Plot and purpose

In this blog and those that follow (here and here), I indulge in some speculations concerning the nature and purpose of the created world and of God and humanity. These thoughts are based on the orthodox Christian narrative of fall, incarnation, atonement and resurrection, and I hope, take the scriptural revelation seriously. They nonetheless have a distinctly scientific and technical flavour that some might find rather cold and off putting. I would simply hope that what I write can complement the more traditional understanding of God and his love for his world and his people. Readers are of course completely free to choose whether or not the give my thoughts any credence at all!

In professional terms, I have spent may years studying a range of environmental issues – both looking at the effects of extreme phenomena on aspects of the built environments, but also looking at the effects of human activity on the natural environment – which all too often leads to environmental pollution and degradation, and at a larger scale, results in global warming with all its consequences. As the reader may know, I am also an ordained Anglican clergyman, and putting these two parts of my life together, it will be no surprise that over the years I have given much thought to what Christianity has to say about environmental issues. On the one hand, there are some fairly fundamental biblical principles that can guide us here. Firstly, that humanity has been given “dominion” over the natural world. This word has got something of a bad press, but at its heart it implies a delegated authority over the natural world given by God. In other words, humanity has been given a share in God’s responsibility for the natural world – which does not include trashing it. Secondly there is the principle of “neighbour love” that was articulated in the Torah and re-emphasised by Jesus in parable and commandment. Part of loving our neighbour is to care for the environment in which they live. Neighbour love is not shown by persisting with carbon producing activities, that lead to global warming, sea level rise that threatens the existence of many island states, and the extinction of large tracts of arable land which is home to many millions of people.

But there is another theme throughout scripture that speaks to this issue – what may broadly be described as a journey from creation to new creation. In Romans 8 Paul writes

For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope  that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God

and from Colossians 1

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in[i] him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Both these passages build on Old Testament passages such as the latter chapters of Isaiah and seem to indicate that the benefits that flow from the incarnation and the atonement are not only directed at humanity, but are also for all the created order. Christ died and rose again to redeem and restore all creation. This concept meets in fulfilment in the final chapters of the book of Revelation, where we see a picture of a new heaven and a new earth, the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven to earth, God making his dwelling amongst men and women.

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘See, the home[a] of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.’

So much seems clear from the scripture, but it leads me to ask the question “why?”. Why is the created universe, why are men and women, so important to God that

Jesus… was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into Hell; the third day He rose again from the dead”.

Why was this necessary? What is the point of it? In the Westminster Shorter Catechism the answer is that “the chief end of man is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever”. I have to say I am far from convinced of that, pointing to a somewhat narcissistic God, and painting a very static picture of life in eternity.

The se questions are ultimately of course unanswerable with our earth-bound level of understanding – why God created the Universe must remain at the level of mystery. But I think that we can to some extent grasp what is the essential characteristic of the created order that is so important to God and his eternal purposes After much thought it seems to me that this is something to do with the diversity and complexity of the created world. In physical terms, modern science suggest that all physical matter ultimately consists of quantum fluctuations of energy that can only be specified in a statistical sense. At the other end of the scale, whilst the observable universe follows well defined deterministic laws, these are such that small fluctuations in physical parameters can results in immense complexity – the mathematical concept of chaos. At the level of the universe this complexity can be seen in the quite mind-boggling formation of galaxies and star systems.  On a more local level, whilst our weather patterns can be well described by simple physical mathematical equations, small fluctuations can again results in massive complexity at the global scale. This of course is what is known colloquially as the “butterfly effect”. In mathematical terms, work over recent decades has shown that very simple mathematical equations can produce solutions of immense complexity and beauty with patterns that repeat throughout a wide range of scale – for example the Mandelbrot set with its replicating patterns across the range of scales. There are also indications that the larger scale physical laws that bind our physical world actually emerge out of the very small scale quantum fluctuations. To summarise, our physical creation is immensely complex and diverse – and this seems an inbuilt feature.

The same can be said for the biological creation for which the physical creation forms a base. Here the complexity is driven by sexual reproduction and genetic variability to produce a staggeringly complex array of plant and animal-based life, including humanity, with all its widely different characteristics and types. This variability is also of course driven by the physical environment to some extent, and indeed feeds back to affect that environment.

Just as the biological creation finds its base in the physical, so the cultural and social creation finds its base in both the physical and biological creation. Again we can see if the social and community life of humanity is massively complex and diverse, and the same is true, although at a lesser level for the cultural life of the non-human creation.

So, my suggestion as to what is important to God in his creation, and the reason for the necessity of its redemption through the incarnation and atonement, is its very complexity and diversity, as expressed in physical, biological and cultural terms. Why this should be the case is unknowable, but given that it is there are some immediate implications.

  • The diversity of our natural world is critical to God’s purposes, and anything that reduces this diversity and complexity should be resisted. If a theological basis for protecting the natural world is required, then this provides it. Biodiversity issues are, in this view, central to God’s purposes.
  • Biological complexity is driven by genetic variability and sexual reproduction. In the first chapter of Genesis, we read “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them”. This speaks directly into the current issues of sexuality that are dominating church discourse at the present time. Male / female distinctiveness is very important in God’s purposes, and very great care should be taken in embracing developments that try to eliminate this distinctiveness.
  • Cultural and social variation is also important, both without and within the church. The imposition of uniformity, which is a habit that has a particular hold on the larger denominational churches, may not be altogether the best thing.

There are many other issues that arise from such considerations of course, concerning the nature of God and the relationship between heaven and earth; what was the more precise purpose of the incarnation and atonement; and are there limits to diversity that need to be observed. I will attempt to tackle some of these issues in the posts that follow.

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