Gaia: Has the church silenced the sermon of creation?

‘The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge…
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
    their words to the ends of the world.’

(Psalm 19.1-2, 4)

‘Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse’

(Romans 1.20)

Last Saturday we went to see Gaia at the Oxford Festival of the Arts. It was a mesmerising, humbling, worshipful experience.  

Gaia is a touring artwork created by artist Luke Jerram. It’s an enormous globe, 2.1 million times smaller than the Earth, created from detailed NASA imagery of the earth’s surface. The exhibit is used differently according to its setting; in some places it is accompanied by a concert, a lecture, a protest, or a religious ceremony. For example, Dr. Ruth Valerio recently delivered a lecture under it in Rochester Cathedral.

In this instance, it was simply suspended over the nave of The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, slowly rotating as visitors could walk under it, or sit observing from the pews. There was a soundtrack playing in the background – a mixture of soothing music, soundscapes, clips of people speaking about the climate emergency, and the voices of children expressing their hopes for the future of the planet. That aside, there was little else. It was not accompanied by a sermon or a lecture, but nor did it need one. As the Biblical authors attest, creation is perfectly capable of preaching all by itself.  

The artist writes about the installation that it

‘…aims to create a sense of the Overview Effect, which was first described by author Frank White in 1987. Common features of the experience for astronauts are a feeling of awe for the planet, a profound understanding of the interconnection of all life, and a renewed sense of responsibility for taking care of the environment. 

I certainly experienced that, and sitting in the pew, watching this slowly-rotating orb, I had three main reflections.

The limitations of our perspective

I was struck by how limited my perspective can be due to my location within both space and time.

Firstly time. It dawned on me that getting to see the globe like this is a relatively recent phenomenon. I’ve taken it for granted that everyone knows what the world looks like. But my great grandparents probably didn’t. The first images of the Earth from space were only taken about 75 years ago, and the first full disk colour images were only taken just over 50 years ago.

This realisation cast my imagination both backwards and forwards. It made me reflect on how fortunate we are to have the technological ability to perceive the world like this, and it reminded me of how absurd it is to read the Bible (or other ancient texts) with the expectation that the authors should have written about the cosmos by the standards of modern science and understanding! But it also cast my mind forward, wondering what else technology will allow us to discover about the universe in the coming years.

I was also struck by how our perspective is limited by our physical location. Because of the size and scale of the exhibit, from many places in the building it was only possible to see the Southern Hemisphere. This was interesting, because it caused me to reflect on the fact that my own worldview is typically not only very Western-centric, but also Northern-hemisphere centric.

I had a conversation with a friend recently who observed that a lot of discussions about the climate crisis are driven by thinkers from the West and Global-North, and don’t often include voices from the Majority World. I suspect – no, I know – that is not just limited to matters of ecology! It was a good visual reminder of that.

The relationship between temple and cosmos

There was something striking about the juxtaposition of church and earth, which got my brain firing off incomplete thoughts in every direction. Stained glass windows letting the light in from the outside, and a globe illuminated by artificial light from the inside. At times it felt like the globe perfectly filled out the nave; at others it felt as if the earth was constrained and imprisoned by the architecture. In the vision of Isaiah 6, God’s robe filled the temple, and His glory fills the earth. Here the earth filled the church, obscuring certain facets of the building, but was His glory in any way diminished?

I reflected on the fact that some might see this installation as inherently problematic – a graven image in a worshipful space. A literal embodiment of Romans 1; putting a created thing – creation itself – in the place that should only be occupied by the Creator. And sure, I see that. I don’t know what was going on in the hearts of the visitors. I suspect many of them were only in the church as an art gallery, not a worship space, and few of them would have returned for a service the next day. But in my heart at least, sitting there was a very worshipful experience. And I was under no illusion who I was directing my worship towards.

I am quite drawn to the Cosmic Temple reading of Genesis 1, advanced by John Walton and others. In this view, Genesis 1 is not describing the material origins of the world, so much as its functional origins, and is best understood as a temple inauguration text; God is preparing and arranging creation as a temple to house His divine presence. As such, I found it moving to see the globe encased within a larger ‘temple’. It reminded me that the earthly temple is only a small representation of God’s vast, eternal, heavenly temple. Indeed, the earth is His footstool, whilst He remains enthroned in the heavens (Isaiah 66.1).

