Three insights about the natural world
We can read God in nature. What kind of a God? It comes as a kind of shock to find that God in nature teaches us three deep lessons, three laws of life. It takes time to get these lessons. Only after you have learnt them do you start to ask the right questions that lead to other kinds of revelation.
Insight 1: Our life is Not our own
The first lesson is that our life is not our own. It is a possession of nature itself. Only a complete idiot thinks his life is his own possession. It is not. Of course people are unique. They have unique personalities, none of us are identical. But this we have in common. Our life is not our own. From atoms upwards to galaxies we are aware that we are at one with the creation. We are not strangers to the creation. The processes of creation make us. What God made in the big bang was heavy elements, and that is us. We are the elements of nature. Life, death, procreation, birth, growth, decline and decay are all natural processes. We cannot undo them. They come to us a gift, as surprise, as mystery. Our life is not our own. But what is our own is the ability to choose. Butler was too much of an individualist to recognise our radical inter-dependence.
Insight 2: God is not the creation
The second lesson is an even bigger shock, a harder lesson. God is not the creation. Nature, God’s creation, has become able to observe itself, its processes, and even manipulate them a little. We have, as the book of Genesis so sublimely put, become like God himself. We can play at being God. We do play at being God. And we find at this level God in nature is quite neutral. No divine intervention stops the tsunami. No divine intervention stops genetic manipulation. As we discover more about reading God in nature we come to the most awful realisation. In the creation God actually hides himself. But that was what the Bible always affirmed. God is not the creation. The vast mistake made by so many in today’s world is to identify the creation with God. Butler did not fall into this trap. He saw the limitations of a God who acts supernaturally in the natural order.
Insight 3: The Universe is Spiritual not Material
This insight is found on the next page Introducing Natural theology 4
A Theology of Water?
Samuel Butler records near misses from drowning
These while attempting to cross Canterbury rivers in flood. They can be treacherous. Sometimes they rise rapidly, and flash floods have taken lives not only in the days of the early European settlement but also through to the present day. A theology of nature must take into account water both in a symbolic, theological sense, but also in a modern scientific sense.
Water not only features prominently in the first chapter of the first book of the Bible, but has equal prominence in the last chapter of the last book. In Revelation we hear of the “river of the water of life, bright as crystal” leading to the tree of life. Jesus refers to himself as ‘living water’ in John 4:10. Clearly, in the Bible world water is symbolic of many ideas and qualities. Among these are:
• a symbol of purity;
• a symbol of powerful forces;
• a symbol of hospitality.
It is not surprising, therefore, that water was regarded as a sacred gift of God. The scientist unmoved by the Biblical miracle of water can only be astonished at its scientific uniqueness.
It was said in the traditions of the rabbis that when God separated the waters above from the waters below, each one wept for the other. It is also interesting that the water was there in Creation before order came from chaos. In Hebrew there is an interesting pair of words, tohu, v’bohu, that describe the chaos as without form and void. Tohu v’bohu has an onomatopoeic quality that the English void echoes. It hints at being lost and alone on a fathomless ocean.
In fact, the people of the Tanach feared the destructive power of stormy seas. They were not sea-faring people, unlike their very close neighbours the Philistines. A few, however, sailed as traders during the prosperous times of King David and his son Solomon. On the whole, the Jewish people had a fear of the ocean, such as could only be conveyed in mythical terms.
Why was that? Just as they remembered Adam and Eve so also they recalled terrible events from a far distant past. In Genesis 1:21 we read that God created the great sea-monsters, and later on read of Noah’s Ark and the great Flood. Eventually in the books of Daniel and Revelation we read of worse sea monsters. Water was both holy and terrifying.
What kind of God sends a universal Flood? Is God the author of both good and evil? Because it was scarce it was precious. Looking back on it, it was no wonder that God thought his Creation of water was a rather good idea. Absolutely necessary for biological life on Earth, yet, equally, the substance by which the disorder and chaos was transformed into pattern and order. Water, to the Hebrews, was thus symbolic of great power. Water was capable of both dividing the Creation and being divided. Only light and water are viewed this way in Genesis.
Interestingly, Moses would also divide the waters again, this time crossing the Sea of Reeds, leading his people in the Exodus. Until then, God alone had the power to do such a thing. No one else in the Tanach (pg. 155) had such power over the most powerful force in nature, the untamable oceanic waters of Creation. The next was Jesus Christ.
Water was thus one of the most powerful symbols, as well as being a chemical fact, in the Bible. God saw that it would remind people of the past and the people to come, that his spirit hovered above that one substance that could be divided, bordering between the chaos and order. Ancient people who had limited scientific knowledge, and modern people who have much science at their finger tips, live by the fact that we all depend on good, clean water. We cannot live as if we were all independent. We’re not. Everything about the planet Earth and its life is connected. The divided waters of the Creation remain the one substance of unity, unique H2O.