For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, so that everyone who believes in him may not be destroyed but may have everlasting life. For God did not send his son into the world to judge the world, but so that the world could be saved through him. –John 3:16-17, translation by Richmond Lattimore
You get used to hearing a thing a certain way and it’s hard to hear it any other way. You get used to seeing things a certain way and it’s hard to see them any other way. It’s not just attitude or stubbornness that does this, it’s at least partly the way our brains work. The human brain, says psychologist James Alcock, is a belief engine. It automatically creates neural pathways to reinforce the patterns, ideas and meanings that we already know and it automatically reacts with wariness to anything that doesn’t quite fit the familiar paradigm.
Take that Bible verse above, for instance. John 3:16 is the most memorized verse in all the Christian scriptures. But I think most of us learned to see it and hear it a certain way when we were small. First, if your experience is like mine, you learned it in Sunday School and you learned it in isolation from what comes before it and after it. You memorized it and treasured it, but it pretty much stood alone in your mind, isolated from the story of Nicodemus, set apart from the very important message that Jesus didn’t come to judge but to save. I was a full grown adult before Pr. Darcy Jensen called my attention to that very important verse 17, and frankly, I was a bit gob smacked! Jesus did not come to judge (or condemn, depending on your translation) but to save!
And to save what? Well, the world, of course. Except not exactly the whole world, because most of us, I think, thought of “the world” as “the people,” the “everyone” the “whosoever” from verse 16. So what we really heard was “God so loved the people that he gave his only son…” And that’s okay as far as it goes except that the word for “world” in the original Greek text is kosmos. As in cosmos. As in all creation. God loves all creation. Jesus came to save all creation!
And there’s that verb to save again. Most of us learned, I think, that this meant Jesus would rescue us from a very painful and nasty afterlife that was the default destination for everyone except his special pals. And yes, to save can mean to rescue. But it can also mean to heal, to make whole, to restore, to preserve.
The point of all this is that sometimes new information does break through the old patterns so that we can see and hear old, familiar things in new ways and our world is enlarged. Sometimes that new information can be life-changing.
In The Bromeliad Trilogy by Terry Pratchett, Masklin, a gnome, tries to come to grips with all the strange ways that new information has been turning their comfortable little gnome world upside down. He does a capable job of leading their community through a nearly catastrophic series of changes, but the power of new information doesn’t really hit home with him until his girlfriend, Grimma, discovers an encyclopedia. New information changes her world, and by extension, his. He laments to a friend,
“I told her we were going to get married, and all she could talk about was frogs. She said there’s these hills where it’s hot and rains all the time, and in the rainforests there are these very tall trees and right in the top branches of the trees there are these like great big flowers called…bromeliads, I think, and water gets into the flowers and makes little pools and there’s a type of frog that lays eggs in the pools and tadpoles hatch and grow into new frogs and these little frogs live their whole lives in the flowers right at the top of the trees and don’t even know about the ground, and once you know the world is full of things like that, your life is never the same.”
Once you know, your life is never the same. “Knowing things changes you. You can’t help it.” says Masklin in a later chapter. You can’t help it. And maybe that’s another reason we resist new information because once we see something in a new and different way, we can’t unsee it. But the transformative power of our faith lies, at least in part, in our ability to see the world and each other with fresh eyes. We are to continually be transformed by the renewing our minds.
For centuries our theology has, for the most part, been anthropocentric, centered on humanity. On us. But we don’t have to change too much in the way we read or hear our sacred texts to develop a theology of ecology. For God so loved the cosmos… This is how much God loved all of creation…
God, in Christ, is certainly calling us to do whatever we can to rescue the people of this world from the various and sundry miseries that can make life a living hell. But if we read it just a little differently, with new information, we might see that we, in Christ, are really being called to an even bigger job, to the healing and restoration of the whole world. All of it… including those tiny frogs who live in their tiny pools in the bromeliads in the tops of the Amazon trees.