How the Study of Nature (i.e. Science) Praises God

"Let all your works confess to you, O Lord, and let your saints bless you [Psalm 144 (145): 10].  The psalmist prays, Let all your works confess to you.  What does he have in mind?  What about the earth?  Is it not God's work?  And are not the trees his work?  And all the animals, tame and wild, the fishes, the birds?  Are not all of them works of the Lord?  Most certainly they are.  But then how can they all confess to him?  It is not difficult to see that his works confess to him if I consider the angels, who are obviously God's works.  So are human beings, and, when humans offer their confession, this too is the confession voiced by his works.  But what about trees and stones?  They surely lack the voice to confess to the Lord?  By no means: all his works are summoned to confess to him; all, without exception.  What are you saying?  Earth and trees, too?  Yes, all his works.  If all of them can be said to praise him, why can we not say that they all offer him their confession?  The word 'confession' covers not only confession of sins but the offering of praise too.  You should not think that, whenever confession is mentioned, the reference is always to sin.  This misconception is so prevalent that, whenever the word occurs during the proclamation of the divine scriptures, people beat their breasts from force of habit.  But I can prove to you that confession may equally mean an utterance of praise.  Did the Lord Jesus Christ have any sins to confess?  Of course not; but he said, I confess to you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth [Matthew 11:25].  Confession can therefore mean praise.

"How, then, are we to understand the psalm's prayer, Let all your works confess to you, O Lord?  It means, 'Let all your works praise you.'  But to say that is only to raise again in connection with praise the same question that we encountered with reference to confession.  If the earth, trees, and all other creatures that lack understanding are to be judged incapable of confession because they have no voice to confess with, they must be equally incapable of praising God, because they have no voice to proclaim him.  But then what about all the creatures that the three youths enumerated as they walked about amid flames that did not hurt them?  They enjoyed not only freedom from being burnt but also freedom to praise God, and they exhorted all creatures, from the highest heaven down to the earth, Bless him, sing a hymn and exalt him above all for ever [Daniel 3:57-90].

"Let us consider how such things can indeed sing hymns of praise.   No one should suppose that a dumb stone or a dumb animal has a rational mind wherewith to understand God.  People who have entertained that fancy have been adrift from the truth.  God disposed all things and made all things.  To some he gave feeling and intellect and immortality, as to the angels.  To others, as to human beings, he gave feeling and intellect but also a mortal nature.  To others again he gave bodily sensation but neither intellect nor immortality; these are the animals.  To others he gave neither sensation nor intellect nor immortality, and among these are plants, trees, and stones; yet in their own way of being not even these can fail [in their praise], for God has ordained [and adorned] the whole creation in its proper hierarchies, from earth even to heaven, from visible things to invisible, from mortals to immortal beings. This intricate creation, this supremely ordered elegance, sweeping up from lowest to highest, flowing down from highest to lowest, nowhere interrupted but duly proportioned among dissimilar beings--the whole praises God.  How does it all praise him?  Because when you contemplate it and perceive its beauty, you praise God through it.  The dumb earth sings with the voice of its beauty.  You gaze upon the earth and you behold its loveliness, you observe its fecundity, you marvel at its secret powers, how it conceives its seed and how it may bring forth offspring different from what was sown.  As you reflect on these things you long to question the earth.  Your research is an asking of the questions.  Wondering and awed, you search for the truth, you probe it patiently.  You discover the earth's springing energy, its amazing beauty, its most excellent potency.  But because it could not have such virtue in itself or of itself, swiftly there flashes into your mind the conviction that not by any possibility of its own can the earth have come to be, but only from the hands of its creator.  This very truth that you have discovered is the earth's cry of confession, and to praise your creator you make the earth's cry your own.  When you question the vast loveliness of this fair world, does it not reply to you, 'I did not make myself.  God made me'?"

--Augustine of Hippo (d. 430), Expositions of the Psalms 121-150, Exposition of Psalm 144, trans. Maria Boulding (Hyde Park, NY: New City Press, 2004), pp. 390-92.

How can we have lost this truth in our squabbles over "science vs. religion"?  There is no "science vs. religion," only "science for the sake of power vs. science for the sake of praising God."  But even those who are convinced that science will give us power over nature must occasionally be taken aback by its beauty.  One wonders how they manage to suppress the joy.

Comments

  1. Power, joy, and wonder aren't necessarily at odds. Francis Bacon wanted an "active science," by which he meant one that would produce works, not only knowledge. But in his New Atlantis, he gave Salomon's House, the institution that embodied his ideas about scientific method, a second name: the "College of the Six Days' Work" (i.e. creation).

    Here in the 21st century, the scientists I know find wonder and joy in nature, whether they're believers or atheists.

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  2. My point exactly: there is no necessary antipathy between "religion" and "science." Amazing that so few seem to be willing to acknowledge this in our public debates, as if praising God was somehow at odds with understanding. I would distinguish, however, between those who would advocate for human mastery (i.e. control) of creation as opposed to those who see our role rather as caretakers (which is not to say that we should not exercise dominion over the animals, as God gave Adam). There are more than two sides to this debate.

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