When we reflect on the doctrine of creation—including reflection on nature, on the world around us—might we understand it through an interpretive framework centered on Jesus?
Creation as “red in tooth and claw”?
Some, many, maybe most, Christians—at least modern, western, educated Christians—have their doubts. Several years ago I presented a conference paper, “A Pacifist Critique of the Modern Worldview.” A good friend of mine, an older scholar and in every way an impressive Mennonite Christian, raised some criticisms. My friend suggested I was too quick to see nature as compatible with pacifism. He quoted the famous lines from Alfred Lord Tennyson’s poem, “In Memorium” about nature being “red in tooth and claw.”
I was not familiar with that poem, so I looked it up. I discovered that the stanza my friend cited raises precisely the question I am asking. Might we understand nature (or, as Christians would say, “creation”) as being compatible with Jesus’ basic peaceable life and teaching?
“In Memorium” speaks, using Tennyson’s word, of “man” as nature’s “last work.” This “last work” “trusted God was love indeed and love Creation’s final law.” The poem continues, though, to suggest that there seems to be counter evidence to the idea that love is creation’s “final law”: “Nature, red in tooth and claw with ravine, shriek’d against his creed.” Nature itself, evinced by its bloodiness, cries directly in contradiction to the belief in love’s natural ultimacy.
If we accept that love is creation’s “final law,” we would seem to be saying that the way of Jesus is built into the way things are. Is this a legitimate position to hold? Does the way of Jesus go with the grain of the universe or not? Is the call to peacemaking that we seek to embrace as followers of Jesus a call to resist creation, to go against the grain? Or is peacemaking actually a quest to seek harmony with the ultimate character of the universe? Does nature indeed “shriek against” the “creed” that love is “Creation’s final law”?
The Bible on creation
I have picked four scripture texts to look at briefly. These texts are only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to biblical teaching on creation. But they give us a good sense of the terrain. What are some things we can say about creation based on these verses?
Let’s begin at the beginning. Genesis 1 tells us that the universe, the earth, and its hospitality to life come from God. The key refrain throughout the chapter is this: “And God saw that it was good,” point after point. Then, when the sixth day ends: “God saw everything that was made, and indeed, it was very good.” We get the sense of an artist at work, or a writer, or just about any person creating something meaningful.
For God, it seems, the world, the plants and animals, the creation and sustenance of life, all this is an act of creative love. Genesis one teaches that the world and its teeming life is something beautiful and profoundly meaningful. Creation expresses something about God’s own self.
In the Book of Psalms, Psalm 33 makes a powerful assertion, a foundational definition: the earth is full of the steadfast love of God. One way the psalmist portrays God the creator, seen through nature, is God as lover. God is to be trusted because of God creative love that has made what is and who sustains it.
This Psalm brings together three components: creation, love, and justice. God is creator. God’s creation is full of God’s steadfast love. And this loving creative work leads to genuine justice. God’s justice in Psalm 33 denies the claims of the warriors and kings to a privileged role in the embodiment of social justice. It is not the rough, coercive, brute-power-enhancing justice of the sword that reflects the grain of the universe seen in God’s creation. It is trust in God’s steadfast love.
Next let’s look at some of Jesus. His words in Matthew 6:25-33 remind us that God is the sustainer of life for all creation. God sustains life for the birds of the air and the lilies of the field as well as human beings. Jesus then makes his key teaching point: learn from the abundance of life around us that we may trust in God. Learn from the abundance of life around us that we may depend upon God’s care for us as we seek the kingdom and its justice.
Again we have creation, love, and justice linked. God sustains all kinds of life; creation is abundant in God’s love; and Jesus draws this lesson: because of God’s abundant life-giving love, seek justice right now in this world with fearless conviction.
Some words attributed to the Apostle Paul, Colossians 1:15-20, tell of Jesus himself being present in all that is. The Jesus who challenged the powers-that-be in his political and religious world and was executed for doing so, embodied the image “of the invisible God.” In Jesus, we find linked inextricably together the presence of the creator God and the message of genuine restorative justice manifested in concrete acts of love and resistance. And this Jesus directly participated in the creation of “all things in heaven and on earth.”
