Wednesday, October 30

God's Fingerprints: Imaginative Perspectives on the Natural World

St. Bonaventure, St. Francis, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Novak, Henry David Thoreau, William Wordsworth Wordsworth are six individuals who can contribute to furthering our knowledge and understanding of God's creation. Each individual has a different worldview, a different set of presuppositions and a different identity – as well as different historical context. From the AD 1100s to the present day, we see individuals reflecting on God’s creation, how His creation can be perceived through our five senses, how one engages in the act of subcreating, if man has adhered to God’s mandate to take care of His creation, and a variety of other things. St. Bonaventure believed that “all creatures in this world of sensible realities lead the spirit of the contemplative and wise person to God. Indeed, creatures are shadows, echoes and pictures of that first, most powerful, most wise and best Principle, of that eternal source, light, and fullness; of that efficient, prototypical and ordering Art” (100). This reflects the concept of the Shadowlands as described by C.S. Lewis (well known for his theological treatises and his Narnia books). Our planet is the Shadowlands – what we see and live and do on this earth is a shadow of heaven. St. Paul and other early Christians taught that the earth is a shadow of God’s realm, indeed even of God himself.

The writers, saints, philosophers and artists mentioned above look at nature in a different way. According to the Genesis narrative, God gave dominion and care for this planet (for the Shadowlands) to mankind. However, in the mid-late 1800s, we find Hopkins discussing how much mankind has muddied, smeared, smudged, cracked, crumbled and mocked God’s creation. We have certainly not attempted to take good care of God’s creation, or at least, not as much as we ought to. Yet despite the damage that man has done to God’s creation, “for all this, nature is never spent” (Hopkins 104).

Indeed, when Henry David Thoreau explored the woodlands of Maine he reflected on this very thing. Thoreau was contemporaneous with Hopkins, and therefore both were on the verge of the Industrial Age and were seeing the hints and foreshadowings of its coming. As Thoreau is walking near the roaring rapids he reflects, “This was what you might call a brand new country; the only roads were of Nature’s making, and the few houses were camps. Here, then, one could no longer accuse institutions and society, but must front the true source of evil” (116). The implication from both Hopkins and Thoreau seems to be that man is the source of evil, and that man is the reason God’s creation continues to decline.

How then do we preserve the past and care for what creation God has given us? Artists and poets attempt answer this universal call. “Since artists were created by God and generously endowed by him with special gifts, the powers of revelation and creation extended to them too” (109). As discussed elsewhere, this is essentially the Tolkenian concept of Subcreation: as God is the Ultimate Creator, we find that poets, artists, musicians and anyone else who creates is creating using something already in existence, but as they are emulating God they engage in Subcreation. It is through the artwork of individuals that we can see the original beauty and wondrous majesty that was once and Edenic paradise, but is now an overly-technologized world.

Novak makes a further point to this – the artwork and created Nature offer us more insight into God than a simple religious instruction. She notes, “We can never see Christianity from the catechism – from the pastures, from a boat in the pond, from amidst the songs of wood-birds, we possibly may” (qtd. on 108). This is why Abraham, Moses, Jesus, Muhammad and others would go on a wilderness experience or a mountain experience. St. Francis and Wordsworth demonstrate through their poetry an appreciation for God’s creation. St. Francis uses the repeated refrain “Let’s praise you, Lord” (lines 10, 12, 15, 17, 20, and 23) to illustrate how deep his appreciation is for the Divine Creator. Not only does St. Francis recognize God’s fingerprints within his creation – he embraces it and celebrates it. Wordsworth appreciates the Creation (not necessarily the Creator), and in doing so embraces it and finds a sense of peace and tranquility out of the chaos he had been enduring in his private life.

Perhaps the dominant idea is that God is made accessible to every man through nature, and now through the Godman in the person of Jesus Christ. These imaginative perspectives on the natural world show us that we can recognize the shadows and pictures of God’s creative act all around us. We see that we can accept his handiwork and agree to our duty to take care of this world we were given as well as taking care of ourselves. We see that we have not adhered to this duty but have smeared God’s creation, though even after all of this His creation remains intact. We do not have control over the weather or natural disasters, and even in mechanized cityscapes we can still perceive the beauty and wonder of the world He made for us to inhabit. Indeed, poets, musicians and artists attempt to subcreate in an attempt to capture the divine spark of the universe, and regardless of how much damage we have done to this world there are still those who appreciate the Creator and the Creation, and can look up and see the shadow of the divine.

Bonaventure. (2013). on seeing god through his vestiges in this sensible world. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 98-100). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

Hopkins, Gerald M. (2013). from the succession affair. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 104). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

Novak, Barbara (2013). from the nationalist garden and the holy book. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 105-114). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

St. Francis. (2013). canticle of brother sun. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 101-102). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

Tolkien, J.R.R. (2008). subcreation. In On Fairy-Stories (ed. Douglas Anderson). Scotland: HarperCollins.

Thoreau, Henry D. (2013). up the west branch. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 115-125). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

Wordsworth, William. (2013). tintern abbey. In The Intellectual Journey (3rd ed., pp. 126-129). Acton, MA: XanEdu.

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