpretations are subject to revision. Within this context, some concepts are generally accepted and are based on a great number of interconnected observations (e.g. gravity and evolution explain huge numbers of observations). Other results, with more limited data, are more controversial (e.g. how memories are stored; why some groups evolve rapidly and include many species and others don’t) and it is clear that more information is needed. This suggests that our approach to Scripture should be equally circumspect, where we can confidently stand on the reality of Jesus’ redeeming sacrifice, but be willing to say, for example, that the evidence for adult versus infant baptism is not definitive.
Our society has accumulated a great deal of knowledge about our universe. We hear that ‘knowledge is power’, and increasingly see such knowledge as the basis for our careers, personal lives and the future of our society. We’ve come to believe that what we’ve learned is the result of our own hard work, to use as we see fit. But the Scriptures teach something else entirely – that all knowledge, all of what we are, all of what we know, and all that we’ve come to understand is entirely a gift from God Himself – it is sacred. The Bible tells us that God comes to us and says, ‘Would you like to see something interesting I’ve made?’ and we get a peek at some of His wonders. That is what scientific research is actually all about; God is allowing us to see some of the construction and history of His handiwork. Although we may feel that we are uncovering these mysteries in isolation as we apply our creative energies to problem solving, God gives a different picture. Discovery is all about relationship. As Christians we can recognize that God loves us so much that he gives us the bodies, insight, skills, and opportunity to understand more about where we live and of the processes and paths that He has used to bring about the universe and the creatures He loves. It is the call to feel in love with God, with our fellow humans, and with all that He has made.
Recognizing the limits of our knowledge should speak to how we view our environment. Our society at large lives with the outlandish myth that we actually know a great deal about the universe and the world we live in. We have been overly impressed by the scientific advances that have led to such radical changes in our lifestyles over the last 100 years. Surrounded by the technological advances in telecommunication, energy sources, transportation, and entertainment, our lives have been so modified that we have come to believe that we are pretty smart, that we’ve got a good handle on how the universe functions and how our societies should be. We’ve come to believe, often with an astounding degree of faith, in the absolute truth of science and technology. Virtually everyone in our society expects that science will continue to uncover new phenomena which will, in turn, provide the basis for further major technological advances. We often expect that we will have faster computers, safer cars, and longer, healthier lives in the future. We want more comfort and more guarantees of longevity. Many believe that, in spite of the evidence, humans will even be able to easily fix the global environmental problems we’ve created.
Because we are such creatures of comfort, we crave an increasingly predictable environment that technologies provide. People get seriously upset when a plane is 30 minutes late, when the toaster doesn’t work, or when their car engine doesn’t turn over. Last week I heard a fellow traveler complain about a pothole in a 230 km long highway that transverses a mountain range in central British Columbia. Our mind set is such that when we come up against barriers (e.g. we have no cure for advanced cancers), we just can’t believe it. Of course, our advertisers and technologists have a vested interested in ensuring that we believe in the power of technology. It generates dollars and a continuing (often addicting) consumer following. Worse, it generates faith in the process, as if science and technology will be able to fix all our problems, whether they be physical, emotional, or spiritual. Indeed, it is an ironic thing that our answer to discontent with a materialistic lifestyle is often to turn to a technological, materialistic fix – through entertainment or through therapeutic drugs or more consumption.
Of course, there isn’t a hope that science can solve all our problems. When preachers guarantee results (e.g. you will be healed, you will get what you pray for, God will act) and these don’t magically appear, some lose faith, bitterly turning away. So too in our technological world – when some people in crisis cannot get what they want out of technologies, they lose faith in ‘progress’, bitter that their problem cannot be solved. Today we increasingly see people in a position of belief in nothing at all or in extreme conspiracy theories.
In another sense, technological benefits have made us feel, at least superficially, more powerful, believing we can control much of our future. We’ve been drawn in by advertising that proclaims happiness and security through the products we pursue with such religious fervour. Often coming with that tenet is the accompanying fear – if we’re the ones responsible for our lives and those of our loved ones, we better get the safest merchandise, the most secure environment, and the best insurance for everything we own and depend on (including a long life). We think we’ve become masters of our own destinies and, strangely, often feel rather unhappy with the results. Mother Theresa, who claimed to have received so many gifts from being with the dying poor, pointed out that ‘in the developed countries there is a poverty of intimacy, a poverty of spirit, of loneliness, of lack of love. There is no greater sickness in the world today than that one.’ This may explain why an estimated 16% of North Americans take tranquillizers on a regular basis. Approximately 23% of women in their 40s and 50s take antidepressants, a higher percentage than any other group (by age or sex). In a mental health survey of 5,000 randomly selected students at the University of Alberta (Edmonton) in 2013, the results were startling. About 50% ‘felt things were hopeless’ in the previous 12 months, nearly two thirds felt very lonely and more than 54 percent felt overwhelming anxiety. And 8.5 per cent had seriously considered suicide. More than a third of all students felt so depressed that they reported it was difficult to function. Such rampant mental health issues permeate our societies and there is a great need to re-examine what makes for more content and centered lives.
The lessons from both the Creation and the Scriptures provide hope. The message has remained the same through the ages – that we can only find our happiness in a living relationship with God, in the relationship we have with others and with the Creation. There is a great deal of work to do to get back to those realities.
Our limited understanding of the Creation addresses one final issue. It has been popular over the past 40 years for many Christians to be captivated by the question of when the apocalypse will happen. Although the Bible warns that Jesus’ return will be like a thief in the night, there are also detailed prophecies of the last days, leading many Christians to conjecture on what the apocalypse will look like. Numerous books and movies have portrayed different scenarios and such series as the Left Behind productions capitalize on that interest. The account given in Revelations particularly lends itself in some minds to interpretations in which each of the various elements in the prophetic story represents a modern country, elite or belief system. As part of our need to know our own future, in part a need for power and control, we have tried to pinpoint exactly when and how God will terminate the universe. Scripture, however, teaches that prophecy is to enhance faith and to encourage a steadfast walk with God. Jesus said ‘Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near” (Luke 21:28), rather than trying to pinpoint exact dates, places and events. The product of trying to determine the exact future is laced with fear and worry. However, knowing that the earth is 4 billion years old and that Homo sapiens have been around for at least 195,000 years puts a bit of perspective on Jesus’ promise that He will return soon. As a perceptive minister told me when I was a struggling teenager: ‘Yes, the Lord should return very soon, maybe within the next five to ten thousand years’. Ironically, the use of prophecy has helped many Christians to become paralysed, cloistered in churches and viewing the entire universe as on its very last legs. In that spiritual environment, it is almost impossible to envision a joyous Christian walk in God’s Creation, let alone the development of Christians actively being lights in their world.
Out of our relative ignorance, the call is to walk humbly with presence and joy, trusting in the working of the Holy Spirit to lead us through the maze of complexity in our lives. We need to petition our God to continue to reveal His truth in all that we experience, both in the Creation and Scriptures. In prayerfully working, checking repeatedly with our God, we can live freely, secure in our relationship with our Lord. We can stand tall while fully aware of our limitations, never embarrassed by our ignorance because we know we are firmly rooted in the Rock of Ages.
1. How do humbling experiences enhance or hamper our faith and growth?
2. What sort of idols do we as a society worship? What about in our churches? What idols do we have in our own lives?
3. How might we better celebrate what we learn about in the Creation? How are discoveries used? What goes toward social justice and what to increased manipulation of our environment?
4. Are all medical advances “good”? How might we discern differences in value in medical techniques?
5. Is the desire for individual ownership Biblically based?
‘What’s the use of their having names’, the Gnat said, ‘if they won’t answer to them?’ ‘No use to them’ said Alice; ‘ but it’s useful to the people that name them, I suppose. If not, why do things have names at all?’ – Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.
The first Adam and I share a distinctive job description that I am rather proud of. The second task given by God in Eden, after tilling and taking care of Paradise itself, was to name the animals and birds living there. Fortunately for me, most of the names Adam gave were not recorded, so that today we are living on a planet with millions of unidentified species, providing jobs for a small group of taxonomists, scientists who slowly but surely describe their features and give them their Latin names. And the task is quite monumental – our ignorance is still so great that scientists argue whether there are 5 million or 30 million unidentified life forms on earth.
Beyond keeping biologists employed and off the streets, why should we care whether we know these species at all? Who cares what their names are, other than those eccentric taxonomists hunched over their microscopes? Should we be studying only those life forms which are of use to us, because we might find a new cure for cancer or a species of bacteria which will consume oil spills? Does it make any difference if we know the names of the butterflies in our backyards or those beetles under that old log? And what does any of this have to do with our Christianity?
Of course, most people in our society do know the names of some other species – robins, broccoli, moose, and roses are generally recognized. However, although our society has collectively identified more components of the Creation than any other in history, the vast majority of individuals in our culture are much inferior in their ability to identify the components when compared to indigenous groups. Natives of the interior of New Guinea could not possibly compete with our collective knowledge of the Creation, with our vast lists of names and characteristics of organisms, of molecules and the solar system, filling untold numbers of books and publications in libraries, but each could certainly identify far more species in their immediate natural environment than could the vast majority of individuals in North America. Of course, all people learn to name the features of their surroundings that they appreciate and value. It is not surprising, therefore, that most North American teenagers can name more apps for their computer devices than they can birds in their neighborhood. It is clear that they spend more time with electronic products than with their natural environment. And there are very good reasons for this. People learn about those species which they perceive make an immediate difference to them, species which are of use (food items), cause physical distress (disease causing organisms, pests), or those which draw attention in some emotional way because they are spectacular or scary (like whales and sharks), or what E.O. Wilson refers to as biophilia – our capacity to love another species – which for most of us turns out to be dogs, cats, budgies, dolphins, and panda bears.
As a natural historian, I am in a biased position, having spent my life studying insects (especially no-see-ums), immersed in their naming, description and evolutionary interpretation but also learning about the communities they live in. It is somewhat difficult to describe the profound impact of walking through the springtime woods, knowing the names of most of the trees, shrubs, herbs, passing butterflies and birds, scurrying beetles on the forest floor, several species of flies landing on flowers of Buffalo Berry, and that group of mayflies dancing in a patch of sunlight near the crashing stream. And coming with those names, having a picture in my head of what each of those species does, at least in a general way, what its role is, knowing what those beetles are seeking, what those flies are eating. And layered upon all of this is not just knowing their names and what they’re doing but also something about their history – that those little no-see-ums on the Buffalo Berry had ancestors living 95 million years ago that were sipping from flowering plants that were then just evolving sophisticated flower types, while overhead primitive birds were flying and butterflies hadn’t yet even put in an appearance.
Of course, I don’t go walking through the woods thinking all these explicit thoughts – it would be too exhausting! The experience is actually more similar to that in our human communities. You know the names of your family members, your close friends and many acquaintances in your area. You know a lot about them and, for many, their history. Getting together is not a process of mentally naming each person and reviewing their job and then their history, you just have it tucked away in your head. But the more you can name, the more you know about a person, and the more you are aware of their history, the more intimate and comfortable you feel as a part of that community. And just as you feel more comfortable attending a meeting where you know the people and their relationships, getting to know other species can provide a similar degree of intimacy – and with a chosen few, can provide a love relationship that changes one’s life.
I’d like to share how I got to this place, what happened to enhance my experience of Creation. As an introduction to complexity, God provided a curious arthropod epiphany for me. I was 13 years old and got up early on a spring day. I knew I had a busy day ahead of me. I strapped my insect net and rubber boots onto the back of my bike, filled my backpack with bottles and a big white pan, some drinking water and a bag lunch and headed west, out past Edmonton’s city limits toward bogs and ponds brimming with numerous life forms. After a couple of hours of pedaling I arrived at a newly discovered pond. It was mostly surrounded by bulrushes and had a convenient spot where I could reach well out into the water with my net, scooping back and forth to collect as many insects as possible. I dumped the contents into my white pan, added an inch of water and dropped to my knees and, as fervent as any worshiper, began to watch. And there they were, one of the most astonishing of life forms – each about two centimeters long, hanging like little glass submarines horizontally below the surface, perfectly motionless, and virtually transparent. I couldn’t believe my eyes – what were these strange diaphanous creatures? As I looked, one of them, suddenly lashed out sideways to grab a passing water flea with its mouth. I could see the red prey go into its stomach, and behind the stomach a thread of pink gut, evidence of previous meals. Obviously a predator, and so when I gathered up a bottle full of these larvae, I also took along hundreds of water fleas to keep them happy for a while and headed home. Dumping the contents into the aquarium in my bedroom, I spent hours looking, studying and wondering about these mysterious ghost-like creatures. I looked in my limited library, found my guide to the insects and started flipping pages. And there I found that they were appropriately called phantom midges, members of the genus Chaoborus. I continued to feed the little creatures, until, first one, then another, and then all had changed to pupae, hanging vertically in the water, spending a few days rearranging their insides and then, emerged at the surface as mosquito-like flies, but without the long mouthparts of those pests.
Because of their transparency, it is possible to see the contracting gut of a Chaoborus larva with the naked eye, but if placed in a drop of water on a glass slide and situated under a microscope, they really reveal their inner secrets. The muscles that move their mouthparts and various body segments can all be clearly seen, the valves of the heart can be observed opening and closing, and blood cells can be viewed coursing through their body. The various sections of the brain and nerves going to the various fine hairs on the cuticle can be examined in some detail. The species I was looking at was Chaoborus americanus, a species common in unshaded permanent ponds in North America. As I continued to explore, I discovered that there were a number of other Chaoborus species, inhabiting other types of standing waters, like woodland pools and small lakes. Small differences in the larval mouthparts and adult wings and reproductive systems served to identify the different species and I eventually reared almost all of the local varieties. I learned that the larvae of some species could control the amount of air in their tiny air sacs and move up and down in the water of lakes, submarine-like, and thereby avoid daytime predation by fish. They spent their day time down in the depths of these lakes, hiding from fish, but rising up during the night to the surface waters to feed on zooplankton and other small creatures there. How amazing was that!!
These different Chaoborus species became iconoclastic for me – a portal into an arena where I learned the names of a group of species, discovered where each lived, what they ate, how they reproduced, and how they behaved. As I learned more and more, I became completely engrossed with these strange organisms. God had opened a window on part of His Creation that I could relate to, and its beauty struck me to my core. And as is true of any healthy relationship, this intimacy called for further wondering and questioning, a pondering about other features and characteristics. I learned that closely related Chaoborus species divide up their world, either by having differences in their habitats or by living in different areas (where they can’t compete) and that their evolution goes back at least 160 million years, as shown by Russian fossils. All of this made a larger picture of species moving through time, dividing into more species, evolving different strategies and finding a distinctive role in the present diversity of species.
Such intimacy can produce some strange behaviour. I remember biking to that beloved pond many times and, upon arrival, announcing myself to my Chaoborus friends, laughingly asking them what they were up to. I knew that the discomfort of getting wet and muddy, waist deep in slough water, was absolutely insignificant compared to the pursuit of these wonderful discoveries, that looking like a geek riding a bike with an insect net and bottles through town (and yes, I also wore thick eyeglasses) was inconsequential compared to the reality of the Creation I was experiencing. I spent hundreds of hours looking at my little larvae in my bedroom aquarium, my mind leaping with questions as I observed their many behaviours. A true celebration of life!
Once explored, experiencing the Creation firsthand is in many ways like coming home, like standing among old friends who have shared their secrets, revealed the intimacies of their lives, who have shared with you how they live and the role they have in their communities, and who insist on introducing you, in turn, to their friends. This sort of experience of nature provides a gateway into a safe and wondrous refuge where connections are explored, where new truths are learned, where one’s soul is nourished. This is the holy ground that Adam was told to explore. God asks us to taste and see and, in keeping with Scripture, it is very tasty indeed. It is an intense spiritual journey to come to know a part of the Creation in some detail. It provides a small glimpse into an amazing reality, a realization of virtually inestimable complexity and interconnections.
If all of this sounds like falling in love, you are quite right. For that is indeed the call – to be in love with God, with each other, and with God’s work in the world. The goal of the Scriptures is nothing less than to see that we are not alone, not alone before God, not alone in the midst of His people and not alone in His Creation.
How does this tie to our theology and Christian beliefs? Ironically, a relationship with these small insects was actually a prod to a cosmic perspective. By zeroing in on the small we can sometimes see that the universe is huge and of immense consequence. Two of my favourite portions of the Bible are the Creation stories of Genesis, and the remarkable visions portrayed in Revelations. The opening words of the Bible depict God bringing the universe into being, with humans cast in an integral role in that Creation. We see that, in bringing humans into being, we are a central focus of God’s love, called to talk and walk with the Creator. In Revelations we are placed again on a cosmic stage, revealing that what we believe and what we stand for has consequences far beyond the immediate – revealing that we are a critically important component in the fabric of the universe. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, therefore, that the message from the Creation itself is that we are a part of an unimaginably complex story. Even a small personal sampling of the Creation, which is about as much as any of us gets, can bring perspective into our lives. Once we see that the universe is so jammed with countless wonders, such incredible complexity, such remarkable interconnectedness, evolving over the course of 13.7 billion years, it is clear that my worries about the carburetor in my car, the mortgage on the house, my mediocre report card, or the quality of the carpeting in the church, which might be quite real, are proportionally genuinely small. The Creation, then, can help us place the events and issues in our lives into a broader context, the sort of perspective that Scripture calls for over and over again.
Our human inclination is to see only the immediate, distracting us from the vastness of God and our place in it, distracting us from a much, much bigger picture. Catching a glimpse of this immeasurable sea of marvels draws me away from the importance I place on my own needs and concerns, most often what is petty and insignificant. This is the consequence of relationship, putting our concerns and worries into a broader perspective. And the flip side of this is also true – when we are out of relationship, feeling that we are quite alone, our personal problems swell to enormous proportions, blocking out any sense of balance and often eliminating the very possibility of seeing the beauty and miracle we are immersed in. It can isolate us from the love God promises. When I am isolated, wrapped up in myself and life’s problems, I miss the intimacy which the Creation relationship can provide. I sometimes feel sad to realize that much of my life is isolated from such a constant relationship, hearing God’s voice in that beautiful place. The beauty and integrated complexity begs for interaction. This is a call to largeness, to see ourselves in the huge context God has placed us in – that in the ancient and vast universe, in all of that enormous intergalactic space, God comes to each of us, bathes us in His love, and desires a personal relationship – that is huge! This is the story which both the Creation and Scripture proclaim. No wonder that David, in an age with a much more limited understanding of the universe, could say ‘The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.’ (Psalm 19). How much more so for us, who know that the universe is 93 billion light years in diameter and filled with innumerable marvels David didn’t have a clue about!
For most of our Judeo-Christian history, believers understood the Creation as a far more restricted work; the earth was covered by the bubble-like firmament which held the stars and saw the passage of the moon and sun, and every created animal was housed in Noah’s ark during the flood. Our ancestors also recognized that the Holy Spirit was present in creating all that they knew. We now know the universe is filled with billions of galaxies, and there are at least several million species of animals on our planet. With our understanding of so many more details we have a more realistic understanding of the size and complexity of the Creation. We too are aware of the creative power of God and in modern times can have an even more profound understanding of what that implies. When Jesus pointed out that God knows the fate of every sparrow and each hair on your head, His audience understood that God was pretty powerful, but for us today, such a statement is quite stupendous. Our God knows, the Scriptures suggest, not only each hair on our heads but also every strand of DNA in each species, every biochemical pathway, every one of the billions of stars in our galaxy, and every ecological interaction in a rainforest. Considering that the Holy Spirit is present even in the smallest of creatures and the burning of distant stars, it is mind-boggling to imagine how enormous God must be to fill all of the Creation with His presence. Our modern understanding of the Creation, then, expands our understanding of the dimensions of our God. It teaches us how He is more powerful, more awesome, and more mighty by many orders of magnitude than was previously understood. Indeed, science has uncovered that our God’s complexity and power is truly incomprehensible.
Before leaping down to the local meadow and spending serious quality time with an ant hill or the bees and flies that are pollinating the flowers, we should be aware that there is a consequence of spending time exploring God’s Creation that is life-changing. In the wealth of God’s blessing coming to us from the Creation, we have some responsibilities, a required response that demands our full involvement. God places us in this incredible universe, not only for our edification, but to open our ears and eyes to His presence. Once I realized that those Chaoborus larvae were quite glorious, I recognized that this encounter was a gift – once experienced, this is a call to give thanks and to celebrate. It is the call to turn to God and to say, ‘Thank you, that was remarkable and I know it comes from you to me.’
As we see more of His work in the Creation, we discover an endless plethora of reasons to be thankful, for our lives, immersed as they are in the Creation, encountering in every moment a stream of blessings from God – in work, play, relationships with others, in the church, in the bird flying overhead, – every moment we are aware, paying what Simone Weil, the Christian mystic, calls ‘prayerful attention’ to all that is around us. Such thankfulness not only turns our inward eye to God, but, if we dare, calls us to dance, to fall at times into a state of ecstasy, to want to worship our most remarkable Creator, and, unless you’re very good at suppressing your feelings, of sharing with others the amazing Holy adventure you are on. This is an involved state of being, thanking God for the wind we feel on our skin, the shoes that fit, the tangy taste of a pickle on the tongue, the incredible organization of 2 trillion cells that are you talking and sharing with another group of cells, called your friend. Thanking Him for the music that is vibrating the bones in your ear, the dandelion defiantly growing from the sidewalk crack, all the life forms striving and pushing and growing all about you. It leads to a state where in everything we give thanks. Our experience of the Creation, then, should lead to worship, hearts filled with thankfulness of all that He has done for us.
This reality lines up rather nicely with how Jesus often taught. Many of Jesus’ parables and teachings are based on experiences that his audience knew and could relate to, stories about seeds and birds and soil, of vineyards and tenants and farm workers, of merchants and pearls, and of weddings and bridegrooms. These were the items from their lives, what they intimately knew and Jesus turned that knowledge into revelations about how God works. That is what is imbedded in the Creation – God’s story, present everywhere. When David was talking about the impossibility of getting away from God in Psalm 139, he wasn’t kidding. David saw God in the depths of Sheol, in the farthest lands, in the light and in the dark, and saw that there was no place to escape that heavenly presence. So today, with our vastly improved understanding of the Creation, we can celebrate God’s work in our discoveries of the nature of subatomic particles, the neurological pathways which allow a gazelle to leap, and the amazing relationship between some orchids and their pollinating bees – and there is so much more to give praise for! Just as preachers like to use the metamorphosis of a caterpillar to a butterfly as an analogy of the conversion experience, all of the Creation points to the Maker and, like every verse in our Scriptures, is laden with meaning for our lives and our communities. It is about discovering the miraculous in the everyday, in the common and in the small details. And then turning our eyes heavenward.
All of this is Holy Spirit material and contrasts with the expression in some sectors of our religion. Many of our Christian churches have gone through several decades of turmoil and conflict, struggling with the character of the Holy Spirit. Many have proclaimed that to be truly born again, the gifts of the Holy Spirit must be present in the Christian’s life, manifestations which indicate whether God is really present, with speaking in tongues, healing, and prophetic words being the most desired and popular. I have been in fellowships where my companion Christians have compared how many gifts are evident in their lives, sounding like competitive spiritual athletes, scoring points and placing themselves and others on a religious scale. While I don’t deny the importance or value of the gifts described in the epistles, I cannot believe that God provides such gifts on demand, nor that they are the primary expression of the Holy Spirit. They too often smell of power over others, in direct opposition of what Paul was talking about: to be of service and to love. Especially coming from the pulpit, such standards of evidence are unattainable for many and this leads to feelings of inadequacy, as people feel they can never measure up to the few, apparently “real” Christians. It appears too often to be a power structure that produces a religious hierarchy within the church. Ultimately, it produces a characteristic that Christians should recognize as the antithesis of God’s will for our lives – a remarkable level of homogeneity that smacks of social pressure – everyone raising their hands, everyone speaking in tongues and everybody nice and happy.
Standing beside the biblical warnings against such standards (note Jesus’ response to Pharisees), the Creation also points in a different direction – God loves variation. The Christian who is fully engaged in his or her environment will experience repeated wonders that reflect the voice of God. And as many individuals make up our community, we should expect that if we are hearing God’s voice in our experiences, we would hear a multitude of stories, varying from person to person – one who heard God’s voice in their child’s finger painting, another who thanks God for being able to spend time watching a hawk flying outside, another who saw the face of God in a homeless person, and a teenager who celebrates a stanza out of a rap song. As we engage in our universe, taking time to let our hearts and minds soar, our very being is changed and modified, creating in the church what God does so well everywhere – abundant and celebrated diversity.
