SINES OF THE TIMES CHRISTINE SINE
Learning from the World I have always been intrigued by biological design. As a medical student I was amazed to learn about the complex biochemical pathways that shunt oxygen across cell membranes and provide energy for every human activity. As a gardener I am fascinated by the intricate design in the flowers, leaves, and insects that inhabit my garden. As a Christian I am delighted by the incredible reflections of God’s presence in the world around me. All of creation is truly “fearfully and wonderfully made,” and God’s glory shines through every created organism. My delight in the natural world was stimulated recently when I discovered the existence of a new science called biomimicry. This intriguing scientific discipline studies models found in the natural world and imitates or takes inspiration from these designs and processes to help us solve problems that humankind encounters in our world. The core idea of biomimicry is that for millions of years nature has grappled with the same problems we face and has come up with solutions that not only work but that are also sustainable for the long term. According to the proponents of this new science, we can learn how to harness energy in the same way that a leaf does, how to grow food based on the intricate ecosystems of a prairie, and how to create shatterproof ceramics from the study of an abalone shell. One natural wonder that is being extensively researched is the spider’s web. This fragile-looking silk fiber is totally waterproof and is ounce-for-ounce five times stronger than steel.Yet it is manufactured without artificial chemicals, high heat, or costly petroleum products. The
spider takes in flies and crickets at one end and produces this remarkable miracle material at the other. Who knows what innovative inventions we may see in the next few years as a result of this research? Velcro is probably one of the best known technologies that grew out of this new way of looking at the natural world. It began with an observation that some weeds can stick to other surfaces through little barbs. John Todd researched wetland filtration after asking the question,“How does nature clean water?” This inspired the development of a wastewater treatment system that employs bioreactors with communities of organisms that use the waste input as nutrients, digesting them and in the process purifying the water.The water released is often cleaner than city water. One example that really intrigues me is the discovery that peacock feathers contain only one pigment: the brown pigment melanin. The incredible array of “colors” we see is entirely structural. Directional layering of the feathers’ keratin protein combines with the melanin background, causing light to refract in such a way that we see color. Inspired by this design, a Japanese company has created reusable display signs whose surface is structurally altered through exposure to UV light. These signs can be continually reused and imprinted with new images, eliminating the need to manufacture new signs or produce toxic waste. According to Janine Benyus, author of Biomimicry: Innovation Inspired by Nature (Harper Perennial, 2002), biomimicry is a new way of viewing and valuing nature that could possibly introduce an era based not on what we can extract from the natural world but on what we can learn from it. She writes,“The conscious emulation of life’s genius is a survival strategy for the human race, a path to a sustainable future. The more our world looks and functions like the natural world, the more likely we are to endure on this
home that is ours, but not ours alone.” This learning from nature is not new, nor is it restricted to biomimicry. Leonardo da Vinci constantly looked to nature for advice on the design of his numerous inventions. Contemporary environmental sculptor Andy Goldsworthy explores natural materials such as leaves, rocks, ice, and wood to create incredible artistic structures that often reinforce the relationship between humanity and nature. Biomimicry is not usually associated with a Christian worldview, and in fact many of the believers in this movement feel that biomimicry propounds principles that are the antithesis of Christianity. After I wrote an article for our MSA Seed Sampler on biomimicry last year, I became involved in a long and very stimulating discussion with a reader, Frank, who held this viewpoint. Frank shared with me his own disillusionment with Christianity, which began when he realized how many followers of Christ abused rather than cared for creation. Calling ourselves stewards of creation seemed ironic to him. “Creation did a pretty good job of stewarding itself for millions of years,” he told me. “Then humankind came along and started destroying it.” Frank went on to say that our view of humans as stewards seemed very arrogant to him because it dismissed the greater part of nature as inferior to humankind. He was also concerned because this viewpoint often showed little respect for creation and played out more as domination than stewardship. Biomimicry opened up a whole new way of looking at the world that provided Frank with a worldview that cared for rather than destroyed creation, with no need for a belief in God at all. The science of biomimicry and its intriguing view of creation opened up new doors for me, too, but they were doors that drew me closer to God rather than distancing me from God. Exploring
the intricate makeup of a leaf, a spider web, and a peacock feather inspires me with wonder and awe for a God who “made all things well.” Studying the unimagined complexity of the earth’s ecosystems unveils a glimpse into the unfathomable complexity of our God and makes us aware of how little we really understand of God’s character. Tragically many Christians dismiss biomimicry and other disciplines like it because they are aware that in its practice many, like Frank, find a reason to turn away from God: Instead of worshipping the Creator they come to idolize the creation itself. Unfortunately, in our dismissal of them and their worldview, we often don’t realize that their rejection is more due to those of us who call ourselves Christians than it is to Christianity and God.
Many environmentalists I speak to are angry because of what they see as our flouting of God’s mandate to all humankind to care for and sustain creation. One environmentalist candidly told me that he believed evangelical Christians were the key to the success of the environmental movement. He said, “Until Christians embrace a concern for creation as central to their theology, the earth really doesn’t have a prayer.” I have never forgotten his words and wonder if—in regards to creation—maybe we need to be evangelized rather than doing the evangelism. Early Christians felt privileged to live in a non-Christian society because they believed it was through their interactions with those outside the faith from other cultures and with other viewpoints that they learned more about God and God’s
ways. I think this is still true today. Not only does our polluted, denuded earth cry out, waiting for Christians to repent and embrace God’s role as responsible stewards, but many of our non-Christian neighbors also cry out with the same plea. In order to have an impact on the lives of those who care for creation it is imperative that we open our eyes to see what they see and unstop our ears to hear what they hear. My prayer is that we will be open to the messengers God sends to us and listen to their messages that can bring hope and healing to our hurting world. ■ Christine and Tom Sine, authors of Living on Purpose; Finding God’s Best for Your Life (Baker, 2001), share this column. Visit their Mustard Seed Associates website at msainfo.org.
Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving from Afﬂuence to Generosity BY RONALD J. SIDER (W Publishing Group)
“One of the Top 100 Religious Books of the Century.” Christianity Today
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