Sunday, September 15, 2013

For God So Loved the Earth

Hodder Bridge, Ribble River
Lancashire, England
Flickr Creative Commons,
John Burke, 1983
Earth, sweet Earth, sweet landscape, with leavés throng      
And louchéd low grass, heaven that dost appeal      
To, with no tongue to plead, no heart to feel;           
That canst but only be, but dost that long— 

Thou canst but be, but that thou well dost; strong             
Thy plea with him who dealt, nay does now deal,    
Thy lovely dale down thus and thus bids reel           
Thy river, and o’er gives all to rack or wrong.           

And what is Earth’s eye, tongue, or heart else, where          
Else, but in dear and dogged man?—Ah, the heir             
To his own selfbent so bound, so tied to his turn,     
To thriftless reave both our rich round world bare    
And none reck of world after, this bids wear
Earth brows of such care, care and dear concern.     
                                                     (Gerard Manley Hopkins, Ribblesdale, 1883)

For God so loved the world . . . Familiar words, especially for those, like me, who grew up surrounded by scripture.

Even so, I was struck not long ago by a question: which world is that, the world God loves?

In every discussion of John 3:16 I’ve ever heard, the “world” God loves is people.

But as I’ve been exploring the way translation, interpretation, tradition shape our understanding, I’ve found myself eyeing that word “world,” and wondering.

From what I can glean from lexicons, there were plenty of words John could have chosen in John 3:16.

The word “paß”, or “pas,” sometimes translated “world,” means “each, all, everyone.” So if that’s what John was saying (God loves us humans- all of us), that would have been the word to use.

“Aijwvnioß,” or “aionios,” also translated world, points to all that is unending, everlasting.  “Oijkoumevnh,” or “oikoumene,” another word for world, referred to the inhabited world. OR the inhabitants of earth.

The word John chose in John 3:16 was “kovsmoß”, (kosmos"), which in normal Greek usage meant the whole constituted order of earth and its inhabitants, not just humans, not just human endeavors, but all that this universe holds: stars, planets, mountains, seas, creatures, plants, pebbles, sand. And not just the stuff of the universe, but the relationships, the systems, the orderly interplay of days, tides, seasons. Or, as Hopkins described it, “Earth, sweet earth, sweet landscape,” and all that surrounds and indwells it.  

For God so loved the world . . . that He gave his only begotten son . . .

If God’s love extends through Christ to us, then through us, as his people, to the cosmos around us, what does it mean that we are agents of reconciliation?

What did Paul mean when he said “For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed”?

What are we supposed to be revealing?

Why would creation be eagerly expectant?

Gerard Manley Hopkins, Jesuit priest, scholar, teacher, and poet, lamented the damage to the Ribble Valley where he taught, the river fouled by factory discharge, “thy lovely dale down thus,” and the river given “all to rack or wrong.”

Man, “dear and dogged man,” called to be “Earth’s eye, tongue, . . . heart,” is “so tied to his turn,” his own short time on earth, that he fails to carry out his task of “care and dear concern,” and so both man and earth are harmed, held hostage to our human “selfbent” ways.
 Francis and the Wolf, John August Swanson, 1985 

I’m struck by the love that permeates Hopkins' poem: the love of “Earth, sweet Earth, sweet landscape,” the loving grief at “thy lovely dale down thus,” the warmth toward “dear and dogged man,” the compassionate longing for “care and dear concern.”

I hear in Hopkins' poem John’s refrain: for God so loves the world. Loves the earth itself, and the creatures, landscapes, waterways that carrying the weight of our folly. Loves us, “dear and dogged” humans, even as we relentless pursue our selfbent ambitions, ears closed to the desperate cry of the groaning creation around us.

A century later poet and farmer Wendell Berry explored a similar theme in a sermon published as “Christianity and The Survival of Creation”:  
If we read the Bible, keeping in mind the desirability of those two survivals--of Christianity and the Creation--we are apt to discover several things that modern Christian organizations have kept remarkably quiet about, or have paid little attention to.
We will discover that we humans do not own the world or any part of it: "The earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof: the world and they that dwell therein" (Ps. 24:1). . .
We will discover that God made not only the parts of Creation that we humans understand and approve, but all of it: "all things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made" John 1:3). . .

We will discover that God found the world, as he made it, to be good; that he made it for his pleasure; and that he continues to love it and to find it worthy, despite its reduction and corruption by us. People who quote John 3:16 as an easy formula for getting to heaven neglect to see the great difficulty implied in the statement that the advent of Christ was made possible by God's love for the world--not God's love for Heaven or for the world as it might be, but for the world as it was and is. Belief in Christ is thus made dependent upon prior belief in the inherent goodness--the lovability--of the world.
We will discover that the Creation is not in any sense independent of the Creator, the result of a primal creative act long over and done with, but is the continuous, constant participation of all creatures in the being of God . . .
We will discover that, for these reasons, our destruction of nature is not just bad stewardship, or stupid economics, or a betrayal of family responsibility; it is the most horrid blasphemy. It is flinging God's gifts into his face, as of no worth beyond that assigned to them by our destruction of them. To Dante, "despising Nature and her gifts" was a violence against God. We have no entitlement from the Bible to exterminate or permanently destroy or hold in contempt anything on the earth or in the heavens above it or in the waters beneath it. We have the right to use the gifts of Nature, but not to ruin or waste them. . .

We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy. . . .
Do we see the world as holy? Or is "holy" a word reserved for church, certain people, or just God himself?

I've discovered lately, as I’ve spent more time outside, following bird song, examining wildflowers, that my understanding of God’s love has been growing.

When I’ve been part of groups that fracture love (God loves these people, not these; God loves these creatures, not these; God loves us when we do this – not that), when I’ve breathed in that narrow understanding of God’s love, my own expression and experience of love becomes fractured, conditional, impatient, “selfbent.”

When I move deeper into a knowledge of love that reaches past me to this whole dear, much-loved cosmos, I find myself more certain of God’s care, more daily aware of his deep affection that holds us all in being, that sings the world awake each morning, that pours out provision in ways we’ll never understand.

As my own love stretches past my selfbent circle, extending to people unlike me, to creatures, places, distant neighbors, I feel myself held in love, feel it pour through and beyond me, like clear water from a glistening waterfall.

God loves the earth, the cosmos. Loves me, those near and dear to me, those unlike me, against me, unknown to me. He loves the chorus of crows that wakes me each morning. The spider spinning its web beyond my kitchen window. The bees, lost to their hives. The baby sparrow, still downy from its nest, calling for food while its mother searches frantically. The shrimp, slipping into darkness in the dead zones of our bays. The lovely lilies, slowly disappearing with our disappearing margins.

As long as we understand God’s love as a fractured thing, divided, conditional, indifferent to the larger whole, we will never fully share it.

And never fully know it.

And the waiting creation will go on waiting.

This post is part of the September Synchroblog, Loving Nature: Is God "Green"? 

Other posts:

Jen Bradbury – Is God Green?
Oliver – Dieu il Recyclable 
Tim Nichols – Never a Last Leaf