Just as poorly understood Scripture can lead to an impoverished Christian walk, a limited interaction with the Creation can result in a weakened spiritual life. It wasn’t just Adam that God spoke to about having a relationship with the organisms in the Garden. A number of years later, the Bible describes how Noah needed to save seven pairs of animals that could be used (i.e. clean) and a pair of every other species, including all those which could not be used (unclean). Why bother to create, why bother to have Adam name, and why bother demanding that Noah save a pair of EVERY species (even though we know the story to be allegorical), if not to recognize that humans need to be in relationship with those other species? The wonders of Creation are available to all of us but our limited interactions with our created environment often makes it difficult to hear the soft wind, to see the amazing organisms we call animals. We have trouble seeing the wonder in a rock or tree, and increasingly in our busy, busy lives, for many even in our lovers and children. Our eyes have become focused on the values of our larger society, seeped in materialism that has bumped the gifts of the Creation. As a society, we place great value on education, but not so much that we may explore God’s work, but rather to have well-paying and secure jobs, in order to acquire more goods that we know in our hearts can’t satisfy. We’re often so busy insuring and worrying over our material possessions that the amazing properties of a housefly can only be seen as an interference. And sometimes, what looks to me like psychopathic Christianity emerges – Christians so materialistic that we are entirely puzzled over the weird environmentalist who lays down in front of a bulldozer to stop the destruction of a beloved forest, hardly recognizing that this is the behaviour of someone in love, a person in a relationship with God’s Creation that most of us are bypassing. We have so distanced ourselves from a loving relationship with God’s handiwork that we actually end up marginalizing those very people who are doing this work on behalf of all God’s people, the very people who value relationship over ownership.
Some would respond that in fact people in our society are exposed to more realities of nature than any other group in space and time through TV, videos, movies, computers, and books, and there is an element of truth in this. National Geographic offers videos of African wildlife, of lions taking down a wildebeest, parrots roosting in a rainforest, or of chimpanzees feeding in the forest canopy that many could never hope to experience firsthand. It is especially true that through watching television and videos and reading books, certain aspects of our environment, such as the microscopic (bacteria, molecular structure) and the vast (solar systems, interstellar space) are better understood by more people than ever before. However, there is a significant and important distinction which needs to made between information made available through media and firsthand experience with the natural Creation. A few years ago, my wife Annette and I headed off camping to a remote site that had a good size meadow abutting a small lake. That night, we crawled out of our tent, dragged our sleeping bags, pillows and a bag of potato chips into the middle of meadow and snuggled in. We had picked a time when the sky was moonless and as we hoped the sky was painted with an immense milky way and countless other stars – it was immense, remarkably beautiful and deeply moving. We spent a couple of hours lying there in wonder, listening to coyotes calling in the distance and, so welcome, a haunting loon on the lake giving its warbling and haunting cry. And then we crawled back into our tent to sleep for the rest of the night. So it is clear that educational videos and scholarly information on the solar system provide a lot of information but this cannot replace our emotional experience of an evening spent under the stars; nor can a TV special or YouTube about flowers come close to an encounter in an alpine meadow of a symphony of flowers waving in the breeze, filling the air with perfume, of being able to touch and examine those flowers. So too, with our relationship with people; one does not fall in love with a picture or a movie or a written description or even a Facebook ‘friend”, but with real people in real situations. Our religious experiences are the same. Sunday morning church services on live-streamed on a tablet cannot be equated with a firsthand experience of going to church, with the demands of interacting with one’s fellow Christians, of eating the bread and drinking the wine. This is not to say that these media do not have value. However, they rarely provide the life-changing and life-directing impact that encounters in the real world provide. They do not replace the reality of being in touch with our real environment.
These personal experience of Creation are not just about a personal journey, but should feed us as communities as well. Every few years I take out a group of Grade 6-7 students for a hands-on experience of insects. By this age, some, especially boys, have already understood that education is quite boring and that what might be offered is bound to be dorky. I take these young people out to a nearby shrubby meadow and sweep my insect net through the vegetation for about 30 seconds and dump the contents onto a white sheet spread out on the ground. Generally there are about 75-100 species of insects crawling around and the students start to ask questions about what they are seeing. Always there is a small group of boys that stand back, with their arms folded and the knowing look that this is just another stupid event that they need to get through before enjoying themselves. Little do they know! Although most insects require a complex of pheromones (attractive smells) and behaviour to begin the mating dance, there are some, particularly some beetles, that need only to be placed together before they start to copulate. And, after I point out that those two leaf-eating beetles have started having sex, and that if you look closely from the side, you can see the interaction of the sexual organs, that little group of boys has moved a bit closer, and in another 30 seconds, one has made the break to have a closer look, followed by the others (because of course sex is cool), who then start asking questions, about what is happening and what about these other bugs and before you know it, they are asking about other aspects of the array of life forms around them. These are often the same boys that have been regularly failing in one subject or another from the earliest years in the school system. These are the ones who have learned that education is more often about memorizing and regurgitation of correct answers than about exploration, who can’t read so well, have trouble explaining their ideas in a linear manner, who are stumped by mathematic formulas, but, strangely, by the time they hit shop in Grade 8, 9 or 10, can strip down and reassemble a car engine in a few weeks. Many of these are kids who have been starved of real experiences in the Creation and their education.
Our adult world hasn’t fared much better. Most of us are exhausted by the demands of life, and the social media, cell phones and computers have become a cathartic drug that eats up the time and leaves us listless (and not much in love with anybody or anything). With the average Canadian watching screens for more than 6 hours per day, there isn’t any time left for the type of authentic interactions with the Creation that can feed our souls. We’ve exchanged the genuine for an electronic facsimile. We’ve gone from participants in the Creation to becoming spectators. Some Christians have even joined that sector of the society that admires a future seen as an aseptic, sterile, space-ship type of environment, devoid of bugs, worms, and unpleasant weather. No wonder then, that Christians often have as many grievances and problems and things that tick us off as other citizens. Often this is simply due to failing to see God in the real world around us, and, concomitantly, not having much to be thankful for. Too often our prayers are restricted to being thankful for the immediate – our food, health, and our relationships – and for the ‘big’ items – a marriage, a graduation, and the acquisition of significant material gains – paid off mortgages, a new car, etc.
This lack of connection with the Creation does what breakdown in any relationship does – it breeds fear and distrust. For many, our disconnection with the natural Creation leads to increasing alienation and a fear of being even in the approximate vicinity of other life forms. A few years ago while collecting no-see-ums near a public trail in a lowland jungle in western Costa Rica, I heard a strange, whimpering noise approaching. Keeping perfectly still, I waited, hoping to see an unusual mammal of some sort. Indeed, around the corner came a middle-aged lady with her arm protectively around the shoulders of a sobbing teenager of about 16 years of age. I asked if I could help, thinking my first aid kit might be of some use. It turned out that these ladies were from the Netherlands and that the daughter had never before been in the jungle – indeed, she’d never been in any forest of any sort. She was absolutely mortified by the potential threat of poisonous snakes, monkeys and nasty plants. To this young lady, everything around her was frightening and possibly deadly; for her, the inability to distinguish the harmless species from the bad (and threatening species were rare there), meant she had to treat the entire environment as dangerous. Although she was more upset than most, it is certainly common for many to be ‘afraid of the woods’. For most people, insects (as in ALL insects other than bees), are, if not threatening, at a minimum rather disgusting; for most “a good insect is a dead insect”. Because of an inability to name or recognize different components of the natural environment and thereby understand something of the species around us we are alienated, afraid and alone. If one could not distinguish between a baby and an officer of the secret police, one would reasonably be afraid of all people, and such an individual in our society would be recognized as psychotic. Many people have the same understanding of the natural Creation!
To make a successful spiritual journey we need to experience a few things deeply and ensure that these experiences are authentic. Even though we live in an age of facsimile, we all know there is something different about an original experience, whether it is a live music concert, an original painting, a real hockey game, or that creeping snake! We need to seek out the real because that’s where the Spirit can be most evident. Packaged products, whether religious or secular, are more often numbing to the soul than anything else.
So how does naming, to get back to the original question in this chapter, impact authenticity? Naming, all said and done, is the very basis for experiencing the authentic in our lives, both in the Creation and in our reading of Scripture. Knowing the Scriptures and Creation through study and experience provides us with the tools we need to identify what is important. God wants us to be filled with wisdom, being able to discern what is right and true, a central tenet of the Scriptures. Being fully alive to the Creation can give us a similar feel of what is right and true, knowing in our hearts what is legitimate. It teaches us what is valid and keeps us from going off the deep end theologically (or from some scientists), believing too readily what others say to be true. Prayerful Creation experiences can protect us from the vagaries of power and social pressure that is so present in the world, including in the organized church. Too often there is a sharp contrast between the real world and the religious one. It is a sad thing when Christians are praising the Lord for their isolation from the natural world, when there is purposeful ignorance of our environment. A rootedness in God’s work furnishes an important Holy Spirit measure of who and what we are and provides a critically important component for understanding a vision for our own lives, our churches and our societies. It helps us to discern the real voice of God.
Webster’s Dictionary defines sacred as “holy, set apart especially for the service or worship of God; hallowed by religious association; having a religious , not a profane character”. In our society we have divorced knowledge from the sacred – believing that items, facts, and data are meaningful in themselves, important in the realm of science but inconsequential in the realm of the spiritual. This is a sad mistake. In the realm of science, we have come to believe ourselves as ‘value free’, as if our discoveries have no spiritual meaning, immunizing ourselves against a sense of wonder, thankfulness and blessing. And as Christians we have often collaborated, largely leaving knowledge of the Creation in the hands of others, not recognizing the sacredness of Creation. God doesn’t want Christians to be ignorant, holed up in our faith communities, blissfully unaware of the outside world. He provides His Creation for a reason – not just a life support system so we can do ‘religious’ work, but so we can be fully engaged, fully alive, and be able to celebrate who and what we are – a created people placed in a remarkable universe, carefully and lovingly created for our edification. So we can really expand our spirits and ‘In everything give thanks’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18)!
OK, so does everyone need to get out there and become an entomologist or astrophysicist? Does everyone need to be involved in scientific research? Although it wouldn’t hurt the future of the planet to have many more trained in Creation work, this is obviously not the universal call. But each of us, regardless of our position and place in our society has the opportunity to see wonder in the Creation, whether that is in a worm crawling on the sidewalk, the amazing smile of a child, the smell of a new book, or the texture of an eggshell. Each of us is surrounded by an endless and remarkable environment, filled with beauty and mystery, if we have the eyes to see it. Each of us is called to be a student of the Creation. So how to get there? I could suggest that you get an aquarium and fill it with pond life or go for a slow walk (so you are paying attention to your environment rather than worrying about your personal state), or sit on a patio chair and really look at every life form that shows up in the following hour, but that alone wouldn’t do the trick. Before we can truly appreciate and understand our environment through spiritual eyes, we need to cultivate a conversation with God that asks for our eyes and ears and noses and fingers and skin and tongues to be deeply aware. We know that humans can distinguish over 10,000 different scents – but we need to ask the Creator to send His Spirit so we can pay attention, to be able to smell and understand that little whiff of holy Creation that drifts by but for a second and recognize the sacred. We need to petition God to open our eyes to the blessings that we are immersed in, to truly desire to be able to hear what is being spoken, to be able, once again, to become as children, reveling in the marvel of it all. It may be as simple as asking, and it being given, searching, and then finding, knocking, and finding the door opened for us. It is an excellent avenue to regain the sense of wonder and awe that God wants from each and every one of us.
1. What positive personal experience have you had with a species in nature? Are there species out there that you love?
2. What negative personal experience have you had with a species in nature?
3. What are the species you can name in nature? How do you feel about them?
4. Are there “bad” species? Are there species that should be eliminated from the world?
5. What opportunities do you have to experience nature? Is it on a regular basis? Are there green spaces near you to experience nature?
6. Why do many Christians view Creation as the “fallen” Creation? Is this Biblical? What is your experience?
When our eldest child Chris was just 11 months old, he was diagnosed with acute astigmatism that demanded he wear glasses. After a short adjustment period, he became used to wearing them, but whenever he became tired and cranky, he would tear the glasses from his face and fling them off into the air. On a beautiful first of July, we decided to ride our bikes to Parliament Hill in downtown Ottawa to partake of the Canada Day festivities. Chris, then one and a half years old, was strapped into his seat on the back of my wife Annette’s bike and off we went. On arriving, as we were walking our bikes through the celebrating crowds, I looked over and saw that Chris was no longer wearing his glasses. At the time, we were living on a very limited budget, with no extra dollars to spare for anything, so we were particularly concerned and spent an hour retracing our steps but to no avail – they were lost. That afternoon we discovered that replacing the glasses would cost $53, money that we didn’t have. We decided to order them anyway, worried that we wouldn’t be able to pay when they arrived. We mentioned the problem to God that evening in our prayers. The next day a cheque arrived in the mail for $57 – an audit of our car insurance company had determined that we’d overpaid four years earlier. We turned our eyes heavenward in thanks that we could pay for the new glasses and also picked up a cheap bottle of wine to have with dinner that night to celebrate. We knew the money was a gift from God and we were thankful.
We wondered then, and still wonder now, some 40 years later, whether this was a miracle or not. Was this an expression of supernatural powers, God changing the world in response to our prayers? If the cheque was a supernatural response, did God cause our insurance company to be audited months earlier in anticipation that Chris’ glasses would be lost and in expectation of our prayers? Would the cheque have arrived if we hadn’t prayed?
There is a curious variation in how Christians define and view miracles. Some claim that miracles are a thing of the past, true for biblical times but no longer present in our modern world and perhaps even allegorical in the past. They view the world as functioning at a materialistic level, with God present but only in the spiritual realm. Others, particularly in the charismatic movement, consider their daily walks to be filled with such miracles as being able to find a parking spot, running into an old friend, being healed from a head cold or finding a five dollar bill on the sidewalk, all direct results of God’s direct intervention.
At its most general level our society identifies sudden storms, earthquakes, tornados, tidal waves, lightning strikes, and floods as ‘Acts of God’, implying, at least historically, the involvement of the Deity. We also use the label of miracle to refer to something wondrous and beautiful that produces deep emotion, like the birth of a baby, for instance, or perhaps a striking sunset over a mirror-flat ocean. We acknowledge the deep awe these events can produce as rooted in our God. We recognize these as miraculous because of a special awareness that God is the origin of that beauty.
The Bible portrays miracles as phenomena or events that transcend the normal working of the universe and therefore, reflect the special intervention of God – the dividing of the Red Sea to allow the passage of Moses and the Hebrew people in their escape from Egypt, the bottomless pot of flour and oil to feed Elijah and the widow, and the healing of the sick by Jesus and his disciples. Underlying these biblical stories is the recognition that God was performing a unique work in the lives of His people.
Although it seems theologically obvious that God has the power to intervene in His universe when and where He pleases, it is also clear from the Scriptures and the Creation that miracles are very rare. Although we may be impressed by the number of supernatural miracles presented in the Bible, it is important to remember that they were spread over the space of thousands of years and generally happened to only one or a few people in the whole population. When miracles occurred, they served to minister to special needs or circumstances. The vast majority of the time God worked through natural processes. If God didn’t do so, science itself wouldn’t work. If God was regularly ‘breaking’ the natural rules, we wouldn’t be able to determine physical laws like those determining gravity and electricity or biological phenomena such as competition between species or the evolution of the dinosaurs. Our reality is that the everyday events in the natural world stack up to produce common patterns which are evident in scientific analysis. Light goes the same speed wherever one measures it, genes function in the same way in a fruit fly and a human, and species compete with each other whether they are in Costa Rica or Belgium.
Within a supernatural, miracle context, Christians since Biblical times have identified a wide variety of phenomena as supernatural, perceiving these either as due to God’s special presence in their lives or as the work of the devil. In the past, such phenomena as static electricity, magnetism, eclipses, comets, and the presence of fossils have been attributed to the supernatural. In general, people identified any unusual event in their personal lives, any event which didn’t fit into their regular, predictable world, as a special intervention from the spirit world.
Over the past 500 years, science has provided a physical explanation for one ‘miraculous’ phenomena after another. It has steadily eroded the perspective that much of what we experience is supernatural. We now understand the reason eclipses occur, how electricity works, why lightning strikes and how hurricanes are formed. We know how comets moves in relation to the sun and how the earth moves in relation to the other planets. We have uncovered the causes of a wide array of diseases and can provide cures or at least help for a tremendous number of physical ailments. And our understanding of the human body is increasing by leaps and bounds, so that we can expect (if society continues to develop) greater skills and remedies from our health professionals in the future. Science, in short, has been spectacularly successful in explaining what was previously considered supernatural as actually rooted in natural processes. And we can surely expect further physical understanding of what little remains in what we now call the supernatural realm.
Scientists have also recognized many historical patterns and, naturally, have also looked at the Scriptures through their analytical lens. There have been scientific explanations proposed for some biblical miracles, such as the manna provided during the Exodus being a normally occurring lichen or perhaps the exudate of an ash tree, the passage of the Hebrews through the Red Sea being caused by strong winds, that Lazarus was merely in a coma before being raised from the dead by Jesus, and that many healings were through the power of suggestion. Some of these miracles may indeed have had their roots in normal natural process but natural processes that were being used by God for a special purpose at a specific time.
Our response as Christians to scientific explanations for what we thought was supernatural has ranged from tepid to outright antagonism. We often feel that our experiences of God’s special interventions are diminished or even negated when someone can provide a natural interpretation of those same circumstances. Our minds shift from celebrating God’s special attention to us, to a fear that we really aren’t that special, that God hasn’t singled us out for distinct help. Although miracles have a great personal appeal (who wouldn’t want an angel from God to tell them which job they should choose) and give the impression that God is truly present, appealing to our very human frailty, the reality is that both Scriptures and the Creation reveal something else about how God operates – that He uses natural processes to reveal Himself, using natural processes to unfold the history of His people and universe.
There is a perceived threat in some Christian circles that scientists are attempting to interpret every phenomena in a secular manner and that, in at least some areas, this can undermine our belief in God. Some Christians worry that if we accept all that science reveals, we may be able to explain away the reality of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ or indeed, even the reality of the presence of God. It is as if scientists asking how something functions or questioning the interpretation of a historical event are questioning the authority or supernatural nature of God.
It appears true that God does accomplish the miraculous, as evidenced in the Bible and in the lives of Christians through the ages (as rare events that transcend natural laws). But we should know that God is always at work in His universe. When our headache is cured by a dose of aspirin, it is because God has not only provided such potential cures in the Creation, He has also given us the insight and skill to discover and apply them. Our drug-based cure, then, is a reason to give thanks to God. When an appendix is about to burst and a medical team performs an appendectomy, it is God who provides the means of the cure using the processes present in the Creation (discovered by science). So too with the help we receive from stores providing our food, from tradesmen who can build homes, or water flowing out of our apartment tap. God provides the means for sustaining our lives, using natural processes and people who know how to interpret and use those processes. It is this use of the Creation that forms the vast bulk of our experiences. We should be grateful, for it all comes from the hand of God. It would indeed be possible for God to miraculously pop food into my refrigerator overnight, to remove my appendix in a split second, to make water appear in my kettle, and to instantly create a new home for me. But the message from the Creation and Scripture is that this is not the nature of the universe – it’s not the way God works. True supernatural events are extremely rare.
The need for some Christians to explain many of the events in their world as supernatural likely has more to do with our own perception of power. Fairy and fantasy tales are filled with individuals who have special powers – to fly, to see through otherwise opaque material, to know the future, to lift cars with one finger, to cast a spell, to burrow through rock, to make someone sleep forever, or to use just their mental powers alone to make others do what they want. Inside most of us is the desire to have the ability to do the spectacular. It’s probably why science fiction, fantasy and video games are as popular as they are. And if we did have those special powers we would surely wield them on a regular basis. It would seem the natural thing to do. Imagine the honour and glory one would receive if one could really walk on water or change water into wine! It would generate all sorts of ‘ohs’and ‘ahs’ from others and would surely impress the other members of the congregation. And, as humans are so inclined to do, we impose our own views on how we understand God. Surely if we would want to use special powers, God would do the same. The reality is that God doesn’t wield His power in that way. He uses natural processes as a much more creative way to bring about His will and often with humans as co-creators.
It is the goal of science to interpret and understand every aspect of our universe but it is dependent on testable evidence, either repeatable by experimentation or by examining repeated and interconnected patterns (e.g. the fossil record, or archaeological data). Without a doubt, science has been extremely successful in interpreting our material world. And as we learn more and more about the universe, we are increasingly asking questions about the very nature of humans and our place on the planet. For the first time in history, scientists are examining the chemicals and brainwave patterns present in the brains of praying individuals. Others are examining the genetic basis for personality and some have even identified ‘God genes’ – genetic characteristics that make some individuals more amenable or susceptible to religious views and experiences. Ultimately, we may understand every neurological pathway and all of the chemicals in our brains that are involved in every emotion and thought as we worship and pray. Some might take this to mean that we have eliminated another religious myth, but as Christians we must look at it differently. I take it for granted that what I am experiencing is based on the physicality of my body – that when I am feeling the presence of God in my life, overwhelmed by His love and gifts, that organic molecules are flowing and neurons are firing. This is, I understand, how God generally works in my life and discovering its physical basis says nothing about the value of what I am experiencing. It remains a communion and gift from God, physically based or not. So too, my beautiful wife and wonderful children stir my heart and produce in me great feelings of appreciation and love. These feelings are influenced by my history as a child (when I learned about the basics of love), my primate origins, my education, my shared history with my wife and kids, and many other historical factors, all rooted in the Creation. And I don’t doubt for a minute that there are numerous chemicals coursing through my brain as I feel these sentiments. This doesn’t mean that my feelings of love are illegitimate, imaginary, or false. It merely means that God uses these means to bring about our feelings. Science, then, can tell us how something functions (or has functioned), can describe how the physical universe is or has been, but it cannot give us a spiritual interpretation of these discoveries – that is in the realm of faith and spirituality and what should be one of the goals of Christians to pursue.
In a similar way, we identify many incidents in our lives as special blessings. Events sometimes come together in remarkable ways that we recognize as God working in our lives. The fact that they are based on natural processes is all the more remarkable because it produces a mystery. Natural processes are at work, but yet we see God’s hand in them. Men and women fall in love and marry, feeling that their coming together is part of God’s plan. We have sex and produce babies which are conceived by natural processes, and as we hold our babies in our arms, we are filled with the knowledge that they are God’s gift to us. We meet an old friend in a campground who also happens to be traveling in the same distance area and spend an evening sharing our lives and being thankful for the time to share together, knowing that we both got there by each choosing a vacation time, agreeing with our spouses that camping that particular week would be fun. Even scientific proof of randomness in our world is insufficient to undermine what we read in our Scriptures – that God is Lord of the universe and He is present in our lives – even of random events. Over and over again in the Bible, the casting of lots (and we know that throwing dice produce random numbers) was used to determine or fulfill God’s will. Sailors used lots to discover that Jonah was the one who should be thrown overboard, the areas apportioned to the tribes of Israel was determined by casting lots and the apostle Matthias was chosen by lots. And Proverbs 3:16 is quite explicit: ‘The lot is cast into the lap, but the decision is the Lord’s alone’.
So what should we make of the cheque that showed up at the last moment, allowing us to pay for our son’s glasses when we were so poor? It appears that all of the events taken one by one are the result of natural processes – the insurance company was audited months earlier as part of a regular accounting practice, the overpayment of our car insurance was detected and the money naturally returned, our toddler son was naturally irritated by having glasses on his face, we used our own bodies to bike to the Canada Day festivities, and we were normally concerned when the glasses went missing. The fact that sufficient funds appeared the next day would be considered to be coincidence by a non-believer but, as Christians, we know that everything in this world is in God’s hands. We are comfortable to live with this mystery – that God used natural processes to bring about this gift in our lives. We thanked Him in knowledge of that mystery – God using natural processes to bring about His will. And that can be considered quite miraculous!
Identifying supernatural miracles as part of our daily walk is, ironically, a spiritually dangerous way of looking at life – it limits our minds as to how God is truly working. Christians who recognize the supernatural in everyday events have restricted God to a small corner of their own personal universe, a world that primarily is about the individual. The ‘miracles’, then, are set against a backdrop of a Creation thought to be mundane, in which God is truly present only in the supernatural. It narrows our spiritual eyes to see only a very limited world in which God repeatedly uses His special powers to modify our immediate environment. Science therefore, opens our eyes to how God works in our lives and in the lives of others. By seeing His handiwork in all of the minute processes that make up the functioning of our universe, we understand how truly omnipotent He is. It gives us the gift of being able to celebrate God’s presence in all of the natural processes we are surrounded by. The view of a powerful God who works primarily through the supernatural not only limits our lives to looking for signs, it limits how we see God working in our lives (the bigger and more spectacular the better), and allows others to think we’re living a superstitious pipe dream.
