Sermon on John Ray from Rev’d Ian Tattum
Readings: Genesis 2.4b-9. 15-25 and Luke 8. 22-25
John Ray – who was he and why discuss him on a Creation Sunday?
He was a pioneer botanist, ornithologist, and entomologist. He appears to be one of the earliest believers in ‘deep time’. He was a collector and recorder but also a profound thinker about how the world is connected together.
As he wrote in his most famous and influential work of theology, which directly inspired Gilbert White and indirectly influenced the young Charles Darwin:
(Prepare yourself for some dignified seventeenth-century prose.)
‘If man ought to reflect upon his Creator the glory of all his works, then ought he to take notice of them all and not to think anything unworthy of his cognizance.’
He was a devout Christian, a one-time priest in the Church of England.
He was born in 1627 and died in 1705.
His mother was a diligent collector of medicinal plants, and his father was the village blacksmith in Black Notley near Braintree in Essex.
His mother influenced his love of a major new field of science – botany – and his father, it has been suggested, inspired a mind fascinated by how things worked and fitted together.
If we think back to that reading from Genesis, he took forward the programme that Adam is said to have started: the naming of all the animals; but not just by cataloguing them but through being captivated by the wonder of them – as gifts of the creator.
Many years ago, some friends decided to make some elderflower champagne. When it was time to drink it, it was disgusting, because one friend put some cow parsley in instead. The flowers are, as you may know, very alike, but one is found in a hedgerow and another on a tree.
If you think yourself back to the seventeenth century you will find yourself in a world where plants were used mainly for three things: growing as crops, planting in a garden, or for healing. The last of these was the most dangerous. If you accidentally picked the wrong plant, or deliberately collected a look-alike for profit, the consequences could be catastrophic. Nowadays you can go to any good bookshop or browse the internet to identify plants, birds, insects, etc. When John Ray got involved with the study of nature, he had very little to go on.
His major study was plants. There were a few books around to help, but they simply listed plants in alphabetical order and were very confusing. How do you differentiate one plant from another? Size? Size of leaves? Number of petals? Tthe word ‘petal’ itself had only just come into existence.) There were some plants with Latin names and many more with a variety of local names.
So, the first thing he needed to do was put the books to one side and go and look. And he started locally, around Cambridge. Literally, he had to get down on his hands and knees, into ditches and across meadows and look closely, at every single detail. Even today there are botanists who say you can identify flowers from his literary descriptions alone. Although you will need to be able to read Latin, as that was the scientific language of his day.
He also tried to sort out the birds.
Aristotle was still the go-to scientific authority when it came to most study of nature, and he had simply divided birds into three categories, based on where they live: Woodland, by the water, and on the water. There was, as for plants, little idea of the underlying sense of how they are related to each other, what type of species they belonged to, etc.
Here are some questions to show what a muddle names were then.
Wimbledon Park is full of puits at the moment. What are those?
We often, even in the Church, think of the importance of celebrating creation as being an ethical response to the current climate crisis and threats to the environment. I am delighted that we have an Eco Church Bronze Award, and we are going to push for silver.
But caring and noticing, and wonder at God’s creation are vital.
Otherwise no one would have realised that spring arrives a month early.
Take a look at the dog’s violet in the church garden!
Who is my neighbour? Addressing our co-creatures as persons
Reflection from Krista Ovist
Lately, I’ve been pre-occupied by one particular thought: How might I be changed for the better if I were to address other-than-human things – my co–creatures — as persons; not as objects, but as irreducible and holy subjects in their own right, with their own durations and trajectories?
I’ve been experimenting with getting into the habit of invoking the things I interact with every day – calling on them directly. Here, for example, is a formula I’ve been working on for greeting the waters I will use each day. As I turn on the tap for my morning shower, I say inwardly:
Welcome in, Waters-of-this-Day.
I take you.
I take you.
I bow to your sacrifice.
I promise, in return, to curb my demand,
to meet and handle you with humble hands.
I will atone.
One day, I too will be taken.
I will die and restore my waters to the earth to feed you.
Food of foods; all is food.
Thank you, Waters-of-this-Day.
I’ve been composing similar little salutations to the creaturely things that go into my dinner, addressing them one by one as I chop them up and sauter them.
Now, I know that a discipline of speaking in this way to the co-creatures I encounter and consume will not solve the climate crisis. I do sometimes wonder if such practices might have prevented the crisis to begin with. But my present hope is that my prayers – and I would call them prayers – may begin to recompose me into someone who is more like John Ray, someone who is a closer follower of Jesus than I have been when it comes to keeping faith with creation.
We all know that we should be more like John Ray – that, like Ray, we should read ourselves as creatures, enmeshed in complex relations with other creaturely things, both living and non-living; that we should attend carefully to what other creaturely things communicate, by virtue of their myriad qualities and interactions; that we should respect all creaturely things as existing for their own sakes as much as for the sake of others.
But often, as in our relations with one another, we miss the mark in our relations with our co-creatures. We take without replenishing. We waste. We choose convenience. We trespass daily against thousands of things we can’t even see. And, because we know we are missing the mark, we can begin to experience our trespasses against the rest of creation as one more onerous source of guilt and anxiety. A day like today, celebrated as ‘Creation Sunday’, can make it seem as though the Church has really upped the ante on us. Now the answer to the question, who is my neighbour? includes not only human others, but other others as well: endangered species, rainforests, glaciers, the air, the Wandle, you name it. Now I must love all these others as myself.
Daunting and difficult as that may sound, I think it must be true: all creaturely things are our neighbours. And that, I gather, is a pretty fair way of describing how John Ray engaged with his hedgerows and with the birds and bugs that nested in and infested them. For Ray, close empirical observation of plants and animals was a way of loving his neighbours by getting to know them directly, face to face, down on the ground, embedded with them as co-creatures in creation. Although he was always eager to discover what ‘use’ other things might be to humans, he thought it was absurd to imagine that other things exist solely – or even mainly – for the benefit of humans. He concluded that, as well as being useful to one another, all things exist for their own enjoyment. Everything is the protagonist of its own story and arc of existence, however small or brief or remote from human awareness.
My prayers to my co-creatures won’t add to scientific knowledge, but they may train me, similarly, to give all things their due, even when I am sacrificing them for my own needs. My prayers may inculcate in me a neighbourly reverence for my co-creatures that renders me incapable of taking them for granted and treating them as mere inert objects for my convenience.
Should I be worried that it may be idolatrous to pray to one’s co-creatures directly, rather than praising and thanking God for them and asking God to bless them? I don’t think so. After all, in our Gospel text for today, Jesus himself addresses the wind and the waves as though they were persons. And our hymn texts – informed by biblical poetry — suggest that these same forces – wind and water, as well as other creaturely things, such as planets and stars – praise and adore the Creator. I don’t think we necessarily need to read these texts as vestiges of what critical scholarship has called an ‘animistic’ worldview, one in which people project human capacities onto non-human animals and things. Perhaps, instead, we might read them as quite the opposite: as indicative of a world in which humanity is not the measure of all things – one in which, in so far as non-humans are persons, we have not yet begun to know what personhood is – or agency, or communication, or worship, or love. All these things intersect with the human, certainly; yet they may also exceed the human in ways we have yet to fathom.
So, why not give it a try? Try asking that head of broccoli you never got around to eating to forgive you for wasting it. Dispose of it gently, regretfully. It sounds daft, I know; but the more you do it, the harder it gets not to be changed.