What can the material world teach us about God?

Andrew Wilson is Teaching Pastor at King’s Church, London, based in Catford and part of the NewFrontiers network of churches. His doctoral research was on the paradox of affirmation and rebuke in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, which I reviewed here. He has just published a fascinating book of reflections on the material world, God of All Thingsand I was able to have a conversation with him about it.

IP: I was struck by one of your comments early on in the book, that we should be more surprised than we are that an immaterial God expresses himself through the creation of a material world. You mentioned to me that this is a book you’d been wanting to write for some time. Why was that—and why are you so interested in reflecting on the material world around us?

AJW: I love writing about God, but I’ve usually done that by starting with his attributes (goodness, holiness, love, etc) and then trying to earth them in ordinary life by using illustrations and application. What I wanted to do in this book is to flip things the other way around: to start with tangible things, and use them to reflect on the kind of God who would create them, and/or what those “things” represent in the biblical story. The approach of God of All Things is bottom-up rather than top-down, in that sense.

IP: How did you choose the particular things you reflected on—and which was the most challenging to write about?

AJW: I brainstormed about eighty different ideas, which I still have on a spreadsheet somewhere, and then chose the ones that I could see in my mind’s eye the most easily. One of the lovely thing about the scriptures is that they are so full of “things” which carry a wider significance, so there are hundreds and hundreds of possibilities for a book like this, and consequently there are hundreds which I did not write about and could have. (Just yesterday I realised that I could have written a chapter about axes, for instance.)

I don’t know whether any specific chapter was the hardest—I tend to find the opening sentence of every chapter is the hardest bit, and after that it becomes easier—but I expect the chapter I gave the most thought to, given the circumstances, was the one about viruses.

IP: That was a very striking chapter, in part because of the personal challenges you face in your family—and also because of the answer you offer in response to the question of the existence of evil and suffering. I think readers might be quite surprised by your answer!

You quite often make use of a poetic turn of phrase. Early on, I enjoyed ‘Part of what it means to be dust people is that one day we will be dead people’ (p 10), and ‘God, it seems, likes power tools’ (p 35). Is being poetic just part of good communication, or does it have a bigger role to play in theology?

AJW: It’s kind of you to call it poetic!

The main reason I do that, to be honest, is because that is the kind of writing I like to read. I like prose that sparkles. I like paragraphs with mischief and imagery and humour and surprise, so that’s what I try to do as I’m writing myself. So it is primarily an aesthetic choice, not a theologically loaded one. But yes, I do think poetry is theologically significant. The scriptures are full of it. Jesus is continually teaching with surprising images, puzzling metaphors and amusing pictures, and he quotes poetry all the time (mainly the Psalms). Poetry evokes feelings and not just ideas, and that is crucial in reaching the heart—the loves, the affections, of the person—and not just the mind.

IP: Yes that is true. I remember the day when I suddenly realised that all our descriptions of God in Scripture are metaphorical—father, shepherd, warrior, king, and so on. As well as engaging our feelings, it seems to me that metaphors and poetry are the way that we use language to describe things that otherwise remain indescribable—so perhaps we should not be surprised that we need to use metaphors to talk about God otherwise we would not be able to say anything.

You also make frequent use of humour, either in your language or in your observations. Is that just a reflection of your personality, or is humour more serious than that?

AJW: The Bible is a funny book. (The first time I remember properly laughing at a passage of Scripture was when I came across Isaiah 44 for the first time. It still makes me chuckle now.) Many of the jokes in the Bible do not translate immediately because of the cultural distance between us and them, as well as the reverence we (rightly) have in reading it, but Scripture regularly uses comedy to provoke, ridicule or expose things as absurd or ungodly; think of Elijah on Mount Carmel or Jesus in Matthew 23, for example. So yes, I think humour serves a theological purpose. I also think it would be strange to write a book about some of the funny things God has made—donkeys are the most obvious example in this book—in a humourless way.