Even Jesus took some pains to ensure that His disciples did not view their world as primarily supernatural. When Jesus suddenly appeared to them after His resurrection (surely a supernatural event!), He told them that He was not a ghost and He encouraged them to touch His hands and feet. And then seeing that they were still incredulous, He simply asked if they had anything for Him to eat. In this bit of holy humour, Jesus took a bite of fish and pointed to the reality of his physical presence, His rootedness in the Creation (Luke 24:36-43). No wonder then, that the Eucharist is based not on mysterious and unusual elements but on bread and wine, the everyday food of that time. And Jesus, during His ministry, went further, taking pains to point out that miracles are not enough to provide evidence of God’s presence, warning that some false teachers will come in God’s name with great signs and omens, being so convincing that it could influence true believers (Matthew 24:24). And finally, when the Devil suggested that Jesus throw himself down from the pinnacle of the temple and have angels save Him, Jesus responds with ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test’ (Matthew 4:7).
The Scriptures point out the omnipotent presence of God throughout His Creation. We are told that we are surrounded by a beautiful, mysterious and remarkable universe that gives us endless reason to praise Him. Knowing that supernatural miracles are rare (and perhaps never present in an individual’s life), liberates us to see that God is marvelously present throughout our lives and surroundings. Science, as a portrayal of the Creation, becomes something to embrace because knowing more and more of how the Creation is put together tells us more and more of God’s full presence in my life.
This perspective can also change how our sense of the mystical. If it is relegated to the unexplainable, to the arenas that science can’t touch, to the miraculous event that convinces us that the coincidental is actually the Holy Spirit, we have lost a central tenet of our faith. God, in fact, is everywhere and the true mystic, the believer with fire in her belly, is the one who sees the miraculous also in the known. When we as Christians can share our understanding of God’s presence in the shape of a rock, the wonder of muscle structure, and in the spectacular structure of DNA, we will have regained an important element in our worship and witness.
From a purely relational perspective, it shouldn’t matter one bit whether God brings His gifts to us through a supernatural event or through natural processes. We have a God who loves us so much that He continuously provides for our needs through the Creation He made for us, with the rare shot of the supernatural. And in a sense, receiving God’s special blessings through natural processes might be recognized as an even more precious gift. Just as a present that has been carefully crafted by a loved one can seem of more value than one that is store-bought, the gifts that come into our lives through the actions of a God who carefully fashions natural processes and arranges His universe so that we receive timely blessings can be thought of as more incredible, more remarkable and, in a way, more loving. He could provide us with instantaneous gifts, but chooses instead to generate them through a creative process.
God’s call is for us to live in full communion with Him. Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, we can see Him not only in the newly born baby, but also in the overhead clouds, in the creeping snail, or in an opening leaf. With God in our hearts, we feel His presence all around us, from the greatest to the smallest of events. It makes sense of “in everything give thanks”. Life can’t get any better than that.
1. Have you experienced any miracles? What were they? What did they result in?
2. What miracles have you seen in others?
3. Are new born babies ‘miracles’? Is remarkable beauty miraculous?
4. Do you view scientific discoveries as miraculous? If not, do they say anything about the nature of our God?
5. How does God heal?
6. What is the purpose of true miracles?
‘God has made everything beautiful in its time’ – Ecclesiastes 3:11a
‘All natures, then, inasmuch as they are, and have therefore a rank and species of their own, and a kind of internal harmony, are certainly good.’ – St. Augustine, The City of God (413-414 AD)
That pesky fly had been in the kitchen for over three days and, after several half-hearted attempts at trying to shoo it outside, it was still buzzing around. I was somewhat annoyed but also somewhat pleased – I knew some things about this creature that made it rather special to me. A couple of weeks earlier, this sophisticated flying machine that escaped capture with such ease, was an earth-bound maggot – more or less a segmented sac with two hooklike mouthparts – a simple design ideal for feeding on the decaying organic material this larva thrives on.
The holometabolous insects are those insects which have a larval, pupal and adult stage. Some common examples are butterflies, bees and flies. Unlike other insects, like grasshoppers, in which eggs hatch into smaller versions of the adult, the holometabolous insects hatch into larvae which are very different from their adult form. The larvae, commonly called grubs, caterpillars or maggots, are feeding specialists, transforming in the pupal stage to an adult that is geared for reproduction and dispersal – finding new homes for its young. The intermediate pupa allows holometabolous insects to have two very different stages that divide up the various requirements for survival of the species; the larva sees to eating and growth and the adult to making sure population numbers are sustained and to finding further habitats in which to lay its eggs.
So how do flies and other holometabolous insects manage this trick of transformation, shifting their shape so radically – in this case from maggot to fly? During early stages of development inside its egg, the embryonic larva of the house fly sets aside groups of cells. Each group is called an imaginal disc – imaginal because this refers to the imago (Latin for adult insect), and discs because they look like little dinner plates. The imaginal discs are destined to become the different parts of the future adult, with each one later forming an antenna, wing, leg, eye or the genitalia. However, as the larva forms in the egg, these imaginal discs are in stasis, and they are kept in that suspended state until the larva is big and fat, ready to be transfigured. Just before becoming a pupa, the larva slows down and the imaginal discs start to grow rapidly. It finds a safe place in which to spend its immobile pupal stage, often in some drier vegetation or, for city house flies, some exposed garbage. When the larva sheds its skin to become a pupa, the reorganization of its body really takes off. Inside the protective pupal skin, the imaginal discs grow at full steam to form adult appendages and other bits. While this is going on, the larval muscles and fat deposits disintegrate so the molecules can be used for reforging the parts as an adult fly. When all is complete after 2-3 days, the fully formed adult fly uses a special balloon at the front of its head to blow the seal off the front of the pupal chamber and then, by alternately deflating and inflating the balloon with its blood, is able to work its way to the surface of the rotting material in which it finds itself. After a bit of time to harden its outer skin, the fly is ready to take off, to find a mate and some flight fuel in the form of a blob of strawberry jam on your kitchen counter, and, if she’s had sex, off to lay eggs on more decaying matter.
The metamorphosis from maggot to fly includes the development of one of the most amazing flight mechanisms in the animal kingdom. Although it may be irritating to have to buy special equipment in the form of a fly swatter to kill houseflies, on the other hand it is an amazing testimony to their navigation skills that you can’t catch them by hand. Houseflies, like all other flies, use a complement of adaptations to achieve such remarkable aviation skills. First of all, only the two front wings propel them through the air – the hind pair are modified into two small rods, each with a ball at its end and are called halters. By moving rapidly, the two halters function as gyroscopes, using the same principles as those on planes to determine its flight pattern. When a fly shifts its direction of flight or its own position (e.g. tilting to the left or right or up or down), the weight of the ball wants to continue straight ahead and thereby stresses the rod, firing off embedded neurons that tell the fly’s brain that it has moved left, right, up, down or that it is now upside down. But to avoid predators in a kitchen or birds outside also requires other mechanisms. To ensure rapid flight, the housefly thorax is uniquely structured and has strategically placed bits of resilin – the same material that superballs are made of – to give it an extra, energy saving ‘snap’ to the base of the wing as it moves up and down. The wing itself has a special arrangement of wing veins, strong in the front, weaker behind to give the wing special patterns of flex as it flaps against the air. And then there are the compound eyes, composed of about 4,000 individual lenses, which allows the fly to see its environment and movements, such as your approaching hand, in enough detail that it can send the information to its brain and calculate how to coordinate its flight pattern, fly out of harm’s way and land safely nearby.
Although I and a few other individuals may find these features of houseflies quite marvelous, the vast majority of people view these insects with disgust and would prefer to see their elimination from the planet. This is the general view of organisms that we view as repulsive – we have a hard time seeing a need for them in our environment, and especially in our own lives. As Christians, we may read in Scripture that all creatures will worship the King of Kings at the end of days, but we have a hard time seeing ourselves sharing the arena with houseflies, all on bended knee.
As a consequence of viewing many organisms as ugly, we don’t care about their demise or extinction. We naturally build strong emotional barriers against any possible relationship with what we consider repugnant or obnoxious. Worse, humans have a long tradition of justifying our personal tastes in spiritual or biblical terms, equating ugliness with evil and, alternately, beauty with goodness. And our immediate reactions to our environment quickly determine which is which. We find small crawling insects, vultures, and snakes as not only disgusting but some of us view them as evidence of a fallen creation. Those creatures which make us uncomfortable are lumped in with the thistles and thorns assigned to Adam after the Fall in the Garden of Eden. They are seen as ‘corrupt’, ‘evil’ or just plain ‘bad’. Certainly they are not seen as creatures we are called to love.
As a graduate student a number of years ago, I taught an introductory entomology lab. At the beginning of the university term, the professor who taught the course explained to me that a student who wanted to take the class had extreme entomophobia. She was so frightened of all insect life that she had been living an entirely cloistered life. To do her shopping she ran from her spotlessly clean home to her immaculate car and then dashed from her vehicle to a shopping mall. She never went outside for fear of encountering an insect and she didn’t visit with friends because of the possibility that a fly, beetle or spider might be inside their homes. She recognized that she was living in a neurotic bubble that was ruining her life.
I spent a half hour with this student to find out what her comfort level would be and decided that her first lab should be a private one. While she waited outside in the hallway, I placed a pinned Painted Lady butterfly on the lab bench and another preserved in fluid in a petri dish. I invited her inside and upon seeing the pinned butterfly, she began to hyperventilate. We waited together till she calmed down and she got a little closer. I pointed out the different colours on the wings, the discrete patterns made up of many thousands of minuscule, overlapping scales. Not only did they provide pigmentation patterns on the wings, they also were important to the aerodynamics of how the butterfly flies, and also for avoiding predation, as they make the butterfly somewhat slippery to handle. I discussed how these different scale colours were selected by evolution to be different in different butterflies. I showed her how to recognize it as a butterfly by noting the knob at the end of the antenna and, as she drew closer and closer, pointed out how the mouthparts which form a coiled ‘straw’ that, when straightened, allow the butterfly to sip nectar from flowers. As she started to see some of these details, we took the next step. I took out a probe and suggested she touch the butterfly in the petri dish. Her hand shook but with clenched teeth she touched the specimen. A few minutes later we were looking through the microscope at those thousands of small scales and coiled proboscis. She looked at the legs, with their long sensory hairs, at the marvelous eyes that are in fact made up of thousands of small facets. Within fifteen minutes, she was asking about this part and then another and I could see that a breakthrough had happened. This young woman was moving past her initial fear and loathing, to see for the first time this creature’s beauty, a beauty that can draw one on and on. She began to transform her version from an undefined threat to recognizing a creature that was made up of marvelously constructed parts, with each detail having a story, with each portion fitting with the others to make an integrated whole. She began to understand that this butterfly had a history and had come about as part of a community of organisms through millions of years of evolution. That recognition of beauty drew her into relationship. She started to talk about the mystery of this butterfly originating as a crawling caterpillar (a form she particularly loathed). By the end of the term, she was delighted to be able to dissect a live cockroach and study its contracting heart, learning how the insides of the insect work. She had stepped from fear to appreciation.
The transition from abhorrence to amazement is available with every aspect of the Creation. But it takes a bit of effort on our part. I often receive puzzled looks from people when I explain that I truly love no-see-ums. Of course I don’t like the pain when I am being bitten, but it is a wonderful thing to know that that little female on my arm has a central nervous system, can flap her wings at many hundreds of times a second, has a complement of seven mouthparts that she’s using to draw blood and that those mouthparts have sensors to tell her where she should bite, that her gut has other sensors to know when she is ‘full’, that she has the capacity to detect the carbon dioxide in my breath from over a kilometer away, that she has other sensors to know exactly where to lay her eggs, and that she is a member of the same genus that was biting dinosaurs 90 million years ago. I know that her eggs will hatch into aquatic larvae that feed on microorganisms and that, once the larvae have shed their skins three times, they will overwinter, to then pupate in the spring and begin another cycle. Knowing that all this is a product of evolutionary processes just adds to the wonder and awe I see in a species that can shape-shift during its life and which is so intimately adapted to its environment in each stage.
The reality of our world is that this beauty is present in every part of the created order. A microscopic view of the mouth of a tapeworm is quite remarkable. Forensic entomologists have fascinating stories of how corpses are eventually recycled to become part of the earth. The dung of all mammals brings in an interesting and diverse insect fauna to break it down.
Aside from our inability to see beauty in much of our environment, there is another quandary present in our society – the phenomena that we do consider to be beautiful nearly always have related features that when we are out of relationship, we see as being ugly. That butterfly that the young student came to appreciate is viewed as beautiful by most people, but its earlier stage, the caterpillar, is often deemed to be ugly. The gorgeous little baby with curly hair and a sweet smile also produces poopy and stinky diapers that only those who love that baby can truly appreciate (yeah! my baby is digesting well!!). The stupendous sunset with its vibrant purple and orange colours can mean a distant forest fire that is razing rural homes, and the noble lion laying in the sun will later that day have its muzzle covered with blood as it rips into the belly of wildebeest. We have a perspective that is internally inconsistent, looking at the same organism as sometimes beautiful and sometimes ugly, all because it is acting as an integrated part of the created order. By doing so, we fail to see and appreciate how God has actually put our world together. We may find some aspects of our world initially repugnant, but that has to do with us. Our feelings that something is ugly and therefore ‘bad’ has more to do with our limitations than how God has made His world.
It is here that study of the Creation provides a healing salve and explains how it is that that a few of us can experience wonder not only over houseflies but also come to appreciate mosquitoes and see beauty in headlice, tapeworms and other ‘disgusting’ creatures. Our scientific investigations, limited as they are, have uncovered a remarkable feature of the universe. By dissecting and teasing apart the components of the physical universe, including ourselves and other life forms, we now know that the universe functions because of an amazing number of processes, which in concert, give our environment structure. Molecules, biochemical pathways, and genes are basic to all life. Gravity, subatomic particles, and strong and weak nuclear forces underlie the structure of solar systems, stars, and galaxies. All organisms are made of an immense number of smaller parts that work together, allowing them to live. The laws of physics explain the arrangement and order present in our non-living world. These underlying processes are quite astounding and incredible. So too in the biological world – it is the huge complexity and diversity of life that brings ecological richness and stability to the living communities that we depend on, not only for our health and future, but also as a source of wonder and spiritual enrichment.
An intimate walk in our world can make one quickly appreciate that the Creation is loaded with fabulous wonders, all together forming a complex whole. When the Creation is experienced in some depth, we can see and sense beauty, integration, and unity. It can become increasingly difficult to detect the sort of fallen Creation that Christians have traditionally thought of as present in the natural world. Some may point to the presence of predation in our world as evil, by taking such Bible verses as those about the lion laying with the lamb literally (Isaiah 11:6-9; 65:25) but this argument is quickly seen as untenable when studied carefully. Nature may be ‘red in tooth and claw’ but this has been a characteristic of life since it first arose billions of years ago. Carnivores have eaten deer, and dragonflies have eaten flying midges for millions of years. Without predation, life as we know it would effectively cease. My experience is such that I am not dismayed by a praying mantis eating a moth it has caught, and I do not see evil in a coyote killing a rabbit. It is all part of the integrated ecosystems on our planet. Of course, when death strikes closer to home – say, for instance, in the loss of a loved one – my feelings as a human being may range from terror to dismay to terrible grief, but that in itself is no evidence of evil. More on this later.
Generally what we consider ugly in the natural world is invariably a response based on ignorance and lack of experience (and perhaps how we were raised). What we have marginalized (most life forms on our planet) are truly wonders of God’s Creation if we have the eyes to see. But what we cannot see we cannot experience, and what we cannot experience we cannot love, and what we cannot love we cannot care for. Our recognition of of pervasive ugliness then, is a call to fix our broken relationship with God and the Creation.
Of course, true ugliness and evil do exist in the material world but they are generally restricted to the realm of what we have created. Slums filled with malnourished people, homelessness in our city centers, stripped and eroded land, polluted lakes and rivers, clear-cut forests, broken families, the widespread existence of human beings who feel unloved, chemical-laced food, and so many other injustices. Ugliness and evil are generally what we have created by both abuse and neglect, by excluding others and God’s Creation from our love. Most ugliness and evil comes from within our own hearts.
Aside from the power of prayer, is it possible that the innate vision present in our children could help us identify the beauty we walk in? Perhaps that is why Jesus recognized, at least in part, that the kingdom of heaven belongs to children – for they can often see the wonder in God’s handiwork that adults pass by. At a young age, children are often fascinated with worms, beetles, slugs, flies, frogs and the shapes of leaves. A couple of years ago my wife and I reviewed our many hundreds of pictures of our children as they were growing up. A striking number were of them on their knees, looking intently at caterpillars, beetles, mushrooms, flowers, and salamanders, or peering down from boardwalks into pond water. They were enraptured by the marvels they found outdoors, and our house was filled with natural treasures they had discovered in their travels. We all learnt a great deal and the thrill of seeing children absorbing so much wonder spilled over to us as parents. Some of the many gifts that can come to us through the young.
l. What animals or plants do you consider to be truly ugly? Why?
2. How do we learn that some creatures are ugly?
3. Do humans have some innate fears of some organisms that can translate into thinking of them as ugly?
4. Some personal experiences can make us loath some species (e.g. tapeworms, grizzly bears). Is it yet possible to love such species? Or is this even important?
5. Is it possible to hate a few species but yet love the creation as a whole?
6. Have you identified another person as ugly? What makes them so? Would getting to know them better change your perspective?
‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’ – Genesis 1: 27
‘Nothing is here treated of but the visible form of the world. He who would learn astronomy, and other recondite arts, let him go elsewhere’ – John Calvin (1847; Commentaries 1:79)
Probably one of the most contentious issues raised by scientific studies of the history of life is the conclusion that humans arose through the process of evolution. This arena has probably provoked more Christians to take a stand against evolutionary biology specifically and science in general than any other single item. Even for those Christians who can accept that the universe is billions of years old and that most life evolved, the idea that we ourselves are the product of evolutionary processes and that we are indeed naked apes is repugnant and unacceptable. However, the very presence of the conflict teaches us something about some central Christian truths.
The characteristics of humans are as amenable to evolutionary analysis as are any other species and in exactly the same manner we study the evolutionary history of a group of flies, beetles, birds, or horses, we can investigate and interpret the features of primates, including ourselves. Investigations of embryology, comparative morphology, genetics, phylogeny, and palaeontology all clearly show that humans belong to the lineage of anthropoid apes within the order Primata. That Homo sapiens are mammals, vertebrates and members of the animal kingdom is undoubted by the vast majority of the scientific community. The fossil record for our species is sufficiently complete that scientists are arguing where each of the fossil species arose, and, because some earlier species of Homo lived together at the same time and place, what their interactions might have been. There is excellent evidence that our genus Homo arose from earlier and smaller brained species of the more primitive Australopithecus in Africa.
The results of such analysis make a detailed and integrated picture. Some details are uncertain, but the overall pattern is very clear. Humans are the product, as is every other organism on earth, of the evolutionary process. Our closest living relatives are the chimpanzee and bonobo and our next closest kin are gorillas, orangutans and gibbons.
Why should these exciting discoveries present a problem to many in the Christian community? Why has this issue caused so much grief within our churches? What has kept us from accepting the story from Creation that researchers have uncovered?
Sound theological analyses have already shown that the Creation stories in Genesis are primarily allegorical, written in poetic language, and were clearly not meant to be a scientific portrayal of our origins (remember that science analysis itself is a relatively modern development). The very fact ancient scholars were comfortable with two different and inconsistent Creation stories presented side by side in Genesis 1 and 2, shows how these stories were never meant to be taken as literate fact. Instead, they serve to give us an overall portrayal of our God as Creator of all, as a Deity desiring an intimate relationship with humans and a God who demands justice. To take these stories literally requires not only ignoring internal inconsistencies and such puzzles (in the second story) as God not realizing that Adam required Eve, even though he made him as a male and all other animals had already been created male and female. Placing great accent on the details of these important Scriptures suggests that these are not scientific documents, written thousands of years before science itself developed. A literal interpretation belittles their true meaning and significance and demands ignoring or avoiding the evolutionary story God has embedded in the Creation itself.
Considering that many scholarly theological analyses have already suggested that evolution is compatible with the Scriptures, why does this subject remain so contentious? Part of the problem lies in how we see ourselves in relation to God. Prior to the time of Copernicus, Galileo and Keplar, Christians believed that a number of Scriptural passages proved that mankind and the earth were the center of the universe in a very real and literal sense. The depictions of the Creation were of the earth being surrounded by the encircling sun, moon and stars and this view of the universe was important to the Christian’s walk. Until that time, Christians had viewed themselves as having a special relationship with God not only because of their spiritual connection, but also because they saw themselves as the actual center of the universe. Mankind was special, at least in part, because of our physical location. When Galileo’s hypothesis challenged that view and provided strong evidence that the earth, in fact, went around the sun, there was a vociferous and intense reaction from the Church to a perceived threat. To the Christians of that time, a statement that the earth revolved around the sun undermined the position of humans, denigrated our special relationship with God and drew into question the infallibility of Scripture.
The outcome of that debate is obvious. Today, Christians have largely forgotten about the conflict and accept that the earth goes around the sun, and that the planets move through our night sky because they too are in solar orbits. We now acknowledge that our solar system is placed on one of the outer arms of the Milky Way, which itself is only one of a myriad of other galaxies. At the same time, Christians have recognized the poetic language of those Bible verses which state that the sun moves in relation to the earth: ‘In the heavens he has set a tent for the sun, ….. Its rising is from the end of the heavens, and its circuit to the end of them’ (Psalm 19:4b, 6) and ‘He has established the world; it shall never be moved’ (Psalm 93:1b). It is now accepted that these are not scientific statements but a description of what earlier Biblical writers saw and believed about their physical world, written in metaphorical language. Modern Christians are more astute and know that the details of these particular verses are not scientific descriptions. Rather, the Holy Spirit continues to use these Scriptures to inspire us with a message for us to hear: that it is God who makes the universe function and He therefore deserves praise and honour.
Being the center of the universe is not the only physical feature Christians have historically identified as making them special in God’s eyes. There have been several characteristics that particularly European and North American Christians have used as grounds to support their belief that they were especially blessed. A few verses extracted from the Bible allowed them to consider the white race to be superior to those of colour (who bore the ‘mark of Cain’). They viewed the cultural characteristics of their society to be exceptional and evidence of their special status, they considered being fully clothed to indicate their moral superiority and male adults used Bible verses to support their dominating position over women. Kings, queens and upper classes viewed their positions as God-given and indicative of their superior position in the eyes of the Deity. More recently, some have viewed an Aryan ancestry to indicate a higher station in God’s hierarchy. And one doesn’t have to go far to hear news of political leaders who lay claim to the special presence of God because of their society’s characteristics of a free market and democracy. Today’s Prosperity Christians claim a special status because of how they look, what they own and how successful their lives appear to be (materially).
Although many of these views are now regarded as distasteful within most of the Christian community, it remains a central feature of our human nature to look for outside evidence of our own importance. We need crutches to convince ourselves and others that we are special. Many modern Christians like to point at the success of their children, their membership on church committees, the acquisition of a new car, the healing of a loved one, being able to speak in tongues, or the large number of people who attend their church as signs that they are close to God. And mentioning a church budget of $2 million never hurts as an indicator of being in an especially blessed position. Over and over again, we seek out external trappings as evidence of how much God loves us and what must, therefore, be a deep relationship. We consistently avoid one central Christian truth: God loves us for who we are, not what we are. What the Bible is all about is based on one main theme: God desires above all, an intimate relationship with each of us. All the extra features of our lives are completely superfluous if they don’t reflect an intimate personal walk with the Lord. When we point to a particular feature of our lives that indicates our privileged and intimate status, it surely suggests that we are actually insecure about our personal standing with the King of Kings.