It also took my thoughts to Mark 13 where as I’ve commented before, Jesus used language of cosmic collapse to describe the significance of what was going to happen to the Jerusalem temple in AD 70.  And it was the most appropriate language he could use.

The architecture and furniture of the building – carvings, stained glass windows, pulpit and crosses – reminded me that the fate of the planet is inextricably linked to the gospel. I take climate change seriously, and I believe the planet is in the mess it is largely because of the failure of image bearers to live up to the calling God gave us, to care for and cultivate the earth. I believe that should motivate us to work hard to care for our planet. But I also believe that the ultimate hope for our groaning world lies in God’s plan to renew it. To release it from its bondage to decay. To resurrect it, in much the same way He resurrected His son (Romans 8.18ff). The crosses and the gospel scenes on illuminated windows reminded me of that hope.

And ultimately the installation in the nave of that church took me forward, to where my mind enjoyed settling in the book of Revelation and the promise that the New Creation will have no temple, because the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb will be the temple (Revelation 21.22).

Rather than being a problematic or idolatrous presence, I found the inclusion of this exhibit in a church space to be a powerful reminder of the whole story of redemption. From Eden to the New Jerusalem. Which led me to my final thought…

The failure of the church in silencing the sermon of creation

What if the lure of nature worship, of which the church is – somewhat rightly – fearful, is really a problem of the church’s own making? What if people have been driven towards neo-paganism precisely because the experience of transcendence that they crave is more readily available in the woodlands than in worship?

My thoughts arrived at this place because of Paul Kingsnorth.

If you’re not familiar with him, he is an author and former-environmentalist, who in recent years became – much to his surprise – a Christian. If you haven’t already, you really must read this article The Cross and the Machine where he unpacks his journey, and how it led him – via Buddhism, Wicca, and various other side-roads – to the feet of Jesus. (You may also find this interesting – Paul’s experience is by no means unique!)

In a recent discussion with Rowan Williams on Premier Unbelievable?, Paul said this:

‘In Orthodoxy, the emphasis on God being both transcendent and immanent – everywhere present and filling all things – is very real, and in that sense it kind of satisfied the need I had for a God that was in creation as well as beyond it. That was the notion I had when I was young – which was wrong actually, but is the cliché about Christianity – that God is somewhere else. It’s not actually the case, but people think it’s the case. In Orthodoxy, there’s a real emphasis on the living, ‘pan-en-theist’ as they call it, manifestation of God in the natural world… One of the reasons that people become neo-pagans or go into nature worshipping today in an age where our abuse of nature is so obvious, is that Christianity hasn’t really met that need at all. The institutional church hasn’t met it. Of course you don’t meet that need by rewriting Christian doctrine. But in Orthodoxy I found there was no contradiction between experiencing God in nature, which I thought I’d been doing for years, and the teachings of the church, which was a revelation to me.’

Conversion, Culture and the Cross – approx 23.14

I found that a fascinating insight. Perhaps by minimising our appreciation and celebration of nature, focussing more on the spiritual than the physical, the church has largely failed to meet the innate needs humans have to connect with the Creator through His creation.

Creation preaches of the glory of God, but we’ve historically silenced her voice by banishing her from our pulpits!

From my perspective, Gaia was not just a beautiful exhibit, evoking wonder at the natural world; it was a celebration of the story of redemption history. Paradise lost, regained and renewed. And it was also a prophetic reminder that the church needs to regain a right relationship with creation. She is a contingent thing, a created thing, and by no means god. But she has a message to proclaim, and we are poorer when we don’t allow her voice to sing the praises of her Creator.

As Psalm 8 says, when we invite people to consider the beauty of creation, the work of God’s fingers – the moon, stars, flocks, herds, animals fish, birds and every living creature – it should lead to a sense of wonder that this mighty God whose name is majestic in all the earth should care about little old us.

The Gaia exhibit is at the Oxford Festival of the Arts until 10 July 2022. Information about future tour dates can be found here.

If you found this post helpful or thought-provoking (even if you disagreed with it!) chances are someone else you know may do too. So please take a moment to share it on social media. If you would like to support me further, please consider buying me a coffee via my ko-fi page.

Photo by Nijwam Swargiary on Unsplash

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