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N.T. Wright: Living in the Material World

N.T. Wright: Living in the Material World

The Psalms celebrate the transformation of time; they stand at the intersection of space—God’s space and ours—and they do something very similar with what we may call “matter.” 

The Psalms celebrate—in fact, they positively relish—the sheer physicality of creation: its stuff and substance, its seedtimes and harvests, the winds and the rocks, the nights and the days. “Matter” may not be the best word to use for all of this, but our modern trio of time, space and matter enables us to get the picture and now to focus attention on the third of them.

We have been heavily influenced on the one hand by Epicureanism, in which God or “the gods” are separated from the world we know by a great and unbridgeable gulf. And we have been shaped on the other hand by a residual Platonism, in which the material world is a shabby, corrupt place to be endured while we have to and escaped when we can.

That is a fairly devastating combination, which has led many Christians to imagine that “this world is not my home; I’m just a-passing through.” People quote Jesus saying to Pilate—in the words of the King James Version—that His Kingdom was “not of this world” (John 18:36), as though Jesus was endorsing that Platonic vision of leaving the present world altogether and going off to a different one, a world (perhaps) of pure spirit, not only away from the “material” world but outside time and space as we know it.

What Jesus said and meant was, in fact, that His Kingdom was not from this world. The kingdoms that grow up from within the world make their way by fighting, but Jesus’ Kingdom proceeds on a different basis. His Kingdom was and is most emphatically for this world. 

Our modern Western worldviews have made it difficult for us to hear Psalm 19:1–2 as anything but a pretty fantasy.

The heavens are telling the glory of God; and the firmament proclaims His handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge.

To think of this as mere dreaming, a kind of poetic license, is to miss the point, which is that all creation does, in fact, praise its maker.

Our problem is that we have allowed the ears of our hearts to be closed to what is going on. But what looks to the flattened-out imagination of late Western modernity like “lifeless” matter is, in fact, a world throbbing with God-given life. That life is constantly praising its maker by being, particularly and peculiarly, what it is.

Only humans, it seems, have the capacity to live as something other than what they are (God reflectors, image bearers). Trees behave as trees; rocks as rocks; the sea is and does what the sea is and does. And the psalmists look out on it all and see it as a great shout of praise to the God who has made it to be and to flourish:

By your strength you established the mountains; you are girded with might … Those who live at Earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs; you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy (65:6, 8).

That last line means, I think, that the psalmist saw, as we mostly do, something special and evocative in the quality of light at either end of the day. But he heard, as we mostly do not, something else going on: a shout of joy at this moment of strange, transient glory. And the joy is increased as, with every passing harvest, what we have come to see as “the natural order” is understood as the work of God Himself, making the earth fertile and fruitful:

You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it; the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain, for so you have prepared it. You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges, softening it with showers and blessing its growth. You crown the year with your bounty; your wagon tracks overflow with richness. The pastures of the wilderness overflow, the hills gird themselves with joy, the meadows clothe themselves with flocks, the valleys deck themselves with grain, they shout and sing together for joy (65:9–13).

The whole countryside, in fact, is putting on its fine clothes as if getting ready for a party: God’s party, the harvest season that humans facilitate but do not create. 

Why should we not look out on the fruitful earth around us, whether it be mountains and lakes or simply a plant on a windowsill, and celebrate the fact that it is all singing praise to its maker? Unless our worship is joined—more or less consciously—with the praises of all creation, there should be a question mark as to whether it really is genuine Christian worship.

This brings us back to a point we noticed before: in various passages in the Old Testament, we are told God’s glory either already fills the whole earth, as in the angelic hymn of Isaiah 6, or that it will do so one day.

Psalm 72 expresses this as clearly as anywhere else. It begins with the king being endowed by God with the ability to do justice among the people, summoning the natural landscape to contribute, as well.

May he judge your people with righteousness, and your poor with justice. May the mountains yield prosperity for the people, and the hills, in righteousness. May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor (72:2–4).

The central blessings of creation will then function both as a simile for the way in which the rule of the true king will bring justice and peace to the world, and also as a marker of time, praying that this righteous rule will last as long as the sun and moon:

May he live while the sun endures, and as long as the moon, throughout all generations. May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth. In his days may righteousness flourish and peace abound, until the moon is no more (72:5–7).

There then follows the prayer for the worldwide rule of the coming king, which is to be welcomed on the basis that he will deliver the needy, rescue the poor and have pity on the weak and helpless (72:8–14). This leads into a prayer that combines the blessings of royal rule with the blessings of creation, taking the poem naturally into the prayer for the divine glory to fill the whole world.

Reading the passage in reverse order, in fact, we see what this idea of the earth being filled with divine glory actually means. It means, on the one hand, the glorious combination of creation being fully alive, fully itself and, on the other hand, human society being properly ordered through justice and prosperity.

Long may he live! May gold of Sheba be given to him! May prayer be made for him continually, and blessings invoked for him all day long. May there be abundance of grain in the land; may it wave on the tops of the mountains; may its fruit be like Lebanon; and may people blossom in the cities like the grass of the field. May his name endure forever, his fame continue as long as the sun. May all nations be blessed in him; may they pronounce him happy. Blessed be YHWH, the God of Israel, who alone does wondrous things. Blessed be His glorious name forever; may His glory fill the whole earth. Amen and Amen (72:15–19).

The ultimate goal of the whole earth being filled with God’s glory is spoken of elsewhere in the Old Testament. What some had experienced, or might hope to experience, in the tabernacle or Temple (the tent or house being filled with the glory of YHWH) was now to be hoped for in terms of the whole creation. That, we may assume, is part, at least, of what Jesus taught His followers to pray for when they were to say, “Thy Kingdom come, on earth as in heaven.”