It appears to be in our very nature to want to avoid our responsibility for having an intimate relationship with our God. If we can point to our special Creation, at the blessings God has given, at our works, or at our human relationships and claim that we therefore have an intense relationship with God, we feel secure. If we are forced to examine our walk with the Lord divested of such appearances, the picture often changes. Without them, our sinful characteristics, our failure to pray, our desire to control our own lives suddenly become vividly apparent. We love to mask the problems in our relationships with paraphernalia. Problems in communicating with our lover? No problem, just arrange a placating dinner out on the town and a bouquet of flowers. Overly angry with the kids? Buy them a new toy or let them watch an extra TV show. So too with our God. We have a propensity to patch the holes in our religious wardrobe with appearances.
Today, we have an equivalent problem with the evidence provided by scientists studying evolution. Darwin’s reinterpretation of the basis for our planet’s diversity was one more blow to our belief that we are special because of what we are. In the same way in which Galileo showed that we hold no special place in the physical center of the Creation, evolutionary biologists have amply documented that we are not extraordinary because we were created separately. We are not distinct because of a unique and instantaneous creation of the human species. We are not distinct because God created us separate from the rest of His Creation.
We have discovered that in fact we have deep and profound roots in the web of life that evolved on earth. Evolutionary biology has revealed that all other life forms are our relatives, some more distant than others, but nevertheless, all relatives. We all share the same type of DNA. We have discovered that we are indeed dust – originating in the exploding stardust from the Big Bang, billions of years ago. We are indeed formed from the earth, but through a long ancestry originating in the earliest life to arise on our planet.
Because humans evolved, we can no longer claim a relationship with God based on our unique construction. We are left standing spiritually naked in front of the Deity, without any claim to a separate origin or unique physical features. God doesn’t love us because we have opposable thumbs or because we walk on two legs, nor because we have so little fur on our skin, nor because He created us in a unique act, separate from the rest of His Creation. He loves us for who we are. Evolution provides evidence from the Creation which reinforces what God tells us in the Bible: that we are special only because he desires our hearts, minds and souls to be in communion with Him.
It seems likely that the angry denial from some Christian circles that humans evolved has more to do with insecurities in our faith and relationship with God than it does with revelation and defense of Scripture. The insights of Galileo and Darwin changed God not one whit, but they surely challenged how we view our God and ourselves in relation to the Deity.
The superficiality of appearances is consistent with messages from the Scripture. Jesus Christ repeatedly pointed out to his followers and the church establishment of His day that our roots or status have no bearing on the relationship we have with God. John the Baptist drove the point home when the Pharisees and Sadducees claimed special status with God because of their ancestry when he told them ‘Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham’ (Matthew 3:9). Paul pointed out ‘There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus’ (Galatians 3:28). Our roots and physical appearance matter not one iota when it comes to having a relationship with God. In fact, the contrary is true – God is available to each of us irrespective of race, nationality, gender, age, mental skills, personal handicaps, physical position in the universe, or whether we were created through an evolutionary process.
It is important to emphasize that although the message from the Creation is that humans arose through evolutionary mechanisms, this does not mean that the process was meaningless, nor that we are a product of thoughtless chance. It merely indicates that God used natural processes to bring about a wonderfully diverse flora and fauna, including humans, into the world. Evolutionary biology removes one more crutch that some might use to claim unique status with God.
A curious feature of the Scriptures that bothers some new Christians (and some old ones too!) are the long lists of ancestors and descendants in various parts of the Bible. And certainly, studying 1 Chronicles chapters 1-9 is not the best place to start developing one’s understanding of Christian theology. And yet there is an interesting and central idea portrayed in these genealogies. The Bible takes pains to point out that present in the ancestry of each hero of faith and each great leader, there are those who are mentioned just that one time, people who played no great historical role, ancestors that many of us would perhaps want to just forget about in embarrassment. Included in the genealogy of Jesus, as recorded in Matthew 1, are names of people that few of us would recognize (in chronological order): Jechoniah, Salathiel, Zerubbabel, Abiud, Eliakim, Azor, Zadok, Achim, Eliud, Eleazar, Matthan, and then, finally, a familiar name, Jacob, who was the father of Joseph. Among Jesus’ immediate ancestors were the poor and the filthy rich, foreigners, murderers, great kings, adulterers, and those who lived simple lives. In short, a great diversity of people was represented and Jesus claimed them all as part of his lineage. There is a clear point here. Our ancestry, both laudable and personally embarrassing, is part of who we are and how we got here. Those ancestors played vital roles in getting each of us, whether great or small, to the present.
The same phenomena is present in the Creation at large. Our ancestors include primates, other mammals, invertebrates and single-celled organisms. God is giving us the same message as He does in Scripture – you come from a lineage, you’re part of a plan and a part of the process that He is unfolding. Those relatives and ancestors are each part of a God-constructed plan to bring all of life into being. It may not be pleasant for some to think that both the chimpanzee and the earthworm are relatives but that is really our problem. In reality, there can be no shame in recognizing that that is the genealogy God has provided. It is how God works.
So how do we view humans if we are “merely” the product of evolutionary processes? First of all, the perception that our evolution is somehow demeaning should be reappraised. The claim by scientists that all the universe originated as a single, highly dense point of matter and that the entire universe arose from its explosion, that life arose on earth about 3.5 billion years ago and that evolution produced an unbelievable array of complex, interacting organisms, should be viewed as the ultimate tribute to the value of mankind in God’s eyes. What a story! As Christians we can understand that He planned and foresaw the emergence of humans from the very beginning of time (say the Scriptures). To bring humans into existence in such an intricate way is absolutely fantastic! The unfolding of the universe and all it contains is a stupendous expression of God’s enormous desire to bring us into existence. The evolutionary story is more evidence of how much God loves us.
Just as an adult who was adopted as a child may learn a great deal about herself when she discovers her birth parents, a whole new set of relatives and perhaps a different cultural expression, we need to reappraise our understanding of who and what we are in relation to our new relatives. Suddenly, Christians can discover that our aloof position above the rest of the animals was pompous and elitist. The result should be as radical as discovering that the homeless person you occasionally gave a dollar to is actually your long lost brother. We can no longer afford to look down at the needs of all these other species as charity cases, but as long departed relatives who have been severely marginalized by our bad behaviour.
This is a wonderful aspect to the evolutionary story that emphasizes and supports the central Biblical theme of the importance of relationships. The Scriptures teach that we have been created to be in relationship with God, our fellow human beings and with the Creation. The exciting news from science is that the call to intimacy with the Creation is reflected in a real, concrete, and physical relationship with all other organisms on our planet. It is evidence from the Creation that says we are truly embedded and rooted in a sea of life. We can respond to the Biblical mandate to care for our world knowing that we are truly a part of that Creation, caring for these extended family members. We can now have a sense of being part of the Creation that was not available before we came to realize how connected we actually are physically.
So if our roots are in the animal world and we’ve evolved from other primates, are we yet in any way special? We learn from the two creation stories in Genesis and the subsequent development of the Scriptures, that mankind has been made in the image of God. So if it isn’t our unique physical creation, what is it about humans that sets us apart? Anthropologists have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy trying to understand what features of humans are unique and distinctive. Repeatedly, there have been hypotheses of one feature or another as present only in mankind – most have focused on use of tools and language. Subsequent investigations have shown that although we are clearly more sophisticated in our use of language and abstract thought, these have clear roots in our anthropoid relatives. The language constructs of chimpanzees and gorillas and the tools they use both in nature and under laboratory conditions, have challenged the ideas that language and tool use were unique to Homo sapiens. Furthermore, fossil beds containing Homo erectus and Australopithecus species have yielded tools of various sorts that were used for hunting. Clearly, we have larger brains and outstanding cognitive skills but all human features that have been studied have been shown to have earlier roots in our ancestors and living relatives. And why not? Should we be ashamed that our feelings of love for our spouse are rooted in such history? Would it be a blow to understand that the same chemicals working in my brain to produce such feelings are also coursing through the brain of a gorilla? In addition to being willing to accept the truth about such revelations, I would be more inclined to turn my face upward and say ‘Thanks, you’re letting me know how I’ve been put together’. It’s God’s business how he does His work and it’s a gift to us to have been given some insight into this history.
When God says He made us in His own image, we know that it could not have been our bodies which reflect that image, for ‘God is spirit’ (John 4:24). The image of God as the long-bearded white gentleman on the stately throne is that of story books, initially helpful for children to understand that there is a Deity and for adults who know that this picture is representative of something much greater (as in the Sistine Chapel). Obviously, the ‘image’ that we as humans reflect must also be in the realm of spirit. When we look at the characteristics we share with God, we can identify many of His features in our own lives: our capacity to love, to see ourselves as needing relationship, to be creative, to seek justice, to pursue righteousness, and to be able to reflect on the nature of eternity. These are some of the features that we would identify as part of a holy life and they are abundantly present in our Lord.
Our ‘specialness’ then, derives not from what we are physically but from our personal relationship with God and how that reflects itself in our lives. Evolutionary biology merely reinforces that central Biblical theme. The Scriptures tell us over and over again that it is our special relationship with God that sets us aside. It is our unique position on the earth to communicate with the Creator and to struggle with the implications that has in our lives. We were created to have an intimate connection with God, and all peoples in time and space have, in their own way, recognized that need, developing local religions in every corner of the globe. We were made to talk and walk with God and as we do that, we are living out our destiny to be distinct, special and fully human.
1. Is it possible that God used evolution to produce human beings? If not, why not? If so, could here have created a “human” from a completely different lineage of mammals that would look completely different than we do?
2. What Bible verses are in contradiction to the idea of humans having evolved? Is there other scripture that appears to contradict what scientists have discovered?
3. Why do many theologians accept the idea of evolution (this may require some further reading)?
4. Do you consider God the “author” of the Creation? Or just part of it? Is some of it corrupted? If so, which parts?
4. How does it feel to think that we are relatives of other great apes? And indeed of all other life? Why?
5. Could there be a reason that God might choose to place humans on Earth using evolution as opposed to instance creation? Does this tell us something about how God works?
– Ogden Nash
‘It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens’ – Woody Allen
The problem of evil in the world has probably drawn the attention of more people than any other subject. There are countless books, poems, and essays dealing with the subject and theologians have contributed their fair share. Discoveries about the history of life on our planet by scientists have brought new arguments to bear on the reasons humans do bad things and these have some impact on how Christians should view this theme too.
Among Christians there is a puzzling variation in how we identify evil in our world. For some, virtually everything that goes ‘bad’, ranging from a blown car engine, having a sliver, to being inflicted with a terminal disease, is part of a fallen, contaminated Creation and/or the attack of Satan. For such Christians, the perfect world is one where there is no conflict, no pain, and no unpleasant feelings. Other Christians primarily recognize evil in murder, rape, social injustices, and other manifestly harmful actions between humans. Many understand that God sometimes responds to their requests for greater wisdom and more maturity by introducing obstacles, barriers, and challenging times that involve pain. They know that God may use such events to bring them to a better and more loving understanding of Himself and others.
Most Christians, whatever their views on evil, believe that the presence of physical death and its agents are a result of the fall of our earliest parents, Adam and Eve. The common perspective is that the Garden was a place where the lion lay with the lamb (even though this image is from Isaiah, prophesizing about the coming of the Messiah) and pain was absent. Most view the period before the Fall as a time when humans (i.e. Adam and Eve) were immortal, there was no disease, no carnivores and no problems. The Garden of Eden is basically seen as something akin to an all-expenses-paid luxury cruise, where Adam and Eve needed but to stroll through the Garden to obtain their food, living in perpetual, static bliss, with a bit of pruning and gardening on the side.
The evidence from the Creation tells a very different story. Evolution is based on survival of the fittest and in order for it to occur, there must be death. For the most fit to survive, those that are less fit must die. The history of life on our planet, therefore, is filled not only with a blossoming tree of life that generated many millions of species over time, but the continuous presence of death within each species, the extinction of millions of individual species and, at times, events that resulted in mass extinctions. Without death, we would not have evolution and we wouldn’t have the diversity we see around us. We wouldn’t be here either.
The physical evidence for death in the prehistory of humans is overwhelming. Fossil beds are full of the mute evidence of the dead, where each specimen represents an organism that died. Some subfossils are only a few hundred or thousands of years old but there are many millions of fossils that are far more ancient. Trilobites from the Ordovician, 425 million years ago, were living and dying long before mammals, primates and humans made their appearance. Dinosaurs (not including birds) went extinct by the end of the Cretaceous, 65 million years ago. Homo sapiens only showed up a mere 195,000 years ago, long, long after the deaths of untold numbers of other life forms.
What about the agents of death, disease and parasitism? The idea of the lion laying with the lamb in the Garden of Eden is entirely inconsistent with the information we have of the history of our planet. Lions are predators of other mammals. Their fossil record shows that the entire order to which they belong, the Carnivora, have been predators for many millions of years and that all cats had sharp teeth and retractable claws, which they continue to use today to great effect for capturing and eating their prey. Similar fossil evidence exists for the presence of parasites, disease vectors, and pests long before humans showed up on the scene. Lampreys are a primitive parasitic fish group, belonging to one of the earliest lineages of fishes – their fossil record goes back 360 million years. No-see-ums living 78 million years ago had mouthparts that show that they fed on the blood of dinosaurs. Some of the fossil midges themselves have tiny parasitic mites on their bodies. Predators, parasites and pests have been present on our planet throughout the evolution of multicellular life. The same sort of information is available for plant groups which are now recognized as weeds (thorns and thistles) – they too have an ancient fossil record.
Further evidence for the longevity of parasites in the biological realm comes from the study of the coevolution of species. Studies of pinworms show that they have an evolutionary tree which is very similar to that of their primate hosts. The closest relative of the pinworm that infests humans today is found in chimpanzees and bonobos. All the pinworms that infect anthropoid apes form a natural group and their closest relative is the pinworm which infests gibbons which are themselves the closest relative of the anthropoid apes. In short, the two evolutionary trees neatly overlap. Such a pattern strongly indicates that the pinworms affecting humans have been there a long time, from a time which preceded the fall of mankind. Similar coevolution of parasites and hosts are known for numbers of other groups.
Diseases are more difficult to interpret because their fossils are rare (but still present). However, protozoan diversification was a very early event in the history of life and we do have a few fossils of them in the guts of no-see-ums in amber. We have identified viruses as one of the oldest of life forms and there is little doubt they have infected animals from the earliest of times. Some bone deformations in the fossil records of dinosaurs and early mammals show clear evidence of infections. Aside from these fossils, studies of large numbers of living species show conclusively that many groups of predators, parasites and organisms causing disease are scattered throughout the evolutionary trees to which they belong. All of these lineages were certainly a part of the communities of organisms in the history of this earth long before the origin of humans.
As part of the evolutionary story, we also know that various geological processes have been active throughout the history of the earth. Volcanoes were spewing ash and lava, earthquakes shook up some regions, tsunamis crashed against shorelines, mountains arose and eroded away, and great floods sometimes washed across plains, throughout the 3 billion years that life has been evolving. Many of these geological events were important in the evolutionary process, for they induced change and selective death. Interestingly, today we refer to natural disasters as ‘Acts of God’, and in a very real sense they are. It is one of the many ways God works in the Creation.
What can we deduce from all this? In short, these patterns show us that, as far as the agents of death and pestilence are concerned, there has been no fundamental change in their presence or interactions from before, to after the appearance of mankind on the planet. Death was present long before the Fall of humans, and all organisms throughout our planet’s history have a history of dying.
The Creation stories of Genesis tell us that until the appearance of humans, the Creation was considered good. God created the sun, moon, stars and all animals and plants and proclaimed it good. The Creation tells us that if the world was good before the Fall, as the Bible says, we must consider the physical presence of death, parasites and disease as part of the ‘perfect’ created world. Volcanoes, floods, and moving tectonic plates were as God meant them to be. Therefore, the Cretaceous period, which concluded with the fall of the Dinosauria and extinction of all ammonites, was labeled as good, the Permian diversity of trilobites and the Devonian period, with its great diversity of lungfishes (now with only six species left), were all part of the good Creation.
The Bible itself gives us strong clues as to how to interpret the discovery that pain and loss have always been part of life’s history. As Christians, we already recognize that our personal deaths are a portal to being reunited with our Lord. We can give thanks at the funerals of our brothers and sisters in Christ knowing they are now in God’s presence. At the same time, we know that our own death and that of others brings pain and grief and often a dreadful tearing of relationships. For many who discover that they or a loved one has terminal cancer, the threat and painful experience is real. We go through normal stages of denial and often have feelings of anger and depression. We’re most often intensely afraid. The process is often very difficult, but the promised result, we believe, is unity with God.
So too with much of our lives. We are indeed creatures of comfort, and yet we know that the best lessons in life are sometimes those that involve some painful and sometimes truly miserable experiences. We pray for God to teach us and when He invokes the process, we whimper because we are no longer comfortable. At the most simple level, we could be grateful we experience pain when our finger is too close to the candle flame. Without the message, our finger would soon blister and turn black. At a deeper level, the hard knocks in life can teach us about our relationship with our God and our world. Paul wrote ‘…. we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us’ (Romans 5:3-5). Here, then, is an essential component of the mature Christian walk. We experience the world as it is and learn, increasingly, that God has us in His hands. We cannot fully understand many of the griefs we see in this world, but yet turn to the Almighty for comfort and direction.
It is interesting that not many sermons are preached on Job. It is a puzzling book because Job goes through terrible events and God does not intercede and indeed, seems to hand over Job to the whims of Lucifer. After Job has experienced the worst of life, his wife wants him to admit to sins that have brought his distress upon himself – she wants him to admit that there is a relationship between his previous actions and his current woes. His friends give him good religion, righteous perspectives and practical advice. In the end, however, Job rejects all these opinions and directs his questions about his suffering to God. He challenges God over and over again, and toward the end of the book when God does speak, the answer is quite informative (Job 38-41). God doesn’t give an answer as to why Job has experienced such grief. He doesn’t explain why there are problems in the world, why there is disease, loss, and suffering. Instead God describes His omnipotence, asking Job who it was that constructed the universe, whether Job was present when the earth was formed and life created. Job, in response, is so happy that God is back in His life that He can only acknowledge that God is indeed mysterious and great and his criticisms were unworthy. The presence of disease, death and grief remain mysteries in the hand of God.
Jesus also pointed to affliction in the world as an opportunity for God to become more evident in our lives. When His disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him’ John 9:2-3. The beatitudes state that those who experience sorrow and affliction will be blessed. It is often those Christians who are the poor in spirit, are mourning, are meek, or who are persecuted that have the most moving and convincing testimonies of the reality of God. They have been through some fire and know that the Almighty is present. They have real, powerful stories to tell.
My wife Annette and I had a personal experience of this in 2004 when we had the opportunity to live in Estelí, Nicaragua for two months. While attending mass at the cathedral one Sunday, we heard a sermon about Jesus’ prophetic word on the future of the planet in Luke 21. It was a striking homily, for as the priest talked about wars and rumours of wars, of famine and pestilence, earthquakes and persecution, the people were visibly moved. The Nicaraguan people, especially in this northern region, had experienced all of these events in their own lives. Most had lived through the brutal Somosa dictatorship and the subsequent horrific Contra War. They all had personal stories or were directly connected to others who knew the pain of war, torture, disease, earthquakes and persecution. These were people who knew in their hearts what this actually meant, and the results were evident. The faith stories they had to share were inspiring.
I have always been fascinated by the story in Genesis 32 of Jacob wrestling with God throughout the night. After a long struggle, Jacob was struck on the hip and God says ‘”You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed’ (Gen. 32:28). Life is exactly like that. We struggle with God and with our world and we come through the other side with a limp, but also with a much deeper faith, a more profound understanding of our God.
Those of us who live very comfortable lives, who have never experienced deprivation to any extent, and have never had any significant pain, most often lack the depth of faith of those who have gone without and who have known death and distress. Probably the greatest risk to a Christian’s life in our North American society is to live in such a secure existence, complete with insurable goods and an excellent pension plan, that he or she is completely self-sufficient, and not really needing others. Such self-reliance often translates into how we see our relationship with God, limiting the potential for vision and change. We often come to dread the possibility that God would change anything in our lives. It is a formula for Christian immaturity and a real handicap in many churches.
But what about the humans who had that whole relationship with God in the Garden of Eden? If their lives were not painful and stress free, what were the consequences of the Fall? It is clear from Scripture that the most important component of man’s existence in the Garden of Eden was his intense, free relationship with God. Adam walked and talked with God in a way that we likely will not understand fully until we are united with God after death or perhaps have a glimpse of in the lives of the saints. We can assume that before the Fall, Adam and Eve’s experience with our Deity gave them great perspective and awareness. This may have been the basis for Adam and Eve to have the ultimate in personal freedom, the ultimate in being able to interpret the events around and within them. This suggests that our early ancestors may also have had a different and special relationship with the Creation in which they saw everything, including pain and death, as part of God’s Creation.
This characterization of our history strips away some of the features that may prevent us from living a fuller spiritual life. The view that this life is a valley of woes to be avoided by the shield of spiritual reclusiveness and that the natural Creation is laced with evil features, is replaced by the view that all interactions with the natural Creation are as God meant them to be. They can be viewed through the spiritual relationship which we have with our Lord ‑ ‘Those who are spiritual discern all things’ (1 Corinthians 2:15a).
Madeleine L’Engle, in several of her books, has described the apparent conflict between experiencing the presence of God and its accompanying pain and struggle. The outpouring of creativity goes hand in hand with pain and struggle; growth in relationship demands the same. Although many Christians may have the vision of complete wholeness as one in which we float in the soporific bliss of a steady state of happiness, the evolutionary scenario argues for a view of perfect humans as those who struggle and work, who pull out splinters along the way and have the perspective to cope with all things. It turns out that we are required to ‘give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you’ (1 Thessalonians 5:18).
It was the broken relationship with God that plunged (and continues to plunge) humans into sin and grief. That message is intimately tied into the redemptive nature of the work of Jesus Christ and is central to the message of the Messiah. A logical and natural conclusion from this revelation, when put into the context of evolutionary biology, is that all was in the state God meant it to be, before the rise of humans as a lineage of anthropoid ape. It wasn’t until very recent time (in geological terms) that we have experienced the pain of mankind’s Fall.
The sacrifice of Jesus Christ was not primarily to eliminate our griefs but to restore the spiritual relationship God desires from us. It is a mistake to label physical death as the consequence of the Fall of humans. Death is merely a medium through which humans must pass at life’s end as a good and necessary part of the created order. Christians need to re-examine this concept in greater detail to understand its full implications for our lives and our understanding of our world. Once we accept death as a part of the way we were created to be, that change and pain is part of the Creation, our accent as Christians can increasingly focus on our spiritual relationships with God. This, in turn, provides us the perspective, faith and hope to give thanks for everything we experience.
Of course, other evils in the world cannot be seen as part of God’s created order. Genocides, torture, floods due to clear cutting forests, and the suppression of third world economies for our own ‘developed world’ comfort, all stem directly from human actions. Overall, there are four sources of problems or difficulties in our lives. I’ve already discussed the phenomena of God directing and shaking up what he loves. Second, our own sins made lead to woes. Third, the sins of others may result in miserable things happening to us. Last, the Bible identifies the possibility of being attacked by Satan and his minions.
It is often difficult to distinguish between these. We must depend on our own discernment and that of others. We need to pray and study both scripture and the Creation to determine what might be the cause of our discomfort. The study of Creation, though, shows that much of what Christians consider to be the result of sin or evil influence is actually God’s own work in the world.
I am deeply aware that there are some very difficult mysteries here. I don’t really understand emotionally why God created a universe that incorporates pain and discomfort. It is one thing to know that much of the grief in the world is the way it was originally created, but another altogether to have one’s child die in a volcanic eruption, to lose a vehicle in a forest fire, or to see a spouse sick with malaria. We really can’t understand it in our hearts, other than to accept the message given in Job – God says He runs the universe the way He runs it. We can only acknowledge His omnipotence and, even if we don’t sometimes feel like it, worship. It’s a difficult business and hence our dependency on faith. Faith that in spite of all that we don’t truly understand, God is present and loves us more than we can imagine.
Although all natural processes, including death and earthquakes, are an integral part of our world, we are commanded to help the poor, feed the hungry, and take care of the sick. Our job remains to be active in our work, bringing comfort and healing where we can. Our desire to correct the wrongs, to fight for life, to bring about justice and peace often seem perversely out of place in the face of the many ‘woes’ of this world, but the message is clear – God, through all of these changes and our involvement, brings His purposes to bear. Species must change or go extinct, tectonic plates must move, volcanoes must spew and tsunamis must swamp coastal areas for God’s purposes to be met. Our call is to have relationship, not to change the basic nature of the universe. Yes, we must lament death, broken families, disease and pain, while being very careful in our interpretation of what is evil. Many times it is not.
