Saint Augustine on the Beauty of Creation

Childress Creek, near Valley Mills, Texas

Gavin Ortlund has written a really fabulous book on ways Saint Augustine’s thought could inform modern debates on the age of the earth, human origins, original sin, and evolution. Augustine also models intellectual virtue that could inform these debates, and others. The book is called Retrieving Augustine’s Doctrine of Creation: Ancient Wisdom for Current Controversy.

Ortlund features several quotes from Augustine’s writings that are too good not to share.

From Sermon 68.5:

Observe the beauty of the world, and praise the plan of the creator. Observe what he made, love the one who made it. Hold on to this maxim above all: love the one who made it, because he also made you, his lover, in his own image.

From Confessions 11.3:

Let me hear and understand the meaning of the words: In the Beginning you made heaven and earth. Moses wrote these words…If he were here, I would lay hold of him and in your name I would beg and beseech him to explain those words to me. I would be all ears to catch the sounds that fell from his lips.

From Sermon 126.6:

Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that? Why, heaven and earth shout to you: “God has made me!”

From City of God 22.24:

Shall I speak of the manifold and various loveliness of sky, and earth, and sea; of the plentiful supply and wonderful qualities of the light; of sun, moon, and stars; of the shade of trees; of the colors and perfume of flowers; of the multitude of birds, all differing in plumage and in song; of the variety of animals, of which the smallest size are often the most wonderful–the works of ants and bees astonishing us more than the huge bodies of whales? Shall I speak of the sea, which itself is so grand a spectacle, when it arrays itself as it were in vestures of various colors, now running through every shade of green, and again becoming purple or blue? Is it not delightful to look at it in storm, and experience the soothing complacency which inspires, by suggesting that we ourselves are not tossed and shipwrecked? What shall I say of the numberless kinds of food to alleviate hunger, and the variety of seasonings to stimulate appetite which are scattered everywhere by nature, and for which we are not indebted to the art of cookery? How many natural appliances are there for preserving and restoring health! How grateful is the alternation of day and night! how pleasant the breezes that cool the air! how abundant the supply of clothing furnished us by trees and animals! Who can enumerate all the blessings we enjoy?

Who indeed?

Ortlund states, “for Augustine, the most important aspect of the doctrine of creation is not its timing or the exact mechanics of how God does it, but rather the more basic ontological distinction it implies: that there are two kinds of reality; that the One is the source and cause of the other; and that the lesser exists in radical dependence upon the greater.” Ortlund adds, “There is not a single area of theology that is unaffected by meditation on the implications of such a vision, and it is unfortunate if we pass by such considerations too quickly in our haste to determine the age of the universe” (p. 66).

Let’s not miss the forest for the trees. We are creatures; God is the creator. This is the foundation for our inquiry, and our wonderment.

A Sacred Trust

I believe that we became educators because we know–on our better days–that the lives of each one of our students is an irreplaceable gift. We want our students to grasp this truth, to live into their God-given potential. We know that we might end up being the only person who sees that one young student for who he or she is: a unique person, made in the image of God, loved by Jesus, and placed here to give him glory. Is there a more sacred trust?

Christina Bieber Lake, The Flourishing Teacher: Vocational Renewal for a Sacred Profession, p. 206

The semester begins in twenty three days.

This captures well how I’ve seen every student, either while in service to the local church and now in service to the seminary. Teaching is a responsibility. People are a gift.

Forest Bathing

Photo by Gustav Gullstrand on Unsplash

Shinrin-yoku literally translates to “forest bathing” or taking in the atmosphere of the forest, and refers to soaking up the sights, smells, and sounds of a natural setting to promote physiological and psychological health. The term was first coined in 1982 but, today, millions of Japanese walk along forty-eight “forest therapy” trails, to get their dose of what I guess could be labeled “outdoorphins.”

Fans of shinrin-yoku explain that it differs from hiking because it is about taking everything in and stimulating all our senses, and because it focuses on the therapeutic senses.

Professor Qing Li at the Nippon Medical School in Tokyo has studied the effect of shinrin-yoku and found that this practice reduces the levels of cortisol in the blood and boosts the immune system. But forest bathing may not be good only for our physical health. Researchers from the University of Essex have explored how being active in a natural setting affects our mood. Looking at ten different UK studies involving more than 1,200 people, the researchers found that taking part in activities like country walks, sailing, and gardening all had a positive effect on the mood and self-esteem of the participants. Overall, evidence is building that time spent in the natural world benefits human health.

Meik Wiking, The Little Book of Lykke: Secrets of the World’s Happiest People, p. 150.

I grew up with a forest right on the other side of my back fence, and spent my early adolescence walking the trails. Today I encourage my students to practice creation awareness as a spiritual discipline, to go outside and to look, listen, smell, touch, and taste, to experience that “The earth is the LORD’s, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein” (Psalm 24:1).

Meik Wiking is the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, based in Denmark. When we spend time outdoors, “nature has a positive effect on our health and happiness.” To try this out, Wiking suggests:

Find and explore a forest. Take it slowly and forget about what would make a nice Instagram picture. Instead, listen to the wind in the leaves, watch the sun bounce off the branches, take a deep breath, and see what smells you can detect. Try to visit the same spot several times a year, so you can appreciate how it changes over the seasons. Say hi to the first day of spring, summer, autumn, and winter. Go alone or invite people to join you.

We have Cameron Park and nearby Mother Neff State Park. My attempted visit to the Sam Houston National Forest was rained out, but I’ll go back. There is a trail there I want to walk.

