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“Editor’s note: This essay marks the debut of a new, regular column by Dr. Ramage, titled ‘God’s Two Books,’ which focuses on the relationship between natural revelation and divine revelation (especially Sacred Scripture), the deep marriage of faith and reason, and a Catholic approach to creation and ecology.”— From Catholic World Report
In the hearts of many faithful Catholics, a tension arises when contemplating the natural world and its relevance to our faith. Believers often have a deep appreciation for God’s good creation. Whether it is in their own backyard or a visit to a distant shore, they cherish opportunities to get out and explore the wonders of creation, beholding firsthand the divine wisdom that stretches across the entire cosmos and “orders all things well” (Wis 8:1). For countless Christian families, some of our favorite moments and memories come from summer road trips to awe-inspiring destinations that John Muir aptly termed “cathedrals of nature.” Animated by gratitude for the great gift of creation’s splendor, the committed Catholic wants to do all that he can to see it flourish.
Unfortunately, a variety of factors prevent many believers today from incorporating creation as a significant dimension of their faith life. For one thing, the way nature is portrayed in our secularized culture routinely turns off the faithful. The message of those who worship the earth is not likely to resonate with Catholics interested in following the Catechism. Neither are the faithful willing to abide the anti-human posturing that permeates much of present-day environmentalism. It is hard to united in a shared purpose with someone who reproaches your religion for causing every ecological disaster spanning the globe.
Meanwhile, another temptation is for the believer to feel that the natural world has no direct bearing on the life of holiness. It is not the sphere of God’s grace, so the thinking goes, seeing as it is accessible to everyone and isn’t bestowed upon us directly by God. Moreover, we already have Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition. One may therefore wonder how the realm of nature substantially could add anything to the message that God himself has spoken in the annals of salvation history.
Given the above, it is reasonable to ask: is getting to know and care for creation truly a priority for Catholics?
Scripture’s revelation of God’s “other book”
This question is answered with a decisive “yes” in the pages of Sacred Scripture and the testimony of the saints across the ages. From antiquity, the Church’s tradition has held that nature is an epiphany of divine splendor analogous to the Lord’s revelation in the book of Sacred Scripture. From the perspective of divine revelation, creatures mirror the majesty of the one true Word, and each individual manifests the Triune God in our world in its distinctive way. Creation, in other words, is God’s “other book.” As an indication of how important the ancients considered this source of wisdom, St. Bernard of Clairvaux is reputed to have said that his wisdom was acquired entirely in the woods and fields, and that he found the trees and stones of the forest imparted more insight than books and teachers.
But why is it that the great Fathers and Doctors of the Church thought of creation in this way? What does Sacred Scripture have to say on the topic, and how do we interpret it? What wisdom does the Catholic tradition have to share for how we can develop literacy in “reading” these two books? And what might be the implications of this endeavor for our lives today?
These are the matters that this new column “God’s Two Books” will set out to explore.
For the time being, our aim will be more modest. As C.S. Lewis memorably wrote, before anything else, our first task must be to see. Specifically, we need to train our eyes to behold how it is that our Lord manifests his glory in the world around us. Thankfully, we possess an abundance of assistance for this enterprise. The entire Catholic tradition is permeated by a captivating vision of a vital and intimate relationship between himself, human beings, and the natural world. The pages of Sacred Scripture themselves are suffused with a vision in which man joins every creature in heaven and on earth in a cosmic communion of divine praise.
One important literary motif through which the Bible expresses this reality is when it depicts creation as having a “face” and a “voice” (Gen 1:2,29; Ps 104:29–30). Through this personification, Scripture describes animals, plants, and even inanimate beings as bearers of the Logos who “tell” or “declare” the glory of God (Ps 19:1–5). As we read in the Canticle of the three young men in the furnace, every creature and feature of the natural world has its own irreplaceable way of “blessing” the Lord (Ps 148; Dan 3:57–81). Planets, stars, sky, rain, dew, wind, clouds, lightning, fire, heat, summer, cold, winter, ice, frost, nights, days, light, darkness, mountains, hills, plants, springs, seas, rivers, whales and all water creatures, birds, mammals, angels, and mankind—creation’s chorus of divine praise includes every living and non-living being without exception.
Wisdom from theological greats across the ages
The biblical vision of creation an outward expression of its invisible divine origin has been an integral component of Catholic life from time immemorial. A long line of greats from Basil to Bonaventure to Benedict XVI have described Scripture and the natural world as God’s two books, each of whose pages are filled with immeasurable richness. In the words of St. Bonaventure, the “[E]very creature is a word of God, since it proclaims God.”
According to Patristic greats such as Pseudo-Dionysius the Areopagite, the perfections of creatures eternally preexist in God in an ineffably higher way than we perceive them here on earth. This metaphysical position was held so strongly by St. Gregory Nazianzen and St. Maximus the Confessor that the latter could say that “the one Logos [Word] is many logoi [words].” For these classic thinkers, creation is a diffusion of the divine perfections in space and time. Such a conviction was held so dearly that Thomas Aquinas that he could describe God as “innermost in all things” by his essence, presence, and power. In this, the Angelic Doctor echoes the wisdom of earlier greats who stressed the Lord’s immanence in all creatures. This was a presence so deep that Augustine spoke of God as interior intimo meo (“more inward than my innermost self”).
