The Natural Face Of God

From “Blue Twilight:
Nature, Creationism and American Religion”
by Langdon Brown Gilkey, 1919-2004

We have discovered, roughly since 1965-70, that human industrial and technological development, and behind that science, endanger not just the human world but even more the natural world, on which human civilisation is utterly dependent. Like its biblical and prophetic predecessors, theology must be awake to events in its historical world. And perhaps the major event in our present world is the endangering of nature (of air, water, earth) and therefore the threat to the possibility of life itself.

We should note, however, that although this is a crisis for nature, in which an endangered nature becomes an object of great concern, it is not a crisis brought on by the forces of nature. On the contrary, it is a crisis brought on by humans, that is, by the infinite human scientific, technological, and industrial creativity on the one hand combined with the insatiable greed or concupiscence of humans (what Buddhists term desire) on the other. Desire, said Nishitani Keiji, not rational choice, runs our common industrial empire, and it is desire that threatens our earth. Hence the cause of the crisis of nature is historical, the devastation, familiar enough to history, that sin or desire makes to our common life. The crisis thus interestingly discloses that in our age, when rightly we concentrate on nature, actually it is history that has finally triumphed over nature; history, corporate human action, can and does endanger nature, though as this crisis to our existence also discloses, history remains utterly dependent upon nature. This is the paradoxical irony of our situation: we arise from nature, but such is our creative power that we can also destroy her and, in destroying her, destroy ourselves.

The crisis is a crisis for nature, but it remains a crisis in history, a crisis brought on, as are all historical crises, by the destructive possibilities of corporate human action. The crisis, therefore, illustrates, as does all of history, the universality as well as the reality of human sin. Moreover, as in all cases of social human sin, it is the ruling, dominant, and thus wealthy groups that are most visibly responsible and so guilty. If, as I am suggesting, the crisis is at base one of the spirit, then clearly the partial resolution, and that is all we can hope for in history, must also be one of the spirit, in the end, a moral and a religious resolution.

Of course, this is a crisis in which initially science takes the leading role. It is science that has warned us of the impending dangers to nature and it continues to do so, and it is scientific knowledge and wisdom that must direct the healing process. But since this process also involves powerful economic and social forces, the resolution is as well, and perhaps primarily, a political problem. Corporate responsibility and self-control, for example, the stemming of the heedless industrial and real estate development, can only be achieved politically through vast and concerted government action. Such common political and social action, in turn, requires intellectual and moral assent on the part of significant populations. It requires a new sense of common human responsibility for nature, for nature’s preservation and so, inevitably, a new respect for nature’s integrity. As every intelligible political ethic affirms, and especially Christian social ethics, power involves responsibility else it be totally destructive. We humans now have an almost infinite power over nature, over her life and death. This power, therefore, forces us to treat nature responsibly: with justice, with care, and with respect, a respect for nature’s value for herself, value in herself and not just her value for us.

This should, needless to say, be an obvious Christian moral requirement, like the obligation to treat every human as an end in herself and not merely as a means. Yet, as we noted, it was never fully understood until only yesterday. Perhaps one of the reasons is that the Scriptures recognise only humans as made in the image of God and that nature seemed to be there only, so to speak, for our prudent use. We should recall, however, that it took a very long time as well for us to recognise the inherent value of every human being, of whatever race, gender, nationality or religion, despite our Christian certainty that all were made in the divine image! Nonetheless, it has, I believe, been the Jewish and Christian belief that all humans are made in God’s image which has, more than anything else, led to the gradual recognition that slavery, racial intolerance, gender abuse and national and class prejudice are unacceptable because each person has a value for God and hence in herself. As God’s creation, I am now suggesting, nature is also an image or a mirror of its divine Creator, and thus does nature have a value in itself.

That nature mirrors or images God is clearly stated in many psalms and certainly in Job. It is in and through the forces of nature that the glory, power, and wisdom of God are shown to us. The most fundamental attributes of the biblical and Christian God are precisely these: infinity, power, life, and order or wisdom. These represent the “glory” of God and form the conceptual base for the biblical and Christian idea of God. We may well ask ourselves how these concepts have arisen in our consciousness, where in Hebraic and in our own experience these categories are known and then applied as symbols to God. For certainly God’s power, life and order are as unlike our own as much as they are like our own. The only aspect of our experience in which immense and unlimited power, life, and order are known to us is in our experience of nature, more surely for the Hebrew than for us, encased as we are in a humanly crafted environment. It is through nature’s power, order and beauty that the divine power, order, and beauty have been manifested to us.

In short, I would suggest that the fundamental character of the God of scripture, as infinite and eternal power, life, order, and wisdom, has been disclosed to us initially through the mirror of nature, as the infinite love and care of God have been disclosed to us and made conceivable initially through a mother’s and a father’s love, a neighbour’s care, even a stranger’s concern, though it is only in revelation that these divine attributes have become clear to us. As the other religions show to us so well, it is in our universal experience of nature that these symbols or analogies of God (infinite power, life and order) have come to us. What is universal and, to us, ambiguous in other traditions, has been clarified for us and for our tradition in revelation, in God’s coming to Israel and then to all in the reality of the Christ. As Calvin said, God is to be known in the glory of nature, but such is the dimness of our eyes that we do not see this. But when we put on the spectacles of scripture, this knowledge becomes clear, definite and certain. Thus this is not natural theology, but it is the assertion, necessary for any theology, that God is disclosed through nature’s glory. And that means inescapably that nature is a mirror or image of her creator and preserver and so of value in herself just as we are.

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