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The Transparency of Nature for the Mystery of Creation

"Who would deny that nature is transparent to a mystery eluding us, that it points beyond itself to something that isn't nature and yet appears in every part of nature?.. If nature is degraded to a mere sphere of objects, its transparency is lost.. Because we are blind for creation's glory and accept the world as a brutum factum, the earth comes to nothing under our functional instrumental reason." translated from German
The Transparency of Nature for the Mystery of Creation

By Christian Link

[This essay is translated abridged from the German in: Okologische Theologie. Perspektiven zur Orientierung, ed. By Gunter Altner, 1989. Christian Link is an evangelical professor of systematic theology at the University of Bern, Switzerland.]

... Who would deny that nature is transparent to a mystery eluding us, that it points beyond itself to something that isn't nature and yet appears in every part of nature?...

I. The Beauty of Creation

The transparency of nature is experiencable in a unique way in the phenomenon of beauty... The mystery of creation is announced in the beauty of the world. "All things are veils concealing God", exclaimed Pascal (1656)... This world is a world capable of a theological language.

II. The Transparency of Nature

The idea that the world "has a message", "releases" truth and that "it is not entirely impossible to read its traces" (G. von Rad, Wisdom in Israel, 1970) is first encountered in the hymn: "The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims his handiwork" (Psalm 19,2). "All thy works give thanks to thee, O Lord" (Psalm 145,10). The speech of the world accompanies God's revelation... One also reads in the Book of Job:

"But ask the beasts and they will teach you; the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or the plants of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this?" (Job 12,7-9)

These verses go further theologically than Augustine (Conf. X). They speak of a "testimony" (von Rad) starting from the world. God's praise seems inherent to world reality as an analogous quality. However praise is an act of freedom that cannot be forced. In praise, what is not self-evident is proclaimed. In praise, the world parts with itself and announces that its mere existence cannot be understood by itself and that it owes itself to another, not to itself. In praise, the world corresponds to its theological definition as creation...

The world has no divine rank and is no hypostacized quality of God but an entirely worldly reality...

Barth speaks of God's openness for the world instead of the openness of the world for God... What do we mean when we speak of the transparency of nature? In way sense is the mystery of creation announced?

If one leaves the biblical texts, the saying about the "lilies of the field" (Matthew 6,28f) and the vision of a new earth (Isaiah 65,17ff), one cannot overlook the fact that the same phenomena which are objects of our science - heaven and earth, stars, animals or plants - can obviously speak very differently in a new relational field, not totally differently or changed beyond recognition. The heavens are telling God's glory (Psalm 19) and the groaning creation speaks of the future glory of God's sons (Romans 8,19). The things of the world speak differently in a news broadcast, in a scientific inventory, on the canvas of an artist and in a biblical psalm. They speak differently without losing their natural identity. They stand in a new relational field drawn by other coordinates than the coordinates of a physics or anthropology familiar to us and become important signs of God's presence and worthiness of trust. When we ask about the transparency of nature for the mystery of creation, nature appears in a "new" relational field that is not self-evident. Nature can be a translucent medium for something that - under other conditions - evades perception. The term "medium" implies that nature is a "mediator" pointing beyond itself to something else represented in it.

This referential character is first clear where the word "transparency" is originally at home in art. According to Schadewald's dictum, painting is the art of making the invisible visible and music is the art of making the inaudible audible. Through the medium of colors and sounds, the world becomes transparent for a reality hidden from average perception. "Nature is not on the surface but in the depths. Rising from the roots of the world, colors are the expression of this depth on the surface" (Paul Cezanne)... The truth of painting penetrates through the surface of things...

Rhythm like music generally is a phenomenon of dynamic time pressing forward. If an analogy of colors and sounds lies in things themselves, the "depth of time" presses to the surface in colors (G. Picht). By its nature, color is transparent for the time advancing from the past into the future. This time is the comprehensive horizon for everything that can appear in the world and as the world, establishing the phenomenality of the world...

