“This is my father’s world,” my congregation sang Sunday morning, in the familiar hymn. Certainly it was easy to believe so. Storms had gone through the area the night before, the sun was bright, but the air was clear, without the oppressive humidity that is usual in July. Birds have been singing—the song anthropomorphizes it as “carols play[ing]”; rabbits nibble on our grass in the early morning or late evening until we intrude.
The author of the words, one Maltbie Davenport, was a tall handsome man, apparently full of manly anthletic energy. The confident joy of the hymn reflects a man who was said to have had not even “a touch of present-day uncertainty” (as judged by the standards of 1910, nine years after he died suddenly at the age of 42). He reportedly was inspired by the vistas provided by Lake Ontario.
Nature does of course give eloquent if mute testimony to some great power. However, that power has not always been viewed as caroling birds and gentle “rustling grass.” “Rocks and trees, of skies and seas” do not always give witness to a loving heavenly Father who guides all things by his will. The ancients knew of the awesome power of nature, and experienced it as something quite different.
In the Aryan Vedic tradition, the great ambivalent power of nature is embedded in Rudra, who brings both disease and healing.
Praise him, the famous young god who sits on the high seat, the fierce one who attacks like a ferocious wild beast. O Rudra, have mercy on the singer, now that you have been praised. Let your armies strike down someone else.As a son bows to this father who greets him, so I bow to you, Rudra, as you approach. I sing to the giver of plenty, the true lord, being praised, give us healing medicines....Let the weapon of Rudra veer from us; let the great malevolence of the dreaded god go past us. Loosen the taut bows for the sake of our generous patrons; O bountiful one, have mercy on our children and grand-children.O tawny and amazing bull, O God, do not become incensed or kill us. Be here for us, Rudra, and hear our call. Let us speak great words as men of power in the sacrificial gathering.(Rig Veda, 2.33.11, 12, 14, 15, Wendy Doniger, trans.)
The arrows are about to be released from the divine bow, but his temper can be quelled with words of sufficient power. Let the great bow sing, let the arrows fly, but just not at us. This is one reason paganism in all of its forms has human sacrifice: let the gods have their blood, just not mine.
Davenport’s free uninhibited joy was only possible as American evangelicalism neared the end of its century-long hegemony over religion in this grand new world in which all things were possible. The elves, goblins, giants—ancient nature spirits all—of Europe had been left far behind, along with much else of less-dubious provenance. (To be sure, they had begun slithering back in, in the form of spiritualism.)
Evangelicalism had conquered, seemingly for good, some of the worst impulses of human nature. (Read the remarkable story of Anthony Comstock in Touchstone Magazine, who seemingly single-handedly fought back the rise in pornographic technologies in latter half of the nineteeth century.)
Unfortunately, Davenport had overlooked one thing: the kingdom of God was not yet. The victory cry of Revelation 11:15—“The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ [=Messiah/mashiach], and he shall reign forever and ever”—comes at the end, and not the beginning, of the saints’ journey in the world. (Listen here, at approximately 1:15.) The song of the 24 elders that follows (vv. 17-18) promises, not serene joy on an earth of gracious bounty, but divine wrath on the consumers of ravaged planet.
How do Christians unite these insights with the dogmatic affirmation that we “believe in one God, creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible”? There has been much speculation throughout Christian history. But at the least, Christians have it on canonical authority that creation has been “subjected to futility”—an initial reading suggests by God, not out of malevolence or spite—precisely so that, it can eventually be “set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God.” The idea seems to be that since the present trajectory of the cosmos is corruption, only God’s radical act of gracious redemption can set the cosmos free.
The ancient powers still slither, creep, and crawl, and and they still wreak their will. But like the dragon in Revelation 12, they have been dethroned from their ancient perches and lost their divine power. In the present era, they can only run amok on the earth.
But for now, this world is not “my Father’s world.” A husband weeping over a wife drowned in a flood, the shattered mind of a “drug baby,” the tortured limbs of a disabled child: these are not part of “my father’s world.”
My Father’s world groans. It awaits a glorious redemption. But that redemption, the Christian story declares, will only come after the wrath stored up by all those who have corrupted this world is poured back upon their heads.
This world is not my Father’s world.
Not yet. Not yet.