Last spring I taught a course on the book of Psalms and the Israelite Wisdom Literature. One aspect of these texts that receives too little attention is the significance of creation traditions within them.
Psalms 8, 19, 73, and 104 are among the many psalms which have an understanding of God’s relationship to the physical world at their core. The creation of the physical world forms the foundation for wisdom in Proverbs 8. The book of Job relies heavily upon creation traditions, in chapters 38-41, to form God’s response to the expressions of suffering voiced by Job. The created world is the venue of the desperate search for meaning conducted by the narrator of Ecclesiastes.
Creation continues to play a central role in the deutero-canonical wisdom literature, in Sirach 24 and Wisdom of Solomon 7. This connection between God and the physical world finds its expression in other parts of the Bible as well.
The rise of apocalyptic thought within Middle Judaism, and its subsequent expression in early Christianity, masked this concern for creation and moved it away from the center of Christian theology.
Developments in Western Christianity over two millennia have advanced concern for theological categories centered around salvation over against those centered around creation. Christian spirituality has followed a similar path.
Recent trends in theology and spirituality, however, have placed greater emphasis on creation, and have understood creation and salvation as intimately connected concerns.
Modern students reading Psalms and the Israelite Wisdom Literature are often significantly detached from their environment. Our concern for the environment is typically only romantic in nature. Religious experience has provided us with an underdeveloped sense of creation as a theological category. Our conceptual framework, therefore, does not match the assumptions that these biblical books seem to have about their implied audiences.
In some of my religion courses, I offer students a variety of service-learning opportunities, which may help to fill this gap and serve as a beginning point for more careful theological reflection on the subject of creation. These activities include stream-bank restoration, environmental clean-up, storm-drain labeling, and exotic-plant removal from parklands.
The courses use journal writing assignments to connect reflection on these activities with the experience of reading biblical texts. My hope is that we might begin to sense the kind of connections expressed in the poetry of Wendell Berry:
“One day I walked imagining
What work I might do here,
The place, once dark, made clear
By work and thought, my managing,
The world thus made more dear.
I walked and dreamed, the sun in clouds,
Dreamer and day at odds.
“The world in its great mystery
Was hidden by my dream.
Today I make no claim;
I dream of what is here, the tree
Beside the falling stream,
The stone, the light upon the stone;
And day and dream are one.”
(From A Timbered Choir: The Sabbath Poems 1979-1997, p. 112)
Mark McEntire is assistant professor of religion at Belmont University.