Looked at theologically, the devastation of the earth through human activities is not simply a threat to present and future generations. Rather, as different rhythmic patterns within the earth system are destroyed or disrupted, so dimensions of God’s original creativity through wisdom are lost. Letting wisdom slip away amounts to a loss of our humanity, even while it is still possible to tune into natural wisdom and so gesture towards an earth that is capable of being restored.
The majority of scientists, at least, don’t need reminding about the multiple and interlaced ways in which threats to the wellbeing of our planet and the extinction of creatures in it are escalating and show little signs of slowing down. I am not going to rehearse all the different dimensions of this earth-shattering news, except to say that the world as we have known it in our lifetime is changing to a more unstable system even faster than scientists are able to monitor those changes. Melting global ice caps, rising sea levels, unpredictable weather patterns, irreversible biodiversity loss, overstepping safe limits of planetary boundaries of the earth system, escalation of the enforced movement of peoples, rising tensions and conflict due to basic resource limitations – the list seems endless and is in no sense complete.
Even secular scientists, jaded by the lack of public recognition due to the overpoliticisation of some of their claims, are now beginning to turn to religious believers as a way of trying to encourage behavioural change on a mass scale. No wonder many young people are now suffering from climate anxieties of all kinds. People living in vulnerable communities on different islands drowning through sea level rises are being forced to move from their homes, their cultures, and their roots, leading to intense feelings of pain and dislocation. The cry of the earth is bound up with our own human cry for mercy.
Some Christian believers, despairing at the likelihood of large swathes of humanity ever being able to change their lifestyles quickly and sufficiently enough to make any difference to the relentless process of loss have pressed for finding ways in which we might adapt to the conditions we find ourselves in, rather than pretending that our tiny individual actions of protest will make a particle of difference. But right action is not necessarily premised on whether we are successful or not. Christ went to the cross in defiance of a myth of success. Rather, right action is done because it is the right thing to do. What we need, therefore, to work out, if we are committed to both science and theology, is what the theologically correct, morally noble, ethically convincing and right course of action must be, given Christian belief in God as Creator and human beings as made in the image of God.
Going back to the earliest writings of the Hebrew scriptures help to reset our frantic intentions, for it is less about the search for additional information, and more about the search for wisdom. Hebrew scholar Norman Habel wrote a remarkable book entitled Discerning Wisdom in God’s Creation: Following the Way of Ancient Scientists (2015). In this book he outlined what he called The Wisdom Charter: creating a map of how ancient scientists perceived what wisdom is about. This charter claims first that wisdom is a driving force in the natural world, a dimension in the universe that is discoverable by ancient scientists. In a remarkable way Job 28 describes how God is the first scientist to discover wisdom as an inner force in the natural world. This astonishing claim draws on the Hebrew word chaqar, meaning to explore or research, and in Job 28.3 it refers to God who, as wisdom teacher, explores the very limit and three-dimensional space of an object. Wisdom is then acquired (hebr. qana) through that careful and detailed observation.
Secondly, for the ancient scientist, wisdom is a life force, which is the basis for understanding each creature’s ‘way’ or essential nature that serves to drive and motivate living creatures. Post-Darwinian scientists are more likely to give attention to the importance of the constraining role of genes in setting the limits of what might be possible for given organism, but cultural evolution encourages a shift away from mapping genetics in terms of some kind of blueprint for life’s behaviour.
Thirdly, wisdom is a cosmic coding, programmed into the cosmos. The book of Job 28 is important here as well, for now the reader is asked: ‘Where can wisdom be found?’ A crucial aspect here is that of place, maqom. The created world has a place for each domain, each creature, and each part of the natural world. Even the earth has her place in the cosmos. The critical question therefore is, given that wisdom is also herself created, where is her place, her maqom? Humanity can discover the place of ancient and precious metals in the earth, but the place of wisdom, the most precious of all created things, remains elusive. Even the mystery of death does not reveal the secrets of where wisdom may be found. Only God searches and finds wisdom, not in heaven or in a distant realm as is the case for other Canaanite gods, but here on earth, in the entire landscape of the planet. God discovers wisdom at the very beginning of the creative process. For Habel, drawing on John 28: 25-27, ‘It is specifically when God is creating meteorological domains that God the scientist discerns Wisdom’ (Habel 2015: 32). Importantly, for the ancients, these meteorological domains represent all the other different domains of the natural world. God discovers the innate character of the phenomena (their way) and so discovers wisdom akin to a network of different forces in the natural world. The ‘laws’ of the natural world are discoverable as wisdom, and in addition are then assessed, appraised and established.
Fourthly, wisdom is a primal cosmic blueprint that preceded creation, understood as the impulse for the basic design and evolution of the cosmos. Here we have ‘time’ before time itself, the infinite primordial beginning that scientists today may speak of in the language of the Big Bang. Here wisdom touches on that mysterious origin of the cosmos where God acquires wisdom as explained in Proverbs 8.22-23. By acquiring (qana) wisdom God becomes the ideal sage. The common modern translation of qana as create in Proverbs 8.22, so ‘The Lord created me at the beginning of his way’, softens the force of this text, and it should be noted that other ancient authorities render qana to mean acquired even in this context, which is the more common usage of qana in other scriptural passages. The acquisition of wisdom precedes creation and ‘before’ space, time or matter came into being. Yet scientists of old can discern this same dimension of wisdom in the different works of creation, understood today as scientific laws and a persistent intelligence pervading the created world. There is a different understanding of the creativity of God represented in the wisdom literature when compared with the creation account in Genesis. Creation by the word of God, as in Genesis, implies an all-powerful deity that brings things into existence by divine command and as an instantaneous act. In the Wisdom school, by comparison, wisdom pre-exists as a cosmic intelligence that God then appropriates into the work of creation. Wisdom, therefore, stirs both God and the inhabited world, including being sensed within the consciousness of human beings.
