Monday, September 1, 2014

Mystery, Scripture, and the Need for Creation's Witness

As I walked through the steamy air of a late summer morning, I had John Calvin on my mind.

Lord help me.

It was a lovely morning, but for the burgeoning heat of what was to be an intensely swampy Southern day.  The sky was thick with clouds, the air was damp with the lingering wetness of evening storms.  Here and there, drops fell from the wet leaves above.

And I was thinking about Calvin.  More specifically, the thing that rose unbidden from my memories as I engaged with creation was a reflection on Calvin's Institutes, and one of the justifications for our Reformed focus on the Scriptures.

There were many reasons the Reformers felt that Christians should focus on the Bible.  First and foremost, being engaged with the texts of Scripture yourself meant that you were connected with them.  At that point in history, most Christians were illiterate, and the church made no meaningful effort to teach the meaning of the faith.  Going directly to the texts was a liberation, and a counterbalance on ecclesiastical overreaches.

But there were other reasons.  Among them was the argument from Creation.  The world around us was God's work, Calvin suggested.
"There are innumerable evidences both in heaven and on earth that declare his wonderful wisdom; not only those more recondite matters for the closer observation of which astronomy, medicine, and all natural science are intended, but also those which thrust themselves upon the sight of even the most untutored and ignorant persons, so that they cannot open their eyes without being compelled to witness them..." (Institutes, I.v.1)
But creation is also wildly and deeply inscrutable, a profound mystery that could confuse and distract us in our smallness.
"It is therefore in vain that so many burning lamps shine for us in the workmanship of the universe to show forth the glory of its Author.  Although they bathe us wholly in their radiance, yet they can of themselves in no ways lead us to the right path.  Surely they struck some sparks, but before their fuller light shines forth these are smothered." (Institutes, I.v.14)
Thus, the need for Scripture, because we're just too stubborn, stupid, and self-absorbed to grasp the unmediated self-expression of the Creator.   We need something more, something to help us integrate that awareness into a cohesive purpose.

And there, the teachings of the Tanakh and the Gospels and Epistles come into play.  They become the lens that helps us focus, to see our purpose clearly.

I get that.  I do.  It's helpful to have a framework.

On the other hand, the same thing that structures our thinking can also be spiritually dangerous, for reasons that are implicit in Calvin's own argumentation.  The Creator of the universe speaks directly through existence, all of which articulates the Divine Intent.

And sure, it tends to blow our minds a bit.

But shouldn't it?  I mean, really.  Looking at the scale and wild complexity of our space-time, and the potentially infinite depth of a yawning multiversal cosmos, we are, as Calvin put it, "whirled and twisted about" by our encounter with a power that so vastly exceeds our own that we can feel utterly lost.  (Institutes I.v.11)

That's certainly the reality encountered by modern science, which--after a brief and heady period when it thought it had it all worked out--is beginning to surface complexities so impossible that they seem profoundly beyond our capacity to grasp.

And that, it strikes me, is a necessary part of a robust and authentic faith.  Sure, we need a framework.  But we also need encounters that are unmediated by that framework, encounters that shatter and reform us.  We need something that tears us from our self-absorption, that gives us a sense of scale and mystery and God's transcendent, numinous power.

Contemplating creation, as it so happens, is really good at that.