Most people when asked, report that they feel closest to the divine in nature. They see the hand of God in a glorious sunset or they experience God’s holiness in majestic mountains or they feel God’s omnipotence in the power of the ocean. Something deep within us seeks God in natural places; something in our very bodies cries out to connect. There is a flicker of the divine in us that seeks the divine in nature.
We know this to be true, yet most people are also reluctant to mingle faith and science. The Christian faith is still “undoing” some radical misconceptions from the time the Christian faith was forming. As the myth that the earth was the center of the universe was debunked by science, Christianity adjusted its doctrine to accommodate new information. One of the ways this happened was to separate created matter from the heavenly realms in our belief structure. Earthly matters were seen as base, broken and bad -- mired in sin, while heavenly matters are good and pure and holy. God lives in heaven. While we along with the rest of fallen creation, live on earth. Pauline theology is rich in images that tell us “our citizenship is in heaven” (Philippians 3:20) and “Do not be conformed to the pattern of this world,” (Romans 12:2). Both Augustine and later Calvin, two foundational theologians of our Western Christianity, denied the essential goodness of creation. Doctrinal Christianity focuses on the second Chapter of Genesis and the fall when sin entered the world. It discredits or at least ignores the intrinsic goodness of Creation, which is affirmed in the first chapter of Genesis: “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Genesis 1:31). Historically, the Church has had a lot more to say about original sin than original blessing.
So Christians throughout the centuries have focused their devotional energies on heaven and we’ve come to really believe the world is a bad place. Ironically, the Bible talks a lot more about the world and the physical realm than it talks about heaven. In scripture, Heaven and Earth are not mindsets, as we’ve made them, they are places. As a whole, scripture is way more concerned with life on earth under God’s direction than at arriving at any particular destination. So to paraphrase Oliver Wendell Holmes, I wonder if some of us are “so heavenly minded that we miss the divine that is already present here on earth”?
There is a tradition within Christianity that pushes back against orthodoxy. One of the distinguishing features of Celtic spirituality is the awareness of the intrinsic goodness of creation and a sense of the divine presence here among us on earth. In Celtic spirituality, the spiritual and material realms are intertwined: heaven and earth, time and eternity are closely connected. In Celtic Spirituality, matter matters.
In the fourth Century a.d., while the Christian faith was still in its formative years, there was a Celtic Christian named Pelagius, whose teachings and spirituality have been misrepresented and largely overlooked, mostly because he lost the orthodoxy argument with Augustine. As a sample of his thinking, Pelagius wrote:
Look at the animals roaming in the forest: God’s spirit dwells within them.
Look at the birds flying across the sky: God’s spirit dwells within them.
Look at the tiny insects crawling in the grass: God’s spirit dwells within them.
Look at the fish in the river and sea: God’s spirit dwells within them.
There is no creature on earth in whom God is absent…
When God pronounced that his creation was good, it was not only that his hand had fashioned every creature; it was that his breath had brought every creature to life.
Does this sound wildly heretical to you? It doesn’t to me. Critics claimed that Pelagius worshiped nature, but in fact he worshiped God in nature. This makes faith a little more accessible to the probings of science than our familiar heaven-based western theology. Pelagius recognized a divine life-force, pulsing through the natural world. He taught that all created things carry within them the grace and goodness of God. The idea of listening for God’s heartbeat within all things is an integral part of Celtic spirituality.
There is a scientific theory that has been gaining some attention lately. It suggests we may be in for a whole new paradigm: that the universe itself, is alive and has a beating heart. Physicist Stephen Alexander speculates that this heartbeat can be seen in a new model of the universe’s beginnings called the Big Bounce. You’ve heard of the Big Bang, which suggests that a very dense, very hot cluster of matter exploded, resulting in the universe we see today. The Big Bounce model differs in that it suggests there was a previous universe which collapsed, and in turn “bounced out” again into the universe that we now see. If this is true, the contraction and expansion of the universe might be perceived as the beating of a heart.
I don’t know about you, but this delights and intrigues me. Science does not threaten my faith, it expands it. Imagine, the beating heart of God evident in the expanse of the universe!
Creation has been singing since the beginning of time, long before our human voices joined the refrain. It is possible to align our heartbeats with heartbeat of the universe: with the wind roaring through a great forest and the lap of the waves upon the beach; in the bands of color in the sky at sunset. In these we perceive the sound and light of creation and the intrinsic goodness of the Creator.
This summer, my denomination, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) took an important step in moving the conversation between faith and science along. At the 222nd General Assembly in Portland OR, the PC(USA) endorsed two items of interest. The first was an “Affirmation of Creation.” Read it here:
Among other things, the Affirmation affirms that God has given humans an exploratory curiosity and a critical intellect, and one of the fruits of these gifts is our capacity for scientific inquiry. It also acknowledges that we bear exceptional responsibility for the future of the Earth and all its creatures. The other action was to endorse the Clergy Letter Project which is an ecumenical statement from Christian Clergy concerning religion and science. It states: “the timeless truths of the Bible and the discoveries of modern science may comfortably coexist” and that evolution is a “foundational scientific truth.” To treat it as “one theory among many” is to “deliberately embrace scientific ignorance.” While both overtures passed at the Assembly, they were not slam dunks. There were plenty of folks who voted against them.