Nature & Spirit: A Catholic 'Origin Story'
Throughout our lives, we are often offered partial truths that we don’t always know how to connect. Sometimes, one viewpoint competes unnecessarily with another.
I can almost hear the anxious student of nature say that Scripture doesn’t matter because we descended from ape-like creatures upon a lonely planet in the vastness of the cosmos. This is not surprising. There are some well-known public personalities that ardently promote this materialistic view.
If we subscribe to a materialistic worldview, the series of unlikely events that had to occur for us to exist must surely point us to something beyond science or nature. An open mind and heart are essential in any quest for truth.
Likewise, I can also hear the person of faith claim that Scripture is the only thing that matters. The mindset that claims that everything is explained fully in Genesis is closed to the creation accounts that appear throughout the entire Bible. Such a person also closes themselves off from the joy of discovery and the use of their own God-given faculties to explore the astounding achievements of science.
It’s as if we have to make a choice between science or faith. Given this false division, is it any wonder that some people claim that the quest for truth is pointless? Such nihilistic thinking can only lead to relativism.
I am often confused myself amidst the complexity of life, but I have learned to be wary of false choices. There is never as much division in the world as we imagine. Harmony exists and calls to us constantly. This shouldn’t be remarkable because God has given us two great gifts, the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature.
When we feel a love of nature and wish to explore it methodically, we travel the path of science. When we seek the kind of spiritual knowledge that brings us closer to God, we travel along a journey of faith. Both paths exist and can be travelled upon without much reference to the other. Yet, there is only one true path and that path can be discerned through an understanding of nature and spirit.
The way in which God has manifested divine truth in the created world has powerfully shaped our way of life. It is the very essence of the interconnected order found in science and the lifeblood of our journey of faith.
To appreciate the wholeness of truth, we have to be open to the nature of God and we also have to be open to the patterns of nature. The worlds of spirit and nature are not so far apart that we cannot appreciate their mysterious unity: heaven and earth or body and spirit.
Let’s start at the very beginning of everything.
Before the beginning, the heavenly unity of the three eternal persons of God existed in the mysterious divine being of one harmonious nature, one unknowable substance and one supreme majesty.
Immense, unalterable, incomprehensible, omnipotent and omnipresent: the eternally founding Father, the eternally begotten Son and the eternally proceeding Spirit, the timeless principle of all things invisible and visible, spiritual and material.
Three indivisible divine persons in one infinite God and so within the divine One there is also the Other, a relational wholeness and perfection, the highest model of selfless love. The mystery of God leads to the mystery of creation, a pattern of freedom that speaks of the interconnected agency of all created being.
In the beginning of the universe, time and space exploded into existence from nothing, not strictly a ‘where’, nor a ‘when’ for time and space only came into existence together. This was the beginning, the origin of everything in the universe, the start of a continuous story that leads right up to today and will continue journeying into the future. We belong to a pilgrim universe.
Through the transformation of matter, spirit awakens, and love grows. The human person possesses the material infrastructure, intellectual potential and spiritual awareness to discern echoes of God throughout all creation. This is why we say that the human person is the image of God.
We did not create ourselves but can chart our existence through the patterns of nature that have unfolded since the beginning. These natural patterns made evident through science speak of the timeless existence of God.
Not long after the beginning, the universe cooled, electrons attached to nuclei to form atoms, the basic building blocks of organised matter. Cooling continued until gravity caused gigantic clouds of Hydrogen to form the stars igniting the creative energy of nuclear fusion and so the formation of the galaxies began. The building blocks of our existence formed in the stars where heavier elements could be made and used to create planets.
The Psalms confirm that the skies proclaim the work of God’s hands in a voice that goes out into all the earth.
The Milky Way galaxy formed and our Solar System was born with earth possessing just the right conditions and being located just the right distance from the Sun to sustain life.
For life to begin, precursor molecules needed to exist and assemble to form ordered building blocks that would contribute to the formation of the first living cell, a process known as abiogenesis. Water existed in abundance on earth. Life began and seeded the great Tree of Life that would grow continuously on earth.
Early life forms, known as bacteria thrived on the carbon dioxide rich environment but photosynthesising bacteria also developed and produced oxygen that filled the atmosphere. Again, we have a series of patterns without which there would be no complex life on earth.
