“The day of my spiritual awakening was the day I saw and knew I saw—all things in God and God in all things.” — Mechthild of Magdeburg
“You think you’re special? You’re not so special.” That’s the message, by one way of thinking, of both Psalm 104 and Job 38-40. I’ve been pondering those two Scripture passages lately because, based on my reading this summer, every ecologically minded theologian or religious writer must, by some iron law, mention those two texts. It’s easy to see why. Both are overflowing with wind and water, stars and storms, lions and leviathans.
The two texts meditate on creation with contrasting tones for the same ultimate purpose. In Psalm 104, the psalmist rejoices in God’s creative power. In Job 38-40, God answers Job’s agonized cries with what Bill McKibben calls the “comforting whirlwind,” reveling in the wild energies at God’s command. Both passages offer the gift of perspective: human beings, in the vast scheme of creation, are small potatoes. As these scriptures lift our imaginations to a God’s-eye view—sweeping us over mountains and oceans, forests and savannahs—we are jolted for a moment out of our usual anthropocentric obsessions. We humans do have a tendency, as my friend Josh Parks puts it, to act like “persistent cosmic prima donnas.” There’s a comfort in the whirlwind that rips that pretension out of our grip.
All this was on my mind when I visited the current exhibitions at Calvin College’s Center Art Gallery this week. “Mars: Astronomy and Culture” takes up the large exhibition room, while the work of my colleague Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk occupies a smaller side room. The red planet and seed pods: an odd juxtaposition. But as I padded quietly through the gallery, it seemed to me that what the two exhibits have in common is the way they, like those two scripture passages, invite us into altered perspective.
Jo-Ann works with fabric, fibers, and small-scale natural items. She takes leathery leaves and embellishes them with shell-like beads sewn along the edges, propping the fancied leaf-leathers with clothespins. She delicately poses a fragment of honeycomb with dried seed pods, hazelnuts, and a book constructed of sewn-together fiber strips, the threads left long to fringe the book like cornsilk, safety pins piercing the spine. She knits slack little cocoon-like sacks and dangles them tantalizingly with sticks and thread.
My favorite pieces were her exquisite vessels made of money-plant pods. They look like huge open flowers, with both the delicacy and raggedness of natural forms. The pods, those little papery coins, are translucent, so the vessels almost glow.
The exhibit features quotes from Luci Shaw, Barbara Brown Taylor, Julian of Norwich, Thich Nhat Hanh, and Mechthild of Magdeburg (as the epigraph above). “Pay attention!” they all say. Look carefully at small, humble, lumpy, thorny, prickly things. Feel the commonest of textures, consider the simplest of human crafts. Calibrate your perspective so that you notice and wonder at tiny things, slivery as a porcupine quill.
The gallery room right next to Jo-Ann’s creations spirals perspective from the tiny to the vast, beyond our planet altogether. Warming up the viewer with a few movie posters to note Mars’ role in our cultural imagination (Mars Attacks!), the Mars exhibit features mostly actual photos of the red planet. The photos were taken by various rovers, those comical contraptions that humans have managed to fling into space and calculus onto the Martian surface. Some of the photos use color filters, while some offer more straightforward panoramas or close-ups of the planet. The photos are all about shapes and textures: ripples, pocks, rings, spherules. The “false-color” photos transform the bleak landforms into vivid psychedelics. It’s all weirdly alien yet elementally familiar.
One photo called “False Color Sand Dunes” features the recognizable shapes of dunes on the floor of the Endurance Crater. Another photo, this one of the Kaiser Crater, highlights patterns on giant dunes created by erosion during the warmer parts of the Martian year, when carbon dioxide frost sublimates into the planet’s thin atmosphere. Yes, Mars has dunes, some of them active, as certain photos from 2015 demonstrate.
Everywhere Mars is haunted by the memory of water. Crevices and flow patterns hardened long ago into their current dusty, stony textures. The surface looks red because of the preponderance of iron oxide. Essentially, it’s a rusty planet. No one knows for certain where the oxygen came from to create the oxidation.
These Mars photos stretched my puny terran mind into a perspective beyond our planet and beyond our usual conceptions of time as that cozy envelope of days in which we live. Photos lining the wall leading into the gallery brought me even further into deep time and deep space.
These are photos taken by Calvin students, either through our campus telescope or through the telescope in Rehoboth, New Mexico, that our students are allowed to “robotically control.” There’s one striking photo of our own shades-of-gray melon moon. But most are of stars, glowing like Christmas bulbs on a velvet black field. These are not the evenly spaced white pinpricks of Star Trek title sequences. These are blue and red blobs of light, light years away and unimaginably old. They are nebulae and galaxies: emission nebulae that “fluoresce” or spiral galaxies with their reaching arms.
Imagine the divine perspective that comprehends a galaxy! Neither the psalmist nor the writer of Job give us that kind of imaginative exercise. They couldn’t have. They didn’t know.
Even in our enlightened age, we’re still not so special. You might say we’re even smaller than our ancient-world ancestors imagined. In Psalm 104, the sun rises, the lions go to their dens, and the humans come out to farm. As the seasons circle and the seas teem, humans are one species among many, though we get our place, too. We enjoy our wine, oil, and bread. In Job, the Lord spends exactly one verse endowing human hearts with wisdom and human minds with understanding (38:36). Other than that, though, we belong to what theologian Richard Bauckham terms “the community of creatures.” Like all the rest, the Lord provides our food and our breath, giveth and taketh away.
The creation does not need us to give God praise. The lightning, the moon, and the silly ostrich praise God by their very existence. So does Mars, I suppose. Nevertheless, in God’s good pleasure we do have one special gift: we can see and know that we see. We are self-conscious; we imagine, think, and make. We make photographs and money-plant-pod vessels and poems. God rejoices in creation, and we can know this, because we can know God and know that we know. Thus we perceive divine rejoicing and reflect that marvel back in art and in song.
We are the ones who sing: “How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. … I will sing to the Lord all my life; I will sing praise to my God as long as I live. May my meditation be pleasing to God, as I rejoice in the Lord.”
“Mars: Astronomy and Culture” and Jo-Ann Van Reeuwyk Faculty Exhibition will remain at the Calvin College Center Art Gallery through October 20. Lecture and exhibition reception are October 3, 3:30-5:30. See the website for more events connected to these exhibits.
“O Rejoice in All Your Works” is the title of a wonderful setting of Psalm 104 by Wendell Kimbrough, well suited to congregational singing.