“They should have sent a poet!” That’s what scientist Ellie Arroway says when the hatch on her space capsule opens to a new, breathtaking world. “There are no words to describe it!” she says. “It’s so beautiful. I had no idea.” In the book Contact, by Carl Sagan, Ellie has complete confidence in science’s ability to answer all the questions posed by the universe…until she makes contact with a part of that universe that overwhelms her with its beauty. At that point, the data and dicta of science fall short. At that point, she needs a different kind of language, one that will help her express her awe, her wonder, her love for creation.
When I first began planning September worship services around Earth care and climate justice, I went straight for the science books. I read lots of books. I wanted to know everything I could about the problems confronting the environment. I read about global warming and carbon footprints and carbon content in the atmosphere…I read about the dire straits of phytoplankton and coral reefs and fresh water supplies…I read about expanding deserts and shrinking ice caps and sinking islands…. I tried to learn everything I could about what was happening to creation at the molecular level so that I could speak knowledgeably about those things to my congregation.
After a couple of years of reading about the science of Earth’s dis-ease, I realized that, when it came to the Season of Creation, I’d been thinking “they should’ve sent a scientist.” Despite the fact that I’m not a scientist, I’d been trying to convince congregants to do the right thing with Earth care because science tells us we should.
But what we do here on Sunday mornings isn’t science class. It’s worship. And the biblical texts we get for the Season of Creation aren’t science texts. This year we get Job, Proverbs, and Psalms–wisdom literature that comes to us in the form of, you guessed it, poetry.
As people of faith, we have a calling to care for Earth. And caring for Earth does require scientific knowledge. But science isn’t the primary language of faith. It informs our faith, but it doesn’t by itself adequately express our faith. When it comes to caring for creation, we need something more. We need a language that will help us express our awe, wonder, and love.
We need something like Psalm 104, a poem that praises God as creator…a song that shows how interconnected all creation is…a confession of compassion for all living things. For the most part, scientific language is a language of distance. In order to observe something, a certain disinterested remove is necessary. Not so with poetry. Poetry assumes an intimate relationship between the poet and that about which she writes.
I suspect that’s why Ellie yearned for a poet when the hatch of her spaceship opened. Her native language—science—necessarily distanced her from what she was experiencing. In that moment, overwhelmed with the beauty of what she saw, she hungered for a deeper, more relational form of expression. She needed a poem.
Lucky for us, we have this poem, Psalm 104…a poem that celebrates the inter- connectedness of all living things. Listen.
“You cause the grass to grow for the cattle.” It’s not, God, thank you for the grass; Thank you for the cows. No, it’s—“You cause grass to grow FOR the cattle.” That shows the relationship between animals and plants. Likewise, “plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth.” There we see relationships among people, plants, and soil. Oh, here’s a good one! “And wine to gladden the human heart.” (v.15) Sometimes it’s okay to read the Bible literally. “Oil to make the face shine, and bread to strengthen the human heart.”
And lest we think creation is just for us, the psalmist describes relationships among other living things, too. “The trees of God are watered abundantly”–trees and water. “The cedars of Lebanon that were planted”–trees and soil. “In them, the birds build their nests; the stork has its home in the fir trees.” Where would birds be without trees? “The high mountains are for the wild goats; the rocks are a refuge for the coneys.” Ever heard of a coney? Best I can tell, it’s a stocky little ruminant that looks like a cross between a rabbit and a mole.
The psalmist goes on, now focusing on the relationships between creatures and the sun and moon. “You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting. You make darkness, and it is night, when all the animals of the forest come creeping out. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens. People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening.”
The psalmist wasn’t a scientist, but the interconnectedness of all created things celebrated in this psalm does represent an important scientific concept: biodiversity. Naturalist John Muir said that “When we pick out a single thing in nature, we find it connected to everything else in the universe.” And by virtue of that connection, every single thing that exists is interdependent with every other thing in the universe. Biodiversity means that we’re all in this thing together.
Here’s the scientific piece of all this, greatly simplified for (and from) my non-scientific brain. Diversity among species is a good thing—biology depends on it. Crop rotation makes for healthier fields. A garden planted with different species of plants in close proximity deals with fewer weeds and bugs. Animals, insects and all sorts of other creatures live—and thrive–in a delicate balance in all their respective environmental milieux.
Species diversity is good—and necessary— to the continuation of life on our planet. And yet, “’We are experiencing the greatest wave of extinctions since the disappearance of the dinosaurs,’ says Ahmed Djoghlaf, head of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity. ‘Extinction rates are rising by a factor of up to 1,000 above natural rates. Every hour, three species disappear. Every day, up to 150 species are lost. Every year, between 18,000 and 55,000 species become extinct,’ he said. ‘The cause: human activities.’” (Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, 417)
Do you ever wonder where species go when they become extinct? I’m talking about the cells of their bodies, the atoms of their habitats. Biomass is the technical term for it. In 1965—the year I was born– human biomass was 50 million tons; in 2010, it was 100 million. From where did the extra 50 million tons of biomass come? It came from other species. As author Daniel Quinn says: “The biomass we have added to the human race in the past 45 years has been taken, little by little, day by day, from the species around us…We are literally turning 150 species a day into human tissue” (Moral Ground: Ethical Action for a Planet in Peril, 432-446).
So, as people of faith, what is the answer to earth’s ills, particularly to the unchecked annihilation of species? As people of faith, the answer is to remember how much we love this planet and every living thing…. because every living thing was created by God and bears God’s image. As poet and pastor Bruce Sanguin says it: “Every body and every thing is a Post-It Note calling us back to a genetic covenant of love. Thank you,” the poet says to God, “for being there, and there, and there…” As people of faith we are called to remember our interconnectedness and interdependence with all living things…because we are all—every animal, plant, person, and microbe—part of God’s body.
I’ll close with another of Sanguin’s poems. This one is called “A Harvest of Quirkiness” and comes from a book titled If Darwin Prayed: Prayers for Evolutionary Mystics.
How can creation sing your praises,
except with the red wings of blackbirds
flashing across blue sky,
and the croak and splash of frogs
playing hide-and-seek in the ponds?
How can the firmament proclaim your handiwork,
except in the wagging tail of a puppy,
and the focused attention of a toddler
soaking in the wonder of it all?
How can the heavens proclaim your glory,
except through a morning sun rising upon gold-green grass,
lighting up the face of lovers as Earth spins them
once more into a new day?
Your beauty and goodness, O Immanent One,
requires Earth’s diversity
and our own wildness,
breaking down—and out of—
the monotony of prescribed patterns,
choosing rather to take our place
in the dancing procession
the variegated life of Christ finding expression
in this body of the church
and the bodies of our kin-creatures.
Make a harvest, O Holy One,
of our quirkiness,
that we might be your radiant presence.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness.
Kimberleigh Buchanan (2013) 2022