If disease, death and physical stress have always been a part of the created order, what is to be said about Paul’s teaching that ‘We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now” (Romans 8:22)? I am unsure how to interpret those scriptures. One possibility is that while Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden, they had the sort of spiritual relationship with God and the Creation that all that was created was enhanced by the love coming from them. Perhaps the Creation needs that sort of relationship with humans to be whole. The fallen Creation, therefore, is the Creation that is missing a deep loving and spiritual relationship with humans. The message may be that mankind is such an integral part of the created order that our failure to take our proper role as namer and lover of this Creation, affects the whole. As we can see clearly today, our limited and often selfish perspective of the Creation is causing multiple planet-wide problems.
This idea may explain the true nature of the fallen Creation. It is not the appearances, the predation, the death, the actual existence of weeds, parasites and thorns, but something in the integral structure of the Creation that requires redemption. It may be groaning under the loss of a full relationship with humans, that only the return of Jesus Christ can fully redeem.
If our interaction with the Creation changes the way it operates in some fundamental way, this may be another aspect of what prayer is about. When we have an intimate relationship with God, we see the Creation and all that is in it (including ourselves and our fellow humans) as it should be seen. A relationship with the Creation that isn’t whole demands and is contingent on our prayers. Prayer does change events in the Creation, as has been the revelation of Scripture and the testimony of so many Christians. Does this at least partially reflect the natural relationship that should exist between ourselves and the Creation? Perhaps the earth would experience a profound healing if only we had the kind of spiritual relationship that was meant to be.
1. What pain have you experienced in your life? How has it informed your Christian walk?
2. What features in our lives do we consider to be blessings? What about in the lives of others?
3. If death is embedded in the history of the planet, what did the death of Jesus mean?
4. Why would God create a world with pain and death embedded in it? What might this say about the nature of God?
Start 5. Why is death so hard to accept? We are made to fight death and to struggle for life? Why?
‘I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made’ Psalm 139:14
It is a hard one to avoid in our affluent societies – the drive and desire to make our way down to the local fast food restaurant to have a big greasy hamburger, salty fries and a drink loaded with sugar. Humans clearly have an internal force which moves them to want to consume meat, salt and sugar, often in great quantities. Even when our digestive system rebels, our blood pressure goes up and the layers of adipose tissue are jiggling on our arms, torsos and thighs, it is difficult to stop consuming these items, sometimes in ever bigger helpings. What would make us do this, to our own and our children’s detriment? Where would this drive come from?
It certainly is an old question: what makes us behave and act as we do, what makes us tick? Our current debate largely remains a nature/nurture argument, with biological research increasingly arguing for a genetic basis for behaviour and many in the humanities convinced that it is predominately cultural values and other influences in our physical environment that determine how we act.
Although study of other animal species has shown conclusively that much of behaviour has a genetic basis and that these features make sense in the light of evolutionary relationships, comparisons between humans and our primate relatives continues to raise the ire of many in both religious circles and in the humanities. Nevertheless, evolutionary biology shows that much of our behaviour is astonishingly similar to that of other primates and, especially, of our closest relatives, the chimpanzees and bonobos. Male chimps jostle for social position, females babysit young chimps so that new mothers can have a break, and conflicts between individuals are concluded with hand touching, grooming and, sometimes, hugs. That much of our behaviour is based on genetics is further supported by studies of identical twins separated at birth. When these twins are compared as grownups, after a life apart, there are amazing similarities of personality and behaviour that are almost scary in their predictability – virtually all human behaviour in these studies have been shown to include a genetic component. Finally, the results of the human genome project continue to reveal, nearly on a weekly basis, yet another gene that underlies a behavioural or physical feature of humans, and a recognition of that same gene being shared with other animals (sometimes, such as some genes that determine aging being present in unsegmented worms!). The overall conclusion by scientists is really in the bag – much of our behaviour is rooted in our evolutionary past and has a strong genetic component.
Many in the humanities and religious circles claim that we are truly distinct from all other creatures, and they are right. We have capacities to communicate, educate, anticipate the future, and interpret our environment in ways that far exceed those of any other species on our planet and these (and some other features) makes us unique. But saying that, we need to recognize that God created us using earlier building branches in the tree of life. For example, we may believe that we are the only species with the capacity to love and show altruistic characteristics but other apes and especially chimpanzees and bonobos have been shown to exhibit the same features at certain times. Adult chimps teach their young how to drink with a leaf or collect termites with a twig. Obviously, they don’t have classrooms, but they do have the motive to teach skills to another generation. It seems very clear that God used these early behaviours as the basis to evolve more sophisticated expressions in humans.
So, why is it that we eat so much salt, sugar and meat in our affluent society? In a natural environment, the presence of such a strong drive to take in these nutrients is very understandable and highly adaptive, and there are good reasons why such behaviour would be selected for in the past. Ripe fruit (sugar), salt (at salt licks), and meat (other small mammals, birds, insects) are relatively scarce but vital commodities for most Primata (monkeys and apes). When they’re present, it is critically important to take in as much as one can, as it is difficult or impossible to predict the next time these resources will be encountered. In short, we have a strong genetic basis for grabbing as much as we can take. It is only in very recent times that humans in affluent cultures have been able to guarantee a virtually unlimited and constant supply of such previously rare nutrients. This has resulted in many negative consequences with regards to our health. All it takes is a trip to the local convenience store to pick up a chocolate bar or bag of candy, merely a reach across the table to be able to sprinkle salt on our eggs, or a nod to receive a supersized, greasy hamburger. The results of such behaviour are dramatic. Higher rates of rotting teeth, elevated blood pressure and numerous bowel disorders all are related to over consumption of this type of food. And because these foods replace other types of foods, particularly fruits and vegetables, we are often low on other nutrients that are vital for a healthy life.
Virtually every aspect of human behaviour has such evolutionary roots and historical explanations that can help us understand why we behave the way we do. Looking at a few of these shows how intimately they are often tied to our Christian walk. Here are some examples.
One of the prominent features of our species is the presence of male aggression. One only needs to read the history of war to realize that very, very few women are involved in such conflicts. Over and over again, in a wide array of social scenes, it is males who posture, who look piercingly at males in another group and begin to make loud hooting noises. As the exchanges escalate, dominant males begin to hit surrounding objections and seek out other males for strategic alliances. Initial encounters with the enemy are often swift and brutal. And such aggression is not restricted to the arena of war. We have all seen male aggression on the playground and, when boys grow up, in community meetings and even in church halls. As tension develops, males keep constant eye contact (the first who looks away is the loser), they become increasingly loud, their bodies go stiff, they may approach to close proximity and then explode with violence. They beat their surroundings with closed fists (sometimes the boardroom table top). The more they believe they are part of a group, the more boisterous and confident they tend to be. All of this is also well described chimpanzee behaviour.
Some of these aggressive male interactions are also characteristic of the interactions between adolescent males and the dominant male within social groups. The difficulties experienced by fathers with teenage sons who are constantly challenging their authority are also seen in other primates in similar situations. Jane Goodall, in her monumental contributions to our understanding of chimpanzee behaviour, has documented how adolescent chimps will repeatedly challenge the authority of the dominant male, often provoking him to violence. Many of us who are fathers of teenage boys know firsthand our angry reaction to a son who suddenly demands the keys to the car, ejects our favourite CD to replace it with his own, or who scornfully points out the flaws in the way we do our work. It may be humbling to know, but this is a natural reaction that is the characteristic response by dominant males of nearly all primates to their maturing male offspring. It appears to be a major means for ensuring that our young males will conform to a reasonable level of responsible adult life and yet develop a healthy degree of independence. It is a mechanism to push young males out of the nest to start their own families.
Much of the mating game in humans can be analyzed in the same way. The attractiveness of swaying hips of females, the strutting of the male physique, the touching of hands between lovers, the common sexual positions we employ, and much, much more, are all typical of the way our anthropoid relatives go about interacting with their mates. Much of our sexual repertoire has remarkable similarities with these other primates.
It wasn’t too long ago that most sexual behaviour and interactions were seen by nearly all in the Christian community as a necessary but base component of our lives, used for the purpose of procreation in the marriage bed. Some Christian sects continue to label the sexual aspects of our existence as a result of the Fall of man in the Garden of Eden. They argue that sexual play came into being as a result of the Fall to counteract the introduction of death by Adam’s disobedience and that Adam and Eve never knew a sexual relationship originally (in spite of what it says in Genesis 1:28). Generally, however, the modern church recognizes sexual expression as a natural and necessary part of a healthy relationship, and the sexual interactions leading up to marriage as a valuable and vital component of maturing together as lovers. What was once seen as “animalistic”, is now increasingly incorporated into a view that recognizes the important role of sexuality in our lives.
Evolutionary biology supports this view. The evolution of sexuality itself, with separate sexes, first evolved in organisms over a billion years ago, and over the eons we have inherited that same desire to seek out a partner and procreate. The drive to mate, one of the strongest motivations in human behaviour, is shared with millions of other species on our planet. Clearly God found a beautiful mechanism to not only bring human lovers together in a remarkable dance, but developed it long ago among the early life forms on our planet.
The similarity of our more specific sexual interactions to those of our primate relatives indicates that these behaviours were created before humans ever appeared on the planet. The conclusion appears to be inescapable. We were created to have sex with our mates, and the responses of our minds and bodies to sexual messages and images is a fundamental part of being fully human, an important component of how God created us. Indeed, as Christians have accepted the fact that sexual urges are a part of who we are created to be, a great deal has been said and written to help Christians develop this gift in their lives. Some Christians have discovered that once we consider sexual urges as a part of who we are, we are free to develop this aspect of our existence. A spiritual perspective on making love, of sharing the most intimate of acts, suggestions on how to stimulate one another, and the implications of birth control have all developed in just the last few decades in our 2000 year old church. In developing a spiritual perspective of our sexuality, many Christians have accepted a genetic legacy and further explored how our sexuality can be lived out in a healthy way. Of course, all of this was also evident in the scriptures, once we paid attention. The Song of Solomon includes some remarkably erotic text describing the relationship between two lovers. Other Scripture show that females and males together reflect God’s image (Genesis 1:27) and that sexual intercourse is a holy affair (Genesis 2: 24; Mark 10:7-9). Amazingly, some Christians have become aware that erotic experiences between lovers that generates an incredibly intense and overwhelming force to experience the intimacy of sex is perhaps a glimpse of how much God loves His bride, the church universal! To experience the erotic with the person you love in your heart of hearts, with the person who shares your life spiritually, emotionally and mentally, can feel, at least partially, as a mystical experience.
Of course, the Bible also has numbers of warnings against ‘sexual sins’ and this points to the importance to seeking God’s spirit in everything we do. It is through our spiritual walk that we are able to discern how best to express our inner needs and urges. While it has been easy, historically, for the Christian community to label the actual sexual features in our makeup as evil or base, the real culprit has been our abuse of these gifts. It is what we do with these urges that can result in evil.
Much of what is in advertising directed toward teenagers and adults has a sexual component and appeals directly to some of our created sexual desires. There is a very good reason why North American companies spend billions of dollars every year and incorporate a sexy component, from the deep-voiced man extolling the virtues of a particular car to the beautiful young women suggesting that this particular drink is the one to have. One can end up buying a particular brand of running shoe because of the sexy man or woman who was holding them in the ad seen a month earlier – an idea planted in our brains that buying that shoe will make us also look sexy and appealing. Clearly, God created us with expressed sexual desires and made us to respond to visual, auditory, tactile, olfactory and taste cues. We were made to explore these and understand them, but in the context of the lover God has placed in our lives. Again, it is not the created components, but our abuse of them that has led us into troubled waters.
Intimately tied to sex is the underlying desire to have children. In the biological world, that is what sex is primarily about – having offspring. The drive to have children is a strong one for many and it is shared with our fellow creatures. We come programmed to ‘Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth’ (Genesis 1:28). However, we now live in a time where we have been fruitful and have multiplied to fill the earth to bursting, with every known ecosystem currently in decline. Here is another example of how our biological drive needs to be tempered with a spiritual perspective. Now that God has made us aware that the Creation is groaning ecologically, how shall I develop my desire to have children? Some Christians have paid no heed and believe that we are called to have numerous children. However, God provides knowledge for a reason and demands that we seek out His will in this area too. At the same time, it seems clear that having the task of having children today is far more demanding than in the past, if we want them to understand their full responsibilities as Christians and citizens in our complex world. Early portrayals in the scripture depict how it is a blessing to have many children. Yes, children are a blessing from the Lord, but it seems self-evident today that a desire to have a large number of children needs to tempered with our understanding that the planet is getting crowded.
Aside from sexuality, what other urges in our lives have old evolutionary origins and what might we make of them? And how are they important to our Christian walk?
Every parent knows the feeling of wanting to protect their children from harm. It is a feature of all mammals – hence the warning about getting between a bear cub and its mother. We love our offspring so much and want to see them safe and sound. When they are yet babes in our arms, our children are helpless and require us to fulfill all of their needs, but as they grow, they become increasingly independent as they explore their world. Most parents, living out their desire to protect, keep the environment as safe as possible. We make rules that ensure that no unforeseen danger falls on our kids. Yet, there is a quandary here. We also realize that without letting our children explore and take some risks on their own, they won’t grow up to be independent and emotionally healthy adults. Parenting becomes a judicial balance of protection and autonomy – increasingly letting go as our children grow older. That balance is often heavily swayed by how we perceive our environment, and considering that so many of us are immersed in a soup of media influence, parents often succumb to the culture of fear that is so prevalent in our society. We may be happy to let our 12 year old spend an afternoon riding her bike on her own but, after watching a newscast showing a brutal kidnapping in a province or state 2000 kilometers away, we may forbid the activity. We may trust our 15 year old son but, after hearing about rampant drug use in our cities, forbid him to attend a friend’s party. Such influences act on our primal urge to protect our children. In my opinion, many parents, having been instilled with an understanding of the evils in the world, err on the side of fear. It often consumes us and replaces a prayerful questioning for God’s guidance in this area. The decisions we make as Christian parents regarding the risks our children can legitimately take should be based in part on our spiritual walk, not on the fear mongering raised in our media (and occasionally from the pulpit). In my experience, many parents send their children to Christian schools to protect them from the evils in the world (particularly sex education and understanding evolution) and to ensure that they are not influenced by the bad behaviour of non-believing peers.
Therein lies a further challenge for parents. As Christian adults, we recognize that a significant portion of the wisdom we acquire in our lives is because we have experienced difficulties in the past. It is the tough times, the times of despair, of loneliness or of flat out fear that we often learn to trust and grow in our faith walk. We mature and grow because we experience problems. Indeed, this is the standard in the believer’s walk. It was present in the lives of all the Bible heros, It doesn’t make any sense to ask God to make us more loving and wise, and then not expect Him to act, introducing events into our lives that may seriously stir things up. How else can we mature? In short, troubles can bring us into closer relationship with God. It is the job of parents to cultivate the wisdom within themselves to know when to allow their children to risk being hurt – a hard thing indeed – so that they too can grow and mature.
A closely related urge to protecting our children is the drive to stasis. It is generally in the interest of an adult mammal to ensure that its environment remains the same. After all, it is that very environment that allowed this particular adult individual to grow to maturity. To change some of the environment means a potential threat to the combination of genes present in that successful individual. Introducing change (such as a new individual, a strange noise, or a peculiar fruit) in a group of monkeys produces the same effects as in a group of humans: sudden attention, wariness, suspicion, and if serious enough, the movement of dominant males to the front of the group. As humans, we often view change as a threat, instinctively suspicious of a stranger in our midst, a new way of doing something, or of an unfamiliar custom. Anyone who has ever been on a committee of any sort can instantly recognize the cool response of many to a proposal to change an old pattern. Most arguments in such situations center on counterproposals of ‘we’ve always done it this way’ or other appeals to tradition. Of course, concerns about tradition are important but a spiritual response demands not only a consideration of the past but also a discernment of what we believe God is calling us to. Our job as Christians is to regularly confront the drive to stasis with a prayerful consideration of the Scriptures and the situation at hand. It is often nearly impossible to find out what God might want from us, if we are locked into a perspective that demands continued stasis.
Intertwined with a desire for stasis is our drive for comfort and longevity. Every species seeks out the ‘best’ environment in which to dwell and the fight to live as long as possible is a well- known phenomena. However, these urges, outside the context of a relationship with God and others, can become badly skewed. Our European and North American drive for comfort has meant that many others must go without, while our own lives have become increasingly isolated and appetite-driven. We eat what and when we want, we live where we prefer, associate with those who make us feel good about ourselves, and ultimately, have a hard time being motivated to do anything that doesn’t make us feel good. It is little wonder that our society worships at the altar of technological advance. Life increasingly becomes a spectator sport, with self being the most important person in the society. Individual needs become paramount. So to with longevity – a primary goal of many in our society is to live as long as possible. Huge amounts of money and resources are poured every year into scientific research directed toward that goal and any item or activity that is deemed safer in our society automatically becomes the best. To live long can become vastly more important than to live fully or to live holy. Again, we can only properly deal with these impulses by asking our Lord how He wants us to be, by studying the Scriptures and paying attention to our traditions. It is only in relationship that individuals are willing to forsake their personal comfort; witness the behaviour of parents sacrificing for their children, or what lovers are willing to do for each other. It is only in relationship that we are truly able to recognize the treasures that life has to offer. When we are in relationship, we discover blessings we never thought possible – including blessings that could very well, ultimately, shorten our lives!
Our species is a hierarchal species, with every individual, aware of their relative status – we all recognize that class of individuals that is powerful and/or rich. We look about to see where we stand within our social groups and community, relative to others. In many societies, wealth is an indicator of where a person stands in the hierarchy, and, if someone has many goods, they often make sure that others are aware of it. In our society, a new vehicle (especially a large one or a sport car), a huge house, a good retirement plan (indexed!), and other signs of monetary security are surefire tokens of higher status. It is a common conversation in our society – who owns what. Our media portrays the same: success is drinking a certain brand of beer, wearing a particular brand of jeans, or driving a particular type of car, and looking beautiful. The claim is that all of these things will make you more of a success in our hierarchy. The people in the ads are all obviously happy, and in relationships, often with a group of nubile and young members of the opposite sex (a single male for a woman, a group of females for a male), which obviously shows that attaining these status symbols will mean sex, with the underlying hint of reproductive success.
Men in particular, compete for position, and use a variety of strategies to get there. The same is true of our animal relatives. Hierarchy is a characteristic of societal structure in monkeys and apes and many other social animals. Wondering where we are in the hierarchy is inborn and natural. Knowing that we have strong natural urges to compare ourselves to others should help us to manage those drives. It might help those Christians who are at the top of hierarchy to share with those who are below, aware that they are bearing characteristics that are often felt to be superior by those lower in the ranks. Leaders in our Christian communities who understand this hierarchical drive may be more inclined to be more flexible, encouraging and permitting those below them to develop their gifts. Knowing that one’s skills and attributes are ‘superior’ (only on the human scale of things) can enable an individual to see these in a spiritual light, using those skills and attributes as venues to encourage and help others. This, of course, is the central message of the Scriptures, to love your neighbour as yourself. Yet, sadly, we often see the leaders in our churches and elsewhere proving how great they are, leaving their congregations, committee members, or youth feeling intimidated and inadequate.
On a societal scale, a better understanding of the innate drive for males to work their way up the hierarchy may also help to alleviate the position of women in our world. Women, as a group, work longer for lower wages, have less education than males, and are poorly represented in governments, institutional life and big business. Perhaps men could learn to smile at their internal urge to compete, and for the sake of love, make room for equal feminine expression. If God created men and women in His image, we may be surprised by the result of a better balance!
Of course, hierarchy is dependent on information about others and our daily lives are filled with the need to compare. We pay great attention to what others are wearing, of what is ‘cool’, or what is the most appropriate business or work fashion. We watch very carefully at what others own, noting what is perceived by others to be the best. It is this endless capacity to compare that allows advertising to work so well in manipulating our behaviour. Knowing that I am built to compare myself to others (most often to the detriment of my self image), I can also remember that I am loved for who I am, which may help to cope with the internal and external pressures to conform to those outside standards, and see them for what they really are.
The evolution of a social hierarchy also means we often externalize our own spiritual life, looking to others to give us meaning. We are driven to compare our personal spiritual walk with that of others, many of whom seem more Godly, holy, content, spiritual, etc., etc., etc. We know that the Scriptures portray a person’s walk with God as a personal one, often complex, and mostly impossible to judge from the outside (“Do not judge, and you will not be judged (Luke 6:37))”. Comparing ourselves to others may be inherent, but when we compare our spiritual walk to those of others, we most often lose the central truth that it is our own personal walk with God that is paramount.
Another expression of hierarchy in our society is the need to compete. We compete in sports, where winners are clearly identified, we compete in our personal lives in what we wear, how we act, what we buy, and what we say to others. Even those who are quite subtle, still want to find out whether you are richer, more secure, more skilled or have better relationships than they do. We carry the genes to compete and it expresses itself in hundreds of different ways. But knowing I’m competitive helps me understand how God might want me to be. Each competitive situation requires us to seek God’s spirit to guide our thoughts and actions. If I’m stuck in a raw battle for supremacy with others, there is no room for the working of God’s spirit. I noticed long ago that when I am having an argument with my wife and I know that I’m right, that the worst thing to do from an egotistical perspective is to pray. It is when I pray that I realize that this conflict is superficial and unimportant on the scale of things (although often still needing attention and discussion). It is when I pray that I realize that my ego has gotten in the way of loving relationship. Most often, being right just doesn’t compare to expressing love. It is when we are in intimate relationship that we are challenged by the work that real issues demand.
Although our primate cousins are all social and live in hierarchy, there is one place that is private and that is their nocturnal nest. When an adult ape beds down for the night, he or she constructs a leaf and twig nest in which to settle. Females will nestle with their young but others are not welcome. It is in fact, their personal home. We know the same impulse. While on the street, we can greet each with a handshake and a hug, often getting right into each other’s personal space. But our homes are something else altogether. Most societies have rituals that ensure that invasion of that private place is by invitation only. We must knock on the door or make arrangements by phone. It is a social no-no to just open the door and walk into someone else’s home. And to enter the actual nest area (bedroom) is especially forbidden – it is the private sanctuary of our personal lives. We are particularly defensive about that space and have constructed societal rules to ensure that it remains protected. But these valid feelings have likely led, at least in part, to a warped understanding of ownership. My nest is mine and not to be interfered with, and by extension, that pertains to everything that I own. It has become, in our society, a true infringement of my personal rights if a neighbour uses my hammer without my expressed permission. Our bedroom, nesting instincts have blossomed into private space in too many aspects of our lives. This sense of ownership has increasingly excluded the poor and marginalized in our societies. Increasingly, it feels like an offense when a poor person walks into a rich neighborhood, or when someone from a visible fringe group wants to use the bathroom at a fast food restaurant without buying something.
The list of human behaviours that are comparable to other primates and other animals is long and worthy of study. It allows us to better understand which are the characteristics which are fundamental to our nature (and were created as part of the good Creation) and which are the introduced behaviours brought about by our broken relationship with God. Similar to the re-interpretation of sexual behaviour by the contemporary church, it appears that some of our aggressive tendencies, food habits and many other behaviours are not a direct result of the fall into sin, but have been characteristics of human nature from the very beginning. We must point to what we do with those behaviours as the result of sin, not the characteristics themselves. It is not these primal urges which are features of the fall I (and to be ashamed of), but our broken relationship with the Creator. The real problem is our failure to adequately manage our urges and drives. And that failure is the result of our incomplete relationship with God. It is there that sin abounds. Central to the Fall of man is the loss of our conviction that it is through our relationship with God that we can hope to cultivate the resources within ourselves to deal with our genetic legacy.
It is important to examine the Scriptures that relate to these areas of our lives, to sort out the origin of our thoughts and reactions. There is Biblical support for viewing the fundamental features discussed above as God-given. The delightful sexual expression in the Song of Solomon, the fact that Jesus became very angry and violent at some points in His life, that He experienced conflict with His parents, and the sense of loneliness that Adam knew before the creation of Eve (and before the Fall), all reinforce the conclusion that it is how we handle our characteristics and not the characteristics themselves, which are tainted by the Fall of humans.
Further studies of primates will undoubtedly uncover other characteristics of humans that originated long before the evolution of humans. A better understanding of ourselves and the nature of our response can only enhance the relationships we have with our Creator, each other, and the Creation. It is through our acceptance of the reality that the Creation portrays that we are able to see ourselves for who we are: born from the earth, with earthy feelings that God placed in our lineage long ago. We need salvation not from how God made us, but from our stubborn desire to work it out by ourselves, acting out our instincts without prayer and contemplation, without study of the Word and Creation.
