Category: natural theology

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.

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