Symbolism, nature and conservation

By , 11 April 2008 7:02 pm

I barely remember my grandfather on my mother’s side; he must have died 50 years ago. He had fought in the First World War, been gassed and did not enjoy good health: he succumbed to a heart attack in his 60s. But he was a keen gardener and his extensive garden, increasingly less well-tended by my grandmother, long outlasted him. What I do remember is a cheap stone plaque in the garden, the words of which are still clear in my mind although I cannot have seen it for 30 years: ‘The kiss of sun for pardon, The song of birds for mirth, One is closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.’

‘One is closer to God in a garden than anywhere else on earth.’ The line came to mind as I looked over Boaz’ comment of last week. It’s an interesting question: to what extent does the natural (or in this case the cultivated) world display or reveal God? I know enough theology to know that it is a vexed and complex issue to do with what is called natural theology. The key text is Paul’s statement in Romans 1:18-20. Let me remind you of it “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”

As a good Baptist and a child of the Reformation I am wary of the symbolic. We are told plainly that God speaks in a saving manner only through his word and I would not want to dissent from that. The downside of this rule, if applied strictly, is that neither nature nor aesthetics has any real value. In Welsh nonconformity the practical working out of this can be seen in the chapels. For the most part these are functional buildings with very little to commend them in architectural terms. If you are lucky you may get a blue painted ceiling or some slight ornamentation on the pillars of the interior but otherwise they are self-consciously spartan affairs. All too often one’s first view of them is of some hard monolith looming up desolate against a grey moist sky. Anglicans, and others, at least have the benediction of stained glass in their churches.

Although I could quite easily trample theologically over my grandfather’s mantra about God being in nature, I will not do so. I think there is a faint but important vestige of truth in it: there is something about the natural world that speaks of God. I think the reason is this: all things, statues, music, books and yes, worlds, reveal something of their creator. The natural world does in some (undoubtedly limited) measure speak of the one who made it. After all what is the alternative? The city? That most certainly speaks of its maker: mankind. Skyscraper after skyscraper, mall after mall proclaims the boastful status of the human race: ‘behold what I have made’. Nature is a healthy counterbalance to the blasphemous man-centred atheism of the urban world.

As wiser people have said, the natural world acts as something of a mirror of God. If we stare at it and ponder it we see something of the one who made it. Oh we need a lot more – an awful lot more – to save us but it’s a first step. This, of course, is a reason why the natural world should be preserved. We may not, as some do, worship nature as God but in seeing it as an image of God we find it no less valuable.

7 Responses to “Symbolism, nature and conservation”

  1. Anonymous says:

    Food for thought …
    “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handiwork. Day unto day uttereth speech, and night unto night sheweth knowledge. There is no speech nor language, where their voice is not heard.” Psalm 19

    also

    “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness; Because that which may be known of God is manifest in them; for God hath shewed it unto them. For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse …”
    Romans 1

  2. Terry says:

    Chris,

    I think I would have gotten along very well with your grandfather. While gardening is not my foremost hobby, spending time in the wilds is. Whether hunting, fishing, hiking, climbing, or just sitting and watching the aspens grow, I love being surrounded by nature, and find that my soul is far more receptive to God there than anywhere else.

    Of course, that is merely a personal thing, but I think we can see God’s order and His plan more clearly in nature than anywhere else. You may remember the the words from the song “The Rose”:

    “When the night has been too lonely, and the road has been too long,
    When you think that love is only for the lucky and the strong,
    Just remember in the winter, far beneath the bitter snow,
    Lies a seed that with the sun’s love
    In the spring becomes the rose.”

    There is an unlimited store of examples of God’s Kingdom to be found in the natural world. One such is how deep sedimentary layers have been, in many places, upthrust to become visible. The lesson here, of course, is that the layers of character and principle that we lay down in our lives over time are often revealed during times of great stress and pressure.

    Or one of my favorites – the similarities between climbing a mountain and the Christian walk. After a time of struggle, we top out on a high point, and the fresh air and view are lovely. We rest, and enjoy being there. But to progress to the next level, we must take a bearing on our goal, and descend into the valley once more on route to the next high point. Once in the valley, we must take care to keep our focus, and not be disoriented by the swamps, bugs, heat, and lack of visibility. The going is hard, and only by persevering do we begin to climb again. Eventually, with much effort, we come out of the bush, and approach the high place with its pleasures and perspective. Etc.

    And remember, things don’t grow on a mountaintop – they grow in the valley.

    Anyway, that’s my two bits for the day. Good bless one and all, and do cherish the world around us.

    Take care,

    Terry

  3. Anonymous says:

    Nature by itself examined closely as revelation reveals a terrible God who in the end gives the victory to death and meaninglessness – no difference between good and bad just stuff happening in complex and amazing ways. We can pick out the goodness and beauty of God in nature because he has set eternity in our hearts and written his law there and above all revealed his Love in Christ’s death and resurrection. I believe in the end there is really no such thing as “natural theology”. Natural theology only works when it’s been informed and guided by revealed theology. The Nazis, Marxists, Social Darwinists, Liberals, Socialists, Hindus and Buddhists each have their own versions of natural theology – that which comes naturally to the human mind not in submission to God’s revelation.

    Jeff Alexander

  4. Boaz says:

    Some important things to remember: a) we don’t own any of the land, and b) we are supposed to be faithful stewards of what we have been given charge of (and give an accounting to Him who entrusted us with it). Perhaps also apropos is that humanity’s first job was gardening with a 100% employment rate in the field, no less. (No, I didn’t intend the pun.)

    I agree completely that natural revelation is incomplete (in that it does not lead to salvation in and of itself), but the key premise there is that there is enough evidence that there is no rational conclusion to come to other than that a Creator Deity exists. Other attributes are left as an exercise for the aspiring theologian.

    But then who ever said that philosophers were rational in their choice of premises?

  5. smokey the dog says:

    I think at least to some extent the statement made by your Grandfather is literally true. As you read the Genesis account I get the feeling that man was not meant to live in cities. Just look at the account of the tower of Babel.

  6. KIRSTY says:

    On the other hand, the Bible ends with a city – the new Jerusalem

  7. smokey the dog says:

    touche!

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