Sparrow Theology – Thomas Jay Oord

We are delighted to welcome a post by visiting theologian/artist-in-residence, Dr. Thomas Oord. This post was one of the inspirations for the name of the website affiliated with Director Lea Schweitz’s project, Enhancing Lives in the City. Visit www.wildsparrows.com for a gallery of Dr. Oord’s Chicago nature photographs and more blogs at the intersection of urban nature, spirituality, and theology.

 

Sparrow Theology

By Thomas Jay Oord

 

Being a theologian and lover of nature means that life constantly offers me new revelations.

Like most people, I’m drawn to the extremes of life. When I encounter the huge and spacious, I’m prone to think of the immensity of God. For many people, in fact, “infinite,” “eternal,” and “immeasureable” are synonymous with deity.

I recently sat in awe on the shores of Lake Michigan, gazing at the vastness before me. The liquid lake swirled below; the sunrise painted vaporous clouds above. As an Idaho native, I’ve hiked to her mountaintops and stared into the boundless horizon. Sometimes I drive at night to nowhere northern Nevada and lay on my back, amazed at the Milky Way expanding and crystal clear above me.  Pondering the immensity and majesty of God comes easy in wide open places.

I also meditate on the micro levels of life. I’m a fan of quantum speculations about the causal forces in the most basic levels of existence. I place insects, organisms, or plants under microscopes and marvel at their intricacy and detail. Genetic research energizes my thinking about factors at play in biology and evolutionary history. It’s not hard for me to deliberate on the divine at work in tiny places.

Then there are the complex animals I ponder most: humans. They act, think, and look so different from one another. Their complexity astounds me, and those I know best – my family and friends – are the subjects of much of my day-to-day reflections. More than any other animal, humans are capable of profound kindness and dastardly evils. As a theologian, I try to account for God’s activity especially among humans.

But lately I’ve been wondering about forms of life and places in the world that are not extreme and not human. I’ve been wondering: How should I think about God in relation to them? A second question typically follows: Why don’t I think more about God at work amid the muddle of everyday life and its common creatures?

Lea Schweitz and her project, Enhancing Lives in the City, has prompted me lately to think more about the creatures and locations most people consider unremarkable, unnatural, or common. Lea searches for pockets of wild vegetation, overgrown spaces of neglect, or designated nature sanctuaries in or near Chicago.

Few head to Chicago for divine encounters in nature. But maybe Lea’s project will change that.

I’m working with Lea and her project as a photographer-theologian. This not only means that I’m walking around various kinds of green spaces in Chicago and thinking about what they mean theologically. It also means photographing those places, trying to capture in images what I find life-affirming or sacred.

Over the years, I’ve trained myself as a photographer to look for the dramatic. I typically use my mind’s eye and my actual eyes when composing photos. I intend to capture something unusual or beautiful in nature, while making art I personally can appreciate. For dramatic nature photographs, I travel to wild places, expansive vistas, or search for obscure creatures.

Walking with Lea in Chicago’s wild pockets has me thinking about God anew. I’m pondering God’s presence in what is common, in the nonhuman features of the city, and in the designated green spaces surrounded by the organized chaos of urban life.

A House Sparrow. This photo was taken on Hiddensee, a German island in the Baltic Sea. By Marc-André Aßbrock [CC BY-SA 3.0 de (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/de/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons

On a recent Chicago walk with Lea, I got to thinking about pursuing a new category of theology. This new theology would focus on God’s activity among the common and familiar. I’m calling it “sparrow theology.” But my conversations with Lea make me wonder if a new vocabulary may be needed to articulate sparrow theology well.

The words of Jesus are the inspiration for sparrow theology. About two thousand years ago, Jesus asked his listeners, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” He follows this rhetorical question with these words: “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care” (Mt. 10:29).

Biblical scholars translate the second sentence of the text in various ways. Some talk about the Father knowing of the sparrow’s fall, others about the Father’s will in relation to sparrows, and still other translations simply say not one sparrow falls “apart from your Father.”

I mention these translations, because each subtly suggests a particular view of God’s relation to sparrows. And I suspect these subtle differences can influence how we think about God’s relation to the mundane in general and the common creatures in particular. (Hammering out what this means for divine action, not to mention the biblical hermeneutical choices, would require at least another blog essay and more likely a book!) My point is this: most believers think God is present to all creation. God’s revelation is not just in the immense or in the details of the minute. God is present to and cares for all.

Sparrow theology reminds us of God’s activity in the familiar, the usual, and the mundane. And God is not just present to what is familiar, usual, and mundane in relation to humans. Common creatures – including those in the City – also bear witness to God’s creativity and care.

Sparrow theology is pushing me to think anew about common creatures and creation care.

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