The authors of Scripture observed the created world and liberally used symbols, metaphors and analogies from nature to describe attributes of God and his relationship to creation.
For instance, right at the beginning in Genesis, the authors used the symbol of trees, rivers and a fruitful garden to describe the original blessedness, fertility and harmony God desires for his created world, meant to be enjoyed by human beings. For the rest of the Old Testament, this concept of the created order being somehow reflective of God’s wisdom and glory is found everywhere. We are told that King Solomon, who imparted divine wisdom to Israel, did so by pointing to the natural world: ‘He would speak of trees…he would speak of animals, birds, reptiles and fish’ (1 Kings 5:13). This could only be possible because ‘the greatness and beauty of created things gives us a corresponding idea of their Creator’ (Wis. 13:5). The divine artist has left his fingerprints on all he made in a way that tells us something about him.
For the writers of the psalms, the permanence of the sun, the moon and stars was analogous to the eternity and magnitude of God and his unchanging attributes. As the sun, moon and stars remain permanently in the sky so ‘his faithful love endures forever’ (cf. Ps. 72:5; 136:4, 8-9). For the authors of Scripture, what the sun, moon and stars provide is light – a favorite image employed to convey God’s radiant presence to creation: ‘Let the light of your face shine upon us’ (Ps. 4:6).
In the New Testament, Jesus also teaches by using images, metaphors and analogies drawn from the natural world, accompanied by an assurance that his 1st century audience would understand it all in relation to God. In one key passage of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus famously pointed to the sunlight as a metaphor for the Father’s indiscriminate love that is offered to all. He urges his disciples to love their enemies ‘so that you may be children of your Father in heaven, for he causes his sun to rise on the bad as well as the good’ (Matt. 5: 45). Just as sunlight gives itself in the same measure to all creatures irrespective of how they are able to receive it, so the Father’s love is offered to all people, irrespective of how they are willing or able to accept it.
Considering these passages from Scripture, the question emerges: can the Church still exploit the analogy of sunlight to articulate her faith in God’s transforming power? Here I attempt a positive response with the important caveat of St Irenaeus in mind who said that ‘if God is light, he is nothing like the light we know’ (Against the heresies 2, 13, 3-4). All analogies tell us something but not everything of the mystery of God.
Scientists tell us that the cosmos came into existence about 13.7 billion years ago. The sun in our solar system came into being 8.7 billion years ago and has been flaring forth ever since, consuming about four million tons of its mass per second to produce light and heat. Much later, the earth was born about 4.55 billion years ago. Approximately 3 billion years ago, a major development occurred on earth when a primitive cell containing chlorophyll molecules mutated and began to capture energy from the sunlight. And when that energy mixed with carbon dioxide and water, it began to produce oxygen and sugar. This was the beginning of the possibility of life on earth and is a process that has never stopped ever since.
The significance of these figures is that for 1.55 billion years, the sun was shining its light on the earth but creation had not yet the capacity to receive it in a way that generated life. Only when creation could receive the light and energy of the sun could life begin. In all that time, the non-existence of life on earth did not depend on the sun giving light, but on the earth receiving it.
So it goes with the gift of God’s spirit to creation and all humanity. God’s unconditional love is offered to all, but all do not benefit from this gift in the same way, because all are not open to receiving it in the same way. As the sun shone on the earth for 1.55 billion years without new life being produced, so God never withdraws his love or loses patience. But when we do accept God’s love as light and energy that comes to us through the Holy Spirit, then transformation begins and redemption takes place.
This process of redemption happens when God’s grace is accepted and allowed to transform something negative into something life-giving. This can only happen because of the foundational make-up of the human being formed in the image and likeness of God, imbued with his living spirit. Drawing again from the analogy of photosynthesis, we can say that the energy from the sun is analogous of God’s uncreated grace offered out of love. When the energy of sunlight is received by chlorophyll in a plant cell, it combines with carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and water within in the cell, to produce oxygen and food.
Analogously, when the grace of God comes to us from Christ in the Spirit (symbolized by sunlight), it stirs up the divine life we already have through baptism (symbolized by water) and effects redemption by breaking down dysfunctional elements in our nature (symbolized by carbon dioxide). The light of God’s grace then transforms these harmful traits in our nature into other elements that benefit ourselves and others (symbolized by oxygen and sugar). As the sugar nourishes both the plant itself and those who eat the plant, so our transformation benefits us and the environment around us.
The harmful effects of carbon dioxide have been widely publicized in recent years as being the main contributor to greenhouse gases which are the cause of climate change. So, any process that breaks down harmful carbon dioxide into life-giving oxygen is an appropriate analogy for the redemptive work of Christ, who absorbed the cacophony of sin and dysfunction in the world into himself, in order to break it down and give the world back blessings and new life in its place. As photosynthesis is going on all the time, so too is Christ’s redemptive work – removing and breaking down all that is harmful and poisonous and changing it into new life, new joy and new freedom. All the work at both the physical and spiritual levels is God’s for his love never stops giving and working.
Recently, I went for a walk in the countryside surrounded by trees, plants and fields of grass, I suddenly became aware of my breathing. But then I realized that I wasn’t the only one breathing around me or with me. In a moment of joy, I became aware of something that had been going on my whole life without knowing it. Surrounded by countless plants, trees and millions of blades of grass, I realized that they were breathing in the carbon dioxide that I was breathing out and breathing out the oxygen that I was breathing in. It was a moment of connection to all creation as the breath of God ebbed and flowed between me and all He had made. Suddenly, the harmony between the physical world and the Trinitarian character of its creator became very real in a way that moved me to praise.
So, if one natural process can reveal something of God’s active love in the world, how many more can do the same? It’s worth thinking on and praying about the natural processes taking place around us that deepen our understanding of the ever-mysterious Creator and Triune God.