If nature is degraded to a mere sphere of objects, its transparency is lost. We experience this daily. Unlike artistic production, industrial production is defined and made possible by destroying the transparent media and processing it as material of consumer goods measured by their practicality or functional value. The consciousness of industrial society constituted by the "permanent denial of the transparency of nature which it constantly tramples on" corresponds to this destruction. Architecture is the most obvious example of this today... In its naked surface as structure without transparency, architecture can reflect the brutality of society, the ruthless will of destruction ready to ignore everything natural as a pre-dated cultural measurement. Architecture is a measure of the worldlessness and God-abandonment in which our civilization has organized itself...

In the saga, history becomes transparent for the mystery of its development. What the saga achieves hermeneutically for the knowledge of history seems reserved analogously to the phenomenon of the beautiful in the realm of nature.

What horizon does this beauty open up? Where is its theological aspect? The word of the Sermon on the Mount is rightly regarded as a locus classicus of the biblical perception of nature: "Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin; yet I tell you even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these" (Matthew 6,28f). The beauty of the lilies is their doxa, their glory. Doxa is also the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew Kabod, the honor or aura surrounding God. Doxa describes an eschatological reality. Its perception anticipates a seeing that will first come to its fulfillment at the end of all time.

Notwithstanding their transitoriness, the lilies of the field represent a fragment of God's future that still evades us. This establishes the transparency of their beauty making them translucent for a light that can be seen according to Rom 1,20 as a reflex of "God's invisible nature" "ever since the creation of the world" in the works of creation. Transparency constitutes their creatureliness. In this light, more is seen than the empiricism of the botanist. The lilies become the mirror of an experience in which every life presses beyond the mere surface of its daily routine.

The astonishment is that the person like all living things is alive and receives existence - free of personal control and feasibility - as a gift. The self-evident, a structure of reality that is always fixed, does not define this experiential area. The world horizon opening up here can only be proclaimed through possibilities and turns out to be a horizon of creation. God's future and the phenomenality of the phenomena are opened up to us in this horizon.

The contemplation of nature's spectacles, whether the flower of the field or the blossom of a human life, is connected with the experience of transitoriness (Matthew 6,30). Death, the exodus from time, is anticipated. A sign and a reflection of eternity can be seen in the dying off and withering. This beauty is transparent for the depth of time. The prospect for a final future promised to everything transitory appears as the mystery of creaturely beauty and justifies the demand preceding the logion Matthew 6,28: "Be not anxious!" This prospect makes possible the rhythm of time advancing from the past into the future.

God commits his future to the world as the ground of its limited time, furnishing the world with everything necessary as a human dwelling place and oikos. The creation-character of the world is announced in the presented and threatened future of the earth, the thema probandum of modern ecology. Nature itself - and its transparency - gives us the decisive reference. Nature cannot renounce on the doxa of God appearing in the phenomena without ceasing to be the world, the oikos of humankind.

This sentence must be read together with the testimony of the Romans letter that the "creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the doxa of the sons of God" (Romans 8,19). The suffering of the creation, its distortion and disfigurement, has its ground in that this doxa no longer appears and is notoriously blocked. Creation suffers because it must live in the denial of a truth on which it depends as a living space of animals and persons. It has lost its transparency. The reality of the curse lying on the earth according to Genesis 3,17 consists from beginning to end in an indissoluble community of fate between humanity and creation.

Because we are blind for creation's glory and accept the world as a brutum factum, the earth comes to nothing under our functional, instrumental relations. The creation "groans" because the person (v.20) is not regarded as holy in his or her appointment to be the reflection and parable of the doxa of God's reign. Like the "playful" wisdom of Proverbs 8, this doxa is a theologically necessary description - as Christian hope does not take people out of creation but expects freedom with creation, not from creation - and an ecological insight possible to everyone. It is the obvious reflect or "edge" accessible to our perception of a truth reaching beyond the suffering of creatures without silencing the prote4st against the earth's fate of estrangement.

