This blog post is a guest post by Dr Andy Gosler. Dr Gosler is a research lecturer in Ornithology & Conservation at Oxford University. He is also currently training for ordination in the Church of England. This post is the text of a sermon that he recently preached at Holy Trinity Church, Headigton Quarry, Oxford on 1 October 2017 (the Sunday immediately prior to St Francis’ Day).
In 1832 a young British naturalist stood in the Atlantic rainforest of Brazil. It was his first experience of rainforest and its cathedral-like dimensions and abundance of life moved him deeply. He wrote in his journal:
“It is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration, and devotion which fill and elevate the mind”.
Charles Darwin was just 21 when he wrote these words. He had given up training for ministry in the Church of England to accept the invitation to serve as Captain’s Companion aboard His Majesty’s Ship Beagle. Now, at this time and in this place he had no doubt of God’s grandeur writ large in the creation that now so invaded his attention, purpose and identity.
From the insights he was to gain on this five-year expedition he would go on to give the most scientifically tenable exposition of evolution to date: that of evolution through natural selection. We are only now starting to realise the degree to which Darwin’s understanding was influenced by his culture. It is clear that William Paley’s Natural Theology had excited him about the importance of adaptation: the myriad ways in which different kinds of plants and animals are fitted to the lives they lead.
Less clear, though, is whether his theological education pre-disposed him to an assumption of an evolving creation. St Augustine had written at the start of the fifth century how in that first moment of genesis God created the potencies for life of all kinds by designing a universe that would develop through time according to laws that were woven into the very fabric of creation; and Thomas Aquinas had expounded further on this insight in the 13th century, in his description of continuous creation. Through this then, the act of creation is not only on-going, but is also sustained by God throughout time.
Darwin was of his time, as are we, and the theology of the early 19th century, owed more to the writings of Augustine and Aquinas than to those of Martin Luther. That is to say, the church at that time taught more about the perfection of an impassable or dispassionate, omnipotent being, than it witnessed to the Crucified God who inspired the protestant reformation.
Influenced by a theology that emphasised God’s awe, perfection and dispassionate nature, and an understanding that the works of the creator’s hands reflected the character of the creator himself, Charles Darwin perceived, through a model of evolution, a view of the workings of the creation that expressed the character of God as he understood it, and in 1859 at the end of the Origin of Species he wrote:
There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.
A dispassionate creation, fit for a dispassionate God. Augustine and Aquinas would have had no problem with this I’m sure, but Darwin himself harbored a deep unease at the inadequacy of this grand view of creation, an unease that set in after the death of his beloved daughter Annie in 1851.
Darwin’s own suffering at the loss of Annie was not self pity. It reflected the true and sacrificial nature of love, since love has no lover that is not moved by the suffering of the one who is loved. It also no doubt expressed the sense of guilt wrought by the powerlessness of a parent unable to protect his child from suffering and ultimate loss. For Darwin, the failure of his perception of God and creation to placate his grief resulted in a loss of confidence in the faith of his youth.
After 1851, he focused more on the suffering that he now saw everywhere in creation, a suffering which now seemed essential to the grand purpose of creating endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful. But if that was God’s purpose, to create beauty through the suffering of creation, surely this was no God worthy of respect, let alone praise.
A great sadness is that Darwin was mis-lead by a church that failed to understand that his grief at the loss of a child expressed the pain of God the father at the death of Christ.
Just one year after Darwin’s own death in 1882, Martin Luther’s works were effectively ‘rediscovered’ for the 400th anniversary celebration in Germany of his birth. How Darwin’s loss of faith now resonates with Luther’s protest expressed in the provocative phrase the Crucified God, an identity reflected so movingly in today’s readings.
The image of God Crucified presents itself as the challenge not only to the way we construct our understanding of creation, but as the most significant theological challenge to the Augustinian understanding of the impassible God. It is not the first challenge from scripture. Throughout the Bible God responds to the suffering of his people.
In 2 Kings: Thus says the Lord, the God of your ancestor David: I have heard your prayer, I have seen your tears; indeed, I will heal you; on the third day you shall go up to the house of the Lord.
The h’ess-ed, or steadfast love, of God is one of the most persistent themes of the Bible. But the true meaning of h’ess-ed is powerfully revealed in Isaiah 53 through the man of sorrows, whom we come to understand as Christ. The Crucified God reveals the power of love revealed in sorrow as the utter humility of God.
