Bill Hankel

God the Cosmic Gardener

on December 22, 2014

The cold air has settled into Southeastern Pennsylvania, and a few dead tomato stalks are all that remain standing in our once vibrant garden. Obviously, this is in keeping with the annual rhythm of our humble vegetable plot; however, it could very well represent what might have become of my Christian faith had I not discovered BioLogos and other like-minded resources.

Raised Catholic and currently a 12 year member of a Lutheran congregation, the “science vs religion” topic was one that I never really heard debated. My understanding of origins was essentially that God had created all things ex nihilo, and evolution was simply a scientific theory lacking credibility which I was confident would simply fade away with the passage of time. Looking back, I find it surprising that I heard virtually nothing contentious about a subject that seems to present almost insurmountable challenges to many people who are considering Christianity today.It was my son’s progression through middle school and into the high school years that forced me to examine the current scientific evidence for evolution and what it meant in terms of a Christian worldview. His keen interest in science, which continues to this day as a second year aerospace engineering student at Penn State, meant that I could no longer look the other way and pretend that bringing him to church on a weekly basis would insulate his faith in an increasing secular academic environment. If I was to be a parent who asked my child to place his trust, and his very life, in God’s hands, it was important that I was willing to truly do the same. I needed to challenge what I had always accepted as true, and see if my lifelong faith could stand up to the scrutiny of modern science.It was on this journey that I found several powerful voices who not only calmed my soul, but actually made me realize that my preconceived notions of what was true needed revision. BioLogos has been an incredibly important tool in my education regarding both science and theology, and I’m truly grateful to have discovered its wisdom. The eighth chapter of Proverbs tells us that Wisdom “… was formed long ages ago, at the very beginning, when the world came to be. When there were no watery depths, I was given birth, when there were no springs overflowing with water; before the mountains were settled in place, before the hills, I was given birth, before he made the world or its fields or any of the dust of the earth.”

In recent years, I have been able to read the Bible with a new set of eyes that see the language of God in perfect harmony with what we find in nature. Some passages actually seem to make more sense when filtered through the prism of evolving creation. For example, Genesis 1:24 tells us that God said, “Let the land produce living creatures according to their kinds …”, and while this surely is not a scientific statement of evolution, it does show that God is comfortable “creating” through secondary means. Imploring the land to produce more of the life he kindled seems to fit rather well with a creator who established the laws that govern our universe and let them play their part in the unfolding of our world. I believe God’s command to his creation to “be fruitful” can reasonably be understood in an evolutionary context.

John Polkinghorne has also been an invaluable source of thought, and in his book Questions Of Truth, he presents a metaphor related to evolutionary processes, presenting an image of “the history of creation as a game of cosmic chess, with God the Grand Master and creatures the club players. The club players are free to make whatever moves they like, but the Grand Master will win the game in the end because he understands it in the deep way that enables him to bring about his intended purpose” (p.24-25).

It is this participation of creation in God’s own creative works that seems to make sense from what we see in the natural world. If we believe that the universe is roughly 14 billion years old, then the earth itself has evolved over vast periods of time. Thus, why should it surprise us that life could also evolve as the universe has done?

I began this piece by mentioning our garden, and it was against this backdrop during the summer that I began to imagine God taking delight in watching the universe slowly unfold and grow, much like my wife and I delight in the slow transformation of seeds into a bountiful harvest. Although it is certainly in His power to snap his divine fingers and conjure up a fully formed universe, I don’t think God prefers the role of a magician. We are told that we are made in his image, and obviously this does not mean in a physical sense. If we delight in observing growth, I believe it is because God also finds joy in it, and has imprinted this upon our hearts. As humans, we enjoy watching our children grow, as well as the continual expansion and development of the natural world. We are implored to grow in our faith, so I find that it makes perfect sense that growth is such a highly prized commodity in the eyes of God.

As the Lord has prepared the universe for our eventual development, we prepare our gardens to bring forth plant life. We provide the necessary nutrients, but like us, our vegetation can experience either growth or decay. We care for the plants in our garden, and although we might take precautions to try and protect them, we leave them to grow in an environment where threats do exist. As plant life can actually gain strength by facing some adversity, we, too, can have our mettle tested by the threats in the world around us. In this way, God again delights in our personal growth and is with us during difficult times if we just allow ourselves to trust in Him.

Although the “garden” where we currently grow can be a dangerous place, we can rest assured that our “Cosmic Gardener” is with us as winter finally closes in around us. We can have full confidence that the future holds promise of a new earth, a new “garden” home, a place we can lay down permanent roots and where the spiritual growth which began in this world will continue to be a part of God’s plan forever and ever…Amen!