Let everything that breathes praise God. (Psalm 150:6)
Praise the Lord from the earth, you sea monsters and all deeps….
Wild animals and all cattle, creeping things and flying birds. (Psalm 148:7, 10)
And God said, “Let the earth bring forth living creatures of every kind: cattle and
and creeping things and wild animals of the earth of every kind.”
And God saw that it was good. (Genesis 1:24, 25b)
When students are taught they are no different from animals, they act like it.
(Rick Warren tweet)
Rick Warren’s response to James McGrath’s post on evolution and homicide reveals a lot about Warren’s theology and may even shed light on how we understand tragedy. While Warren informed McGrath that his tweet (noted above) was related to a question about sexuality rather than the Aurora slayings, nevertheless, the theology behind his viewpoint is suspect in its understanding of the relationship of humankind and nature, and possibility his interpretation of tragic events. McGrath gave a brief and insightful biblical response to the issues of multiple marriage and sexuality in scripture that had provoked Warren’s initial tweet. My approach will be primarily theological in nature.
A number of years ago in response to the popularity of Rick Warren’s Purpose Driven Life and “Forty Days of Purpose,” I penned a theological and spiritual alternative, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living (Upper Room, 2008), in which I suggested that a forty-first day needed to be added. This forty-first day would reflect the open-ended nature of the universe and the affirmation that God does not, as Warren asserts, decide the most important events of our lives without our consultation or “father-filter” life’s tragedies as a means of promoting our spiritual growth and testing our faith. At the time, I believed – still believe- that a forty-first day of adventure would make room for freedom, creativity, chance, and evolution.
Warren wisely didn’t invoke his understanding that divine providence either allows or chooses tragedies such as Aurora as opportunities for faith formation in his response to McGrath. Still, given his understanding of divine determinism and pedagogical providence, Warren ultimately sees God at the heart of tragic events, both as instigator and redeemer. Moreover, his tweet regarding evolution and immorality is theologically misguided and suggests that his vision of a dualism between humankind and nature is ethically and spiritually superior to an alternative vision of an interdependent universe in which God speaks through all things, bringing forth wonder and beauty in the slow and patient processes of planetary and species growth and evolution.
The biblical tradition does not intend to teach us science, but – at its best – calls us to reverence for life. All things, as Meister Eckhardt proclaims, are words of God, reflecting divine wisdom and intentionality. God cares for the sparrows and the lilies of the field. The whole earth and all its creatures groan in longing for wholeness. All creation is defined as good and is able to praise God simply by being itself. While humankind has a unique role, our role is one of stewardship and gratitude for the wonders of the universe, embodied in fireflies, starry nights, sunrises, running dogs, and babbling brooks. This is the heart of the Psalmist’s acclimation: Let everything that breathes praise God. Our continuity with the non-human (animal) world gives concreteness to the vocation of stewards of creation.
From the Psalmist’s perspective, teaching children that they are like animals would be beneficial, rather than detrimental, to their ethical and spiritual lives. In the animal world, we experience God’s handiwork. The animal world praises God and rejoices, albeit unconsciously, in wonder of each moment. Long before the term “omnipresence” was coined by philosophers, the Psalmist imagined a God-filled world, in which we “live and move and have our being” in a divine environment. Our ecstatic moments reveal the heights and depths of life. Isaiah discovers that the “whole earth is filled with God’s glory” as he encounters God in the temple and receives his life’s mission. God loves sparrows, grass, creeping things, lilies, and us!
In light of the Biblical vision of creation, the teaching of evolution is not dangerous to the human spirit, nor does it provoke senseless violence or rampant immorality. In fact, an evolving universe inspires appreciation of the non-human world as well as the unique mission of humankind. While the witness of Psalm 8 speaks of a grand universe in which humans are cosmologically inconsequential, it also affirms that we are divinely created and called to stewardship in relationship to a creation that is familiar rather than foreign.
Yes, Rick Warren needs a forty-first day to revise his vision of reality. He needs to discover a God who is still creating and evolving this world and a divine companion who feels our pain and honors our freedom and creativity even when they lead to tragedy. The reality of creaturely suffering is a call to compassion and social transformation, not a pass-fail spiritual test. God’s “father-filtered” love is found in crying with the victims and understanding the perpetrator, not in testing humankind or sending events to strengthen our faith.
Wherever truth and love are present, God is moving. God is moving in the actions of first responders, be they law officers, counselors, friends, parents, or spiritual leaders. God is moving in fossil fields, medical laboratories, and technologies that enable us to experience the grandeur of the universe. God is moving in our hearts as we seek ways to combat violence, reduce polarization, and become a civilized, care-full, and compassionate people, who – like God – seek to heal the universe one person and community at a time.
Polarizing faith and science is part of the problem and not its solution. We need a spiritually and theologically holistic vision of life that nurtures our connection with all creation, our respect for the grieving and vulnerable, and our vocation as God’s partners in healing the earth one creature at a time. We need to affirm the earthiness as well as spirituality of sexuality as a holistic reality which joins heaven and earth. Inability to see the wonders of life and respond to the uniqueness of each creature is a factor in our destruction of the earth, objectification of one another, and the violence of individuals as well as nations. If we do not see God’s hand in the world around us, we are unlikely to experience it in ourselves and others. Companionship with the earth and affirmation of otherness reflects humankind’s vocation to be God’s partner in bringing beauty, love, and healing to this Good Earth.
Bruce Epperly is a theologian, spiritual guide, pastor, and author of twenty two books, including Process Theology: A Guide to the Perplexed, Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living, Philippians: An Interactive Bible Study, and The Center is Everywhere: Celtic Spirituality for the Postmodern Age. His most recent text is Emerging Process: Adventurous Theology for a Missional Church. He also writes regularly for the Process and Faith lectionary. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for lectures, workshops, and retreats.