Philosophy's privilege is to remind theology of this connection. Philosophy understands perceptively that the destruction of the (ecological) truth of the world must also result in the destruction of our perception. With the extinguishing of all transparency, we are closed as in a shell in the nature interpreted by us and handed over to our reason. We labor for the growing objectivization of the world with every step that we take. Whoever asks about "truth" in this situation - given the "damaged life" (Adorno) - must lead beyond everything that is - like Plato in the allegory of the cave, only far more radically... He must move to another form of time, overtaking the horizon of our history in a way that sees the destruction of the earth as a reality already overcome. This insight leads philosophical thinking to the threshold of theology...

Adorno speaks of the light in which the world appears as creation. Where does this light originate? Where is it kindled? Paul understands it as the light of hope that falls on the still unredeemed earth since the reconciliation of the world with God "in Christ" - and therefore of a world beyond the limit of death. Is this the same light, in which the Old Testament and later Calvin observed the world as theatrum gloriae Dei?

III. The Model of Representation

How can these experiences be interpreted? What does it mean for our speech for God and our understanding of the world that nature is transparent for the mystery of its development and seems to transcend immediate experience? The problems are manifest. The unworkable way of the old "natural" theology recognized God in the functional orders of the world, the pre-stabilized harmony or the breathtaking beauty of the universe and ignored that it only read the picture of God of its own epoch in the context of nature. The opposite way is also impracticable, citing dogmatic interpretations for the establishment of cosmological facts and declaring the Holy Spirit as the bearer of cosmic energies or the epitome of the self-organization of people [cf. J. Moltmann, God in Creation, 1985 and Chr. Link, Creation is Messianic Light in: EvTh 47 (1987)]... In recent discussions, God's transcendence of the world is replaced antithetically by the thesis of God's immanence in the world...

The older process theology (Whitehead) leads the way. This theology describes the development of the world as the process of the self-abandonment of God who is underway with his creation and opens up new possibilities. God is involved in the development of the world... The picture of a "creation without a Creator" (Lowith) is outstripped by the vision "God in creation" (Moltmann). Overcoming determinist explanations contributed to this change. We have learned to understand nature as a future-open, "historical" system. This understanding is most strikingly expressed in the theory of "open systems". If creation theology should be set in relation to the contemporary efforts of natural science, the starting-point must be that its statements are compatible with the concept of the self-organization of the world.

The opposition of God and the world can no longer be the basis of theological reflections. God and the world may no longer be defined against one another. God must be included in the development of the world in a clear correction of theological tradition... Moltmann refers back the self-transcendence of all "individual material- and life systems" to the actual presence of God who is "immanent" in every particular system by virtue of the "energies of his spirit". Analogously Sigurd Daecke claims the event of God's incarnation (the "immanence of the incarnate Logos") for all matter and declares the Holy Spirit effective there as the "power of evolution"...

Whoever wants to understand the wonder of creation must part with the idea of a unique initial event and a world-less Creator conceived beyond time...

The transparency of nature assumes that the world by itself can be a medium of a representation pointing beyond itself. God is not introduced as a kind of work hypothesis in the context of science... The mystery of creation, its transparency, can flash up in the phenomenon of nature. God as described in the picture of "playful" wisdom (Proverbs 8,30f) can be represented in the world...

"God creates new relations in old relations" (W. Krotke). As Old Testament research demonstrates, Israel in the light of its history and in the experience of a newly opened future entered in a systematic meditation on the origin and beginning of the world... Moltmann rightly describes this future as a paradigm of transcendence. Nature stretches out and even in its transitoriness testifies to this transcendence through its transparency. How should this be understood?

If the mystery of creation is represented in nature and the meaning of this portrayal lies in the reference to the future, the question about God must be raised as a question about the opening of this future. This question was missed as long as the theological tradition thought God had to be sought in a timeless eternity. As soon as the biblical predicate of eternity is liberated "from the Babylonian captivity of abstract antithesis to the idea of time" and interpreted in Karl Barth's impetus as God's "openness for time" and as the "source of time" (K. Barth, Church Dogmatics II/1; III/1), God is manifest in this future on which all life depends. God enters in the passing time of history and is experiencable as the Creator of the world.

