Today is the feast of St Francis. He gets special treatment in the calendar and offices of the Dominican Order; he is referred to as ‘Our Seraphic Father’ and one generally gets the impression that he is regarded as a Good Thing. This reflects the shared origins of our orders in medieval mendicancy and similarities in their emphases (on creation and the Incarnation, and so on).
In the world more generally, St Francis seems to get regarded as a cross-between Doctor Doolittle and Alan Titchmarsh. He is all about ‘nature’, in the modern sense of that word, where the contrast is with ‘culture’ rather than ‘grace’. He is the saint for people who like green stuff, of the countryside, of animals.
I don’t for one second want to join in the mean-spiritedness that has greeted Christian concern for the environment or the, disgracefully late in so many cases, consideration of non-human animals in the light of the history of salvation. But precisely because these things are important we ought not to tie them up with an inadequate theology of creation. And this is what I think some presentations of Francis, along with some of the celebrations of harvest which happen at this time of the year in the northern hemisphere, are in danger of doing.
Francis did care for non-human animals and his surroundings, and he did so on the basis of an understanding of the world as created. Yet for exactly the same reason he contemplated themes such as poverty, concerned himself with the well-being of his fellow-human beings, and condemned what he saw as wrongdoing.
Creation, for Francis, as for Thomas is implicated in everything, because everything other than the Creator is created. Dogs and dandelions are created, but so is the beggar, and so is your act of giving money to the beggar. Trees are created, and so are trade unions. Creation is not a matter of God winding up the world at the beginning and leaving it to run (Thomas thinks that it is perfectly possible that the world have no beginning). Nor does it consist in God’s creating a ‘natural’ environment as the playground for human freedom. It certainly isn’t a matter of God making things happen in a way that explains them better than do scientific theories. Rather, creation is God’s eternally continual action of making there be something rather than nothing, God’s loving beings into existence at every moment of their existence. God as Creator is not one more item on the stage of the world; God is why there is a stage. In particular God does not compete with us for freedom – us doing things cannot threaten God’s status as Creator. God’s creating our free actions, as God does, is not a barrier to our freedom, but the condition of it.
This much is an entirely standard Catholic understanding of creation. But for all that, a very different view is commonplace, which I think is damaging. It is neatly summed up by the harvest hymn:
We plough the fields and scatter,
the good seed on the land,
but it is fed and watered,
by God’s almighty hand.
There’s a neat division of labour here. God acts through ‘nature’, and we get on with the merely human task of agriculture. Creation, we might say, is stuff God does, but that we don’t do. And stuff that we do is not creation.
Perhaps the least serious problem with this is that it is impossible to square with a sensible understanding of the world as susceptible to scientific enquiry. We have perfectly good theories of the weather and God’s almighty hand does not feature in them. On this point, at least, the kind of criticism made of some religion by people like Richard Dawkins is absolutely correct. But surely God does send the rain, doesn’t he? Well, it’s a perfectly good metaphor; but the truth of the matter is that God creates the rain, just as she creates the ploughing and watering. Any thought that the rain (or the growth of trees, or the sunshine, or that meteor – pick your favourite ‘natural’ event) is a special action of God’s, akin to my sending the cat out at night is the beginning of idolatry, or re-enchanting the world and re-establishing a nature god of the kind the doctrine of Creation was supposed to dethrone.
More serious is the view of human freedom implicit in (what we might call) the bucolic theory of creation. If God’s action competes with ours, such that what God creates we do not make, and vice versa, then very serious consequences follow. The way we view politics and history will be corrupted (Herbert McCabe wrote in several places about how idolatry and oppression go together). We cannot both appeal to God to rid the world of war and injustice, and see victories in these respects as divine work, whilst also fighting to transform the world ourselves, and identifying our own agency as effective in some respects. The result, almost inevitably, of thinking this position through properly is political quietism – trust in the Lord, and keep your head down.
Then there are the questions: where is God? What is of God? It is easy for those who live in beautiful countryside surrounded by wildlife to imagine themselves part of creation. The divine associations of this kind of setting are reinforced, for example, by the fact that most retreat centres are in the countryside (although this is also a product of the divinisation of ‘peace and quiet’, which needs another blogpost). When doing the garden outside the cottage, it’s not hard to see yourself as a co-worker with the Creator. The picture of God as the maker of ‘nature’ will do you no harm in this respect.
It is, however, a false picture. And whilst there is not for one moment anything wrong in approaching God through the beauty of the natural world, there is a real danger in supposing that God is only creatively present in the natural world. Apart from the danger of heresy, with which God (if not ourselves) can cope, there is the danger of writing off most of the human race. What about factories, call-centres, schools – is God not creatively present here as much as in the field or the garden? Yes absolutely (although, we should add, God’s creative action might, providentially, move to transform these places to make them more just – what is is not what will be). What about people who live in flats, bungalows, doorways – what about those who don’t have views of landscapes? Are their lives not lived out in the space God has generously created for them? Isn’t the city, just as much as the countryside, becoming the Kingdom?
We cannot have a theology of creation which renders those who don’t fit into the ‘We Plough the Fields’ view of reality second-class citizens. “For the Kingdom belongs to such as these”.