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Season of Creation Reflection: Dr Theodora Hawksley

The watchmaker and the bog

I have never been persuaded by the argument from design. One of the classic ‘proofs’ for the existence of God, it argues from the complexity of the natural world to the existence of a designer, God. Its most well-known proponent is probably William Paley. If I stumble on a rock and am asked where it came from, he argues, I might say something like, “I don’t know. Maybe it’s always been there.” Were I to stumble upon a watch on the ground, however, I would not stop at such a response. Rather, the discovery would prompt me to suppose a maker somewhere: this is an object of such complexity and evident design that it directs me to such a conclusion. As the watch, he says, so nature, “with the difference, on the side of nature, of being greater or more, and that in a degree which exceeds all computation.” It always seemed to me to liken God’s creative work too much to human artifice, as though God were simply at the extreme end of a continuum, with skilled human watchmakers at the other end. ‘Designer’ seemed a flat and limiting way to describe God’s relationship to creation.

I was surprised, then, that asked for an image of God in a retreat, I reached for a natural one. Specifically, I chose the image of a forest I run in when I’m up north. The route begins on a wide forest track, which soon narrows to a stony scramble between pines, before opening out onto a clearing. The clearing is a bog: fallen trees covered in lichen, pools of brown water, and everywhere underfoot, pink and green starry mosses. And through the bog runs the remains of what was once a fence: crumbling concrete posts leaning at various angles, and some occasional tangles of rusty wire. The image was twofold: on one hand, the abundance of life in the bog, with the uncountable diversity of its insects, mosses, lichens and plants; on the other hand, the irrelevance of the crumbling human construction meandering across it, and the certainty that one day the bog would reclaim even its last traces.

When God communicates, God communicates Godself: not merely the fact that God exists, but who God is, what God is like, and the gift of who God is, just as a ray of sunlight implies a source, and simultaneously illuminates and warms what it touches. And what is God like? God is like what God gives: a creation of such detail, complexity and richness that it can’t be grasped, that we run over the top of, hanging onto the crumbling fence of our own formulas. Creation does not speak to me of a watchmaker-designer, who completes creation like a mechanical instrument, winds it up and lets it go, to operate in the pre-fixed patterns dictated by its design. Rather, creation speaks to me of a generosity that gives real agency to creation, which will end up with sufferings as well as successes. As Aquinas puts it, “It is as if the shipbuilder were able to give to timbers that by which they would move themselves to take the form of a ship,” except that God gives to creation that by which it shapes itself into a myriad forms, all of which reflect the abundance and energy of God’s own indefatigable life.

The Dominican Meister Eckhart describes the life of the Trinity as a ‘bullitio’, a sort of boiling – a constant, lively movement. The act of creation he describes as an ‘ebullitio’, a boiling over of God’s life into the creation of a world also seething with life and energy. For Eckhart, God is not a distant watchmaker-designer, but one whose life constantly boils over into life.

Dr Theodora Hawksley, London Jesuit Centre

Please see link to biography