Scripture of Nature
Remembering when he first entered into the land that would become Yosemite National Park, the American writer and explorer Fitz Hugh Ludlow offered these words to describe his experience:
I hesitate now as I did then at the attempt to give my vision utterance. Never were words as beggared for an unabridged translation of any Scripture of Nature.
Scripture of nature: the idea that the natural world has the capacity to tell us something about God and our relationship with God. This beautiful and powerful theological concept did not originate with Ludlow, but has a long history within the church.
It’s said that St. Anthony, one of the great “desert fathers” was asked by a visiting philosopher how such a learned man as he got along in the desert without books, Anthony replied, "My book is the nature of created things, and as often as I have a mind to read the words of God, it is at my hand."
Augustine said something similar: Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? Why, heaven and earth shout to you: "God made me!”
Of course, Scripture itself makes similar claims. The psalms, Job, Genesis, and many others works of holy writ speak of the close relationship between God and God’s creation.
And yet, as powerful as this ancient notion is, new scientific discoveries about the structure of the natural world and the origins of the universe have perhaps made it even more so.
Advances in physics over the last 100 years or so have completely changed the way we think about ourselves, our world and our position in the cosmos. We now know that the universe extends much further than we could have ever imagined, and is actually expanding still, literally at an astronomical rate. We also know more about the recesses of life on a molecular level, that extend inward as far as space extends outward. In fact, we even know that the term “space” itself is metaphorical. The universe is not a collection of “things” as much as it is a series of overlapping “fields,” perhaps breathing new life into Paul’s description of the God “in whom we live and move and have our being.”
It’s as if we’ve stumbled upon a cave full of scrolls, providing an endless reservoir of new “natural scripture,” with the power to shed new light on the nature of God, the world, ourselves and the “gospel of our meeting.”
I hope you’ll join me and John Pattillo, a church member who serves on the faculty of the Department of Natural Sciences at Middle Georgia State University, as we co-lead a series on Wednesday nights during August and the first part of September that will seek to put some of the foundational theories and discoveries of modern physics in conversation with Scripture and theology.
Psalm 19 begins, “The heavens are telling the glories of God; and firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” I believe this is true, in ways the psalmist could never have anticipated and that we are still only beginning to grasp. What greater testament to the glory of God? What good news.