Fifthly, wisdom is an ecological impulse that integrates different dimensions together in a single whole. Again, drawing on Job 28, a cosmic ecology unfolds. In Job 38 the poet portrays the origin of the earth as a cosmic celebration. Ancient scientists of the wisdom school are invited to observe closely and investigate further in order to find wisdom. Job is invited to discover wisdom in the different physical laws of nature. Job finds himself challenged by being confronted with wild creatures – and then understanding and appreciating that not all creaturely beings are under human domination and control.
Finally, wisdom is a mystery that becomes obvious in the different natural phenomena of the universe, leading to a profound sense of wonder and awe. Such awe arising from a consciousness of wisdom can also be, for those who experience it, a profoundly spiritual one.
Destruction of the earth, therefore, amounts to a loss of a form of wisdom in the most profound sense as it disrupts the expression of God’s wisdom on earth and those patterns that have taken millennia to evolve. Basic physical laws remain, so wisdom understood as the basic cosmic laws of the universe is still there. However, human activity which leads to a dismembering of the earth amounts to a deep act of violence and violation of the work of the Creator. The silent cry of the earth is wisdom’s cry also, stirring those who witness such demise to a profound sense of pathos. Human beings, particularly in the Western world, have hardened their hearts and failed, therefore, to tune in sufficiently and match their life pattern and ways to the ways of wisdom that are in evidence throughout the universe, including those expressed on planet earth and its multitude of creatures. Instead of respect for natural wisdom, humanity has destroyed dimensions of it. The cry of the earth, therefore, is not just the cry of those creatures that are losing their habitats, but the suppressed cry of humanity who has lost its way without even being conscious of it, for it has become blind to its own lack of insight. How has this happened?
In a lecture delivered at Oxford entitled ‘Creation Beyond Creativity’(Ingold, 2023), social anthropologist Tim Ingold criticises the idea of the Creator as a divine Designer preceding creation, believing that such ideas of separation of the Creator from creation subsequently opened the way to understand the world as both godless and mechanical. Creativity eventually became confined to the inventive human mind, a making from what was there already, rather than being generative and arising out of nothing. As noted above, according to the Wisdom school of ancient scientists, wisdom is acquired by God in such a way that it is deeply invested within the creation as such in the cosmic origin, patterns, and interlaced life forms visible on earth. In this school the design of the cosmos is therefore discovered by God through natural wisdom rather than being pre-determined.
Ingold also criticises the tendency to envisage creative individuals as simply inventive minds that lead to ideas which ‘pop up’ outside history and are then recognised by the community as novel. He argues, instead, that creativity is what a person undergoes and so cannot be separated from their historical and community context. The kind of creativity of God described in the wisdom school is more like the true creativity that Ingold speaks about, for God is envisaged as in some sense accompanying the created historical world through time in which wisdom shows forth. And yet there is more in the wisdom of ancient scientists than creativity or even possibly spirituality arising from a patient search for truth in the way Ingold outlines. Otherwise, the death of the earth that contemporary scientists anticipate would amount to the death of God. Naming God as being in some sense ‘prior’ to the creation of time and space through wisdom assures the existence of God regardless of what might eventually happen to the earth.
Unlike other creatures, human beings are conscious of their own abilities to observe other beings and write their histories. That ability to observe and contemplate the natural world is reflected in God’s speech to Job, where God invites him to consider the created world as such in its complexity and variety. Yet our own human abilities remain limited, so our knowledge and understanding necessarily always falls short. Despite these limitations, contemporary scientists have discovered that the world possesses in itself a remarkable ability to recover even after suffering abuse of all kinds. Enric Sala is a marine biologist who dedicated himself to nature conservation because otherwise he perceived he was just writing the world’s obituary. In his book The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild (2020), he argues that it is possible for ecologically degraded areas to recover at least much of their pristine condition through either being left alone, as in ocean environments, or through a carefully worked out ecological rewilding project. But he explains that it is exposing political leaders to the awe and wonder towards the natural world that provides an incentive for political change, even if there are scientific and economic arguments to support such changes. I suggest that this awe and wonder is the first step in reconnecting humanity with natural wisdom that is also integral to our humanity. Arguments for the benefits to human beings abound, but they are all instrumental ones. Wisdom arising from awe and acting in a way that respects natural wisdom is also integral to what it means to be acting as imago Dei, in the image of God. If we lose that ability to care for, protect and conserve the earth in all its different dimensions through careful attunement to natural wisdom, then we will not just lose the Earth as a habitable space, but also lose our own humanity.
Published August 2023
This article is dedicated to the memory of my friend and colleague Tom McLeish (May 1st 1962-February 27th 2023). His lifetime of patient scientific research, creativity and quest for faith and wisdom in science will never be forgotten.
Celia Deane-Drummond, Director, Laudato Si’ Research Institute, Campion Hall, University of Oxford.
We also offer a German translation of this article.
Habel, Norman. 2015. Discerning Wisdom in God’s Creation: Following the Way of Ancient Scientists (Eugene/ORE: Wipf and Stock).
Ingold, Tim. 2023. ‘Creation Beyond Creativity’, Laudato Si’ Lecture, March 9th, 2023, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PtTudaBDtmA
Sala, Enric. 2020. The Nature of Nature: Why We Need the Wild (Washington: National Geographic Partners).
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