IP: I enjoyed the chapter donkeys—it did make me laugh! And humour is a great way to disrupt and challenge, and provoke us to see the world in a different way. Humour often relies on discontinuity and the unexpected, and that is one reason I enjoy the current trend in observational comedy—the best of these comedians help us look at reality differently, and make us realise the absurdity of some of the things we take for granted.

Your reflections often make creative connections between different parts of Scripture in ways I hadn’t always expected. Were those things that you just happen to notice, or did they arise from deliberate study? Do you see such connections as integral to Scripture itself?

AJW: I think we all notice some of them. Bread, wine, water and trees would be obvious examples of “things” that point beyond themselves in very explicit ways in Scripture. But in the last few years I’ve seen a lot more of this sort of thing (and much of it I learned from Peter Leithart’s book on Revelation, which I know you strongly disagreed with!). Once you’ve seen it a few times—dust, honey, cities, the sea, or whatever it is—you become conditioned to think: hang on, if God has inspired these writers to make these connections, might there be others? Might there be intertextual significance to (say) olives? Tools? Gardens? Connections like this are always hard to prove, but the church fathers did far more of this than we tend to, and I think they were onto something.

IP: Well, like you, I enjoy many of the connections Peter Leithart makes across Scripture, and that is particularly important for the Book of Revelation. (I just don’t agree with one or two of his basic premises about what John is referring to…!) It seems to me that this is related to the nature of God—he is ‘one’, integrated, in whom there is ‘no shadow of turning’ (James 1.17). If God is the ‘connected’ one, in the sense that God is not full of compartments and contradictions, then perhaps it is no surprise that both the world he made and the Scriptures he gave us reflect this connectedness.

Many of the reflections end up (pardon the pun!) pointing towards eschatology—Scripture’s depiction of our ultimate end. How important is understanding eschatology for ordinary Christian living?

AJW: We can’t live without it. Paul’s comment is pretty emphatic: if the dead are not going to be raised, then your faith is useless. If there is no great day of justice, renewal and the healing of harms, and no future resurrection, then there is no point preaching Christ or even living the Christian life at all. So yes, eschatology is absolutely vital. I don’t think we have to know lots of timelines and charts—that’s not what most eschatological passages are about anyway—but we need to keep circling back to the central elements of Christian hope, without which discipleship makes no sense. It’s how the Creed ends, and rightly so: I believe in the resurrection of the body, and the life of the world to come. Amen.

IP: And so it is a tragedy when the whole question of eschatology has, for so many in the West, been hijacked by the issues of ‘end-times schedules’ and scaremongering about the antichrist and the mark of the beast! I have explored the pastoral importance of getting our eschatology right, and have written a Grove booklet on it. I hope that your consistent focus on this will encourage people to engage with it more!

You don’t include ‘Questions for reflection’ or particular suggestions for action. What do you want people to do with these reflections?

AJW: Worship. Rejoice, even! Naturally I hope the chapters will help people read the scriptures, think more carefully about Christian truth, answer difficult questions and make wise choices, but the main aim of the book is that people would see God and rejoice in him. If that happens, I won’t really mind if there’s no “application” in the modern sense. When you see the Iguazu Falls for the first time, you don’t spend your time worrying about you’re going to do about it. You just marvel.

IP: That’s an interesting and refreshing response! I also wonder whether people might like to read this together as a home group, or in a Christian reading group, and share their different responses. I suspect that different people will find that different things strike them afresh.

You describe yourself as a ’teaching pastor’ rather than a theologian. Why is that important when reflecting on Scripture and the world in this way?

