“The heavens declare:” How God is revealed in nature

Christianity’s most staggering claim isn’t that God exists (all religions say that); it’s that He communicates.  We call this revelation, the act by which God reveals Himself to the world.  For if man is to know God, it can only because God reveals Himself by speaking.  It is through God’s voice that we possess the knowledge of God.

This, of course, is what helps distinguish Christianity from every other major world religion.  How can we be sure that the God of Christianity is true?  Because the God of Christianity speaks to us in ways that are meaningful.

Christian theology teaches that God’s voice can be heard both directly as well as indirectly.  We call these distinct categories “General” (or “natural”) revelation and “Specific” (or “special”) revelation. We’ll start today with general revelation—the voice of God as heard in creation.

NATURE REVEALS GOD’S PRESENCE

David writes that “the heavens declare the glory of God, and the sky above proclaims his handiwork” (Psalm 19:1).    Elsewhere in the psalms, we read a song of praise to the God who “set the earth on its foundations so that it should never be moved… You covered it with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains” (Psalm 104:5-6).  The universe and all that’s in it point toward a Creator.  Why else is there something instead of nothing?

One of the most fascinating things that we often take for granted is that the universe is an orderly place.  For centuries, men like Galileo and Newton understood this to be the fingerprints of a God who is Himself orderly and intelligible.  For instance, Sir Isaac Newton famously wrote that “this most beautiful system of the sun, planets and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.”  And because God exists as a community of Father, Son, and Spirit, it should come as no surprise that the diversity of the Godhead would be reflected in the diversity in the universe.  “All that diversity of natural things,” wrote Newton, “could arise from nothing but the ideas and will of a Being, necessarily existing.”

In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes that God’s general revelation only solidifies the guilt of those who refuse to submit to God’s authority:

18 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth. 19 For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. 20 For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.  (Romans 1:18-20)

Evolution, of course, has been long assumed to replace any explanatory need for God.  According to Oxford professor Richard Dawkins, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually satisfied atheist.”   If you know me well, you know that I studied science as an undergraduate student—specifically the field of biochemistry.  Biochemistry and molecular biology reveal a hidden world that evolution alone has yet to fully explain.  My suggestion is twofold: that the presence of complexity and the presence of information hint at the presence of a Creator.

  • The presence of complexity

I can still vividly remember turning the page in my cell biology textbook and seeing an image of the interior of the cell membrane.  Now, to be clear, Darwin knew shockingly little about the cell.  Technology had only allowed him to understand the cell as the simplest of parts; the years after him would reveal that each of our body’s cells is a complex network of molecular machinery.  The diagram in my textbook showed a basic molecular “circuit:” a series of proteins embedded in the membrane of your average cell.  The pieces were complex, and could only work together if they came together.

In his book Darwin’s Black Box, Michael J. Behem compares this to a mousetrap.  Sure, we can pull the mousetrap apart and find a use for each of the parts.  The base might make a nice paperweight; the clamp could maybe be used as a fishhook or something.  But the mousetrap can only work if all the pieces come together at once—and in the right arrangement.  And each cell is massively more complex than the average mousetrap.  How could the pieces have evolved separately and then come together just right to make our cells function?  The answer, Behe suggests, is that perhaps this complexity hints at a designer.

  • The presence of information

My mother recently got one of those ancestry DNA kits.  They compare your DNA to that of a database to trace your family relations.  This only works because your DNA contains such a massive library of information about you.  Everything about us, from our eye color to our shoe size is embedded in long, molecular code.  For DNA consists only as a long chain of four molecules, represented by the letters A, T, C, and G.  So if you were to write out your DNA code, it might look something like: “ATCCAGGGTTCCCAATTC…” and so on.  Francis Collins, former head of the human genome project, tells us that your DNA code is so long, that if you were to print it out on standard printer paper using standard font, the stack of pages would be taller than the Washington’s monument in D.C.  What’s more staggering is that if a single letter is out of place, this can result in genetic disease.

Years ago William Paley suggested that if you found a watch on a beach, the complexity of its design would suggest the existence of a Watchmaker.  But what if you found an entire library of books?  Surely the information in our DNA points toward a higher intelligence.

