Ten years ago, I published a thin book, entitled Preaching Creation, an attempt to provide for preachers some biblical material that could serve as foundational for any who were looking for resources to address the immediate existential crisis that all humans, and their non-human companions, face, namely the climate crises, calamitous emergencies that threaten the planet in ways too numerous and catastrophic easily to enumerate. In those ten years, things have vastly deteriorated, with obviously rising temperatures and seas, deepening droughts in some places and cascading rainfalls and storms in others, all made possible by the increasing CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, accompanied by other heat-trapping gases like methane; the numbers have now long passed 420 parts per million, figures that have not been observed, quite literally, for millions of years, if there had been any human observers the last time such numbers existed. The planet is suffering, and we humans are the primary culprit in that pain.
In my little book, I tried to suggest that before we take the crisis seriously, we must first be converted to the certainty that God is urging us to become planet lovers. We cannot become that sort of human, if we continue to believe that dangerous and false narrative that we are, in the end, masters of the universe, a canard that an erroneously half-baked reading of Genesis 1:26-28 has perpetuated. Somehow, religious people have concluded that those verses proclaim that God’s human creatures are “rulers” over all other earthly creatures, and that we have been given control and mastery over fish, bird, and all other non-human life. Such a tragic misunderstanding has led us to the catastrophe that we now face. I suggested in my book that an embrace of Genesis 2:15, the statement that the human beings created by YHWH have been given the task of “serving” creation (the garden) and “protecting” it, the literal meaning of the two verbs mentioned there, rather than controlling or subduing it. That is the most basic conversion we need; we are servants of creation not masters of it.
Once we have been so converted, we can now examine two of the biblical psalms to discover more fully just how we are to find our rightful place in the universe of God. Psalm 19:1-4 reads in my translation:
The skies are writing the glory of God,
and heaven’s vault narrates the work of God’s hands.
Day bubbles forth speech to day,
and night proclaims knowledge to night;
Without speech, without words—
their voice is not heard.
Still, their lines stretch throughout the earth,
their words to the world’s ends!
Each metaphor in these lines trumpets praise to God, but a praise that is devoid of overt language; the snow-capped mountain and the burbling stream each uses its own sort of “language” to say that we humans need to see in nature the glory of God. That seems obvious enough; what religious person is unable to see especially in mountains and oceans evidence of the glory of God? But what the psalmist announces is that these elements of the planet are not simply evidence of God’s glory, but they are in fact engaging in a silent conversation, both written and spoken, between ocean, mountain and God; the subject of that conversation is God’s glory. Ocean and mountain are truly praising their creator! In the same way that God hangs the war bow in the clouds to signal the terrible flood’s end, a bow used to remind God, not us, that God should never again destroy earth (Gen.9:15-16), so that same sky is always performing its created function by continually hymning the glory of God. The rainbow is not for us, but for God, and the sky’s praise is not heard by us, but is nevertheless a constant activity.
By thinking like this, we begin to re-enchant nature, replacing its observational, scientific distancing with a close-up, mesmerizing delight, the conviction that the elements of earth are praising God just as we are called to praise God. And this notion is reinforced by the remarkable Ps.148. In that psalm, no human is said to praise God at all until all manner of other objects and non-human creatures are said to do so. In vss. 1-4 we are told that the sky, and whatever there is above the sky, the sky armies and divine messengers, the sun, the moon, and stars, and the waters above the sky, whence comes the life-giving rains, all “praise the name of YHWH.” Then the psalmist turns to earth’s unique authors of praise in vss.7-10: sea monsters (all those creatures that live deep in the seas and are ferocious and untamable by any human), the deep itself (the vast cosmic ocean), fire, hail, snow, frost, storm wind, mountains, hills, fruit trees and mighty cedars, wild and domesticated animals, crawling creatures and flying birds, all are in the business of praising God. All these are not simply objects for our control, or elements to be feared or abhorred; they all praise God for that is their work as created things and forces of that God.
Finally, we get to human beings, but the way the humans are enumerated is interesting. Vss.11-12:
Kings of the earth and all peoples,
princes and all earthly leaders!
Young men and women alike,
old along with young.
In ancient Israel we would expect “kings” to be named first in the hierarchy of humans, but the king is here paired with a generic “all peoples.” Such a pairing suggests that in praise of God all hierarchies fall away, because all are in the end equal in the command to praise. In the same manner, neither age nor gender (and in our modern world we would add sexual orientation and gender identity) provides any impediment to praise. Young and old, woman and men are all necessarily included in the chorus of praise.
And now we must conclude that any chorus of praise of God is incomplete without any created thing or creature or person: sopranos must be joined by skylarks, altos by aardvarks, tenors by titmice, and basses by buffaloes. And do not forget the waters, the skies, the sun, moon, and stars. This is more than a fanciful, whimsical chorus; it is the reality of God’s chorus, and until we recognize the necessity of all praising the creator, we will not be able to tackle the climate horrors, the planetary terrors that confront us today. We must discover urgently a genuine solidarity with creation, with all of creation, if we are ever to act for the planet in ways that may serve it and us in life-giving and life-sustaining ways. It is not too late, I do not believe, but it is getting very late indeed.