There has been a great deal of misinterpretation of the conflict between the flesh and the spirit, such an important theme in Paul’s epistles. Many have interpreted his writings as evidence that all of our natural appetites and urges are intrinsically evil and are to be suppressed at all cost – through the scourging of the flesh in more ancient times, or, in a more modern version, through group accountability and by protecting oneself and one’s children from the world, or through total immersion in purposeful prayer. The goal is the denial of self and the avoidance of temptation in the hope that God’s light will shine in our lives. Believing this, we are motivated to either cover up the reality that exists in us, or attempt to exorcize those feelings. One of the great messages that we receive from Jesus Christ is that we are acceptable just as we truly are. It is false to hide our true natures and pretend to be something we are not. More than that, both the Creation and the Scriptures indicate that those basic feelings and emotions are good, as God meant them to be. As Christians, we need to face ourselves as we truly are and to learn from Scripture, prayer, relationships with fellow Christians, and study of the Creation, how to spiritually handle these deeply rooted inherited features.
It was the early church father St. Irenaeus who said in 185 AD ‘Gloria Dei vivens homo’ – translated as ‘The glory of God is a fully alive human being’. Our call is to live fully, and to do that we need to understand ourselves better. Both Creation and Scripture can give us the context to embrace that glorious vision more firmly.
1. Is human nature inherently good or bad? Or are at least parts inherently bad?
2. Does understanding why we behave the way we do help our spiritual walk?
3. If there is a genetic component to our behaviour, are we still responsible for how we act?
4. There are criminal acts that also reflect a genetic component of behaviour – for example, male aggression can lead to murder. How should we interpret such bad behaviour?
5. What feeling have we seen in ourselves that we have been ashamed of? Are they actually part of human nature?
6. What Bible verses support a view that we are loved as we are (although not how we behave)?
“Train up a child in the way he should go; even when he is old he will not depart from it.”
God provides all of us with the opportunity to learn more about the world we live in and sometimes that takes an interesting turn – as happened to us in the spring of 1993, when our family headed off on a rather wondrous adventure. During the previous years two important items had come together in our lives. My scientific study of no-see-ums indicated that I needed to develop a better understanding of those species living in tropical ecosystems, and this happened to combine neatly with our family’s idea of exploring another part of the world. We wanted to immerse ourselves in a different culture and broaden our understanding of how another group of people think and live. Our children were still young and as parents we also wanted to expose them to a different way of seeing their universe.
So, my wife Annette and I, along with our three children, then aged 9, 12 and 15 did some careful planning and decided that Costa Rica, a small tropical country tucked between Panama and Nicaragua, was the place to go. It has an interesting combination of Latino, Afro-Caribbean and native cultures and, because of its combination of high mountains and coasts on both the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, is a land with a huge number of different habitats. Costa Rica translated means ‘rich coast’, and it is well named.
After considering our budget, we decided that the way to get there was by car. We loaded our old Volvo station wagon and homemade trailer and ponderously pulled out of our driveway in southern British Columbia. It took us three weeks, first cruising through the USA and northern Mexico on high speed highways, and then slowing to a leisurely pace as we entered the maze of mountains, valleys and twisting, narrow roads that make up most of southern Mexico and Central America. Along the way we explored ancient Aztec and Mayan ruins and walked in beautiful tropical and mountain parks. It was our first time in Central America and everything was new and exciting.
Although initially unsure of where we were going to live once we got to Costa Rica, by the second week we had found a home to rent in Atenas, a small town located halfway between capital San Jose and the west coast. It was high enough to have comfortable temperatures for sleeping, but close enough to the lowland rainforest for my scientific studies. Our new community gave us a remarkable reception. Eight local ladies kindly helped us unpack our car and we had a wonderful ad hoc party on our first evening, filled with laughter, singing, and our first introduction to neighbours who would soon become close friends.
It was our fifth evening in Atenas and Annette and I, needing a bit of time to ourselves, had gone down the street to the local pub for a beer and snack. We were seated only for a few moments when a neighbour from up the road plunked himself down at our table. He welcomed us to the neighborhood and asked what brought us to Costa Rica. We explained how we had come to learn about Costa Ricans and their beautiful land, and he told us about upcoming events and described nearby spots we could explore.
I left the explanation of my research until later that evening for good reason. In North America, after explaining that I study no-see-ums, most people respond with either a giggling ‘Really?’ or, ‘You can make money doing that?’ The scene generally deteriorates further when I explain that I actually love the little creatures and that the estimated 15,000 species on our planet are quite fascinating once you get to know their story. So I was quite shocked when, after saying that I was also in Costa Rica to study ‘purrujas’ (the local name for these small flies), this gentleman, a truck driver who made $120 US per month, didn’t own his own vehicle and didn’t have a phone in his house, responded with ‘Excelente!’ and proceeded to explain how understanding the species of Costa Rica is of vital importance, that the natural systems of Costa Rica are essential to the well-being of the country and to the future of their children.
It turned out that he fully understood the consequences of years of deforestation in Costa Rica, and elsewhere, and their role in climate change. He understood perfectly well that all life forms were precious and vital for healthy ecosystems. ‘Wow!’ I thought, ‘I’ve run into one of the few people in Costa Rica who has an understanding of fundamental ecological principles!’ I couldn’t have been more wrong. As our experiences continued to expand in Costa Rica, we had a hard time finding anyone who wasn’t aware of these themes. At first we assumed it was because ecological subjects were common in the local media, but a more powerful influence rapidly became apparent. Ecology and the current state of nature was strongly stressed in the education system and even Costa Rican children who were in grades 4 and 5 could discuss the importance of their ecosystems. There were further extracurricular activities that promoted this understanding. For example, a month after we arrived in Atenas, the local school presented a community puppet show in which a dialogue developed between a Chainsaw, with a toothed, very protruding nose, and a Sloth, discussing how they could live together in the rainforest. Hundreds of people were there, about half students and half adults, and when the play was finished there was enthusiastic applause and beaming smiles. This was an amazing testimony to the power of education! It is no wonder that Costa Ricans have one of the best park systems in the world, protecting over 25% of their land and strongly promoting an infrastructure that studies their fauna and flora.
There is a great need to broaden Costa Rica’s awareness across the globe. One doesn’t need to go far to understand that our planet is bad shape. Global warming is steadily escalating, ocean currents are changing, and thousands of species, mostly insects and mites, are disappearing every year. Most of our political and corporate leaders seem entirely driven by the need for economic growth, and globalization is the new religion of our times. We are still exporting and promoting a lifestyle from the ‘developed world’ that devours resources at a non-renewable rate and guarantees the extinction of many more species, including those that are vital for human existence at at least the local level. In addition to this, such economic development ensures that most individuals in the next generation will not have a firsthand understanding of nature, making a broadly-based awareness seem even more remote.
In 1996, there were more people on the planet living in urban environments than in rural areas, so that there are now a majority of people on our planet who are out of touch with even how their food is grown, let alone having experiences of the incredible natural beauty that we’ve inherited. These are people whose primary habitat is packed dirt, concrete, asphalt and metal and who will never walk through a forest or jungle filled with frogs, birds and the sweet aroma of flowers. This is a generation of young people who won’t know the experience of sitting by a quiet brook of clear water, watching insects hovering over the tumbling waters. In the world we live in, a majority of humans will never look up at the piercing call of a hawk circling overhead against an azure sky.
All the evidence indicates that we are in deep trouble. How can it be, then, that our Canadian high school students are graduating without knowing much about a threat that will so modify, and possibly eliminate their lives? How could we be so short-sighted as to not give our children the tools to understand and possibly modify the impending disaster? How can we not help them learn how they might better experience and protect a source of such inspiration and beauty?
As Christians, of course, we should know better. We know from Scripture that God created the universe and that we are to take care of the Garden He has placed us in. We know that He speaks through His works and that we should be listening. But is this what we are teaching our children? Have they been given the tools to help them to see God’s wonders, to hear His voice in the Creation, to learn how He has put the world together and makes it function? David talked about the stars speaking, and how God sustains all creatures, and Jesus pointed out that even the number of hairs on your head are known by the Creator. Our job as parents is to teach our children that God is intimately tied to His Creation, that our task is to take care of the world God has made for us, and that we should delight in what He has blessed us with – incredible beauty in a miraculous world.
How can we as Christians have failed to teach our children to have these perspectives, to give them the experiences that will enable them to know the precious gift of the natural world, and to learn of their responsibilities for its use? How could it be that the next generation of Christians has acquired, in large measure, the materialism of our secular times? In part, it may be the way adults have come to look at our possessions, and how we have correspondingly come to think about our own children.
One of the observations our eldest son Chris made while we were living in Costa Rica was that families there were very different than those in Canada. It was indeed striking that families could be identified so readily. Parents walking with their kids, including teenagers, were common on the streets, on their way to market or community events. Children of all ages played together and nearly every late afternoon, a soccer game involving people from three to 60 years old would break out. People hug and kiss in greeting and parting, and grandparents are generally honoured in Costa Rica, feeling respected and obviously proud of their age. Not once did we hear what is so common in Canada – conversations between adults about how terrible their kids could be, and often right in their children’s presence. In North America, we identify the terrible twos and the impossibility of talking with teenagers. We openly reflect on how untrustworthy young people can be and peruse the many books on how to cope with our children. Of course, Costa Ricans have many of the same challenges of raising children, but we never heard Costa Rican parents talk about their children as a burden, as a serious hindrance in their lives, as something that would interfere with their enjoyment of life. North Americans have some serious issues in how we see our children. As Christians we read in Scripture that children are a blessing, a gift to be nurtured and cherished and yet so often we have fallen into the same abhorrent perspective of viewing our own children as impediments. Perhaps this is the ultimate expression of materialism – to see these most blessed of gifts as an interference with our personal desires.
After we had been in Costa Rica for about 3 months, we were privileged to listen to a fascinating conversation that took place amongst some Costa Ricans friends. They were discussing their perception of North American life, in which family units were perceived as fragile and divorce common, where life was so busy, and where the first item of importance in the adult world was money. So much so, that parents would buy each of their children a computer, a television, a phone and all sorts of other toys for each to have in their own separate bedrooms. But at the same time, these parents were so preoccupied that they didn’t have time to actually spend with their own children. These Costa Ricans puzzled over how money could be more important than one’s own family and community and asked a pertinent and difficult to answer question: “Don’t you want to be with the people you love?”. And when the evening drew to a close, they sat with a sense of collective sense of ‘Those poor people up north’. My wife and I couldn’t help but reflect later that night before going to bed, the irony of the number of conversations we’d had in previous years in Canada, discussing ‘Those poor people in the third world’.
Of course, there is poor, and then there is poor. When one doesn’t have sufficient food, clothing, or shelter, or when one lives with the threat of imminent violence, our hearts should be filled with compassion and a call to justice. However, our commercially-driven media has largely succeeded in making us believe that, in spite of the evidence in our own hearts and the clear message from God’s word and Creation, that we and the people of the world need televisions, need cars, need large homes, need new technology and all of the other paraphernalia which we’ve come to believe are essential to our existence and happiness.
Our civilization is clearly at a crossroads. We need to choose a better path and, although the details may be fuzzy, the direction is clear – we must find a way to simplify our wants, to recognize that without a healthy environment that we can personally experience we are that much poorer physically, mentally, and spiritually. We require a healthy environment to survive as a species and we need beauty and a relationship with the Creation to nurture our souls. We need to do it for ourselves and for our kids. It is critical that we re-examine where our lives are going and to have a new debate on what education is all about. It is time to pour our resources into saving ourselves from a decaying future. We need to take a bold and uncompromising stand against consumerism – our children need us now, before the planet succumbs and they need to hear from us what we really love, what really makes life worth living. We need to drag them away from electronics and advertising and introduce them to what counts – relationship with God, relationships with others and relationship with the Creation. Time is running out.
Christian parents sometimes believe that the education of their children is the responsibility of those teaching Sunday school and youth group, and in the education system. Our church programs have focused nearly entirely on understanding the Bible, almost completely avoiding messages from the Creation. Our educational system is still producing good corporate citizens that, whether the school is secular or Christian, leaves our youth believing in many of the materialistic goals of our broader society.
As Christians, we are privileged to know God presence and His desire for us to live holy lives. We know that we’re called to teach our children. The natural world that God so lovingly crafted for us is in great need and we can’t stand by and watch this terrible loss happen. We should teach our children through our examples and words, what it means to do God’s loving work on our planet. And we will have to teach this because we really believe it – our children know what is really in our hearts because they watch how we live. They see how we understand the Holy Spirit and how we treat the Creation. It is time to wake up and teach our children another route – a lifestyle that more fully responses to God and honours what He has made.
1. Do your children, or the children in your community, understand the importance of a healthy environment?
2. Do we give our children the opportunity to regularly experience nature?
3. Why do so many children seem out of touch with nature? Does screen time influence this in either a positive or negative way?
4. How can we teach the importance of loving the Creation?
5. What experiences have you given the children in your life of nature?
‘To care is neither conservative nor radical, it is a form of consciousness’ John Ralston Saul
Hitoy Cerere Biological Reserve is an exquisite place on our planet. Located in the lowland tropical rainforest of southeastern Costa Rica, it includes a series of elongate ridges which create steep ravines and valleys and a multitude of microhabitats. Receiving rain nearly every day, it is often dripping with water and is incredibly rich biologically. Huge buttressed trees arise from the jungle floor, tied together with thick liana vines, with toucans and parrots calling from the tree tops. Butterflies, dragonflies, beetles and flies dance in patches of sunlight that permeate the thick canopy. It is an area singing with life.
In October, 2004 I had the opportunity to spend some time there. I already knew from samples taken by others that there were many species of no-see-ums in Hitoy Cerere and I was anxious to collect there myself. Guillermo Chaverri, a Costa Rican colleague, volunteered to accompany me and we loaded the jeep with our equipment and began the journey to the coast. We arrived late at night, surrounded by throbbing flashes of hundreds of fireflies, marveling at the chorus of frog calls and crickets, and excited by the prospects of exploring this rich area.
The next morning was bright and sunny and I wasted no time in gathering up my net and bottles and walking a path that led to a broad river tumbling out of the highlands. The water was clear and filled with various fish species, a good sign for an aquatic entomologist looking for no-see-ums. Indeed, the area turned out to be a jackpot: the adults of numbers of species were resting on the surrounding vegetation and others were gathered over riffles and rocks on the river edge. I spent time watching one group of males swarming beside a seep trickling from a rock face, seeing that the males were all oriented in one direction as they darted to and fro, keeping distance from each other and each with his bushy antenna fully erect. Male no-see-ums use their antennal hairs to pick up the vibration of the distinct female wingbeat. When the right frequency is detected, it means a female is nearby and males quickly fly to her. I watched as a female entered the swarm and, indeed, one male successfully grabbed her and, in copula, slowly landed on a leaf surface. They remained joined for a few minutes, each facing the opposite direction, while the male deposited his spermatophore (a sperm package) inside her. The female, I knew from published studies, would take the sperm into her vagina and then store them in a separate internal vesicle, with the sperm to be used later to fertilize her developed eggs as they passed from her body. The female of this species, like most no-see-ums, needs insect blood to develop her eggs and, after the male released her, off she flew to hunt for her prey. The larvae of this species are unknown and I wondered where she would eventually lay her eggs. I knew that, of the several hundred species of no-see-ums in this area, she would pick a unique spot, for all species in nature divide up the ecological landscape, each with a distinct role to play.
It was at that moment that a troop of howler monkeys swung through the overhead canopy. I wasn’t really surprised for I had already heard them coming. Males regularly announce themselves to the world, and certainly other males, by making aggressive and deep hooting calls. The sound is much louder than their size would suggest. I watched the babies on their mothers backs as they slowly made their way through the trees, eating leaves, picking off insect treats and, at one point, excitedly announcing they had found some fruit. They dropped faeces on a regular basis and I marveled at how rapidly the scarab beetles showed up to utilize the dung for their larvae – less than one minute! Within 20 minutes the excrement was buried, food for another generation of these scarabs.
The day was heating up and becoming increasingly humid and it was time for a break. I sat in a shady spot by the river and peeled an orange, throwing a piece of the rind into the water. Immediately, a group of small fishes swam up to explore. Intrigued I threw in a bit of bread, and then a couple of flies I had captured. In all, I counted more than 15 species of small fish that were working this small portion of the river. Amazing diversity.
The afternoon was spent with further collecting of midges and making observations of their behaviour and specific habitats. I was able to collect 24 undescribed species that day before the rain forced me to retreat to a small overhang that kept me moderately dry during an hour-long downpour. It was a time to reflect and I marveled at the intimacy that comes from spending time in God’s Creation. What wonders there are for us to explore, what mysteries there are that we can touch. The time spent, so rich and rewarding, a gift from God’s Creation. A time of renewal and joy and a time to give thanks.
This beautiful encounter is in stark contrast to what I too often experience when I am outdoors. Living in rural British Columbia gives me ample opportunity to be in nature. I noticed a number of years ago, however, a disturbing phenomenon in my own heart. I found that I could take a lunch-time break from my research to spend an hour walking in the woods and return without any memories of what I had seen. I could spend an afternoon collecting my flies, come back with specimens in my vials but without being spiritually touched by the experience. My worries of the day, concerns about my work, thoughts about stressed relationships, financial troubles, or frets over church politics had so preoccupied my mind that I couldn’t remember, at times, which of the woodland paths I had taken or the behaviour of the specimens I had collected.
I found that it was actually only too easy, especially in the middle of a busy family life, work, hosting a youth group, and other commitments, to become immune to Creation wonders. For years I had been counting on the energy and awareness of my youth to be fully immersed in my nature experience. Suddenly, I realized that there has been a shift. I had become somewhat dulled to the experiences I was having.
To deal with the problem, I learned that I needed to invoke the same process that is present at the start of all liturgical church services: the call to worship. If I spent time before my nature experiences, including a lunch-time walk, in a short time of prayer, asking God to open my heart and mind to His presence, I was able to renew my awareness of what was present, at least most of the time. To pay better attention what was around me.
If it is true that we know God through both the scriptures and through the Creation, most of us are living unbalanced lives. We spend time reading our Bibles and going to church to better familiarize ourselves with the Scriptures. This is a good thing. But as our societies become more and more detached from the natural world, Christians need to make a concerted effort if they want to spend time in the wilderness, to quietly take the time to hear God’s voice in His Creation.
It is our human propensity to become self-centered and become lost in worrying about our own needs and of those whom we love. We so often fail to realize that we are constantly bathed in God’s love. We too often forget that we live in a wondrous universe that is constantly available for our edification and enlightenment. As is always true of our God, we merely need draw near to Him and He will draw near to us. Do we need to carry a prayer mat into every park we visit?
1. What experiences of nature have you had that have moved you? How did they impact you?
2. What biblical references indicate that our spiritual ancestors were enriched by nature? Why did Jesus need to go to the wilderness, including spending time with wild animals (Mark 1:12-13)? What other times did he and various prophets spend time in nature?
3. In Genesis, Adam is portrayed as naming animals. Why is this mentioned and what does is say to us?
4. How has the church portrayed spending time in nature, often as opposed to the importance of going to church?
5. How many of the saints in the history of the church had outdoor experience that enriched their spiritual lives? What do you know about the life of St. Francis, for example?
Zurquí de Moravia is a remarkable place in Costa Rica, a lush, wet cloudforest high in the mountains at 1,600 meters and very rich in species. A variety of taxonomists have visited this site over the years, owned by a generous and wise individual who had protected his land, and discovered high numbers of species in their particular group of insects from wasps to beetles to plants. It was one of the reasons that a colleague, Brian Brown of the Los Angeles County Museum and I decided that this would be a perfect spot to study how many fly species might make their home there – a group that hadn’t been previously studied at this site. A cursory examination of some previously taken samples, we already knew that we could expect many species of flies as well – how many, however, became a great surprise.
We started our project in 2011, having asked 57 of our colleagues, each an expert in one or more of the 74 families of flies present there, to provide identifications. Some families, such as mosquitoes and horseflies, had been studied in some detail in Central America and the species have names but others were nearly completely unstudied. So we did realize that many would be new to science. To study the diversity there, we put out numerous traps, including light traps and Malaise traps (a tent-like trap that captures insects that bump into it) as well as others. Many needed special preparation on microscope slides, or be specially pinned, and we were aided by a wonderful team of highly skilled Costa Rican technicians. As this 4 year project unfolded, we were repeated astounded by reports from our colleagues regarding how many species they were discovering under their microscopes – in the end, we catalogued 4,332 species with most of these new to science and needing to be described and named, all living in just 4 hectare (150 x 266 meter) of cloudforest. What huge diversity and somewhat mind-boggling to realize that they were all dividing up the ecological pie, each with a particular role to play in that ecosystem!
This sort of diversity is obviously an integral part of our universe. Not only are there 100-400 billion stars in our Milky Way galaxy, there are also at least 200 billion galaxies further out there. On our own planet, the diversity of land, oceans, plants and animals and untold numbers of microbes, all point to a Creation which celebrates diversity, in the most prolific manner. The human family too, includes many cultures (many of them recently extinct, or shortly to be gone), many body forms, and a great variety of thoughts and ideas. The Bible also talks about diversity, pointing out that the church body is composed of many parts, all of which need each other.
Much of our lives can appear to be solitary, especially in the “developed” world, but Creation reminds us that we are part of a whole, unimaginably huge diverse universe. So many species, so many places called home by others, and the stars above, all remind us that we are part of a big story that continues to unfold day by day. This is the foundation of what it means to be part of a community, a part of nature and the pervasive call to be in relationship. The Biblical call reminding us that the ear cannot say it doesn’t belong to the body because it isn’t an eye (1 Corinthians 12:15-26), is a direct mandate for diversity in the community of believers and so too, reflects our relationship with the Creation at large.
At present there are many thousands of different Christian denominations in the world, certainly reflecting a lack of tolerance for differences in theology, expression of worship, and church hierarchy. We have a long history of treating other Christians as enemies that cannot be trusted, at best, and at worst, deserving of death. This tribalism, partially rooted in a biology that is suspicious of others, is inconsistent with both Scripture and Creation. Aside from the call to love (including our enemies), the presence of so much variety in our world could teach us that we should embrace differences, celebrating the diversity in our own lives as God given.
Our affluent western societies have drifted from being dependent on our communities to an increasingly narcissistic understanding that the individual is supremely important. It is a fundamental understanding presented in Scripture that we are called to be part of community, that we are part of a family, a faith community and the society in which we live. Evolutionary biology extends that understanding by affirming that we are part of a community that includes all organisms on our planet. Our relatives are to be found in the grass on our front lawn and the fly buzzing against the windowpane. It is our job to work out loving relationships with all those in our community, whether we have marginalized them in the past or not.
1. How many ‘different” people are in your life? Or are all your friends and family those who think, act and more or less look the same?
2. Have you had experiences of the diversity in Creation? Of different species (e.g. of fish or birds or trees or…..) or of land? Have you spent any time looking at a star-studded night sky? How do these experiences inform your life, including the spiritual?
3. Is it a Christian responsibility to seek out different people, ideas, and expressions? If so, how can this be done?
4. Who or what group of people do you find threatening? Why? Have you had personal experiences with a challenging person or group?
5. Discrimination and prejudice often has its roots in an intolerance of others, inconsistent to the Christian walk. How can they be overcome?
‘The fear and dread of you shall rest on every animal of the earth, and on every bird of the air, on everything that creeps on the ground, and on all the fish of the sea; into your hand they are delivered’ Genesis 9:2.
‘If you have men who will exclude any of God’s creatures from the shelter of compassion and pity, you will have men who will deal likewise with their fellow men’ Francis of Assisi (1181-1226)
‘The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air. Much that once was is lost, for none now live who remember it.’ The Return of the King by J.R.R. Tolkien.