NATURE REVEALS GOD’S LOVE

But we must also not neglect the way that creation points toward the loving character of God.  Returning to Psalm 104, we read:

10 You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills;
11 they give drink to every beast of the field;
the wild donkeys quench their thirst.
12 Beside them the birds of the heavens dwell;
they sing among the branches.
13 From your lofty abode you water the mountains;
the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work.

14 You cause the grass to grow for the livestock
and plants for man to cultivate,
that he may bring forth food from the earth
15     and wine to gladden the heart of man,
oil to make his face shine
and bread to strengthen man’s heart. (Psalm 104:10-15)

Even Jesus points to the example of the birds and lilies as evidence of God’s loving care (Luke 12:24-27).  The shift in seasons from winter to spring to summer to fall reveal the regular ebb of time, just as the seasons likewise point toward a final day when the winter of our discontent should fade into Spring’s first blossoms.

Alister McGrath is a professor of theology at Oxford University, but before this he received a PhD. in microbiology.  He describes his own experience looking at the stars, and how his faith in God change the way he viewed his place in the universe:

“The more I learned about astronomy, the more I began to appreciate the vastness of the universe and the immensity of the distances between the stars.  I found reflecting on these distances to be a melancholy affair…The span of human life seemed insignificantly brief, in comparison with the vast distances and timescales of the cosmos…[The stars] offered intimations of mortality without bringing me hope….

Yet when I began to think of the world as created, my outlook changed entirely….No longer were the stars silent memorials of transience, they were brilliant heralds of the love of God.  I was not alone in the universe but walked and lived in the presence of a God who knew me and would never forget me.”[1]

Even the rain that pelts our windowpanes whispers to us a story of a God who cares and a God who never forgets.  I realize, of course, that science can never “prove” that God exists, but in His creation His fingerprints and His clues are everywhere to be found.  But only to those willing to seek…

 

[1] Alister McGrath, Glimpsing the Face of God: The Search for Meaning in the Universe. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002), 55, 57.

Advertisements

Worship wars and the means of our worship (Psalm 104)

Worship CrowdIf you’ve been in church for a while, you’re undoubtedly familiar with the concept of the “worship wars.”  As much as we’d prefer not to use the words “worship” and “war” in the same sentence, it’s hard to ignore the embattled positions over the relative merits of “traditional” or “contemporary” worship.  Talk about your First World Problems, right?

But even the categories of “traditional” and “contemporary” don’t really do justice to the wide variety of styles present in today’s American Church.  It used to be that you’d identify a church by its denomination—that is, by a set of doctrines or shared beliefs that distinguish one church from another.  Now, we live in an age that some are calling “postdenominational” (try saying that with your mouth full).  Worship styles define the identity of the worshipping community more than actual beliefs.

In this series, we’re defining worship as the means by which we express and form our love—and for Christians this means our love for God and His Kingdom.  We’ve already addressed the nature of “expression” and “formation;” today we examine the “means” by which we worship.  And we might as well start off with a bit of history.

REDEEMING FORMS

It was the fourteenth century B.C.  Though Israel had departed Egypt roughly 100 years earlier, Egyptian culture moved forward.  Pharaoh Amenhotep and his wife Nefertiti changed the face of Egyptian religion: they replaced the worship of many gods with the worship of one—the sun god Aton.  They even wrote hymns to this god, some of which were probably well-known to the people of Israel.

See for yourself: look at the following selections between the Song of Aton and Psalm 104:

Song of Aton Psalm 104 (selections)
A) Praise of Re Har-akhti … Thou appearest beautifully on the horizon of heaven, Thou living Aton, the beginning of life! Thou art risen on the eastern horizon, thou hast filled every land with thy beauty. Thou art gracious, great, glistening … thy rays encompass the lands to the limit of all thou hast made. A) Bless the Lord, O my soul. O Lord my God, thou art very great: thou art clothed with honor and majesty: who covers thyself with light as with a garment: who stretches out the heavens like a curtain… who laid the foundations of the earth

 

 

   
B) Every lion is come forth from his den; All creeping things, they sting. Darkness is a shroud, and the earth is in stillness, for he who made them rests in his horizon.

 

B) Thou makest darkness, and it is night: wherein all the beasts of the forest do creep forth. The young lions roar after their prey and seek their meat from God.

