Applying the theology of nature

At this point, in looking at the theology of nature, I thought it would be good to recap and refocus on where we’ve got to. A special opportunity arises from a piece on his blog by our own Sy Garte. The piece involves his very personal testimony, and in our brief conversation in comments, we mentioned the dangers of “dissecting” nature and missing its point. I’m very aware that the same danger – perhaps even more so – exists in “dissecting” his experience. But I hope he’ll forgive my using it as an example, since my aim is to broaden our view of, and wonder in, nature as God’s work, and his story involves many of the themes I’ve been developing in this series.

Please read Sy’s whole inspirational piece, but the core of it is how an experience of being guided, apparently benevolently, out of danger at sea by two dolphins, at a time of personal and spiritual turmoil, contributed significantly to Sy’s spiritual journey. In some way, “God was in the dolphins.” Sy’s story reminds me of a number of tales of Anglo-Saxon saints being given succour or signs through birds or animals, not to mention of course biblical examples such as Elijah’s being fed by ravens. At the very least there’s a message there, the main message of my forthcoming book, about the *goodness* of nature – a goodness it can exercise on our behalf.

When, earlier in the series, I listed the general types of causes we might find in nature, they included God’s “general provision” (which we describe as laws of nature), choices made by human and other sentient creatures (which are not to be seen as mere Cartesian biological machines) and contingent divine choices. Allowing all these their due weight prevents us explaining away Sy’s experience as misinterpreted coincidence, anthropomorphism and so on – a good theology of nature enables us to accept the story and its meaning at face value. It’s as real and true as Sy’s work in genetics.

The first cause within nature – general providence – we might consider, I suppose, by the study of animal behaviour. Are dolphins intelligent enough to recognise a human at risk and to know the way to safety, and benign enough to take the trouble to help? One hears similar tales not infrequently, so it’s by no means impossible – it’s more plausible, for example, than being guided to safety by a jellyfish. But making such a general scientific assessment is of very limited use to our understanding here. I also know that people like me, for example, are capable of giving to beggars – but that does not explain an unusual prompting to do so in a particular case, if I usually do not, which turns out to be a life-changing act. It is the contingency rather than the general truth that is interesting when no general principle is operating.

As to “choices”, we know Sy chose to be rather further out in his boat than was wise. We suppose that the dolphins, in their animal way, “chose” their actions according to their nature – but it remains highly remarkable.

And so we come to the possibility of divine choice acting, perhaps, through special providence, in some way working concurrently to encourage the dolphins that this game would be fun – or if dolphins are capable of such emotions, even stirring up some sense of animal compassion. Thus most of the things I’ve described in this series so far are in the picture, in this one event.

Such special providence is the unifying theme of the whole story, because whatever nature’s abilities, only God knew how to place such an event in a human life so that it had great spiritual significance for him. So one way or another, we see nature – actual nature, in the form of a couple of real marine mammals – being God’s agent for good.

In this way, events in nature can have spiritual meaning, and this takes me back to the three posts I did on nature and language, suggesting that the real language of God is Christ the Logos, by, through, and for whom creation was spoken into being. The analogy of language (as opposed to the analogy of maths) deals in the particular, and in the rich layers of significance nature can give us, if we’re willing to listen to it as God’s word to us.

I was alerted to this a few years ago when an artistic Christian friend visited and spent some time looking at the view from the bench at the top of our hill. I go there often, and when I see the birds or beetles they tell me something about biology, which often finds its way into a blog here. But when she went there, the birds gave her a spiritual lesson from the Lord for the coming week. I suggest that a rich theology of nature makes each of those as true as the other – we are not dealing with hard science versus floppy human imaginings. Nature is a word from Christ, its Creator, for us – and that word includes things to help us survive each day, things to increase our factual knowledge – and lessons about life.

Granted, it requires the revealed word of Christ in Scripture to give it context. A theology of nature does not lead us to exalt natural theology beyond its proper place. But as Psalm 19 shows so clearly, God’s “two books”, read in the right way, both speak of Christ, and from Christ to us.

The mediaeval mind looked at nature predominantly in this last way, whereas in our day we’ve come to see it almost exclusively in the first two ways, by disenchanting nature and seeing it mainly as a means to practical ends. At best we may echo the romantic quest for the sublime, attributing nature’s aesthetic beauty to God. I don’t know what it’s like in American churches, but here projected song lyrics or Scriptures tend to have mountains or sunsets as background images – but seldom industrious ants or snakes moving across rocks, which a biblical writer might have seen as appropriate. When it says that Solomon’s wisdom covered plants, animals, birds, reptiles and fish, I’m certain he spoke of their meaning more than their biology.

But we seldom see nature as something with inherent, divinely originated, meaning for us – meaning which, in part, can be public knowledge, but which may also be God’s personal word to us, just as the meaning we gain from reading books may be either general or private, and equally real and valuable in either case.

So thanks, Sy, for sharing your experience, which I hope has led this post to be more of a meditation than a dissection! I too had a private encounter with a dolphin, when sailing a small catamaran solo off South Wales, at the age of fifteen. I wasn’t in any danger, but I was lagging about half an hour behind the field of boats in the regatta, and feeling my solitude. I got a strange sense of God’s watchful care, within nature, when a dolphin – the first I’d ever seen – leaped out of the sea a few yards behind the boat. These are moments to treasure for a lifetime, and perhaps beyond.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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2 Responses to Applying the theology of nature

  1. Peter Hickman says:

    Yes indeed, nature has inherent, divinely originated meaning for us. Maybe it would be an exaggeration for me to say that I see it every day, for sometimes I ‘see’ without looking, nor do I always give time to stand and stare, but it would not be true to say that I seldom see it.

    When I am asked by a new acquaintance, “Where do you worship?”, I am not being frivolous when I reply, “Mostly in my garden”. It is an honest answer, and may on occasion lead into an interesting discussion.
    Jon, I note from your piece dated 25/02/2013 that you are familiar with the poem ‘My Garden’. I reproduce it below. It does no harm for anyone to read it again!

    A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot!
    Rose plot,
    Fringed pool,
    Ferned grot—
    The veriest school
    Of peace; and yet the fool
    Contends that God is not—
    Not God! in gardens! when the eve is cool?
    Nay, but I have a sign;
    ’Tis very sure God walks in mine.

    Thomas Edward Brown (1830-1897)

    • Jon Garvey Jon Garvey says:

      Thanks for this comment, Peter.

      My own garden is something more of a wild place than anything else, but the point holds. My “ferned grot” is patch of woodland where badgers and deer hang out. But even a row of tulips in a window box gives us some whiff of paradise!

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