A couple of years ago my wife Annette and I spent a glorious day exploring the area around 381 meter high Takakkaw Falls, in Yoho National Park in eastern British Columbia. To see the falls, one must take a narrow paved road off the four-lane TransCanada Highway and we were fortunate during this second week of June – a major avalanche had not yet completely melted and still covered a section of this side road, resulting in it being closed to vehicular traffic. We took our bikes and wound our way up the 14 kilometers to the falls, including a 30 minute struggle over compacted snow and an impressive tangle of broken trees and rocks that had earlier been swept off the surrounding mountain slopes. We didn’t see another human being for the entire day and returned to camp in the late afternoon, exhilarated after being surrounded by so much beauty. But we were also in need of refreshment and so sat ourselves down at a local restaurant for a welcome beer and some French fries, looking out at the surrounding jagged peaks and glaciers. A young couple, also tourists enjoying the park, sat at a nearby table sharing a local newspaper and periodically reading to one another. Our ears perked up as the woman read an article describing the reported risk of a drug being applied to farmed salmon on the west coast of British Columbia to control sea lice. This parasitic crustacean can, in sufficient numbers, severely weaken and even kill but the drug used on the farmed salmon can persist and so be absorbed by consumers. A short pause ensued and her spouse responded by reading out some stock market numbers that indicated their investment portfolio had depreciated during their two weeks of travel.
This apparent non-sequitur neatly caught a discrepancy in our societal state of mind. Each year our nation goes through either a period of collective joy in response to a Gross National Product of a certain percentage (I can never remember what the number should be) or one of depression when the percentage is reported to be too low. We hinge our sense of optimism on our growing retirement funds and a booming economy. We praise free trade, and, with religious fervency, applaud the economic goals of globalization. Growth is the word. In contrast to this world view is that of environmentalists, who are bemoaning the terrible biological destruction that our earth is presently experiencing. They recognize that our push for economic growth is directly related to the rate of extinction of thousands of species, the widespread loss of natural habitat, and the elimination of whole ecosystems, endangering our lives and those of future generations. The two paradigms often seem to be practically incommunicado, with diametrically opposed visions for what the future holds.
In large measure, it is no longer necessary to know the details of science to know that the earth is in serious trouble. It doesn’t take a university education to know that growth cannot continue indefinitely. Unless one believes in the illusion of a Star Trek future where humans will expand to other solar systems (a completely unbelievable possibility), it is obvious that we are wholly tied to our island home – this is where we make or break our future. The earth is obviously of limited size with limited resources and will support only so many people with a given life style. The question then becomes whether our growth driven economies will be reined in before most or all habitats on earth are destroyed or whether we will be stopped by natural processes such as disease, soil depletion, and lack of potable water, with its accompanying consequences of starvation, sickness, death and regional conflict.
The average person who has had any significant experience of the outdoors knows that something is seriously wrong in our natural environment. Weather patterns are changing rapidly, species are showing up where they were previously unknown (particularly for us living northern countries) and it is now possible to have a serious sunburn while planting a springtime garden if one is outside for more than 20 minutes. During my childhood in the 1950s and 60s, I basked in the joys of spending hours outside, exploring the woods and meadows and swamps, half naked in a pair of shorts and sneakers, with a contented feeling that all was well in nature. But in the past number of years I have had an increasing sense of angst and distress while being outdoors. I still love the wonders I see there but something is going wrong in the overall picture. The burning sun that roasts our skin is also affecting those plants and animals that are permanently outside and which cannot use sunscreen and wear sunglasses. The populations of insect species have crashed in many places in the northern hemisphere and many places in the tropics, so what once was an abundance of life in and around many of our communities is now much reduced. For those of us who are older, most can remember a time when our nighttime porch lights had a cloud of attracted insects, that today is reduced to a few individuals. And it goes on and on. Our forays into the surrounding mountains near our home shows that in the past 30 years there has been a great decline in the extent of our glaciers. The alpine regions, so resplendent in their carpets of flowers, are getting smaller and smaller each year as trees grow up the warming mountainsides. Increasingly, my neighbours, who have little or no training in science, talk about the changes they are seeing, worrying about what is happening. And that is the scene for those of us who are middle-aged or older. A visit to one’s local old folks home easily puts us into contact with others who have seen even greater changes in their lifetimes – remembering times of huge abundance and with rich personal experiences of nature. Some changes taking place, noticeable even to some teenagers, are unprecedented in their rapidity. In the meantime, thousands of scientific papers are being published every year describing the abrupt changes overtaking our natural environment. Water tables in most regions are dangerously low, soils continue to be abused and washed away, there is a 18,000 square kilometer ‘dead zone’ in the Gulf of Mexico where the Mississippi dumps its load of excess fertilizer and other pollutants. Tropical forests are disappearing faster than ever. In the far north, in 2004, paper wasps showed up for the first time on the north end of Baffin Island and robins nested at Kaktovik, Alaska, a village on the Arctic Ocean, places where these species have never before been seen. Some scientists are busy sampling the DNA of every mammal and bird species so that they might be reconstructed in the future after they go extinct – a modern day Noah’s Ark. The latter is a rather desperate and fanciful attempt at resurrection with nearly insurmountable problems. Such desperation is a small reflection of our collective worry that our entire natural environment is crumbling under our very feet.
So where do we stand as Christians? In large measure we have acquired a lifestyle that is indistinguishable from that of mainstream society. In the developed world, we generally have the same economic goals as our non-believing friends, hoping for the same large houses, pretty clothes, new cars, fast computers and spotless rugs. We largely have dovetailed into the same approaches to family, providing, or hoping to provide, our children with private bedrooms equipped with their own electronics, access to the Internet, cell phones, and video games, running about to get them to the next sports, music lesson, or church event on time. We worry in equal measure about the present and future to the same insurable degree. These realities are clearly understood by many of those standing outside of our faith – they see that most of our real values are intimately tied to societal values of security and success.
Although we as Christians, like others in our society, know we are surrounded by very serious environmental problems, we have become so inured in our understanding of the Creation that we can live our comfortable lives, be active Christians in the church and tut tut over the decay we see around us, sometimes kissing it off as the work of the evil one or of the imminent end of days. With many of our current theologies, it is not surprising that Christians are in large measure absent from the environmental movement. We haven’t woken up to the thundering voice of God that is calling from the Creation.
Deep in our hearts, individuals both within and outside the church are wondering what is happening to our society and to our world. And if we aren’t puzzling about our times, we’ve either got our heads down preoccupied by our day to day activities or we’ve clothed ourselves with doctrines clearly defined for us by simple-minded ministers or priests. Meanwhile, in our society, we are surrounded by a new generation of wise men, motivators, environmental gurus, postmodern theologies, alternate religions, and, above all, a cascade of commercials promising to give us back inner peace and the happy families and communities we long for. Most recently we have seen a resurgence of populist politics that promises a return to the ‘good old days’ of apparent prosperity, comfort and a lack of immigrants. The reality is that we remain in deep trouble – our relationships with others are strained and the Creation is screaming for attention.
In the meantime, we have avoided what science has clearly deduced about the state of God’s Creation gift. We’re paying the piper right now and our kids will see worse. It’s more than time to get our heads wrapped around what is going on and direct our spiritual eyes towards the Creation. It is more than time to ignore the simplistic stance of fundamentalists who, apparently with righteous glee, view the future as apocalyptic. We better start hearing God’s voice and reacting or we’re going to be in deeper and deeper trouble. We are living our ‘normal’ lives on the earth like those partying on the Titanic, but in our case we can see that the iceberg is up ahead.
As our environmental crises increase in scope and impact, it will be only human to react – when the bullets are flying even the atheists may call out God’s name. When we start watching our loved ones dying of skin cancer, when our children suffer from a peculiar array of environmentally induced diseases, when we must be restricted to drinking only bottled water, when the cost of gas becomes too high to be able to use our vehicles, we will stand up and protest. But the call from God is something quite different. Our responsibility is to turn to God and ask Him what is happening – we need to be able to look into our hearts and see that something is quite wrong in our approach, that there is something inconsistent with pursuing a holy life that is so wrapped up in the goals and acquisitions of our society.
The truth is that God doesn’t want us to reach for our Bibles or to raise our voices in prayer only when we’re in desperate trouble – He wants to have a relationship throughout our lives, through thick and thin, a relationship that is constant in its pursuit. The same voice that speaks to our hearts, that speaks from the Scriptures, also calls from the Creation. God made us to be have an intimate relationship with His Creation. We are actually immersed in beauty, a Creation that is so remarkable, so diverse, so complex, so incredible that, when we experience it we cannot help but be overwhelmed with awe. And this Creation is available to all, whether it is in the unfolding of a leaf, the smell of the air after a rain, or the complexity of a single feather. It is in these small realities of life, the daily wonders in our environments that the Spirit uses most often to call. The small twinges in our hearts when we are looking, when we are paying attention. It is no wonder that the scriptures often refer to the Holy Spirit as a wind. For most of us, we notice the bending trees as a storm hits our region. In reality, it is normally blowing gently, so softly that it takes focused attention to notice. It takes effort on our part to see these wonders.
The early message of the Creation stories in the Bible places humans as an integral part of the whole Creation. It is the reason that the scriptures recognize the fall into sin not only affected human destiny, but also the destiny of the Earth. The fall into sin caused a tear in the fabric of the created order as we experience it here in our solar system.
Scriptures point out that all will be finally healed when our Messiah returns and that we will never be able to entirely fix up the problem on our own. But, there is also another revelation – a promise that if we come into relationship with God, He blesses. Our role as lovers of God is to pray and to work toward relationship. We know that we will never get it entirely right but the attempt alone gives God, in a sense, the permission to heal and bless. This is the wonder of the work of Jesus. His resurrection and position as mediator gives us a pathway to wholeness. We can bring blessing into our lives and the world by seeking out holy lives that reflect what God seeks for us. We need merely to earnestly pray for His truth and to respond to His voice.
And this is the point. If we get down to repentance for how we’ve been living and truly ask God what He wants, our lives will be changed. We’ve spent centuries justifying our economic goals from a Christian perspective, allowing us to exploit our own environment and countries in the “developing” world at will. We’ve gone through generations that have sought to increase our comfort level. Although we sometimes are motivated to cage our economic globalization in terms of bringing God’s gifts to others – helping people in foreign lands to find freedom (i.e. freedom to buy and own), this goes hand in hand with giving multinationals access to national resources – not that much different than the conquistadors acquiring gold while some priests forcibly converted natives 500 years ago in the New World. It was and remains, a disastrous, short-term approach.
The Creation may be groaning because it is largely missing a vital cog in its wheel, a missing component that is vital to its health and well-being. That missing component may be us. Our separation from the Creation means that it not being bathed in our love and respect. We’ve come to believe that we truly do own our surroundings and that what we do with it is our business. Like a decaying marriage, we sometimes think about nature in terms of what we can get out of it, disregarding the havoc we are generating. No different than a breakdown in most human relationships, our current perspective is based on vanity and greed. There is barely an acknowledgment of anything actually being wrong, of sins being committed, or of the raw selfishness involved. We’ve become dead to a spouse that we have badly hurt.
There is the central question God presents in the Garden of Eden after Adam and Eve have eaten of the forbidden fruit, asking Adam ‘Where are you?’. The God of all the universe and every atom asks Adam where he has gone. The answer was obvious – Adam thought he could make it on his own, using his own discernment and wisdom to run his life. He walked out on his relationship with God and God wonders where he truly is. The same question comes to us today. We’re in the same boat – we’ve damaged our relationship with God if we’re ignoring what we’re doing to our natural environment. We’ve crossed the line from relationship with the created order to thinking about what we can get out of it, depending on our own skills and perspectives to run the show.
There is a tremendous concern in evangelical circles for the saving of souls. This is of course, a primary mandate for Christians – to share of our faith and the gift of Christ in our lives. But Jesus, who gave the command to go out into the world to bring the Word, also told His followers that salvation means we must actually help those in need: ‘I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me’ (Matthew 25:35-36). A large component of the needs in our own society and those elsewhere is directly related to the fact that our natural environment has been severely degraded and our concomitant detachment from nature. A healthy environment is fundamental to a healthy human life, both physically and spiritually. We may be anxious to convert others to Christianity, but more than 2 billion people on our planet are hungry, do not have access to pure water, are marginalized in huge slums, have insufficient clothing, and suffer from numerous treatable diseases.
Some Christians are of the mind that because the universe will end one day, our attempts to take care of our world are futile. These are Christians who have a poor understanding of what God says in both the Bible and Creation. If ultimate destiny is the criterion for action, we might equally well point out that each of us is eventually going to die, so that taking care of our bodies, bothering to become more knowledgeable, sending our children to school or fixing the leaking faucet are useless and unchristian activities. Of course, God says something else altogether – our job is not to predict the future using purported clues in Scripture but to be lights in the world today. We attempt to live holy lives, to be true in our relationships, to follow God each day because that is what He calls us to, knowing that everything is in God’s hands, part of His plan. He also calls us to take care of what He has placed in our care, whether that is our lovers, our children, our communities, or the natural world.
A common complaint by non-Christians, is that the Genesis command to have dominion over the earth has justified the actions of Christian Europe to historical go and conquer and subdue not only other lands but also their people. It has indeed been used in many instances as exactly that. However, finding Bible verses to justify one’s actions are almost always misleading when those acts are not based on relationships. Obviously, our human species has dominated the Earth to a distressing degree – we are part of the planet’s history and future. The question really is whether we love that Creation and if so, we’d exercise our profound power to make changes in our environment in a fundamentally different way than we do now. To do otherwise is irresponsible and fundamentally abusive – hence the terrible soup we are currently in.
Similarly, one view present in both secular and religious worlds is that the extinction of a specialized species on a tropical island doesn’t really matter to our future and this may indeed be the case in practical terms. The elimination of the Dodo, the Great Auk, and Carolina Parakeet doesn’t appear to affect our modern lives in any pragmatic way. Indeed, it may be possible that humans can live on our planet after having eliminated 50% of all other species. But this is somewhat like arguing that we can understand the message of the Scriptures if we selectively eliminate 50% of all the texts. Do we really need the Gospels of Matthew and Luke if we retain both Mark and John? We may be able to live with a selfish perspective in ensuring our own survival from a minimalist viewpoint but the reality is that God gave us a legacy to treat as holy treasure. When we trash a portion of those marvels, we’re sending a message to others that doesn’t jive with God’s message to us.
Our responsibility is to nurture and care for our world – not only because we want to ensure our own survival and sustenance but because God tells us that it is our mandate to do so. As Eugene Peterson points out ‘The Christian realizes that every relationship that excludes God becomes oppressive’ (in his A Long Obedience in the Same Direction). It is hardly surprising, then, that our alienation from the Creation is resulting in such environmental trouble.
Our problems are not without precedent. The story of Noah and the flood is ultimately an account of saving the human race and nature from the ruin caused by sinful humans. The relationship with God had been badly damaged and the creation, along with humans, suffered from a devastating flood. Noah and his family saved both domestic and non-domestic species, so that the earth would be repopulated with a natural biota. This story calls for a relationship, not only with God but with all the earth and its natural inhabitants. It is important to remember that the flood story includes God telling Noah “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come” (Genesis 9:12).
There is a belief in some secular circles that humans are a pestilence upon the earth, similar to a cancer causing virus, destroying everything we touch. They believe our current behaviour will lead to our own annihilation, but only after most of the earth has been razed. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that they are correct. But the Bible provides a different model – that what the Creation is missing is a complete relationship with humans and that we are made to be in deep relationship with the natural world. The problem then, is not our inherent and hopeless nature but our failure to hear a call to redemption – to turn toward God, identifying the gifts we’ve been given and taking care of them as the precious inheritance they are. The Creation is groaning not only because of the entrance of sin into the world but because of a miserable shortage of loving relationship with us.
The Bible suggests that without a more intimate relationship with both God and the creation, there are numerous environmental problems we cannot hope to solve as a society. Without a motivation of love, by ignoring that we must be in a deep relationship with the Creation, our solutions will remain utilitarian, focused entirely on what we are getting out of solving environmental problems, as perceived at the present time with our present knowledge. That is a major reason for Christians becoming involved in the environmental crisis on our planet. We have God’s mandate to nurture His gifts to us and are commanded to bring healing and blessing to our environment. We actually have a belief that living a holy life means being in loving relationship with God and that must translate to how we act in the world, loving others and the Creation He has put us in. As Christians we have the opportunity to point out that we have been behaving badly and that we need to bring God back into that large part of our individual and collective lives that connects with nature.
And so, if we love God, we had better get busy. We have a lot of catching up to do, praying for our whole world, including both people and the natural world, for all those species out there, all that remaining wonder, and to ask for forgiveness for what we’ve done to brutalize our environment for our selfish gain. Perhaps then, with a desire to change our ways, we will feed the hungry, bike instead of drive, clothe the naked, save the forests, restore the streams, give water to the thirsty, visit those in our prison-like slums, and farm organically.
1. Why have Christians generally not been involved in the environmental movement?
2. The church has had very little to say, at least historically, about the environment crisis. Why is this? Is this consistent with Scripture?
3. Do you feel angst about the environmental problems in the world? What might be done about changing things for the better?
4. Are Christians called to be involved in all forms of injustice?
““““5. What practical actions can we take as people of faith to help heal the Earth?
A few years ago, I noticed a curious similarity between some of my fellow believers in the Christian church who are fundamentalists and my colleagues in evolutionary biology – these two groups, who are so often opposed to each other, share a strong belief in a hopeless future for this planet. For both groups, the imminent destruction of the earth’s biota will take place in the near future and appears inevitable. Both deplore the lack of belief by outsiders and both consider the possibility of conversion of non-believers to their understanding of the truth to be unlikely. However, with a foot in both camps, I believe there are actually good reasons to conclude there is some hope that most life on the earth may yet be saved.
Christians, as a group, recognize the mandate to love God and to serve Him in their lives. They spend time in prayer, contribute in substantial ways to their churches, and tend to be generous of heart. Many, however, are of the belief that the world outside of the church is corrupted by the presence of a pervasive evil, and that the Christian life should basically be a cloistered one. They seek to be united with fellow believers in a church where faith is shared, God is worshiped and, as a major task in the world, to convert others. Many are convinced that because the world will end in the near future with the imminent return of our Messiah, the world is not worth investing in. Creation itself will soon be destroyed. These are Christians who believe they know the truth and see outsiders as ignorant and hard-hearted (or not truly ‘Born Again’).
Most of my working community is composed of insect taxonomists, people who are responsible for describing species of insects and interpreting their evolutionary history. Each is an expert in one or more families of these creatures (each family often including thousands of species) and each person has a broad understanding of the diversity of life on this planet. All are enraptured with the organisms they study and have immersed their lives in their research. Nearly all, however, are without any hope for the future. They consider it as certain that an immense number of species will be eliminated from the planet in the next few years, unless a pandemic sweeps through human populations first that eliminates most humans (unlike the covid-19 crisis). Extinction rates of animals and plants on earth are now growing at an unprecedented rate, especially among the diverse groups of small organisms, like insects and mites, that are largely responsible for the operation of our ecosystems. We are rapidly losing species that help to break down organic material in both terrestrial and aquatic habitats and provide food for larger vertebrates. The data clearly points to despair.
One discussion repeated amongst my colleagues revolves around the steady decline of ecosystems. Whole habitats are being eliminated year by year, the rate of destruction actually increasing with each passing month. It is understood that the question is not whether this environmental devastation will occur but how soon it will be finished. It is a shared understanding among these scientists that present economic perspectives, promoted by ignorant political and corporate leaders, and continued population growth, are driving us to this hopeless catastrophe.
Underlying these conversations is a mood of personal pain and grief, for my colleagues know that we are losing a part of what we have experienced with such awe and joy. It is a pain born out of lost relationships. Very few people know the intimacy of discovering and naming a species only to realize that its original habitat has been destroyed and that it is now likely extinct, represented only by a few specimens on pins in a museum. This is the flip side of the love we have for our organisms; we also feel the tear of appalling loss. The damage has become so pervasive that some refer to our collections as holocaust collections, places where future generations will go to see what used to live on our planet. To our society’s collective shame, these collections will only house a fraction of what used to be living on our world, preserved behind glass, with labels indicating a few places (or often only one) where they used to be found. This is so tragic, for dead specimens can never replace the living, breathing organisms that currently populate the planet. Our children and grandchildren will walk through museum halls filled with the taped calls of birds and insects and be able to see panoramas featuring dead animals and plants – certainly a place to learn but never a replacement for a walk through a living, breathing, and diverse forest!
The mood amongst evolutionary biologists is similar, then, to those of fundamentalist Christians in that we know what the future holds – the world as we understand it will end shortly.
I believe that I am a rare person amongst my colleagues in having some hope. I agree that the data appear grim and things seem overwhelmingly hopeless. I know that the aquatic habitat in Arizona from which I described species just 25 years ago is now a bone-dry gully and I recognize the terrible weight of our growth-driven economies as they are currently managed. I too see the huge impact of advertising, manipulating virtually every person in the world to want to emulate the unrestrained consumerism of the developed world, rapidly driving up the rate of habitat destruction. The statistics on population growth and resource consumption are truly depressing. Regardless of these realities, there are three ideas that suggest we may have some optimism.
Our civilization has generated a formidable number of scientific texts filled with detailed descriptions of our universe, and concomitantly has also developed an impressive level of technology. Although we’ve become rather impressed with our own advances, science itself reveals that we know only a slight percentage of the reality that is out there. In short, we’re actually pretty dumb. After more than 40 years of working on no-see-ums, I realize that we still have less than half of the estimated 15,000 species named, with some biological information available for less than five percent of these.
If you think this is an unusually backward field, we don’t have to go very far to find other examples of how limited our scientific knowledge is. Although researchers have mapped every cell in the brain of the American cockroach, we don’t know how those cells develop their organization, how they execute what they have learned, or why those cells slow down as they age. Studies of our own brain, with about 100 billion neurons, each bearing hundreds of interconnecting synapses, are in their initial stages and we are just starting to learn how the brain develops and how it gathers, evaluates, stores and then acts on the information it receives. Although over 100 chemicals have been identified as important for communication in the brain, it is known that there are many more not yet properly identified and understood. In addition to this, these chemicals work in combinations to produce different effects and behaviours; again, with a very limited understanding in our current science. Most neuroscientists recognize that our present knowledge is a pathetically small fragment of how the brain actually develops and functions.
Our ignorance is not just restricted to a few spheres of knowledge; it features in virtually all areas of science. And this is an important message, for our society generally believes the opposite – that we as a society know a great deal about our earth, that we can make knowledgeable decisions about the future of ecosystems (such as ‘ecologically based forestry’ or ‘managed fisheries’) and that we can put our faith in technological solutions. This audacious belief has seeped into our collective understanding of the future, which is that what we can currently see and predict will be the future. However, as Christians we are called to believe something quite different. The Scriptures clearly explain that our God is so awesome, so omnipotent, so complex, that as mere humans we cannot say with certainty how the future will unfold: ‘you did awesome deeds that we did not expect’ (Isaiah 64: 3). It is He who holds the universe in His hands, and it is only in the last century that we’ve come to understand how incredibly huge that universe is!
Science, the study of God’s Creation, truly reveals the same – that we know very, very little when compared to the huge complexity that exists in our vast environment. It may be that God’s plan for our planet will include the unexpected, the unpredicted, the entrance from stage left to occur at any time. Those who are confident in their despairing prediction of a terrible future are also confident that God can’t, or won’t, act (other than how they interpret a few Bible verses).
There is another reason to have hope. Our societies are currently being run by leaders who, in large measure, seem impervious to the horrific decline in our natural environment. Looking at such leadership is rather depressing for those who want to protect the Creation. Few corporations appear to have any ethics beyond survival of the fittest, and often implement ruthless measures to gain the most resources. Governments are still hesitating over what to do about global warming and there is very little support to study and save the biodiversity we have inherited.
The story of our civilization shows that it is often small groups of people who, at the right time and place, have changed the direction of a society and swayed the course of history. Few would have initially predicted that Greenpeace could change the world’s perceptions of nuclear testing and whale hunting or that an Albanian nun named Mother Theresa would draw the world’s attention to the poor. And, of course, no one would have predicted that Moses would lead a group of slaves to become a separate nation, that a carpenter’s son born 2000 years ago could possibly revolutionize the entire Roman empire, or that a pharisaic Jew named Paul would pen spiritual perspectives that would be read by hundreds of millions throughout the globe. And not all of these apparently modest origins have been positive. On the negative side of the scale, a little group of German National Socialists in the 1930’s markedly changed the subsequent course of world history. Such small, localized efforts may suddenly catch the wind of public attention and always have the possibility of altering the direction of history rather radically.
Similarly, it is sometimes a single catastrophic event that has a huge impact. In 1940 the United States had no interest in becoming involved in the regional tensions of Europe and Asia. Their approach was to let others sort out their own problems. Then Pearl Harbor was attacked and shortly after young Americans were marching off to war, women were working in factories, and meat, sugar, butter and shoes were rationed. American leaders had recognized a new enemy and were going to deal with it head-on. More recently, a terrible tsunami in southeastern Asia drew the attention of the world and some political conflicts were suddenly reduced, at least for a time, to relative insignificance.
