For me, Psalm 104 has the same panoramic quality as the creation story in Genesis 1. From behind both passages, someone seems to be gazing out upon the world and marveling – marveling at the dance of darkness and light, at the pinks and crimsons of dawn and the slow passing of day into night, marveling at the vastness of the sky and the violence of a storm, at the rise of the mountains and the roar of the sea, and at the play of every crawling, swarming, swimming, leaping, flying, running, feeling, laughing, loving thing. The sweeping, panning, taking-it-all-in movement of this psalm, turning our mind’s eyes as it does from the heavens to the earth to the teeming host of creatures making their home there, loosely follows the great let-there-be’s of Genesis 1; and this psalm borrows the language and word-pictures of Genesis 1, too. Like: the line in this psalm about the beams that hold up the heavens resting upon primordial waters mirrors what Genesis 1 says about God’s sinking (what always reads so curiously, right?) a dome down into the waters, separating the waters above from the waters below, and so forming a little sanctuary for life in between. And surely any of us in our day who peer out from planet earth into a universe we know more and more and, in that, know less and less about, might indeed wonder along with these in ancient times huddling beneath the round of the sky – wonder at the small, blue-green preserve of existence that is set off for us from an inhospitable beyond.
But while Genesis 1 describes the creation of the world as, by and large, completed – with light and land and sea and sun and moon and stars and so on spoken into being; poof, the end! – Psalm 104 depicts a God who is still very much at work. There is no way to capture the sense of this elegantly in an English translation, but the Hebrew of Psalm 104 speaks of God using almost only present participles, that is, using almost only verbs which end with –ing. So here, God has not stretched, has not once, in eternity past stretched out the heavens like a tent but is actively, now stretching them, stretching the skies taut from east to west. God has not made, some other time, long ago made the clouds to be chariots or the winds to be messengers or fire and flame to be ministers, but is still and now making them to be servants and heralds, is still and now making the heavens to tell of the glory of God. In Psalm 104, we see God wrapping light around God’s own self as if it were a garment, see God dressing in the splendor of the morning and going off to the work of the day. We see God setting, holding the world in being, smoothing its waters, sending rain, giving shelter to birds and beasts, giving us wine and joy, giving us bread and strength; we see God growing grass. In Psalm 104:14 we see this: ‘you cause the grass to grow.’ The old theologians invoked this verse, this psalm, and countless others like it in speaking of what they called the doctrine of preservation, of God’s preservation of the creation, of the ceaseless, loving care of God for the creation which sustains its very being. As a child, you may have sung of this doctrine: ‘He’s got the whole world in His hands.’
It is a charming image – God in the backyard of the universe tending the lawn, God causing grass to grow. But, of course, it could be said that we know (or that at least those of us who have passed seventh-grade biology know!) that grass does not grow because there is a Gardener up in the clouds. Grass does not grow because of God. With apologies to the psalmist, it is photosynthesis really that causes grass to grow.[i] It could be said that some millennia ago, primitive, benighted people grasped about for an understanding of the world, and made God to stand in for all they did not know, but that given the march of human learning, we can now do without the Gardener in the clouds. Who needs such a psalm when we have science? Forget God. We should sing hymns about photosynthesis! It could be said. One could, I suppose, argue something of the sort, but I am not aware of anybody who has done so – probably because even though arguments about religion and science are often advanced with foolishness and in bad faith, in this instance, the argument would border on the ridiculous. Psalm 104 is poetry, is obviously poetry; it is embroidered with images and metaphors. Its insights are spiritual, not scientific. The sentiments it voices – among them, that God cares lovingly for the browning, retreating grasslands – pose no challenge to a scientific understanding of photosynthetic processes.