The work of creation, the reality of our physical world, and the work of reconciling all things is the same work, coming from the same source, seeking the same end. The Spirit of Jesus infuses all of creation. In Christ, “all things hold together.” Furthermore, through Christ, God works God’s reconciling, healing wonders for “all things, whether on earth or in heaven.”
We can look back to the Genesis creation account—the Spirit of God moves over the waters at the beginning, the Spirit of God is breathed into the dust of the earth to enliven the first human being. Here is where trinitarian ideas make sense to me. God the creator, the Holy Spirit, Jesus the savior, all join together in the creation and sustenance of life, in the work that brings healing and reconciliation to all things.
Creation and justice
This healing and reconciliation is what the Bible means by justice. Not an eye for an eye. Not an impersonal principle of balancing self-interests. Not holiness and wrath that respond to human brokenness and sin with punishing anger. No, when biblical writers use “justice,” they have in mind God’s creativity that brought into existence what is—out of love. God’s creativity endlessly and steadfastly brings healing to a world marred by brokenness. Biblical justice restores relationships; it makes whole that which has been damaged.
Justice is for the sake of life. God’s justice in the Bible is not primarily retribution but salvation, not primarily punitive but corrective. The justice of God may be seen as God’s saving power, God’s fidelity to the role as the Lord of the covenant. God created the earth and its inhabitants for harmonious relationships and continually acts, even in the midst of human rebellion, to effect those relationships.
The term “justice” in the Bible tends to merge with concepts like “steadfast love,” “peace,” “compassion,” “kindness,” and “salvation” (see passages such as Micah 6:8; Psalms 33:4-5; 72; Jeremiah 9:23-24). Justice has ultimately to do with how a loving creator has made the world. To be just is to live according to the creator’s will, to be in harmony with God, with fellow human beings, and with the rest of creation—and not to rest until this is the case for everyone else too.
The Bible’s connection between justice and life follows from its ideas regarding creation. Biblical writers affirm “creation” as an act of the covenant-making God of Israel. Therefore, creation’s character coheres with the values of the covenant—love, justice, peace, compassion—all the things that sustain and nourish life. We find no disjunction between the creator God and the covenant-making God. In fact creation was God’s first covenant-making act. Thus covenant values (justice, love, peace) ultimately are part of the very fabric of creation.
Human life originated as an expression of God’s covenant-love. So all human action consistent with that love shares in the basic meaning of creation—and is thereby “just”. The creation of humankind in the image of this God means that all people need relationships with each other and with God. God has given human beings the task of facilitating these relationships. All people, simply by virtue of being people, are in the “image of God” and thus have dignity and value. Therefore, we have no justification for discrimination and disregard of any human life. Injustice is the severing of relationships; justice establishes or restores relationships.
The cosmos are created good. Being an aberration, evil can and must be resisted. No evil is such an intrinsic part of the structure of reality that it cannot be conquered by the creator’s power. To conquer the power of evil—a power especially manifested in the severing of relationships—is to do justice.
God’s will has to do with all parts of creation. Nothing exists autonomously from that will. Nothing is ethically neutral. The Bible challenges people of faith to carry out the creator’s will in all spheres of human existence.
Ultimately, the Bible makes no distinction between the order of creation and the order of redemption. The creator-God and the redeemer-God are one and the same. Biblical people would never have recognized the creator-God without their historical experience of the redeemer-God.
The Bible presents God’s justice as normative for the nations, not just the covenant people. For example, when Amos condemns the nations for their injustices (Amos 1–2), his readers would not have questioned whether it was legitimate for him to do so. God’s will applies to all people, and all people are accountable for how they respond to that will. God has created of all that is with justice embedded into creation (hence injustice is as unnatural as an ox plowing the sea or a wall being crooked, Amos 6:12; 7:7).