Such abrupt, unpredictable events can change everything. In many ways, when so many individuals in our society are seriously stressed and know in their hearts that our lifestyle is unsustainable, and making us genuinely unhappy as well, it may be that the time is right for a leadership to arise that will confront the insidious enemy that is destroying the sustaining and wonderful natural life of our world. It is far past time for us to turn our societies around, to recognize that the consumerism of our age is nothing other than greed, and that this greed does a predictable thing – it violates relationships at every level, including our relationship with God, with each other, and with the Creation.
There are many of us who really care about the earth, who can yet see the flowers (and perhaps their pollinating no-see-ums!) and feel the whisper of the wind, who know what it means to love what is around them, and who have tasted and seen that the Lord is good indeed. In spite of the fact that we may feel lonely and on the fringe, be patient. It may very well be that one day we will be shocked to find that the perspectives and lifestyles which honour the Creation are in high demand.
Which brings me to a final point. As a scientist, I agree that working on recycling, creating parks and doing a better job of insulating our houses are good concepts to pursue. Green energy seems to be on the upswing. Working toward restoration, carefully studying our environment, standing against violence, abuse and degradation are all positive and could be holy work. The scriptures point out, however, that all of our work, all of our efforts and all of our plans need to be rooted in our relationship with God to succeed. After all, our desire to have a healthy environment can be caged in entirely selfish terms: ‘I want to have a good life for myself and my offspring and to have a beautiful environment in which to reside’. As Christians we are called to something much more than this. We’re called to pray, to seek relationship with the Holy One, submitting our lives to His will so that we might live consecrated lives: ‘Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you’ (James 4: 8). We’re called to develop our relationship with God, with each other and with the Creation. The promise of the scriptures is that when we turn our face to God, we are blessed – and Lord knows we, as Christians, are in need of blessing. We’ve seriously damaged our relationships at nearly every level and we’re in serious trouble. We’ve turned our faces away from a groaning Creation to such an extent that many Christians live excessive lives, knowing that the climate is changing, that species are going extinct, and still talk happily about the end days. The voice of God is crying out from the Creation and we are often utterly deaf to that loud wail and to those of the masses of poor.
We have another promise in the Scriptures which tells us that is never too late to repent, never too late to turn toward the redemption that our God offers: ‘let them return to the Lord, that he may have mercy on them and to our God, for he will abundantly pardon’ (Isaiah 55: 7). This is one of the reasons Jesus died – so that we could turn away from our bloated, greedy and frightened lifestyles, recognize that we are destroying God’s legacy to us, and be redeemed. We need to recognize the reality that what we’ve been doing is nothing other than sinful. Of course, we are indeed free beings and we have another choice – we can ignore the revelation of the Creation, we can plug our ears and remain immune to what is knocking on the door of our hearts. And then, indeed, our scientists will be validated in their scientific predictions, correct in their prophetic words, which they do hear from the Creation.
And so we must continue to lobby on behalf of the Creation – to protect and nurture this beautiful Earth which God has provided for humans to love, experience and explore. I hope to continue my research understanding no-see-ums and to document a disappearing biodiversity, but I believe our only option to save the planet is not only to work, but also to pray. Our Scriptures are quite clear on this point: ‘Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain’ (Psalm 127: 1) and our work of renewing our relationship with the Creation will be blessed if we walk with the Lord, seeking to do His will in this beautiful world we have inherited. We need to ask for forgiveness for what we’ve done, forgiveness for ignoring His voice, forgiveness for the extinction of so many species, for destroying so much, and to petition for renewed relationship with our God. I know of no other way to learn what God wants from me, no other way to discover how God wants me to change my life. Only through a combination of prayer and work can we find a vision of what needs to be done. We must remember that ‘The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it’ (Psalm 24: 1), and acknowledge that God is in control. Our God has the power to change the terrible course we’ve taken and we need to petition Him with all of our strength and soul and mind that He might make it so. Our God, who created so many beautiful no-see-ums, can equally well change the course of our precipitous decline. It’s not too late to change our hearts – I, for one, would enjoy keeping the avenging horse and rider waiting at the apocalyptic gate.
1. Bad news abounds in our world. How can we keep a spirit of love and good work in our lives?
2. How much does media contribute to a feeling of despair?
3. What would a church effort directed toward social or environment justice look like? Does your church contribute in this way? If not, why?
4. Do you think that God could change the direction our planet is going? If so, what would that look like?
‘ For the Lord gives wisdom; from his mouth come knowledge and understanding; he stores up sound wisdom for the upright; he is a shield to those who walk blamelessly, guarding the paths of justice and preserving the way of his faithful ones. Then you will understand righteousness and justice and equity, every good path; for wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul; prudence will watch over you; and understanding will guard you.’ (Proverbs 2:6-11)
The islands of Haida Gwaii lay off the west coast of British Columbia in a region of mystical rainforest. It is an area bathed in abundance, a region which produces stupendous trees more than 2 meters in diameter, draped with mosses and lichens, and, for much of the year, is steeped in drizzle and mists. The surrounding ocean waters are filled with fish, the tidal pools are each a magically diverse aquarium swarming with various life forms, and bald eagles and ravens drift overhead along the seashore. Gray and humpback whales signal their presence by blowing columns of spray into the air and sea otters are making a steady comeback amongst the kelp beds.
This is the ancient home of the Haida people and they carry a traditional creation story that is rooted in their land. They believe that it was Raven who first spied humans wriggling in large clam shells along a desolate beach. Out of curiosity and always happy for company, he sings and coaxes these shy, timid men out of their hiding place. After playing together, Raven found women in other shells and he brought them together, forming the first community of Haida.
The Haida are no different from any other community in holding a precious story which explains their origins. All cultures throughout our world and through recorded history have claimed a creation story, explaining who people are and how they came to be. And it is easy to understand why creation stories are so ubiquitous. In so many ways, it is our creation stories which gives us our roots and provides the basis for the meaning of our lives. They tell us who we are, where we come from and why each of us is important and valued. They stake our place in the universe as humans and show how everyone is part of an intended community.
Christians are no different in holding a story that we believe and hold dear, and which, for most, is a selective mixture of the two accounts of Creation as recorded in Genesis 1-2. Traditionally we have believed that God made the world and everything in it in six days and that he rested on the seventh day. During that time, He first created the earth and heavenly bodies, then plants, and then a single man, named Adam, out of dust, breathed life into him and placed him in the Garden of Eden. After creating animals, God caused Adam to go to sleep and formed Eve from one of his ribs. Together they worked and lived in that small corner of the globe in a state of perpetual, painless bliss. The Fall into sin was the result of a legged serpent, generally understood to be Satan, cajoling Eve, and then Eve coaxing Adam, to partake of the forbidden fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. The story continues with God promptly punishing each of the participants so that snakes now slither on the ground and disease, weeds, pain and death entered the world for the first time. The world changed at that point from paradise to a place that includes grief and woe and the assurance that we will surely die. We understand that the Garden of Eden itself, described in the Bible as the origin of four great rivers (but hidden from our modern searches), is being guarded by protective angels, ensuring that humans can never again enter that Paradise.
That’s been our story and it served for many generations to tell us how the world came to be and that we were created in God’s image and therefore special. It explained why bad things happen – that our earliest ancestors had made a serious error in taking the forbidden fruit, and that all of us must therefore suffer the result of a fallen Creation, experiencing pain in the present life. It lays the basis for our understanding that the sacrifice of the Messiah will pay for those past and our present sins. We may have to endure trouble now, but we look forward to a pain-free existence when we die and go to heaven (or a new earth) where we will live forever.
The discovery that the earth is billions of years old, that life evolved, and that humans arose from primate ancestors was a major blow to this traditional understanding of our Creation story and it is little wonder that it caused a serious, and continuing, reaction. But as we saw earlier in this book, Christians must be open to revelations from the Creation that modify and change our interpretation of Scripture. Our Bible is not a literal portrayal of much of our history. Nor is it a book of rules and a rigid depiction of our God and how He works. Instead, it calls us to explore and to be open to His voice – including that coming from His Creation. It is a book that should open us to prayerful imagination. No lover, including God, is interested in the complete accuracy of the details of a particular story – there are far more important things to be said. And so it is with our Scriptures. Above all, it calls us into relationships that are God-visioned. William Blake said it well in a letter to Rev. Trusler in 1799: ‘Why is the Bible more Entertaining and Instructive than any other book? Is it not because they are addressed to the Imagination, which is Spiritual Sensation and but mediately [dependent on] to the understanding of reason.’
In part because of the insistence for a literalist interpretation of Scripture by numerous Christians, many in our society have entirely replaced the Biblical account with the evolutionary story as their model to explain human existence and the world as it is. However, this evolutionary story, amazing as it is, can leave our human existence in a rather chilly place spiritually. It is true that the evidence shows that we evolved from other life forms, that we are but one species amongst many millions that live on our planet, and that we have been preceded by billions of others that have gone extinct in the past. We are naked apes, an evolutionary lineage that developed a large brain and high level of sociality. We are a unique species with special features, but so is every other species in its own way. The story is true as it stands but cannot possibly provide a spiritual perspective on its own, nor a basis for a cosmic perspective that includes God. To give this evolutionary story a deeper meaning, we must turn to our understanding of the spiritual.
And so it is that although the traditional Christian understanding of the Creation story has been seriously undermined and is unbelievable when taken literally, we also recognize that the new evolutionary scenario is devoid of spirit and purpose, apparently leaving us with nothing to support the belief that we are distinct or specially loved. It is the modern Christian’s responsibility, however, to seek God in every part of His world and that includes the world of evolutionary biology. Instead of seeing the story of human evolution as a threat, our opportunity is to grab hold of God’s Creation story and bring it into our understanding of Scripture. The two cannot be separated without serious cost to our relationships, with God and the Creation. Pope John Paul II pointed out that “Science can purify religion from error and superstition [and] religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes” and, in a similar vein, philosopher Immanuel Kant noted that ‘Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind’.
The reality that we have a genealogical relationship with all other life forms on our planet and that our ultimate origin is in the stardust of the Big Bang must be put together with our Christian understanding that we were created by God, that we were made to be in relationship with Him, and that our lives have meaning and purpose. The basic answer is abundantly clear: we were specifically made over the space of 13.7 billion years. God took that amount of time to bring us into existence, so that we can come into relationship with our Creator, walk and talk with Him, live on this planet under His guidance, and understand that all we are, do, and think is a result of His love for us. He made our vast and incredibly ancient universe so that today we can look up at the stars, hear crashing waves, or marvel at that sophisticated housefly – and hear His voice!
The discovery that we have been billions of years in the making is an amazing testament of God’s desire to be in relationship with us. Amazingly complex natural phenomena were put into place, unspeakably convoluted processes were put into play, stars moved, and planets formed, species generated, and history unfolded, all so that we might have a living relationship with our God. Such an awareness of our universe brings home the amazing love which God has for us. In all of this enormous, almost incomprehensibly huge, amount of space, God comes to me, a single individual on one of nine planets circling one star, which is one of billions of stars in our Milky Way, which itself is just one of many billions of galaxies. How quite remarkable! And then this added dimension – that billions of years ago, God knew each of us would come into being, preparing through countless complex processes the earth we now call our home. In the face of such a desire for relationship, we can only be thankful, bow, and worship. He spent a great deal of time and process so that we, His creatures, would be in a living relationship with Him. How amazing is that?!! We’ve now come to a new awareness – that evolution is God’s Love Story – His way of bringing the world, including us, into being.
If nothing else, Christians are called to the truth. Our job is to pursue our understanding of reality both in the Scriptures and the Creation. We must grab hold of God’s revelation and run with the story, wherever God might lead. Christians need to reclaim their position of pursuing reality. We cannot hold and present a model of the world which many others can see is obviously mistaken – one that is completely at odds with a wealth of well-established scientific information. It interferes with our call to be living witnesses in the world. How can we share the love of Christ with others when we ignore God’s Creation voice and exclude those who study and share that story from our churches? It is an entirely untenable position and many others can see that it is fatally flawed. And that is not much of a witness coming from those who consider themselves bearers of light!
So what might a ‘new’ creation story look like? Here is an interpretation of what might have been meant by the vision given to our ancestors. I have spent time thinking and dreaming over the years and the following is one of a number of possible interpretations. See what you think.
Firstly, it is worth pointing out that, overall, Genesis 1 does provide a strikingly similar portrayal of the unfolding Creation to that discovered by science. The early cosmos was chaotic, made up of swirling and condensing matter (verses, 1-2) and light (verse 3). The earth developed seas and dry land (verse 9), and then life arose – first plants (verse 11), then marine animals and birds (verse 20), followed by land animals (verse 24) and, finally, humans (verse 26). This is a strong match with our scientific knowledge and differs from hundreds of other creation stories from other cultures in its relative accuracy. Some details, such as when the sun, moon, stars and birds arose don’t match our modern cosmology but, still, as a vision given to a non-scientific desert people, long ago, it is not far off the mark.
The second Creation story in Genesis 2, though, gives a different story, with a single man (Adam) being formed from the dust of the earth, followed by plants (in the Garden of Eden), then animals and, finally, Eve, made from Adam’s rib. The picture makes some evolutionary sense, in that humans arose, originally, from the inorganic elements of our planet and our dust-roots are there. But the rest of the story is entirely incongruous not only with science but also the story in Genesis 1. So what might this story be telling us?
First of all, it makes the major point that God gave humans ‘the breath of life’, in contrast to the living animals he subsequently created. These texts suggest that something special took place in the creation of man. The breath of life may be a symbolic representation of God implanting the presence of a soul – instigating a special relationship with us that differs and is beyond anything He has with other living creatures.
The portrayal of Adam as being initially on his own and Eve subsequently being made from one of his ribs seems, at first reading, somewhat puzzling. Clearly God knew, in making male and female animals after the singleton Adam, that this “first man”, with his full set of reproductive organs, would be best off with a female of his own species. And of course, evolution teaches us that sexuality long predates the presence of humans – it is present even in primitive one-celled organisms. Yet in the story, God presents a lonely Adam with a variety of animals as potential help-mates. This metaphorical story is, at least in part, a portrayal of the vitality of the relationship between men and women – that we’re created to be together. On our own, something is missing and when the love of our life shows up, it is indeed a feeling of ‘This at last is bone of my bones and flesh of my flesh’ (Genesis 2:23) – someone I can truly connect with, someone who can share my life. And this is how this portion of Scriptures concludes ‘Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh’ (Genesis 2:24). Modern lovers know exactly what this means – we understand that there’s something mystical about the union of the sexes that transcends our analyses. In this it doesn’t differ from the first Creation story where the creation of humans is said to be ‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them’ (Genesis 1:27) – male and female, together reflecting God’s image.
The inconsistencies between the two Creation stories and the inclusions of logical non-sequiturs (e.g. the presence of day and night before the sun was created on the fourth day or the command to be fruitful and multiply, to people who would never die, and therefore quickly fill up the Garden of Eden wall to wall), points to the reality that much in Genesis 1-2 is allegorical. But when combined with our scientific study of the universe, it points the way to our true Creation story. Our roots are in the earth, arising, ultimately, from star-dust. We evolved from, and are genealogically related to all other life forms on our planet. We are called into relationship with God, each other (most intimately with our lovers), and the Creation God has placed us in. And God has implanted in us a soul – something which calls us to the divine.
Our Creation story now incorporates the reality that physical death has always been an integral part of life and that pain, disease, and parasites have been with us from the beginning. Our history has always included hurricanes, fires and earthquakes, and weeds have been present on the planet long before primates evolved. Our evolutionary roots mean that we carry the primate genes within our bodies that can lead us to either bad behaviours or remarkable adventures, depending on how we deal with them. We’ve always carried such genes and the Genesis stories suggests what it is that we need to do with those drives and urges. Before the Fall, Adam and Eve talked with and recognized God and this simple portrayal suggests that we need to do the same to understand how to live out our lives. The Bible suggests it is only a prayerful perspective that can allow us to interpret the world around us as it was meant to be interpreted. It is only in our prayerful walk that we can truly discern the meaning and significance of our environments and what we experience.
We are made in God’s image and earlier we discovered that those are not physical attributes and that those human features which we may identify as reflecting God’s image (capacity to love, creativity, etc.) have evolutionary precursors. That in no way diminishes their importance or holiness. It was His choice to bring us into being through biological processes and our rootedness in the Creation should not be taken as an indication of a lack of divine direction or purpose.
So what is the story of the Fall in the Garden of Eden about? The taking of the fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil represents the point when humans thought they could work it out on their own, the first time they became aware that there were options in their lives that could exclude God’s presence. After experiencing that tempting fruit, our ancestors first experienced what it meant to be separate from God, separate from the complete awareness of Him in their hearts. The fallout was immediate: Adam and Eve realized they were naked (and vulnerable) and they were ashamed. And the first reaction from God is a question, addressed to the hiding couple, “Where are you?”. And that is the question that comes to all of us through the ages: Where are we? Something has been broken and it is our God-human relationship – God knows it and so do we – it is the grief that each person bears throughout her or his life – the perpetual seeking for a deeper relationship with our Deity and the even deeper realization that we can’t get there on our own. The death brought about in Eden was the death to an open and free relationship with the Deity.
If physical death is an intrinsic part of life, functioning as a vital component of the good Creation, what about the sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus? What does it mean when the Scriptures say that He died to conquer sin and death? What did He actually do by coming to our planet? If the sin in Eden was a blow to the God-human connection, the healing sacrifice of Jesus must have addressed that cosmological breach. His life not only showed us a way to live, the vitality of prayer and the call to recognize God’s every moment presence in our lives but his death was the sacrifice that was paid for the sin of turning away from God’s presence – a theme that is central to Old and New Testament thought – that God Himself paid, through Jesus, for our blowing it in Eden.
This theme, that what is wrong is the break in our relationship with God, is central to the crucifixion story. The beating of Jesus, His crown of thorns and being nailed to a cross were undoubtedly grim and painful experiences. Not to minimize this in any way, but those with a knowledge of history and current affairs know of others being tortured in a similar, and in some cases even worse, manner. In the midst of his physical torture, Jesus did nothing to indicate that this pain was His sacrifice. On the contrary, he conversed with Pilate about the nature of His kingdom, sees to the needs of his mother, asks that those driving the nails into his body be forgiven, and can see and address the needs of a fellow sufferer on a cross. It is important, therefore, to pay special attention to what Jesus says when he finally cries out in despair and when He appears to be at a loss. It is when he cries out ‘My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ – it is only then, when He is totally separated from God, that He becomes desperate and cries out in distress. It was that separation that was truly intolerable to Jesus and was, I think, the crux of his sacrifice. Darkness fell and the Holy of Holies, the place of yearly sacrifice for sins in the temple, dismantled. The ultimate sacrifice had been paid, the Messiah had come, and we are now living in a post-sacrifice period of redemption and grace, the result of a cosmological healing paid for by Jesus’ willingness to experience separation from the Father.
But there are further difficulties with recognizing that pain and death are imbedded in the good Creation. How, for example, are we to think of God’s goodness to us when it includes a miserable experience? When life goes wrong and we are immersed in stress, loss, and grief, what are we to do? In the book of Job, God provides no justification for why Job has suffered, nor does he point to the presence of evil. On the contrary, God says that our knowledge is far too limited to fully understand the mystery and vastness of the Creation and that the universe functions in the way that He has made it to. God points out that He orchestrates the workings of life and it is not for us to question Him as to why it is so. It appears that both good and what we often call bad, come from God. As Job states ‘ Shall we receive the good at the hand of God, and not receive the bad?’ (Job 2:9). That may be the very reason for an apparent quandary in our lives. Over and over again, our experience often is that we find our personal wisdom grows and our understanding of grace increases when we have experienced personal pain and loss. Somehow, death and grief can bring us closer to God and gives us a wiser understanding of how relationships work. Nearly every story of deep and profound love involves periods of doubt, despair and sacrifice. It seems that God’s Creation plans include loss and pain, an opportunity, at least at times, to better understand the nature of love and grace.
No doubt there are other themes that could be studied and examined, based on the Creation stories in Genesis and these need further exploration. The reality of an evolutionary history changes how we view our origins and, in stepping away from a literalist interpretation, new vistas open to us. What is God saying in these stories to those living in modern times? The argument about whether the days of Creation were 24 hour periods is passé and the discussion about where the Garden of Eden was on the planet now seems childlike. The Genesis Creation stories are profound and deep themes in Scripture of who and what we are and these need to be prayerfully teased away from a simplest version, in the light of our new Creation discoveries. And the implications of understanding who and what we are, are also vital to the interpretation of much of the rest of the Bible.
The Christian’s struggle with our God, a recurring theme in Scripture is that we pursue vision, try to work out our lives with our Lord and come out with some wounds. The promise of the Christian life is not that it will be an easy one, nor that it will be painless, without grief and struggle. The promise is only that we can go on the best of all Holy adventures, walking hand in hand with the Deity, exploring our world freely as best we can, poking and prodding in the corners God places us in. It is a convoluted life, meandering through beauty and wonder and woes and worries, as God directs us in His hugely complex universe. It is a promise that even though we can’t possibly know even a tiniest percentage of reality, we can grapple with a life immersed in His revelations, tasting, seeing, hearing, touching and smelling what He brings to His banqueting table. What a gift to be given permission to explore our world, knowing that no matter what happens, we are securely in the hands of a loving God. We can make mistakes, commit blunders that make us blush from head to toe and live out sins that later make us drop to our knees in recognition of our shameful irresponsibility as God’s lovers. And then turn around, again and again, fully forgiven and back to the pursuit of seeking out God in our world, in every moment knowing He is here. This is the ultimate insurance plan, the best of possible worlds, guaranteed success, just so long as we keep our faces turned to the Light. It doesn’t matter that we cannot understand it all – indeed, how can we be rooted in faith if the demand is that we know it all? We shouldn’t have all of our beliefs wrapped up in air-tight theologies, our lives packaged in boxes that are impervious to the further revelations of the Spirit. The opposite of faith is certainty – it is when we are uncertain that we turn again and again to our heavenly Father, when we ardently search the Scriptures, when we immerse ourselves in worship and the Eucharist and when we walk in the wonder of a Creation that breathes into our hearts, minds and souls.
Christians are called to be fully alive to the times we live in. It is the discernment of some Christians, including Pope Francis, that we are living at a watershed moment, when Christians can use their very influential presence in this world to yet turn around at least part of the devastating destruction of the natural world, to call for a return to prayer, to pursue justice not only for all humans but also all the creatures God has placed in our care. To save our world, we need to pray and to pray hard, petitioning our God to open our hearts to His voice, asking what He would have us do, what He would desire from our churches, asking what He calls sin – and then acting on that vision in a concrete and informed way.
Fresh knowledge always calls us into renewed relationship. When we learn more about our lover, our community, our planet, or our God, we have the tools to grow and mature. The only alternative is to use those gifts to manipulate, to feed our selfishness and greed, and to look out for numero uno – and we all know where that can lead to. Our increasing understanding of the Creation is, when all is said and done, a gift from God asking us to come closer, to love more, and to hear more clearly His voice and will. And we can turn our heads and look up to Him who promises love, love and more love. He is present here and now, calling to us. Our redemption is indeed near.
1. Why are there two Genesis stories in the Bible? Is it significant that they don’t match?
2. Why is the story of evolution such a threat to so many Christians, especially when we believe God to be omnipotent?
3. What Biblical versions and stories indicate that God introduces pain and distress in the world as part of His plan?
4. If death has always been present in the world (a central basis for evolution to work), what do the deaths of other humans, and ourselves, mean?
5. Why are so many Christians suspicious of scientists, scientists who are reporting on what they have discovered in the Creation? Do you have to be a believer to accurately interpret how the world works? Why do we accept the research done on medical issues but not on ecology and the history of the planet?
This book started while on a sabbatical with my wife Annette Borkent in 2004-2005. During that special time of living in a cottage on Hornby Island on the west coast of British Columbia, near wild ocean shores, I had time to pray and reflect and think. I wouldn’t have been able to do it without the wonder of Annette in my life – she has supported this work with her love, prayers and long hours of discussion. Since then, this book was modified repeatedly, a result of reviews and discussion with others. In particular I thank the following for their careful consideration and critique of the book: Amanda Hale, Brandi Borkent, Mike Borkent, Herman Borkent, Father George LaGrange, and Dan Meakes. Finally, I’m so appreciative of the many students and others in my faith community who have discussed the ins and outs of what understanding the Creation might mean for our faith.