Van Ens: Consider the lilies when life caves in
In 1969, an offshore oil well blew out near the coast of idyllic Santa Barbara, California. The oil sludge polluted pristine beaches and fragile life on the Pacific Ocean’s floor.
Rattled by these environmental shock waves, 20 million Americans — roughly 10 percent of the U.S. population at the time — rallied on the streets during the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970. Protesters took to heart the poet William Blake’s environmental caution: “The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing which stands in the way. As a man [sic person] is, so he [or she] sees.”
A half-century ago, Earth Day participants sent positive shockwaves that changed President Richard Nixon’s environmental perspective. Like a riptide cascading through Congress, politicians from both sides of the aisle created the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. They quickly worked on landmark legislation, such as the Clean Air Act (1972) and Endangered Species Act (1973).
Christianity endorses saving the planet because the biblical God is vitally concerned about nature. A Hebrew poet expresses God’s vital concern in Psalm 19:1: “The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.” This God exudes empathy for Nature.
When pandemics rage and life feels upended, remember how Jesus calmed his disciples. He turned to the grandeur of God’s Nature as an antidote for anxiety in Matthew 6:28: “Consider the lilies of the field,” Jesus taught, “how they grow; they neither toil nor spin…”
Christianity differed from ancient religions that limited their gods to specific functions. For instance, one god blessed the home. Another befriended farmers’ plowing fields. Still, more gods were assigned separate domains, such as organizing religious practices or playful pursuits. The Bible labels gods that are boxed in by life’s sectors as false deities.
In contrast, Jewish and Christian biblical writers pictured God as concerned over all creation. God’s arc of compassion for our Earth is limitless. My former Princeton Theological Seminary professor George Hendry taught, “The Bible does not look to Nature for light on God, but it looks at Nature in the light of God.” That is, because God’s concern wraps around the Earth, our duty impels us to be kind to our planet.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) never tired of learning more about God’s creative grandeur. This Puritan pastor, who served as third president of the College of New Jersey [now Princeton University], took his cue from Jesus who started his ministry by retreating into the wilderness. Seeking solitude amid life’s hassles, Mark 1:35 states Jesus “in the morning, a great while before day, rose and went out to a lonely place, and there he prayed.”
Similarly, we rejuvenate our spirits by getting out into nature during this pandemic. People ride bicycles near open fields. Others take nature walks. Hikers climb boulders and scale peaks. To get our God fix, we go to nature’s get-aways.
Edwards, whose brilliance allowed him to enter Yale University at age 12, often strolled in God’s splendid nature. “I looked up on the sky and clouds,” he exclaimed. “There came into my mind a sweet sense of the glorious majesty and grace of God that I know not how to express!”
When distressed, Thomas Jefferson relied on nature’s therapeutic gifts. He described himself as a “gentleman farmer.” Jefferson scorned spouting superlatives to get ahead in politics. He preferred gardening, working with his hands in God’s fertile soil. “No occupation is so delightful to me as the culture of the earth, and no culture capable to that of a garden!” he exclaimed.
Whether Jefferson had confidence in a personal God who cared for creation is debatable, even though he referred to “Nature’s God” in The Declaration of Independence. Jefferson often addressed God as an impersonal force, a power akin to an electrical charge that started the Earth’s engine. His god was the organizing principle that made Earth rotate according to rational natural laws. Jefferson referred to this god as a “superintending power,” one who worked like a wind turbine does today. God is like wind. Nature like a turbine. And creation’s energy functions like an electrical charge, lighting up life.
Christianity corrects this erroneous view of God as a force of nature. The biblical God’s identity is personal. The Reverend Dr. R. Maurice Boyd, who preached in Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church, caught what Christianity means when Christians confess that God personally delights in creation and desires to preserve Earth.
“When we describe ourselves as personal beings,” we “mean that we possess personal qualities of thought, will, affection, imagination; and values such as truth, goodness, kindness, mercy. And to think of God as less than personal is to believe that He possesses none of them. Yet, it is those higher qualities and values that raise our nature above the merely physical, or animal, or mechanical.”
“If someone describes me as a ‘force,’” declared Boyd, “I won’t mind so long as he is speaking of forcefulness of personality or character.”
Using scientific environmental safeguards, God personally invests in Earth’s health, which he directs us to protect and preserve.