In the modern era, we have glimpsed this insight in the theology of St. John Paul II, who spoke of the “sacramentality of creation.” It also found a fruitful and bold reception in the language of his friend Hans Urs von Balthasar, who wrote that creation points us to the divine as a “monstrance of God’s real presence.” Creation was also an arena in which Joseph Ratzinger distinguished himself. In a tireless effort to re-enchant the cosmos by calling attention to its character as a natural sacrament of the divine presence, he emphasized that the Church has always believed in a “God-permeated-cosmos” and that she champions a “symbolic understanding of the world.” From this perspective, said Ratzinger, we come to understand that creatures are enriched with meaning that points to a deeper reality that “remains inaccessible to chemical analysis and yet does not cease to be real—to the dimension of the eternal which is perceptible and present in the midst of the temporal.”
Thus understood, water is never just H2O. To those with the eyes to see and ears to hear, it also speaks volumes about God’s life-giving love, overwhelming power, purity, simplicity, and humility. In a similar vein, Ratzinger maintains that the biological has a “transparency” to eternal which acquires a new depth in human beings. For example, in man a natural action like eating becomes more than an occasion for nutrition, and a safe dwelling place is more than a protected space for sleeping. Rather, man’s act of eating has the capacity to reflect God more deeply by virtue of becoming a meal, while his place of habitation mirrors divine charity more profoundly when it becomes a home.
A fruitful reading of nature requires literacy and a grasp of its “grammar”
Ratzinger would continue to develop this line of thought over several decades. For instance, in 1979 the then-cardinal wrote, “The symbols of creation are signs pointing to Christ, and Christ is the fulfillment not only of history but also of creation.” In a homily for the feast of Thomas Aquinas, the CDF prefect emphasized developing the literacy to read the book of nature. In this reflection, he exhorted the faithful to strive for an understanding of its “grammatical rules.” This alone, he maintained, makes it possible to recognize that all creatures have a “message” that mediates the voice of God and which even serves to demonstrate his existence (cf. Rom 1:20 and Wis 13:1-5). In a striking formulation that mirrors his understanding of Scripture as the words of God in the words of men, Ratzinger stressed that “listening to the words of God in the words of creation” is an essential facet of life in Christ. On his view, this is precisely what enables us to conform ourselves to the truth of creation rather than seeking to “adjust creation to our own liking so that it will be serviceable to us.”
In this manner of speaking, one of the past century’s greatest minds echoes the wisdom of one the brightest of the Medieval period, Hugh of St. Victor. Already in the twelfth century, Hugh lamented that many of his contemporaries were “unlettered” in the ways of creation. As they look around the world, he says, these foolish people see only “characters” (i.e., the external appearance of creatures). Regrettably, even as Hugh recognized nature as an “open book” whose pages are eagerly waiting to be read, he observed that these individuals fail to grasp its “letters” (i.e., the sacramental quality or “inner meaning” of how creatures reflect the wisdom of their Creator).
Even in the Middle Ages, the heart of Hugh’s theology was not at all new. St. Ephrem the Syrian anticipated him by eight centuries with his depiction of Scripture and nature as the two canvases on which God has painted his “self-portrait.” This language makes one wonder whether it is the source for C.S. Lewis’s fictional depiction of the world of Perelandra, whose Edenic form he emerged out of the depth of divine artistry—a “masterpiece of self-portraiture coming forth from His workshop…a copy, like and not the same, an echo, a rhyme, an exquisite reverberation of the uncreated music prolonged in a created medium.”
Creation is not only suffused with reason, but also beauty.
In this essay, we have been pondering the reality of the Lord’s good creation through the traditional lens of regarding it as the “other book” that he composed in tandem with the Bible. In closing this brief reflection, however, we would be remiss not to accentuate one further dimension of this vision: that the divinely ordered world we inhabit is not only true, but also beautiful.
One particularly moving way that masters across the tradition have approached the theme of creation’s beauty has been to employ an analogy with music. From this perspective, every creature represents a note within the carmen (“poem” or “song”) that is the cosmos. Perhaps no one has better captured this point than St. Gregory of Nyssa.
Developing the notion that melodic rhythm provides the archetypal structure of creation, Gregory explains: “[T]he entire world order is a kind of musical harmony whose artisan and creator is God…an arrangement that is integral and in accord with itself.” To this, he adds that even what we might perceive to be points of dissonance within the song of creation contribute to its overall beauty. He therefore says that “the blending into a whole from various, separate elements in the universe” results in an ordered, constant “rhythm” and a supremely melodious “harmony.”
This image was not forgotten by great thinkers of the past century who endeavored to retrieve the Church’s ancient wisdom. It imbues the work of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien at seemingly every turn, notably the hauntingly beautiful creation myths at the opening of Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew and Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. What is more, it was a running theme in Ratzinger’s theology of creation from his time as a professor all the way into the autumn of his life. Ratzinger saw believers as participants alongside other creatures in a cosmic “drama” or “melody,” which as pope he also referred to as the “symphony” of creation.
And, yet, while he saw humans playing a unique role in this suite due to their status as God’s children, Benedict insisted that there is only one “soloist” in this performance. This is none other than our Lord Jesus Christ, who is of such singular importance in the cosmic drama that “the significance of the entire work depends on [him].” Among the many ways in which a Catholic understanding of the natural world distinguishes itself from its secular counterparts, at the most fundamental level it is this recognition of our world’s character as creation, whose reality is illumined fully only in light of the One in whom and for whom all things were made.
This appeared at Catholic World Report.
Image: The 2013 supermoon phenomenon
at Benedictine College’s Sacred Heart statue
photographed by Christa Rieger.