AJW: The language we use to describe ourselves is very important. Paul was a pretty good theologian, but he described himself in other ways: apostle, servant, father, co-worker, and so on. The word “theologian” implies an academic context with students, papers, researchers and footnotes. That’s fine, but it’s not my context for most of the time. The word “pastor,” on the other hand, implies a church, a flock of sheep who keep bleating, eating, bumping into each other, wandering off, needing protection from wolves, and so forth—and that’s the metaphor that Scripture repeatedly uses of those called to preach, teach and lead in the church. Happily, most of the greatest “theologians” in the church’s history thought of themselves as pastors, overseers, bishops or whatever we call them. So we’re in good company!

IP: We are indeed! Thanks for your time for conversation, and thank you for the gift of this book. I hope and pray that, as you say, it helps people to see God’s world with fresh eyes, and as a result leads to praise and wonder.

Dr Andrew Wilson is Teaching Pastor at King’s Church London, and the author of several books including Spirit and Sacrament and God of All Things.

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9 thoughts on “What can the material world teach us about God?”

  1. Thank you Ian and Andrew, this was one of the best books I’ve read in recent years. Thank you for continually pointing me to Jesus!

  2. I haven’t yet read Andrew’s book but look forward to seeing it (I have huge respect for all he writes) Does Andrew address the Barthian critique of natural theology at all – esp his reading of Romans 1 and how the material world far from leading people to God by those seeking God in it are led rather to idolatry?

    • Simon,
      I ‘ve been pondering buying this book for I while. It wasn’t in stock at first and I will probably get it but isn’t he wringing this from a perspective of looking at all things in their relation to the Bible and the God of the Bible, rather than just pointing to creation and saying that shows that there is a God. As a Christian he seeks to give all glory and honour to God leading to worship. And he seems to wear his learning lightly in speach and writing.
      (I think Gavin Ashendon has described himself as a recovering academic!)
      At law, a judge of great intellect, Lord Denning, wrote succinctly in short sentences.
      Elsewhere, Andrew Wilson has attributed , *Through New Eyes* by James Jordan as an influence, who also influenced Peter Leithard. Jordan’s book seems to be freely downloadable.
      Also elsewhere, Andrew Wilson has said that it is only fairly recently, within the last 5 or so years, that he has started to look at scripture in that way seeing as many connections as he does. He also attributes the influence of Alastair Roberts with whom as you’ll know, he co -authored, Echoes of Exodus, tracing the exodus theme longitudinally through the whole canon of scripture. (I think it’s clear who wrote which passages.)
      Another, who I’ve found has a neat turn of phrase is Glen Scrivener.
      But other than all that, I agree that there is a huge, but sometimes seeming small step to worship created things, including people, as idol worship in place of God, and as as result in Romans 1 it is the present continuous, judgement of God that he gives us over to them.

      • Thanks Geoff – great respect for Andrew – a scholar who wears his learning lightly and who uses his many gifts for the edification of the church

        Just intrigued that’s all – Karl Barth was born 135years ago today and I always approach this subject with him shouting Nein in my ears and warning about attempting to move up the maypole to God

        will have to get the book

  3. I’m half way through the book. I’ve just read ‘SEX’ and now I’m on to ‘MOUNTAINS’
    A very good read.

  4. ‘IP: That was a very striking chapter, in part because of the personal challenges you face in your family—and also because of the answer you offer in response to the question of the existence of evil and suffering. I think readers might be quite surprised by your answer!’
    So, Ian, for those of us who are not going to read the book, what was his answer, please?
    Phil Almond

    • ‘No matter how long I think about it, and no matter how many times my children ask me, I simply cannot think of a good reason why God would create the coronavirus, and in all likelihood I never will. And that’s okay. But that doesn’t mean there is no such reason. If God is all knowing and I am not, there are all sorts of things I would expect God to know and to do that I cannot understand. It is simply to say that I am ignorant of what that reason is.’

      From the chapter on Viruses, p 180.

  5. Hi Ian
    Many thanks for your reply. Any attempt to elaborate would involve a discussion of the effects of the Fall, ‘bondage of corruption’, what Satan is allowed to do etc. – which needs a thread all to itself perhaps.

    Phil Almond


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