Leave your earbuds in the car. Put your phone away. Don’t worry about taking pictures. Open your eyes. Glean from Wiking’s wisdom. Then go one step further. I look at the natural world, and then look beyond it. I see the forest as creation, and then reflect on the Creator.

Paul writes in 1 Timothy 4:4-5, “everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.”

Paul was writing about food and drink. But the same can apply to the forest. Take a walk. Soak it in.

Doomscrollers

Photo by ROBIN WORRALL on Unsplash

Doomscrolling. Now that term does a lot of work.

What is it? Doomscrolling is that thing we do when we open social media, flick fingers and thumbs, caress our screen upwards and downwards, tactile, gentle, eyes fixed and looking, looking, looking upon all that is horrible, no good, and bad. Sure, we occasionally land on a cat meme or an uplifting video. But more often we look for things that upset us. We look for things that confirm our deepest suspicions that the world is unwell. We look for things that outrage us. We look for DOOM. No, not that Doom.

I have been a habitual doomscroller. I’m a little better now.

The human brain is wired to fixate on problems. The internet is a portal to all kinds of bad news. Social media aggregates everything that is wrong with the galaxy. With so much disaster at our fingertips, with so much that is hideous, loathesome, sickening and offensive, we find we can’t look away. We all love a good pile up; we compile car crash videos.

Doomscrolling drives up anxiety, we’re told. Let me simplify. Scrolling drives up anxiety. Social media drives up anxiety. News drives up anxiety. The big problem is that most of us carry around a little device in our pockets that keeps all of that anxiety right within our reach. Wait, turn that around. We put ourselves right within reach of all that anxiety. We let it grab us, usually with red little circles with numbers in them, though even if we’re not looking at our phones, we feel them calling out to us, telling us to unlock our screens, and check to see, to stay current, to scroll and scroll and endlessly scroll, world without end.

Lulu Garcia-Navarro offers a few gentle guidelines for slowing your doomscroll. She says we can: 1) set a timer, 2) stay cognizant, and 3) swap vicious for virtuous cycles.

Ten minutes a day is enough doom for anyone. Don’t you think?

When you’re scrolling your feed, remain focused on why you opened the doom portal in the first place. Don’t fall down a doomhole or chase a doom trail.

Share a photo of a beautiful sunset, not a doomrise. OK, doomer.

Or, better yet, delete all social media, or at least buffer your updates. Ditch your feed. Reach out to friends directly. Call people on the phone. Have conversations. Don’t carry your phone everywhere. Turn off notifications. Change your home screen to grayscale.

Does the prospect of abandoning social media terrify you, fill you with dread, evoke a sense of inevitable and impending doom?

Doom to the left of you, doom to the right. Here I am, stuck in the middle with doom.

In the Bag

Months ago my kid put together a craft at church, a brown paper bag with a nice drawing of Earth. I wondered what it could be. Was his class collecting food for the needy? My thoughts immediately turned toward some kind of care giving. The world is a big place with a lot of people, and a lot of needs.

I asked him what the bag was for. He explained, “If there is something that distracts us from God, from praying or reading the Bible or something like that, we can put that thing inside.”

I needed examples. He mentioned the Nintendo Switch.

Ah, the things of this world.

I asked, “If I were reading the Bible in the morning, and if you were being too loud or goofy, could I cram you into the bag?”

These are the kinds of dad jokes that are as annoying as they are endearing, serving to bind us together with the dual adhesive of distaste and love.

Van Gogh’s Ecumenism

I’m reading Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith’s Van Gogh: The Life, and enjoying every page. A year ago I took an art class with Chad Hines, who has an infectious love of Van Gogh.

Naifeh and Smith detail Van Gogh’s religious influences. His father was a Dutch minister. His work in London as an art dealer brought him into contact with Charles Haddon Spurgeon and his Metropolitan Tabernacle. Van Gogh was a close reader of Thomas A’Kempis. His depictions of the sower were inspired by his experiences in the countryside, but also by his father’s favorite parable. Before he discovered his calling as an artist, Van Gogh wanted to be a minister. During a period which brought him back to Dordt, Naifeh and Smith write:

Vincent spent every Sunday going from church to church in a marathon of devotion, ignoring differences between Lutheran and Reforemd, Dutch and French, even between Catholic and Protestant, sometimes logging three or four sermons in a day. When Görlitz [his roommate at the time] expressed surprise at his ecumenism, Vincent replied, “I see God in each church . . . the dogma is not important, but the spirit of the Gospel is, and I find that spirit in all churches.” For Vincent, only the preaching mattered. In letters to Theo [his brother], he described how the Catholic priest lifted up the poor, cheerless peasants in his flock, while the Protestant preacher used “fire and enthusiasm” to sober the smug burghers in his.

Inevitably these Sunday tours rekindled Vincent’s ambition to preach. At home, he began studying the works of the most inspiring preacher he had ever heard, Charles Spurgeon, and drafting sermons during his late-night study sessions. He regaled his scornful fellow borders with impromptu inspirational readings, even as they laughed and made faces at him. He tested everyone’s patience, even Görlitz’s, with interminable dinnertime prayers. When Görlitz urged him not to waste his time on his housemates’ souls, Vincent snapped, “Let them laugh . . . someday they will learn to appreciate it.”

Van Gogh later abandons his pursuit of religion, of theology, and of ministry. Following a family conflict, he abandons belief in God. I knew of Van Gogh’s disagreeableness and his declared atheism. I did not know about his early religious pursuits and that they were informed by figures like A’Kempis and Spurgeon.

But now I know. And so do you.