"Creation is not an act that happened once upon a time, once and forever. The act of bringing the world into existence is a continuous process. God called the world into being, and that call goes on. There is this present moment because God is present. Every instant is an act of creation." — Abraham Heschel (Jewish theologian)
I won’t attempt to unpack this rich quote, other than to assert that it’s a useful reminder that when we go into what we call the natural world, we enter sacred space. God is present there. He did not just make things new at some remote time in the past, and then walk away from it all. He was, is and will continue to be the Creator—past, present and future. His shaping of our world, including its weather and seasons, its land forms and all its creatures, is continuous. Creation dawns anew every morning. Our privileged place in it is his gift to us.One of the joys of living in Oregon is that it has an embarrassment of places where God’s creative work can be seen and experienced. Many of them would qualify as wilderness, some are pastoral, and a few might even be considered urban (as culture itself was divinely appointed). I run at least twice a week down a small lane near my home that cuts through cow pastures and crosses a creek through a whitewashed covered bridge. When the skies are clear, I have a full-on view of nearby Mary’s Peak—the highest mountain in the Coast Range. Today, a flock of Canada geese was honking raucously over my head, as all types of waterfowl begin their migration into our part of the valley. I am, on days like this, transported by the sense that the world is still wet with the dew of creation. What God has wrought is not his person, as pantheists believe, but rather his place. It is where we reside together.
I’ve been drawn into a study of the biblical story of Genesis lately, partly through a class at my church and through my own reading. To better appreciate where I’m headed for eternity it would help to know where we’ve been. Through my study I’ve come to understand that the seven days of Genesis 1 do not concern material origins, which is the source of endless, tedious argument. A proper understanding of ancient cosmology has helped me to see that people in the ancient Near East (who both wrote the Genesis account and were its first audience) did not think of creation in terms of making material things, but were instead oriented toward function. Some biblical commentators believe Creation brought order to the cosmos from an originally nonfunctional condition. To cause something to exist in the ancient world meant to give it a function. As moderns, we tend to think of the cosmos as a machine and then argue over whether someone is actually running the machine or not. The ancient world viewed the cosmos differently—more like a kingdom, which is less a thing than a network of relationships. It’s what a kingdom does that matters most.
(The evidence for this conclusion comes from the biblical text and from the literature of the ancient world. It would help if I knew Hebrew, but in the absence of that talent, I trust the scholarship and reputation of others who do, and I ask questions. That’s always an act of faith, as is true of many things in life, including oncology.)If we think in terms of function then we can begin to see creation as more than just the natural world. In his book, The Lost World of Genesis One, John H. Walton appropriates the term “cosmic temple” in order to sacralize our understanding of creation. When we adopt this biblical perspective, it’s no longer possible to look at the world in purely secular terms. Walton (a professor of Old Testament at Wheaton College) writes that once we turn our thinking away from the “natural world” to “cosmic temple” our perspective is revolutionized. The cosmic temple idea recognizes that God is here, that his act of bringing the world into existence is continuous, and that everything is His.
It is this theology, Walton believes, that becomes the basis for our respect of our world and the ecological sensitivity we ought to nurture. There are plenty of other arguments for why we should hold creation in high regard (the writing of Wendell Berry comes to mind), but this is by definition a fundamentally sound place to begin. God has tailored the world to our needs. This view is different from both the ancient Near East and different from modern materialism, Walton writes.
“In the ancient Near East people were created as slaves to the gods. The world was created by the gods for the gods, and people met the needs of the gods. In the Bible God has no needs, and his cosmic temple has been created for people whom he desires to be in relationship with him. In modern materialism people are nothing but physical forms having no function other than to survive. The theology of Genesis 1 is crucial to a right understanding of our identity and our place in the world.”
God is the one responsible for creation in every respect. I believe this is why he placed within us an aesthetic sense, as much as he gave us an opposable thumb in order to make and use tools. There is a purpose and a goal to all that he does. The fact that we have the capacity to appreciate the sacred space in which he has placed us gives me hope that we may yet avoid its wanton destruction. All of creation will some day be redeemed. In the meanwhile, we are to called to participate in its redemption.