But, but – the sentiments this Psalm voices do suggest that a scientific understanding alone will not be understanding enough. And that there is something more to… grass, as also there is something more to the universe and to you and to me. That there is a how beyond just how grass grows, as also there is a why beyond all why’s, beyond the long chain of why’s leading back and back to the beginning. And that there is a who beyond every encounter, radiating in each who. That there is a higher how and a greater why and a deeper who than in the ordinary course of things we can see or know; that there is something more. It is to this something more, to the something more of the world, to our intimation of it, to our wonder at it and our smallness before it and our – what feels like – instinctual praise of it, it is to the mystery of it that Psalm 104 testifies. It is to the truth of our, of many of our, experience of this something more that Psalm 104 witnesses. And this something more is God. …I read a fair amount of theology; I read biblical commentaries straight through, which is not really what you are supposed to do with them. You have encouraged me in this and, for the most part, politely stifled your yawns when I have gotten carried away sharing the fruits of this. You are too kind. Anyway, I read a lot of theology because it is, in its rigor, a haven for me from the frankly idiotic things that are so often said about God on TV or online or wherever. I read theology and like theology and talk a lot about theology – but I do not necessarily believe all of it. It annoys me when people dismiss ideas about God that they clearly do not understand, but still I do not feel the need to push or defend these ideas. I am agnostic about a number of them, maybe most of them. But one. One idea about God I believe very deeply and never doubt and will push and defend and try and fail to live out – and because it is so big an idea, this one, it is enough, it is enough for me. I suppose I am asking you now to take it up in my stead and push it and defend it and try and fail to live it out, too.
There is mystery at the heart of things. There is something more to the world, more than we can see or explain. There is something more to life, more than our living of it gives expression to, typically. There is God in everything and in everyone – and we should, certainly I should, but you should, too, take this spiritual insight more seriously and honor the truth of it more intentionally. As I hope you know, I hold the sciences and hold contemporary, secular intellectual culture as a whole in quite high regard. I am a skeptic. I am about three-quarters of the way to thoroughgoing rationalism. But that it is photosynthesis really, that it is photosynthesis only which causes grass to grow, and that nothing more needs to be said – I reject this thinking. I reject this thinking because it is reductive and impoverished, and I reject every novel extension or application of this thinking or any thinking that would deny that there is something more, that there is something unknowable beyond all we know. So I find myself rejecting a fair amount of what some vulgar popularizations of science have to say, and a good deal of what passes for contemporary thought – enough of it that, as a person who aspires to broadness of mind and to an intellectual generosity, enough of it that I am sometimes anxious and embarrassed. Even so, I simply cannot accept everything I hear on NPR or see on a TED Talk or read in the New York Times.
The human capacity for reason and for creativity and for love was thought to be one we shared with God. It is interesting to me that more and more, as God is explained away, so too, in our time, are these qualities and virtues we had believed to be divine in origin.[ii] Love is now, so we are told, love is really, love is only the lighting up of some or other bit of the grey meat of the brain. Our delight in beauty is evolutionarily advantageous. We are the very clever cousins of apes. On the one hand – of course. On the other: no wonder we are now putting children in cages. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reached back for the language of the Hebrew prophets; he laced his speeches with it, because it related a spiritual truth beyond the ken of worldlier truth. We seem content to parrot Rachel Maddow. We talk about rights because these are thought to be more real than souls. As if. As if you can see rights any more than you can see unicorns.[iii] As if rights are not contested and adjudicated and denied. As if the fact that corporations are now said to have them should not give us some pause. When asked to explain what one of his poems meant, Robert Frost replied, ‘You want me to say it worse?’ I am going with souls, souls which are mysterious and of God and must be reverenced as such – no matter what any majority or a court rules. I am going with souls, which just are, souls which your patients have and which your students have and which your clients have and which your partners have and which your parents have and which your children have and those you hate have – and which command reverence and awe. ‘O Lord, how manifold are your works!’ Know that the world is more than it is. See that other people are more than who they are. You, and everything and everyone with you, have a share in something more, in something mysterious and cosmic and magnificent. You have to sing hymns to this. You have to show up to church more than once a month for this. You have to serve this.
[i] My first theology professor and (still) friend, Michael Lodahl often took this verse as a point of departure for an exploration of the relationship between science and theology.
[ii] Marilynne Robinson’s What Are We Doing Here? is, in a sense, an extended meditation on this insight.
[iii] This joke is Alasdair MacIntyre’s – from (I think, but don’t recall, and my library is boxed up!) After Virtue.