28 February 2017

The Power of the Created World

Last Sunday evening I was preaching the third of three sermons on Genesis 3 – the last few verses of that chapter. It’s the part of the Story of Adam & Eve where they’re driven from the Garden of Eden, that place of fruitfulness and beauty in the presence of God. The Garden is the place where they function as God’s Image, human beings of god-like character able to relate fully and joyfully to one another and to all the riches of the created world. But they’re driven out, because this isn’t enough for them. In a way, they want to be gods. It’s a deeply poignant story which speaks about loss to all of us, that speaks about the realities of human nature.

I often reflect on the incredible power of the created world to stir deep longings in our souls. A few Saturdays ago, George Monbiot wrote eloquently about it:

I believe we possess a ghost psyche: a set of capacities that helped secure our survival in more dangerous times, but that now are vestigial. I picture this as a seam of intense emotion, buried so deeply in our minds that we can seldom find it. I believe this because, on rare occasions – in all cases when immersed in the living world – I have been confronted with a set of feelings that are so rich, raw and thrilling, so different from anything else I know, but at the same time so strangely familiar, that I have had no way of reconciling them with the rest of my emotional life. I believe that on these occasions I have inadvertently triggered a kind of genetic memory, an ancient adaptation to the circumstances that once shaped our lives.

You’ve probably experienced it yourself. I’ve experienced it encountering a deer in the woods (like Monbiot) in the early morning light; or travelling in a small boat surrounded by leaping dolphins; or crouched on a high mountain ridge watching an eagle ride the updrafts. I’ve experienced it in the solitude of a remote glen, or of a mountain summit, but mostly it’s been in encounters with other creatures.

Does Christianity offer an account of this? An account of these rich and raw emotions, which are strangely familiar? Something more substantial than a ghost psyche? Or perhaps a Christian understanding of this ghost psyche…? I believe it does. The lost Garden represents a lost reality to humans – something yearned for and understood in our deep (sub)consciousness as being lost.

The opening lines of the ancient Jewish and Christian scriptures tell us that we are created for relationship, not only with our creator, not only with one another, but with the natural world. We are created to live alongside, and to relate to, all of God’s creatures. The first man is Adam (the Hebrew for ‘soil’ is adamah), and he’s formed from the earth. This simple truth sets a trajectory for all of the scriptures – that human beings are inextricably bound up with the earth, with the natural world. This is our home, it’s where we belong. That fact that many Christians will baulk at that statement (thinking thoughts such as ‘where’s that Bible verse that says that heaven is our home?’ Let me save you some time – it’s not there), only shows how far we have travelled from this anchor of truth.

The sense of primal joy (and sometimes primal fear) – that deep, seemingly genetic memory – recalls something fundamental to our being human. And yet it is, in some deep sense, lost. We’re unable to grasp the wholeness we are created for, to hold in our minds the value and beauty of the natural world. And we’re unable to live lives which ‘fit’ into this beautiful world, that ‘fit’ in love, joy and peace alongside these amazing creatures. We are created to Image God – to represent him – in his world. Yet, we can’t.

That’s why, for so many people, these joyful and ecstatic encounters with nature are often accompanied with a sense of the transcendent. A sense of reaching for something, or someone, that’s out of reach. People of all kinds of belief (and none) often describe to me the spiritual feelings they get whilst in the outdoors. There’s not only a sense of a lost Garden, but of a lost God, our Creator, who we are also created to know. The hopeful message of Christianity is that there is a way back.

Thinking these thoughts brought to mind again a beautiful little film based on the writings of John Muir, the Scottish naturalist and environmentalist. Take a look, and hear words which resonate so much more deeply when heard as a Christian:

‘A lifetime is so little a time, that we die before we get ready to live. But here in the wilderness, surrounded by beauty beyond thought, the landscape carried me back into the midst of a life infinitely remote.'