But if this is the ultimate goal, there are steps on the road toward it—steps by which the material world can be seen as already taken up within that divine purpose, not simply waiting in a state of sorry decay for something new to happen.

These stages on the way are already marked in those great psalms of creation, 103 and 104. Psalm 103 praises God for all the blessings of human life and especially for the compassion and gentleness with which God treats His frail and weak human children. All of human life is set within the larger vision of God’s Kingdom, His sovereignty over heaven and earth (103:19). The psalmist can therefore summon all of God’s works to praise Him, wherever they are, “in all places of His dominion” (103:22).

This is then translated into a different mode in Psalm 104. First, instead of describing what God has done and is doing and summoning His creation to praise Him, Psalm 104 speaks to God Himself, so that the word “you” occurs 20 or more times:

O YHWH my God, you are very great. You are clothed with honor and majesty … You stretch out the heavens like a tent, you set the beams of your chambers on the waters, you make the clouds your chariot, you ride on the wings of the wind, you make the winds your messengers, fire and flame your ministers. You set the earth on its foundations, so that it shall never be shaken. You cover it with the deep as with a garment (104:1–6).

And so on, and so on, celebrating the mountains and hills, the streams and valleys, the animals and birds that live on what grows and flows (as we say) “by itself” but, in fact, as the objects of God’s care and provision:

By the streams, the birds of the air have their habitation; they sing among the branches. From your lofty abode you water the mountains; the earth is satisfied with the fruit of your work. (104:12–13)

Humans are at last allowed on the scene, making their appearance, as in Genesis 1, when the stage is fully set:

You cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for people to use, to bring forth food from the earth, and wine to gladden the human heart, oil to make the face shine and bread to strengthen the human heart (104:14–15).

Then comes the moment, at the heart of the psalm, that I regard as one of the great lines in all of Scripture, a moment that draws together Genesis and Proverbs and looks on to the poetry of Saint Paul. God has created the world in such a way that the great lights of the sky—the sun and the moon—bring order to the life of animals and humans alike. Observing this, the psalmist celebrates the amazing multiplicity of God’s creation and the fact that it is done “in wisdom,” wisely:

You have made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting. You make darkness, and it is night, when all the animals of the forest come creeping out. The young lions roar for their prey, seeking their food from God. When the sun rises, they withdraw and lie down in their dens. People go out to their work and to their labor until the evening. O YHWH, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all; the earth is full of your creatures (104:19-24).

“In wisdom”: the Hebrew is behokmah. Proverbs 8:22 says “YHWH created me at the beginning of his work”; and this, in turn, looks back to bereshith, “in the beginning,” the first word of Scripture.

This is the line of thought Paul picks up in the glorious poem of Colossians 1:15–20, in which he sets out, after the fashion of a Hebrew psalm, the balanced account of all things being created in, through and for the Messiah, and then all things being redeemed in, through and for Him. Paul leaves us in no doubt that he is picking up this tradition of “creation through wisdom,” joining Genesis 1 and Proverbs 8. The Messiah, he says, “is the place where you’ll find all the hidden treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:2–3); and He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead—He, through whom all things were made:

He is the image of God, the invisible one, The firstborn of all creation. For in Him all things were created, in the heavens and here on the earth. Things we can see and things we cannot—thrones and lordships and rulers and powers—all things were created both through Him and for Him. And He is ahead, prior to all else, and in Him all things hold together. And He Himself is supreme, the head over the Body, the Church. He is the start of it all, firstborn from realms of the dead; so in all things He might be the chief. For in Him all the fullness was glad to dwell, and through Him to reconcile all to Himself, making peace through the blood of His Cross, through Him—yes, things on the earth, and also the things in the heavens (Colossians 1:15–20).

Everything Israel’s Scriptures said about “beginning” and “wisdom” has come rushing together in Jesus Himself. The resurrection has gloriously reaffirmed the goodness and God-givenness of the creation (over against any suggestion of Platonic dualism) and has restated God’s intention to fill it all to overflowing with His own love and life and glory. Thus, though creation as it now stands must go through the valley of the shadow of death, God will bring it to new life by His Spirit, and this will lead to the great prayer that the glory of YHWH may last for-ever, that YHWH may rejoice in His works.

“Matter” matters because it is God’s “matter,” made not as a temporary ornament for a world doomed to decay and death but as the raw material for the new world full of glory.

May the glory of YHWH endure forever; may YHWH rejoice in His works—who looks on the earth and it trembles, who touches the mountains and they smoke. I will sing to YHWH as long as I live; I will sing praise to my God while I have being. May my meditation be pleasing to Him, for I rejoice in YHWH (Psalm 104:27–34).

When we put this together with the testimony of the New Testament—which is not difficult—then we find a remarkable vista before us. The “wisdom” by which the one true God made the world and all its creatures is to be identified with and as the one we now know in and as Jesus the Messiah.

This is the God who placed His glory in the Jerusalem Temple but who now wants His glory to last forever in the creation that, renewed by the Spirit, will be freed from all evil (Psalm 104:35) and become the wonderful vessel of that same glory.

Once we learn to understand the overlap of time in the Psalms (past and future both coloring the present), once we learn to understand the overlap of space in the Psalms (God’s glory now in the Temple, now in the Torah, now in the whole of creation), it is not too great a stretch to see that “matter” itself, the material world, is designed to be flooded with God’s glory. And if this is so for the whole creation—trees and seas and birds and animals—it is so above all for human beings. 

This was originally posted in issue 67 of RELEVANT Magazine.

© 2023 RELEVANT Media Group, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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