 

   
C) At daybreak, when thou arisest on the horizon, when thou shinest as the Aton byday,… their arms are raised in praise at they appearance. All the world, they do their work. All beasts are content with their pasturage; trees and plants are flourishing.

 

C) The sun ariseth, they gather themselves together, and lay them down in their dens. Man goeth forth unto his work and to his labor until the evening. They give drink to every beast of the field…. He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works.

 

   
D) How manifold it is, what thou hast made! Thou didst create the world according to thy desire.

 

D) O Lord, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.

 

   
E) For thou hast set a Nile in heaven, that it may descend for them and make waves upon the mountains, . . to water their fields in their towns. E) He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.

 

 

What’s going on here?  Is it possible that Israel cribbed lines from the local radio station?  Well, kinda.  In his excellent study of the Jewish temple, G.K. Beale observes that many facets of Israelite religion strongly resembled those of other, neighboring religions.  A cynical observer might allow this to fuel his skepticism: “See?  There’s nothing unique about Israel’s religion; it was just adapted from the nations around them.”  Not to belabor the point, but I can actually attest that if you were to take an Old Testament or religions course in a University setting, you could probably expect your professor to hand you something like I’ve shown you above—in the hopes of dispelling any vision you may have had of Israel’s uniqueness.

But Beale goes further in his study to emphasize the sharp contrasts between Israel and her neighbors.  Sure, Israel borrowed from Egypt’s cultural forms—but not her content.  Beale suggests that Israel borrowed from others as a way of showing God’s superiority to the rival religions that surrounded Israel.  Or, he suggests, it could simply be that every human soul yearns to touch the face of God—other religions are simply failed attempts at connecting with man’s creator.

What does this have to do with worship?  It’s simple, really: the form of worship is less significant than the object of worship.  Believe it or not, there are churches that argue that certain styles or genres of music can never be used to worship God.  But even the Psalms reveal that certain cultural styles can be adapted to reflect God’s truth and character.  Even many of today’s traditional hymns are adaptations of popular tunes sung during the days of Martin Luther and—later—John Wesley.

This also means that there can be no real point in arguing the superiority of one style or another.  In truth, each style may impact different people in different ways.  Personally you’ll never, ever get me to listen to country music—but I don’t fault those who find value and meaning in country-based music.

SACRED AND THE SECULAR?

This also means that the line between “sacred” music and “secular” music isn’t always as clear as we’d like to think.  In some churches, worship leaders are strategically incorporating songs from non-Christian artists into their overall worship experience.  Why?  We can’t revise the artist’s original meaning—a love song is still a love song, after all—but surely some songs speak to a universal human longing, a longing that can only be fulfilled in God.  Obviously, this requires wisdom, discernment, and a clear communication of purpose, but there may be times when even the most secular artists reveal the most sacred of human longings.

LEX ORANDI, LEX CREDENDI

But why all the “worship wars?”  Why do so many people in our churches end up “church-hopping” so regularly and so willingly?  Why are we so quick to grow bored with our worship?

I believe the answer to these questions is very simple: in these instances, it is not Christ we worship, but Christianity.  The difference is simple: our devotion is not to Christ alone, but to the actual means by which we worship Him.  Said another way, what we worship is worship itself.

Historically the church has expressed this through the Latin phrase: lex orandi, lex credendi.  Literally it means “the church believes as she prays,” but I prefer Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones’ modern paraphrase: “What you win them with, you win them to.”  In other words, if we “win” people to our church through impassioned, cutting edge worship experiences, then there’s a possibility that we have won them to those experiences rather than Jesus.  If people are won to the emotion that colors so much of today’s worship music, then they will always be looking for their next emotional “fix.”  And “worship wars” will always erupt between those more devoted to the style of worship than the object of worship. Cater to preferences, and you cultivate a generation of consumers.  Devote oneself to the gospel, and you cultivate a generation of disciples.

So what is to be done?  The answer, I believe, is to actively pursue the same attitude as the One we worship—who lowered Himself by becoming a human being and ascend to the agony of the cross.  If we abandon our often-selfish demands to worship the way we want, then we can enjoy the things that draw our brothers and sisters closer to God.  And in so doing, we lay a greater foundation for unity and lasting joy.