The Gospel of Nature

Yosemite FallsOff to Yosemite again to lead a volunteer adventure with my fav nonprofit org Conservation Volunteers International Program (check us out on Facebook). In November, this great organization returns to one of the most grand and glorious landscapes on this good earth, Torres del Paine National Park, Patagonia, Chile. Meanwhile, my focus is Yosemite National Park for the next few weeks so I offer a few comments about one of her key figures in history, John Muir, and some musings about the Gospel of Nature.

I find John Muir’s story fascinating. I wonder how his life might have been different if his father did not beat him into memorizing the entire Bible (he had 3/4 of the Old Testament and the entire New Testament memorized by age 11). And, I wonder if he exchanged belief in the God of the Bible for a belief in a God as an impersonal causal agent of the universe. Though having a keen sense of the beauty and majesty in nature, Muir seemingly worshipped nature and moved perilously close to, if not a full on, pantheistic worldview. He writes:

All the wild world is beautiful, and it matters but little where we go, to highlands or lowlands, woods or plains, on the sea or land or down among the crystals of waves or high in a balloon in the sky; through all the climates, hot or cold, storms and calms, everywhere and always we are in God’s eternal beauty and love. So universally true is this, the spot where we chance to be always seems the best.

No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty. Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars, or planning the movements of water, or gardening – still all is Beauty!

Man must be made conscious of his origin as a child of Nature. Brought into right relationship with the wilderness he would see that he was not a separate entity endowed with a divine right to subdue his fellow creatures and destroy the common heritage, but rather an integral part of a harmonious whole. He would see that his appropriation of earth’s resources beyond his personal needs would only bring imbalance and beget ultimate loss and poverty for all.

- Sierra Club (which Muir co-founded)

Still, there is much value in God’s revelation of nature, just as the Apostle Paul affirms. Like a signpost, Paul employed general revelation to point people to the reality of Jesus and the salvation he offers (see Acts 14:14-17; 17:24). Canvassing the Scriptures, we find that nature is always a means to an end and not an end in itself. From Acts 14:15-17 Paul declares God to be Author of the universe (v. 15); a patient and forbearing divine Judge (v. 16; similarly Acts 17:30), and a gracious Sustainer of the universe and everyone therein (v.17). Furthermore, Paul proclaims God to be Creator and Lord of all, who is unencumbered by human intent (v. 24), independent, the self-sustaining Life-giver of all (v. 25), and the impartial Sovereign over all (v. 26). Moreover, it is significant to note that Paul goes on to say even pagan poets can apprehend something of God (v. 28). While Paul is not endorsing everything said by these pagan poets, he does imply that some truth they have about God is reliable and should be heeded.

Romans 1:19-32 is telling, not only about discovering God from creation but of the results of having some knowledge about God. There is a degree of objective and reliable knowledge about God (v. 19). The objective knowledge of God is found in “what has been made.” This suggests that inductive reasoning (viz., from particulars to the general idea; from effects to causes) is sufficient to discover some things about God. In other words, the creation communicates the reality of its Maker, to a degree. Sadly, this knowledge of God is filtered through sinful humanity, the results of which are that humans willfully pervert justice (1:32), wisdom turns to foolishness (v. 22) and knowledge, however limited, turns to ignorance (v. 25). While God may be discovered in the creation, general revelation proves insufficient for promoting a relationship with God and ironically causes God’s creation to be worshipped. General revelation, therefore, serves only to bring humankind under divine judgment.

Another arena where God has chosen to be discovered is in the nature of human existence. Romans 2:14-15 states that Gentiles (non-Jewish, perhaps even non-religious people) mirror something of God’s moral standards in their behavior. The source of these standards comes from God’s law that is “written on their hearts.” The greater context (Rom. 1:18-3:20) shows that Paul’s purpose in this passage is to demonstrate that all are under the reign and rule of sin (cf., Rom. 3:9-10). Paul does not say the “requirements of the law” are fulfilled. In fact, Rom 2:15 suggests that moral behavior is at best sporadic and irregular (“their thoughts now accusing, now even defending them”). This inherent awareness of right and wrong brings about responsibility (v. 15), and responsibility brings about accountability before God (v. 16). At present, people need only live with the pangs of their own thoughts and conscience. Yet people are responsible, not to themselves, but to the source of these moral demands who himself will bring to light their guilt. General revelation is God disclosing himself to his creation in the realm of the human heart and its sense of right and wrong.

The scope of general revelation is universal. No individual can escape creation nor the inner world of moral sensibilities. If it is true that all are under the power of sin (Rom. 3:9-10) and, as a result, are guilty before God, then the same is true for everyone, everywhere. Furthermore, since it is true that the created order and moral sensibilities of humankind have not essentially changed throughout history, then it follows that the apprehension of God is possible for all people everywhere and at all times. Simply put, what is always true for the whole is always true for its respective parts. Every person and all of humankind stands condemned before their Maker.

Moreover, because God has clearly disclosed himself through creation, there are no extenuating circumstances for anyone to appeal for excusal (Rom. 1:20). In spite of the extent of perversion (Rom. 1:23-3 1), people continually “know God’s righteous decree” (present tense) regarding true justice, yet are incapable of living authentically and consistently with this knowledge (v. 32). While Paul speaks particularly of Gentiles in Rom. 2:14-15, the entire context indicates he is showing sin to be universal and all inclusive (Rom. 3:9-10; 19-20). Acts 14:16 explicitly affirms the scope of the message is “all nations.” Finally, Paul’s argument to the philosophers in Athens is replete with all-inclusive language (Acts 17:22-31). This sermon could not be understood in any other way but to conclude that the knowledge of God is universal.

The purpose of God in making himself known through general revelation is to expose humanity’s hopeless plight and point them to him. Yet, knowledge of God in creation and innate moral discretions serve only to bring the wrath of God in condemnation. Humankind is willingly incapable of discovering God without some further help [Note: Being “willingly incapable is not incongruent, but illustrates the enigma of divine sovereignty and human responsibility which co-exists. Put another way, an individual inability does not absolve one of all responsibility. People make a significant contribution to their own despairing predicament.]. On the basis of general knowledge of God, everyone, everywhere, and at all times are guilty before him. The whole world will stand in the divine courtroom of justice to hear the charges God brings against it. With the ever-present failure to meet the holy demands of God, the human race recognizes sin and guilt. It is in this recognition that all people are, admittedly or not, condemned (Rom. 3:19-20).

I look forward to my time in Yosemite and will marvel with every upward glance while working  on the trails in Yosemite Valley. But in my gaze upon the grandeur of Nature, I will look beyond her to that great and glorious Gospel of God as revealed in the cross of Jesus.

Soli Deo gloria!!

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