Two conclusions are clear. (1) "Creation" is not an event of a remote past but occurs in the unrolling of time... (2) God's "place" in the world is the future, the irreversible future lying before us as bearers of expectation, hope and "surprise" and constantly appears in the form of the present. This future assumes the function of substantiation enabling God's reference to the world to be conceived as a time-reference. Theological metaphysics had a necessary timeless ground of the world as its justification... God is understood as a coming and free God, not as a God existing analogous to the world.

The bottom is knocked out of the traditional opposition of immanence and transcendence. God is not distinguished from the changeable temporal world as though (assuming the classical thesis of world transcendence) God stands outside time and its different modi. Rather this form of separation withdrawn from the movement of time belongs to a certain stage of our perception that broke down with classical metaphysics. As the rigorous biblical distinction of God and the world hardly excludes God entering our world, God's temporal withdrawal (futureness) does not exclude God's presence in a developing world. On the contrary, this presence is necessary. Understanding God as the source of unfolding time means that God comes near our world in every moment of its temporal existence by granting his time to our time as a ground of its worldly future...

With G. Picht ("Time and its Modalities", 1980), we must speak of two forms of time, a phenomenal and a transcendental (vertical, so to speak) form. Transcendental time (God's "future") is represented in phenomenal time as the condition for the possibility of temporal phenomena... The question may not be avoided whether the exclusivity of salvation in Jesus Christ is not considerably relativized through God's integration in the world. This relativization is inevitable. The New Testament insists that that future experienced in the development of the world is represented in its absolutely "final" abundance in Jesus of Nazareth. God's ultimate goal with his world, that "God will be all in all" (1 Cor 15,28), already appears in him ahead of the whole waiting creation (Rom 8,19)...

God interprets himself through the language of the world. He makes himself known with the world's means of interpretation in the world... God takes the world and people in his self-interpretation. Life in its abundance is his intention.

The second problem is the question about the horizon of experience in which the mystery of creation is perceived or distorted... The world must make itself the interpretation space of that future as a medium. Here the problems begin. The world of modern technology with its successes and crises seems to have lost all transparency for a mystery lying beyond itself. This world has ceased to understand itself as God's creation. Not everyone who attempts to see nature "unbiased" and free from the pressures of research and application sees nature with the eyes of Psalm 104.

Thus it is not enough to show or postulate time as the common horizon on which theology and natural science move. This may be an important advance in knowledge considering the conventional assignment of separated fields - here: existence and there: nature. Nothing suggests that the physicist and the theologian are equal within this horizon. The same process in the theory of open systems appears differently than in the narrative saga of biblical meditation on creation. A seamless connection of theology to the problems of the natural sciences is hardly given with the attempt to sever God's being from the grasp of metaphysics and understand it temporally. This possibility is opened up. Whether it becomes reality - whether theology finds an instrument for unfolding belief in creation in the knowledge of nature - will be decided in how that time coming from the future is manifest on the different planes of interpretation, defining and expanding possible areas of perception. One area is God's self-interpretation in his world that makes nature transparent for the mystery of creation. Another is the knowledge of this process.

Our perception works with "instrumentalization" which has its origin in our relation to time. Whether experience takes the way of intellectual communication and orients itself in constant structures or chooses elementary encounter with the "lilies of the field" which "flourish today and tomorrow are thrown in the oven" makes a difference. What perception gains through conscious abandonment of time, it loses through reflection on its own temporality. It "sees" something no longer expressed in the conceptually exact language of science: the "medial" character of natural phenomena, their transparency.

Is there a connection between the manner and way that we perceive and know and the manner and way that we stand in time as subjects of perception and knowledge? Do different forms of our experience (objectification, encounter, shock, dismay and so forth) and different methodical approaches to "reality" involve different forms in which time appears in the still separated "houses" of theology and the natural sciences? If this is true, nature on the strength of its transparency leads to a proof of God that we ignore. We can first spell out this proof when we open ourselves to the power of that future represented in nature.

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