Universal hymn

So this last week I finally saw Avatar. And afterwards, I was reading about the movie, and the audience reaction to it, and lo and behold some people had a rather unexpected response to it: they got depressed. The story goes that the CGI world of Pandora was so breathtakingly beautiful that in the days after watching it, some people found the real world to be utterly grey, and empty, and unsatisfying. And I know how some people would react to that: “Oh come on! It’s imaginary! Some artists dreamed it up! Getting upset about make-believe is just sad.” But my brain, being my brain, went in a different direction. I said, “Okay, Avatar was beautiful. The artists did a fantastic job. But how can you say it’s better than the real world? Have you seen the real world?”

I wanted to ask those people, “When was the last time you watched a sunrise? I mean, just sat there and watched it? Do you hear birdsong at all? Do you live somewhere that doesn’t get autumn colors? Ever watched the lightning? Have you never traveled? To national parks and all their mind-bogglingly amazing scenery? Are you completely unfamiliar with hiking?” I think maybe these are Southern Californians, where there is smog and no fall or winter, but then I think, California’s got ocean. Appalachia has incredible mists and gorgeous trees up there in the mountains. Utah is breathtakingly… weird. Even the utter boringness of Iowa can be overcome with one good thunderstorm. Right now it is grey and cold outside, but I’ve got this geranium blooming on my balcony, and its flowers are the reddest red that ever redded.

“But Pandora has bioluminescence!” Yeah. You know where they got that idea?

And then my brain went another direction (remember, this is my brain), and I thought about a parallel that I didn’t like. I don’t know how many of you are familiar with atheistic or agnostic objections to Christianity, but one of them is that Christians are so focused on Heaven that they completely miss out on Earth. And, you know, they’ve got a point. (Of course, this is committing the ancient and honorable fallacy of conflating the actions of believers with their Belief, but as the best witness of any faith is its followers, we should have the humility to listen.)

I know why we Christians do it. I’ve spent too long in church to miss out on that one. A quick glance at the New Testament seems pretty harsh on the here and now. “Be in the world, but not of it.” Satan is portrayed as the prince of this world, and we’re warned again and again not to fall in with the darkness and decay that is in “the world.” But I also believe that the Bible is to be taken as a whole. You read through the Old Testament, and there are eloquent hymns of praise to the beauty of the natural world. In the book of Job, when God ends the argument by declaring about how incredibly awesome he is, how does he prove it? With nature.

So I really don’t think when Paul was warning us against “the flesh” that he meant our physical bodies, or that his grudge against “the world” was directed at Planet Earth.

“For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the sons of God. For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. For we know that the whole creation has been groaning together in the pains of childbirth until now.” Romans 8:19-22 (ESV)

Not something we think about much, that the natural world is suffering alongside us, waiting for the same salvation. But God loves everything he’s created.

“And God saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very good. And there was evening and there was morning, the sixth day.” Genesis 1:31 (ESV)

But then there’s that other reason we ignore nature; the Heaven one. All things are gonna be made new, if Jesus and Paul and the Book of Revelation are to be believed. Why invest time and effort in a world that’s going to be wiped away? What’s the point of that? Well, for starters, there’s the whole “God created it and cares about it” part. He did tell us to be stewards of the world. But enjoy it? Isn’t there a danger of getting into the whole Gaia-worship thing?

Sure, anything that takes over our lives can turn into sin. A thing doesn’t have to take over your life for you to value it. And I’ll tell you this much: if there is one thing I’ve learned from devouring the myriad stories in sci-fi and fantasy, it is that you can learn an awful lot about a person by what they create. Gene Roddenberry was a hopeless romantic. C.S. Lewis thought he valued women, but it was his wife who taught him why they are valuable. Terry Pratchett is cynical about many things, but he has great faith in human ability. J.K. Rowling wants to believe in the afterlife, but isn’t quite convinced. Russel T Davies has no clue whatsoever of what a healthy marriage looks like. All this can be picked up merely by reading what they’ve written, or watching what they’ve filmed.

God created the universe. It is full of his character. You want to discover what he’s like? Look out the window.

Or in a microscope, or in a telescope, or in advanced math, or at museums, or in a concert hall or a dance recital or in medicine, or anything else that deals with what God’s created. This is an old idea in theology, called “general revelation”. We’re supposed to seek God, correct? My incredibly red geranium might not “be” God any more than this essay “is” me, but if this essay shows how I think, how much more does my geranium show how God thinks? I’m using language and ideas passed down through ages of human culture. God invented atoms.

And maybe we would feel a little ridiculous perhaps, staring at sunrises and sunsets, getting excited about thunderstorms or geraniums. Maybe we think, “I’ve got all these other things going on, how can I be bothered with birdsong?” Maybe it’s just too weird to spend a moment admiring the rich patterns of brown and darker brown in a piece of polished wood. If that’s so, then perhaps we should stop complaining about the being bored, about sameness, about dullness. And we should stop complaining about feeling uninspired or unspiritual. We are living in a hymn. It may be broken and discordant at times, and sometimes it falls into minor keys and diminished fifths. Yet if we look, it forms the most complete declaration of praise to God that we can get this side of Heaven. If we’re having trouble hearing it, perhaps we should be asking God’s grace to let us. Somehow, I don’t think he wants us deaf.

“The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours out speech,
and night to night reveals knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words,
whose voice is not heard.”

Psalm 19:1-3 (ESV)