Without photosynthesis, the planet could not convert energy from the Sun to be available for the nutrition of other life forms. In nature, one thing always leads to another. Without one, there cannot be the other.
In the story of cell formation, a strange synthesis occurred. Primitive bacterial cells united with one another to cooperatively become the internal organelles of complex cells that contained a true nucleus. These complex cells are known as eukaryotic cells.
The organelles, called chloroplasts and mitochondria carry out essential functions for life. Without eukaryotic cells, higher life forms could not have developed, including humans. Even the formation of cells required an internal unity that relied on indivisible patterns of order, agency and self-assembly.
Life evolved into more complex and diverse forms. Earth’s single moon regulates the tides that facilitated the movement of life, once established in the oceans, onto land. Plants, invertebrates, vertebrates, reptiles, mammals and so forth evolved over time evoking the principle of separation found in the Genesis accounts of the Bible.
The Book of Job tells us that the animals, the birds, the fish and indeed the earth itself can teach us that the hand of God holds the life of every creature and the breath of all humankind.
The great Tree of Life representing all life on earth grew in harmony with the natural environment, its branches spreading out further over time with changing environments. Biodiversity flourished.
Primates developed from the mammalian branch eventually leading to several species of early human. But only one species of human survived up to the present day.
About 70,000 or 80,000 years ago, there was an astounding leap in human potential at about the same time as the human population experienced a genetic bottleneck containing only a few thousand individuals. It seems that the humans living along the Rift valley in East Africa became a more able version of modern human capable of increased levels of co-operation.
This new age has become known as the Great Leap, where scientific evidence suggests that humans acquired the consciousness, culture and technology to truly begin to flourish. It is thought that these humans went on to migrate across the entire globe over several millennia. What might all of this tell us about the gift from God that is the human soul?
As God reveals in Scripture: ‘I AM WHO I AM’, a divine presence that is all encompassing, self-sufficient and timeless. It is us humans who blind ourselves by claiming to be self-sufficient when it is clearly evident from both science and Scripture that we are not.
I find it strangely coincidental that it was at an upper point in the Rift valley at the source of the River Jordan just north of the Sea of Galilee where Jesus brought his disciples all those years later to ask: ‘Who do you say I am?’
It seems a fitting place to contemplate the reality that the spiritual potential of humankind reaches its fulfilment in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who offers us the perfect model of nature and spirit. It was also there that Jesus Christ established his Church, the community that forms the Body of Christ that is guided by the Holy Spirit towards our Heavenly Father.
Again, we see the transcendental potential of nature and spirit, body and soul and the co-mingling of heaven and earth.
Both biblical accounts and scientific accounts of human origins point to the existence of one worldwide species of modern human, a global family intimately connected to all creation. All life is related.
It is not fanciful to see the divine nature of God guiding the story of the universe from the beginning right up to the present day. Indeed, it seems naïve not to acknowledge the hand of God in the wonders of the universe and the complex nature of biological life. As we’re told in Romans, the eternal power and divine nature of God (though invisible) can be seen through the things that he has made.
The story of our origins is a providential story that reveals the creative impulse, ordering principle and life-sustaining spirit of the Blessed Trinity. Through the relationality, interdependence and connectivity of the divine nature of God, all is unity, a mystery that weaves its way throughout all creation.
Guided by the Book of Scripture and the Book of Nature, we become alive to the integrity of the universe and the life it contains. In this way, we cannot help but appreciate that all creation praises God for his great gift.
Amidst all of this complexity, I for one can say that I’m glad to be Catholic for it is through the Catholic faith that I have come to deeply appreciate the Other, not just in heaven but all around me on earth. Nature and Spirit, Body and Soul or Heaven and Earth – these are not as far apart as we might think!
Catholicism embraces a way of life that welcomes the transformative effects of sanctifying grace on human nature which has grown from a profound understanding of nature and spirit. God’s gift of grace through the Sacraments is not just a spiritual reality but also a physical reality that animates the soul and perfects the human spirit towards supernatural life.
Through faith and worship, we satisfy our deepest longing for union with God, a hunger that has been felt by humanity since our first parents walked the earth millennia ago.