Creation as Art

July 20, 2015

A View of the Creation

A few weeks ago, while I was standing outside admiring a friend’s new car, I slapped a mosquito. My friend (also a biologist) made the observation, “You know that you just destroyed something more complex and more beautifully designed than my car.”

Let me be clear, I am not advocating that we let those little bloodsuckers have their way, but what opportunities to experience God do we miss every moment? Shouldn’t we be able to appreciate the creativity of God even in that mosquito?

Natural and Supernatural

All of creation is miraculous. God’s initial action in the creation of the cosmos was miraculous. And all he has made continues to be marvelous in its diversity, complexity, and function. If we truly believe in God’s providence through his continual action of creation, we have no choice but to be continually in awe. We should be so in awe that we can hardly stand it. The study of this ongoing activity of God is an opportunity to experience God, to give recognition to who he is as a creator and sustainer. It is an act of worship. It is hearing, seeing, feeling, smelling, and tasting God’s expression of himself and then responding with our deep attention, appreciation, and engagement.

I think we experience the creation all wrong. It may seem odd coming from a biologist, but I think we should be studying the creation first and foremost as a work of art, one that expresses something of who God is, what he values and desires, and his purposes for us. To truly experience God through his creation, we need to view it appropriately. But it doesn’t end with viewing; we also have the opportunity to respond to God with love, creativity, thanksgiving, praise, diligence, and skill through what he has made.

Miracles are often used to show God as powerful. People present them as evidence of the power of God because we cannot understand how they could have happened. This is a very dangerous way of thinking for a number of reasons. Miracles are no more and no less the activity of God than the everyday sustenance of his creation. Miracles are special because they represent God breaking his normal activity to make a point, and in that sense, they should be set apart. If we focus only on the “awe” of a miracle, we fail to look past it to the real point. Moreover, we assume that there is no evidence of God’s power in what is regular and what we do understand in creation.

What happens then as our understanding of the world grows? Do we lose the joy of seeing God through the regularity of his creation? Does God’s power shrink? Our understanding or lack thereof does not determine the value, meaning, or power of his activity. Failing to grasp this can lead to a dangerous misunderstanding of our relationship with the rest of creation and how we can experience God through what he has made and is making.

When we forget that all of creation is the Lord’s and an expression of his purposes, it is easy to misuse it. Creation has more value than simple utility. If you were raised in an art museum and never left it, you might fail to recognize the beauty of each creation. You might be tempted to make origami out of masterpieces. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t develop the creation, but we should do it always with an eye to the value it has in God’s eyes, independent of our sustenance, and also the value it has for helping us experience and understand God. In fact, a part of experiencing and understanding God through what he made is shaping our own valuation of things to match His. We have to attend to things differently.

Common should not be synonymous with dispensable, neutral, or boring. What God created is not boring- it is GOOD, and we have the opportunity to experience God more fully when we take that seriously.

But what does “good” mean?

The Good Creation

Shortly after I began teaching at Dordt, I was giving my dad a tour of Dordt’s prairie restoration and he asked me with complete sincerity, “What good is a prairie? This was really productive farmland.”

To consider this question fully, one should first broaden the scope of the conversation. Embedded in this question is the understanding that the value of the land resides in how we can use it or how it can benefit us. The question is all about us and the land. To come to a more complete understanding, the question needs to be embedded in our relationship with God and God’s relationship with the rest of his creation.

To start with the latter, God clearly cares about his non-human creation. He declares it good repeatedly before man is created (Gen. 1); explicitly includes shared ownership of the land for the wild animals along with humans (Gen. 1:30); provides a Sabbath for it (Lev.25); includes it in the entire biblical narrative including the fall (Gen. 3:20), the giving of the law (Ex.23, Lev.25), the Noahic covenant (Gen. 9:8-17), and the redemption of all things through Christ (Col. 1:20).

What good is the prairie? The ultimate determination of “good” comes solely from God and it is clear throughout the Bible that God considers what he made “good.” This is not a vague determination. Specific aspects are valued and given certain specific rights.

So then, what of our relationship with God?

Mankind is given a unique role as God’s image bearer. When we do it right, we represent Him and his interests in our relationships with one another and with the rest of his creation. We should understand our role as reflecting the clear intentions of God for his creation: to see it as “good” in the same way that he did, to maintain the integrity of it as he upholds all things, and above all, to enable it to glorify God. If we consider God an artist, we should study his technique, the elements of balance, proportion, repetition, and variation in what he has made. We should seek to understand what he is expressing through his art and develop those elements in ways that emulate his style and contribute to the work. We can’t do any of this if we don’t value it appropriately.

The creation has instrumental value; it can provide for our needs. The Great Plains prairie met all of the physical needs of Native Americans. It continues to provide a variety of ecosystem services: cleaning the water, renewing the air, building the soil, providing habitat and food for the wild animals, serving as a genetic resource for the development of new crops, and providing overall stability to the biosphere.

The creation also has intrinsic value (or at least value independent of our use for it). God declared it good, provides for its sustenance, includes it in his covenants, and reconciled it through his death.

