Sunday 21st July Trinity
5 Col 1:15-28 "Red in tooth and claw"
When Sir David Attenborough was asked why, despite his clear appreciation of the wonders of the natural world, he did not believe in God, he answered with the example of “a parasitic worm that is boring through the eye of a boy sitting on the bank of a river in West Africa, that is going to make him blind” a notion he could not reconcile with the idea of a merciful creator god. He’s got a point. When we present the natural world as evidence for the existence of God, we need to take care not to articulate a naïve view of it. Nature is beautiful, breathtaking and awesome, it is also cruel, violent, and selfish, 'red in tooth and claw'.
In the first chapter of Genesis, God looks at what he has made and declares it “good”. The Hebrew word used is ‘Tov’ which means in accord with God’s purposes. Yet Attenborough’s example does not seem to be in accord with God’s purposes at all. Has God's original intention for nature been thwarted in some way? Does nature share humanity's need to be reconciled to God? Isaiah's understanding that, in the fullness of God's reign, such violence would be absent and the wolf would lie down with the lamb, might point us towards precisely that conclusion whilst an ecological reading of today's Epistle might move us even further in that direction, referring as it does to the reconciliation of "all things".
The precise interpretation of “all things” has been hotly debated over the centuries because the passage refers not only to the things of earth but the things of heaven. Our question though, is not what are the heavenly things that need to be reconciled in Christ, but what are the earthy ones? Does "all things" encompass animals, plants, even the entire universe as well as humans? I would suggest it does, because when, earlier in the passage, we read “all things” in relation to the act of creation, we understand it to mean everything that is included in the Genesis creation narratives, the stars, the moon, the waters, the animals and the plants as well as human beings. When we encounter the same phase later on, referring to reconciliation, it would seem almost churlish to insist that it refers exclusively to people.
If the phrase "all things" does include the whole of the created order then it is possible to say Christ died, not only for “us men and for our salvation” but for the non-human creation as well. Thus the atonement is far more expansive than we have previously thought. The implications of this might range from a curtailing of humanity’s arrogance to a consideration of how we might share in this process of reconciliation. It might also go some way to answering the question raised by Attenborough's parasitic insect, since the process of reconciliation is ongoing and not yet perfected.
Since the thrust of the passage is to give glory to Christ, by emphasising his pre-eminence in creation and the all-encompassing span of his work of reconciliation, such a reading is far from incongruous and may indeed lead us to worship our Saviour with even greater awe and wonder. It is not uncontroversial however, and those who remain unconvinced might prefer to focus instead on role of Christ's creative power, emphasising that all things were created through him and for him. Human beings are not at liberty to do as they wish with the world, for it does not belong to them, but to Christ.