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Just Passing Through?

“This world is not my home, I’m just a passin’ through.” Isn’t that how the old hymn goes? It may be the tune that crosses our minds as we read the news headlines, especially the headlines about the state of our environment. The ozone layer is getting thinner; the earth is getting warmer; the ice caps are melting; sea levels are rising; the weather is increasingly erratic and deadly. Some of us might even view it as another signs of the time, yet another indication of the nearness of the end. “Better get ready,” we think, “Jesus is coming soon.” We turn our focus inward, full of concern for our spiritual condition.

Adventists believe in the eminent return of Jesus. When Jesus comes again, the earth as we know will be destroyed and recreated anew. All this raises the question of what our attitude toward the world we live in and more specifically, the environment should be.

Imagine living in a house that is starting to fall into disrepair. You could fix it up if you invested some time and money into it, but you know that it’s all going to be torn down anyway in the next year or so. What would be your motivation to shell out the money or the time? If you did invest into it, would it be a serious attempt to address real issues (problems, let’s say, in the foundation of the house) or would you just patch things up?

What theological reason do we have for caring about the long-term health of the environment? Thoughtful believers have offered some reasons, and some of them have been explored on this blog. Christians across the theological spectrum are realizing that we need to revisit the book of Genesis and our understanding of the creation mandate God gives humans (Gen. 1:28). Dominion over the earth is being reinterpreted as caring for the earth, instead of dominating it and exploiting it for short-term, human purposes.

In what follows, however, and I’d like to suggest a different, although perhaps complementary, approach. We should care about nature for missiological or evangelistic reasons. More simply put, I’ll argue, we should care about the environment because nature points us to its Creator; it can be a revelation of God.

Now this may sound strange to some people. Most of us are accustomed to speaking of the Bible as revelation. The Spirit, we believe, speaks to us today through Scriptures. We “hear God” speaking to us when listen to a sermon or read the teachings of Christ in the gospels. Can God speak to us by other means than Scripture? Well, according to Scriptures themselves, the answer is “yes.” The psalmist, for example, states, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge” (Psalm 19:1-2).

Contemporary Christian song writers affirm the psalmist’s observation. Andrew Peterson, describing about the first time he sees the Grand Canyon, sings “The mountains sing your glory hallelujah; the canyons echo sweet amazing grace.” Chris Rice, reflecting on sunsets, thunderstorms, freshly fallen snow, and the birth of a new born, sings, “Oh praise Him all His mighty works. There is no language where you can’t be heard. Your song goes out to all the earth.” Scripture, poets, and song writers affirm that nature is a witness of God’s glory and goodness.

How exactly does nature do this? Obviously, the text is not to be interpreted literally. This is where the work of philosophers and theologians becomes very helpful. One way we might understand nature “speaking” is that it directs our reason to nature’s source. The Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas, for example, offers five rational “proofs” of God’s existence by looking at nature. Reflecting on the existence of and the movement in the world, he argues that all existence and movement is caused by something else. Causes cannot regress infinitely; therefore, he posits an uncaused cause or an unmoved mover. In other words, someone/something had to start it all. This being is God. Aquinas also reflects the variety in nature, arguing that it exists to reflect the beauty of an infinite God that cannot be fully reflected in any one thing. Observing the order in nature, he argues for the existence of a being that governs the movement of even inanimate objects.

There are, of course, those that object to the “rationality” of these proofs and discount them as the antiquated product of medieval times. Some seriously question the ability of reason to “prove” anything about God. This has left some thinkers to point to nature as the source of a non-rational encounter with the divine. Nature stirs up deep feelings within the soul that point us to and connect us with our Creator. Philosophers like Immanuel Kant, point to experiences in nature that go beyond the conceptual categories of our mind. On a starry night or standing before a thundering waterfall, we experience the feeling of wonder and awe. Kant calls this an experience of the sublime. Schleiermacher connects this with the divine. He believes that nature stirs up within us a sense of absolute dependence. In nature, he argues, we feel our own contingency and our dependence on a higher power. Similarly, others view nature as the source of an aesthetic experience, akin to looking at a painting or listening to music; it connects us to the artist that created it.

This brief overview shows us some ways nature “speaks” to humans about God. Nature speaks to us rationally, emotionally, and aesthetically. This leaves us with the question: Can human carelessness counteract nature’s witness of its Creator? The answer, I think, is obvious.

I think of numerous experiences. A few years ago, on a Sabbath afternoon, I was at the beach in the Los Angeles area with some youth from church. After a brief walk, one of the girls from our group returned having stepped onto a black, sticky, tar-like substance on the beach. It was oil that had washed up on the shore. It was impossible to remove with water and scrubbing; in many ways this ruined her enjoyment of an afternoon in nature. I’m also reminded of the smog that fills the air of the LA Basin. After it rained, I was always surprised how close the San Gabriel Mountains looked to my apartment. They were only about five miles away, but on some days, I couldn’t even see them! I’ve been hiking in these mountains, only to look over a valley filled with haze, and to encounter trash and litter along the trail.

According a well-known quote in Adventist circles, “‘God is love’ is written upon every opening bud, upon every spire of springing grass” (Steps to Christ, 10). It’s becoming more and more possible to imagine a future where we through our carelessness have totally nullified the voice of nature to speak for God. A future, where food is unsafe to eat, where water is toxic too drink or swim in, where rain is poisonous, and where smog fills the sky. If God’s nature “speaks” about God’s love, would wouldn’t all this grossly distort its message? What would a child growing up in such a world think about God?

“This is my Father’s world. He shines in all that’s fair…” another hymn goes. Perhaps this one is better at directing our attitudes toward the world we live in. Our world may be fallen, but still bears the reflection of its maker. It speaks to unbelievers of a God they do not yet know, and is a constant reminder to those that do of their Creator, his power and his love. For this reason, it deserves our utmost concern and care. Like a valuable witness in an important trial, nature must be protected at all costs.

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