There is much more to the picture, however. The creation also has value because it is a means by which we experience God. Through our interactions with it, we can image God, come to know Him better, and give Him glory. We expect art to express something of the mind of the artist; we should have the same expectation as we engage the creation. It is not neutral, un-purposed material. It is the working out of God’s creativity and love.

“There are no unsacred places; there are only sacred places and desecrated places.” – Wendell Berry

Dig Deeper

This week at iAt, we will be focusing on experiencing the presence of God from a variety of perspectives in life. Come back to iAt tomorrow to ponder God’s presence in the life of academia.

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  1. Great article! This is why I enjoy photographing nature. As a chemist, I see and appreciate God’s hand in the details of chemical reactions and molecular spectra. Photography allows me to see the wonder of God’s handiwork on a larger scale, and specifically as a work of art. It’s not an either-or issue, but a both-and.

  2. Thanks, great piece. Reminds of a quote by G.K. Chesterton that goes something like this: “It might be true that the sun rises regularly because he never gets tired of rising. His routine might be due, not to a lifelessness, but to a rush of life… It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we. The repetition in Nature may not be a mere recurrence; it may be a theatrical encore.”

  3. Is it really the case that creation is primarily to be enjoyed as art that communicates something about the artist, while its exploitation or use is a secondary activity to be approached with caution and restraint for how it might make creation less enjoyable, or enjoyable to fewer people? I like your image of someone born and raised in an art museum who starts using famous works of art as casual playthings, but the analogy seems less useful for understanding nature as opposed to our under-appreciation of it.

    It seems to me that nature, as a manifold of interconnected, interdependent life, is much more like a busy marketplace than a museum. As a dynamic system enfolding us in a web of relationships with all its members, nature and ecosystems within in are intrinsically valuable because they are our home. They are at the same time useful, but not just for our personal purposes. They have their own business, and in the process of trying to maintain their own health and order on many levels, they do things to and for us that have great value. These “instrumental” values are also “intrinsic” values, and we really cannot make a distinction that separates them. It is the values you call “instrumental” that were blessed as good, given for our sustenance, etc. It is not God’s blessing and covenant that magically confers value to things apart from his will and spirit for them and in them, sustaining them and desiring them for the good of all.

    1. Hi Chad,

      Thanks for your response. I agree that the analogy is most useful for highlighting our under-appreciation of creation. Like all analogies it does break down if applied too broadly. However, I do think that we have to start with an appreciation of and an eye toward Gods purposes for things before we intentionally begin to shape, exploit, use, or even arguably, to study the creation. I believe that the fundamental purpose of all creation is to bring God glory. Our use and development of the creation can certainly be a part of how the creation (including people) can bring God glory. But if we don’t start with the right perspective on the values of things (including ourselves), it will be very difficult to interact with them appropriately.

      I also completely agree that the instrumental and intrinsic value of things are not distinctly separable parts of the creation, but rather separate ways that we can appreciate it or think about it. Ideally as we consider the creation we are viewing these things as part of an interconnected whole. There is a thin line being tread, I am specifically saying that the value of the rest of the creation does not reside in what it can and does do for us. It resides in how it reflects God’s purposes. Certainly our interrelationships and the complexity of the whole system is more than the sum of its parts, but centering the value of the rest of the creation around our use and the benefits that the creation accrues to people might imply that it is all for us.

      What I am trying to clarify is that the creation is for the lord and in order for all of creation to truly glorify God, we should recognize that first. We are as much here for the rest of the creation, as the rest of the creation is here for us.

      We were placed here as stewards rather than owners- to “shamar” and “abad”. God covenants repeatedly with non-human creation. Both of these indicate to me that God values the rest of the creation, for reasons bigger than how it can serve us. It is declared “VERY good” when we function within it (using it, being sustained by it, protecting and keeping it, developing it) in ways that serve and glorify God. But we do not ultimately define the goodness of the rest of creation. We do not have that authority, nor does it reflect appropriately the relationships among us, God, and the rest of the creation to say that there is no difference between the intrinsic and instrumental value of things. I tried to clarify that the connotative meaning of intrinsic is somewhat inappropriate but perhaps not well enough- thanks for pointing that out.

      I would say that “Instrumental value” is an intrinsic part of the value of the rest of the creation. There is also, however, value in things that is not defined by their usefulness for us. So “instrumental” and “intrinsic” (as I am using them) are different in the same way that I might talk about my stomach as being something different than me, even though it is a part of me. My value is not entirely determined by my ability to put food in my stomach. The value of the creation is not entirely determined by its “usefulness” to people.

      1. What is shamar and abad?

        Do you know natura naturans (dynamic active nature, a living process) and natura naturata (inert nature, a thing complete)? It is like “creating/creative creation” and “created creation.” Present and future, active and ongoing versus past tense, finished. In classical and European history one is male, one female — usually the female *not* associated with the creative principle. The artist, doctor, or scientist comes to stand outside the frame, understanding and correcting nature with disembodied reason, mathematics, logic.

        Interesting how “instrumental value” is assumed as “useful…to me” or “useful….to human like me” not “useful…to bees, birds, fish…”