For biblical writers, creation theology came not from reason but from their historical experience of God as redeemer. However, the implications of their creation theology led them to see all people as part of God’s creation, created in God’s image, and accountable to God. These beliefs primarily led to negative conclusions (like Amos’s) regarding the actual practice of justice on the part of the nations. The accountability generally supported the belief that the nations too will be judged by God for being unjust.
However, we do see scattered examples of just people outside Israel (e.g., Rahab the prostitute—Joshua 2; the repentant people of Nineveh in Jonah; even, to some extent, Cyrus, the Persian leader—Isaiah 45). These perhaps indicate that God’s justice may be known and done by anyone—by virtue of their humanness. Paul also seems to have this in mind in Romans 2 when he writes about Gentiles who follow the law (2:14-16).
In a nutshell, then, we see in the Bible a doctrine of creation that places the way of Jesus right at the center from start to finish. The Bible teaches that the way of Jesus indeed goes with the grain of the universe.
Creation and Jesus: Wishful thinking?
But is this belief blind faith? Is it romantic, wishful thinking to believe that creation also witnesses to the way of Jesus? I believe we should start with the Bible’s doctrine of creation. We should recognize that based on our values as followers of Jesus, we see love of God and neighbor as at the heart of reality. So we should begin with the assumption that nature (as God’s creation) likely will confirm these values. This is our “hypothesis.” Then, we consider the actual evidence. Do we in fact find evidence in nature for a much more optimistic view than reflected in the “red in tooth and claw” assumption?
I recommend the work of Mary Clark, a retired biologist and scholar of peace, who has thought deeply about issues of violence, human nature, and the inter-relatedness of living creatures. In her important book, In Search of Human Nature, she concludes that cooperation may be more fundamental to human nature than selfishness and competition.
Clark challenges what she calls the “Billiard Ball Gestalt,” which is a common way of thinking about human nature. This metaphor “depicts isolated objects moving independently and colliding randomly with each other. It models cause-and-effect, linear events of an atomistic or individualistic worldview. The ‘Self’ is discrete and separate from the whole.”
She proposes as a more accurate metaphor the “Indra’s Net Gestalt.” Here, the universe is “depicted by a jeweled net where each jewel is connected to and hence reflects upon all the others. No one entity can be its discrete, autonomous ‘Self’ independent of its connectedness with the whole of reality.”
This awareness of our interconnectedness points to cooperation as the basic creative force in human evolution. A key factor that emerged as human beings evolved to greater intelligence was an increase in the need for cooperation. “Becoming smarter (for whatever purpose) meant birthing ever-more helpless, premature infants, and investing a great deal of extra time and effort in nursing them, teaching them, and protecting them. Females (who incidentally gather well over half the group’s calories in extant foraging societies) required increasing assistance from other adults in watching over and protecting their helpless young from predators, and for providing additional food to the group’s cohort of mothers, especially during lactation, which eventually came to last four or five years. [These] adaptational requirements…placed on…primates were increasingly critical for evolving hominids.”
Obviously, given the intense debates swirling around issues of human nature, competition vs. cooperation in the evolutionary processes, and the like, we cannot prove that cooperation is more central to human nature than competition. We cannot prove that service more powerfully furthers human adaptability to life on this earth than domination. That is, we cannot prove that the way of Jesus goes with the grain of the universe.
However, from the perspective of Christian theology, we should be asking some hard questions of those who assume the “red in tooth and claw” hypothesis. Is it merely a coincidence that the emergence of this violent view of the natural world coincided historically with the emergence of a profoundly predatory view toward the natural world? What kinds of political and economic practices have tended to be furthered by views that see human life as “nasty, brutish, and short” and characterized by intense competition for life’s resources? Human cultures in the “civilized West,” those that have been much more receptive to the innate competitiveness view of human nature, have tended to reduce creation to a source for economic goods. Such a reduction has led to the rape and plunder of forests, oceans, waterways, prairie lands, mountains, and so much worse.
