In my last post, I began to outline some of the reasoning behind my new book on creation, where I bring science into conversation with biblical scholarship over the subject of nature/creation. As I suggested last time, and now explore in more detail, the key to doing this well is to be unashamedly theological and focus on God as Trinity. While the Trinitarian nature of God is probably the most paradoxical and un-scientific of all Christian beliefs, it also encapsulates the reason that science and faith have such a hard time seeing eye to eye. God-as-Trinity, like nature-as-creation, can only be apprehended from the inside, as it were. Let me explain.
Science and faith occupy very different vantage points. The natural sciences, in their commitment to objectivity, seek out the most neutral and distanced viewpoint. Faith, on the other hand, can’t help but see itself as embedded in a created world of wonder standing in praise of its Creator. The long-running debates over the existence of God as Creator, or the case for intelligent design, or creation vs. evolution overlook this point. And yet it’s basic to many of the biblical creation texts outside of Genesis that any distanced consideration of creation automatically becomes an insider perspective, where the only proper response is praise and worship of the Creator. We see this, for instance, in Psalm 148, which calls myriad created things to praise God, regardless of whether they are conscious and rational (e.g. humans), or unconscious and inanimate (e.g. frost and snow). Inanimate creatures feature even more prominently in other texts, such as Psalm 98, where we hear that the floods will “clap their hands”, and the mountains “sing together with joy” in praise to God. Clearly these texts are metaphorical to some degree, but the question is to what degree? It’s one thing to insist that humans should praise God on account of creation, quite another to say that human praise stands alongside the praise of the floods, the mountains, and every other created thing.
One widespread Christian approach to these texts of creation’s praise borrows from the pervasive viewpoint of “deism”, which holds that God’s activity in the material world was confined to its very beginning. In which case, God has been absent ever since, and the natural sciences now hold sway over purpose and meaning. If God can be said to have any influence now, it’s in the spiritual (hidden) dimension. This means that relationship with God (e.g. in worship) must be a purely human activity – cerebral and spiritual – which means in turn that the texts which speak of creation’s praise can only be metaphors of human praise. After all, if in deism God is absent from the physical (non-human) world, then the physical world has no point of contact with the Creator to experience him or praise him. But while this deistic viewpoint may offer the convenience that belief in God has no impact on modern science (and vice versa), it has one great weakness. We may acknowledge the wonders of the non-human world in this perspective, but we must also recognise that we have emptied it of divine meaning except insofar as there might be evidence of “design” (which only humans can appreciate, and that only cerebrally). In fact, the non-human world isn’t even much of a “creation” in this viewpoint; it’s merely the spiritually-featureless expanse in which humans exist. And there’s certainly no sense in which the non-human creation might exist for its own sake to give glory to God, or to be the vehicle of God’s glory (as in the biblical narratives of divine theophany, e.g. the burning bush). Moreover, this anthropocentric approach which arises from deism is deeply problematic in light of the growing ecological awareness of our times, an awareness which is arguably arediscovery of the more holistic picture of nature/creation in biblical texts.
There’s another way of reading these texts. This approach – known as “theism” – recognizes God as the transcendent Creator since the beginning, but also acknowledges his simultaneous presence in the physical world now, working in it and with it, and continually breathing divine life into it. Such an appraisal of God’s creative immanence features in texts such as Psalm 139 (“Where can I go from your spirit?”), but finds its clearest expression in post-biblical times, in early Christianity’s discovery of the doctrine of the Trinity. As I pointed out last time, it’s important not to impose later categories onto the ancient biblical texts when they in fact speak of ancient ways of thinking (e.g. the ancient mythology/science of Genesis 1), but in this instance Trinitarian language can be said to represent a theistic systematisation of what’s already nascent in the biblical texts, namely the work of God’s Spirit. If so, the biblical texts of creation’s praise speak of the whole of creation as imbued with the presence of the Holy Spirit; they give non-human reality a gifted theological significance of its own (a grace) which it can’t have in deism. Realization of this point has led many working in the science-religion field to identify the immanent work of the Spirit with evolutionary sciences, with emergence, complexity, novelty, and chance in nature. If scientific evidence is growing of the richly-indeterminate processes in the natural world, then there exists a ready theological analogy in the creative work of the Holy Spirit. So if deism was inspired by the science of Newton, with its closed, self-sufficient, and determinate universe, then theism is at home alongside the evolutionary (and more open-ended) science of today. Theism – recognizing God’s immanent presence in nature as well as his transcendent presence above and beyond it – has the added advantage that it offers a more authentic model of the biblical God.
So far I’ve only mentioned Old Testament texts. What about the New Testament? The Spirit features in creation here too, but there’s a significant change in focus, as I’ll explain next time.