NH Notes: John Ray on the Purpose of Creation in “The Wisdom of God”

The Englishman and natural historian John Ray is best known for his book, The Wisdom of God.  Like many other books of the 18th century, he continually revised and reissued his book until the time of his death.  Even after his death notes that he had made on manuscripts were incorporated into later editions.   As a result of these many editions, slight or even significant changes to his thinking on topics can be traced through comparisons of those many editions.   For example, John Ray’s thoughts on the meaning of fossils and the age of the earth can be observed to subtly change over time as his book expanded and contracted in portions which touched on that topic.

What remained a constant in his writing was his view of the creation as having been endued with purpose by the creator and thus worthy of exploring.   Here in the 1735 edition of The Wisdom of God we see one of the best expressions of his view of the purpose of creation.  Quoting from Page 159:

Those philosophers indeed who hold man to be the only creature in this sublunary world endu’d with sense and perception, and that all other animals are mere machines or puppets, have some reason to think that all things here below were made for man.  But this opinion seems to be too mean, and unworthy the majesty, wisdom, and power of God, nor can it well consist with his veracity, instead of a multitude of notable creatures, endu’d with life and sense, and spontaneous motion, as all mankind till of late years believ’d and none ever doubted of (so that it seems we are naturally made to think so) to have stock’d the earth with divers sets of automata, without all sense and perception, being wholly acted from without, by the impulse of external objects.  But be this so, there are infinite other creatures without this earth, which no considerate man can think were made only for man, and have no other use. For my part, I cannot believe that all things in the world were so made for man, that they have no other use.  For it seems to me highly absurd and unreasonable, to think that bodies of such vast magnitude as the fix’d stars, were only made to twinkle to us, nay, nay a multitude of them there are, that do not so much as twinkle, being either by reason of their distance, or of their smallness, altogether invisible to the naked eye, and only discoverable by a telescope and it is likely, perfecter telescopes than we yet have, may bring to light many more, and who knows, how many lie about of the ken of the best telescope than can possibly be made?  And, I believe there are  many species in nature, even in this sublunary worlds, which were never taken notice of by man, and consequently of no use to him, which yet we are not to think were created in vain; but may be found out by, and of use to, those who shall live after us in future ages.

Hubble telescope image of the Sombrero Galaxy

The question of the day that Ray is addressing is whether all parts of creation were made for man or whether some parts were made solely for the Glory of God irrespective of man’s position in creation.  There was an argument or line-of-thought at the time that all parts of the creation were made explicitly by God for man and so the study of creation was the study of what God intended such parts to be for. Today’s young-earth creationist’s frequently use the same language. I have written about man’s centrality in creation and modern creationism:  More Planets than Stars: Exoplanets and Our Little Blue Ball.

Here we see that John Ray seems to take the view that not all creation finds its purpose solely in relationship to man but has purpose on its own without reference to man.    Notice that he makes a strong argument that at the moment of his writing he believes that there must be stars beyond view and organisms not ever taken notice of by man and therefore of no use to him.  But he holds out some hope that the future may hold purpose for these unseen things.  Maybe a telescope beyond imagination (I’m sure the Hubble telescope would qualify) might bring those stars into view and thus could  be enjoyed by man.   (A grammatical side note: the world “ken” can be defined as: beyond our vision or understanding or complex issues beyond our view, eg. our “ken”).  But even the best telescope possible will still leave some things out of the reach of human exploration. Why then do those things exist? That is an important question, one for which philosophers and theologians have discussed to great length for centuries.

Ray’s hope for the future provides part of the foundation for modern science as a means of discovery.   For Ray and other natural historians (or natural theologians) these discoveries made through greater technological gains would shed greater insight on the creation and allows its true purposes to be revealed.   For Ray his desire was that these future discoveries would also bring greater glory to God as the creator.  He did not fear greater knowledge of the creation but rather embraced the exploration.  I wonder sometimes if Ray would be disappointed by some Christians have lost their awe and wonder of God’s creation and that most of his language is not part of modern conversation.

Sunflower struck by the suns rays at sunrise. Late summer in northeast Ohio.  Photo by Joel Duff
A late summer sunflower in Akron Ohio struck by the suns rays at sunrise. Photo by Joel Duff 2015

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