I believe projecting our violence onto nature has served a function analogous to the way propaganda attributes bloodthirstiness to our “enemies.” Since our enemies obviously do not value life, we need not value their lives. That is, our portraying them as hopelessly violent serves our desire to rain violence upon them. Likewise, if we project violence onto nature we more easily treat nature violently. If the universe is “red in tooth and claw,” we human beings had better make sure the “red” comes from nature’s “blood” and not our own.
As Christians, we confess that the world we live in originates in the creative work of God. We also confess that our present lives flow from the creative work of God. As God’s creatures, we are accountable to our creator. In earlier chapters, we have reflected on Christian theology as reflection on the significance of our confession that Jesus’ message is the basis for our hierarchy of values. What matters most to us, as Jesus’ followers, is love—of God and neighbor. Theologically, we confess God as creator, God’s message of love, and our possibility of living in harmony. Does such a confession cohere with our perception of the nature of nature?
This is what I believe follows from our confession that “this is God’s world”: when we look for evidence of Jesus’ way in the world around us, we might well be pleasantly surprised by what we find. We might find that the world around us is home for love, justice, and peace—amidst the ambiguities and alienations that remain all too common.
Creation carries within it the capacity for life’s regeneration, reflecting the character of the Creator. “Around every evil, there gathers love” is certainly a statement of faith. However, creation itself does offer some support for such an affirmation.
So, a theology of creation that shares Jesus’ hierarchy of values will look for evidence that supports the centrality of love of God and neighbor. It will recognize that all of life is interconnected and that reality itself is eloquently full of creativity. As Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God…Nature is never spent….Because the Holy Ghost over the bent world broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.”
All of life is interconnected. Native American philosopher Gabriel Horn writes of the contrast between two ways of knowing . The first coheres with what Horn calls “our Original Intention.” “Take only what you need, live in harmony and balance with your environment, love the Earth. Such a thought process does not allow artificial extensions, like the tools we create or even the weapons we make, to become actual extensions of the self.” People whose thought processes follow this path do not believe they are superior to other life forms. All things are necessary parts of wholeness.
The other way of knowing “travels on an asphalt road.” For this path, people’s artificial extensions, on which they increasingly depend, are linked with their very identity. This leads to an ever-widening separation not only from non-Western peoples but also other life forms. The wheel is no longer seen as something sacred but simply as an instrument for moving faster.
Our doctrine of creation should lead to an openness to the richness of life, to what philosopher Albert Borgmann (Crossing the Postmodern Divide) calls “eloquent reality.” Many people have characterized the 20th century as a century of deep alienation and brokenness. Such alienation seems to follow from a worldview that has abstracted from the non-human world all conscious intelligence and purpose and meaning and then projected onto the world a soulless machine. As Richard Tarnas writes, “this is the ultimate anthropomorphic projection: a [human]-made machine, something not in fact ever found in nature. From this perspective, it is the modern world’s own impersonal soullessness that has been projected from within onto the world.” (The Passion of the Western Mind)
However, other perspectives are possible. “Eloquent reality” refers to aspects of this life, this world, that are genuinely beautiful, healing, soulful, invigorating. Reality understood thus is not totally orderly, objective, controllable, or quantifiable.
Martin Buber articulated an understanding of the world focused on relationships as the core of what is most real—in contrast to the world of use, control, and exploitation (the “It-world”). Buber argued that the world we live in is where we will encounter our peaceable God. “I know nothing of a ‘world’ and of ‘worldly life’ that separate us from God. What is designated that way is life with an alienated It-world, the life of experience and use. Whatever goes out in truth to the world, goes forth to God. Only he that believes in the world achieves contact with it; and if he commits himself he cannot remain godless. Let us love that actual world that never wishes to be annulled;…in all its terror, [daring] to embrace it with our spirit’s arms – and our hands encounter the hands that hold it.” (I and Thou)