God’s humility is revealed from the moment of Christ’s birth in a stable but it characterises the whole life of Christ. In the National Gallery hangs a magnificent depiction of the baptism of Jesus, painted around 1450 by the Italian artist Piero della Francesca. It is highly stylized and full of symbolism, but in it Jesus stands, semi-clad, in a thin stream of the River Jordan as John pours water over his head. On the left bank stand three clothed figures, waiting, and in the background another man dresses himself. Here then, God is depicted standing in line, with everybody else, awaiting his turn to partake in this human ritual. If it were not for a dove and a voice proclaiming that this is the one, he would have been as anonymous as everybody else. God has the humility to stand in line and take his turn within the very creation that he makes and sustains.
In ‘The Crucified God’ theologian Jurgen Moltman provides one of the most significant books of the 20th century. Moltman suggests:
‘When the crucified Jesus is called the ‘image of the invisible God’, the meaning is that this is God, and God is like this. God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious that he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity.
As we reflect on the cross, and contemplate its deeper significance for the character of God in creation and creation in God, we are drawn into the very dance of the Trinity. We no longer view the crucifixion from outside as an event in history, but from within the very immanence of God. As Moltman says, ‘Jesus’ death cannot be understood ‘as the death of God’ but only as death in God’.
What then of God’s impassibility in perfection. Augustine had reasoned that a perfect being could not possibly be changed by creation since any change must lead it in a descent towards imperfection. Moltman cites the 4th century Saint, Gregory of Nyssa in challenging and reconciling this in relation to God’s humility revealed on the cross. Gregory wrote:… ‘In the first place, then, the fact that the omnipotent nature should have been capable of descending to the low estate of humanity provides a clearer proof of power than great and supernatural miracles… But the descent to our low estate is a surpassing display of this power, which is in no way impeded even in conditions opposed to nature… the lofty, coming to exist in lowliness, is seen in this lowliness, and yet descends from its height…
The true perfection and power of God are revealed then in humility: in Jesus weeping, washing the feet of his disciples, and finally accepting the ultimate humiliation of suffering the death of a common criminal. As Paul inspires us in Philippians 2 ‘Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.’
Might we see afresh what is really happening when we hear these readings. God speaks of his nature to us, his creatures. He speaks through history to this place and time. It is a nature of service to every creature throughout the earth that he wishes us to emulate. It is surely time to see afresh the workings of creation through the eyes of the crucified God whose character of sacrificial love and service suffuses the very depths of nature in creation.
Still yourself and watch the bees as they busily seek out the nectar they need to provide for their young. As they do so they pollinate the plants, and for this purpose the plants have evolved flowers with scents to attract their pollinators. We are free to choose how we understand this scene. Do we understand it simply as the flowers and bees pursuing their own interests, or that each is providing a service to the other? Or might we say that both are true, and that what emerges from s simple contemplation of this scene through the eyes of the crucified God is an image of mutual dependence that expresses the mutually loving nature existing within the Trinity.
The man of sorrows delights when we see creation as it truly is. Eight hundred years ago Giovanni Bernadone gave up a life of privilege to reflect as best he could the spirit of utter humility in Christ. We know him as Francis of Assisi and Wednesday is his saint’s day. Drawing his inspiration from the power of the cross, he realized that the true relationship of mankind to all creation is one of kinship. His preaching to our little sisters the birds and his Canticle of the Creatures, to brother sun and sister moon, and even to brother fire, connects us with all of creation in a spirit of fellowship and self-giving service that reflects the true nature of the crucified God. Francis embodied his understanding so fully that he has inspired millions over the centuries and people of all faiths and none have been happy to recognise him as the Patron Saint of Ecology. Today might we look afresh at the meaning of the cross as symbolic of the brutalizing of creation at the hand of ignorant humanity?
Two men, separated by 700 years, differed in their understanding of God, but loved his creation with a consuming passion. Whether their appreciation of God was compatible with their experience of creation proved to be life changing for both. In claiming to be the body of Christ, the church can be the brightest light in the world, or its deepest darkness. It depends on whether while delighting in the awesome glory of God revealed in creation, we can also reflect that deep humility and sacrificial love that is expressed through the Crucified God.
I will end with two Franciscan collects:
The Collect for Friday:
Lord Jesus, in your servant Francis
you displayed the wonderful power of the cross:
help us always to follow you in the way of the cross,
and give us strength to resist all temptation,
and to you, Lord, with the Father and the Holy Spirit
be all glory for ever. Amen.
and the Collect for Saturday:
O God, by the life of blessed Francis
you moved your people to a love of simple things:
may we, after his example,
hold lightly to the things of this world
and store up for ourselves treasure in heaven
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.