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It’s an ancient conviction in both Jewish and Christian scripture that all of creation — not only humanity — praises the Lord in song. The psalms, the prophets, and the book of Revelation are full of more-than-human music, from clapping trees to choruses of stars. And as we know from Genesis 1, humans arrived after all this music began. We’re not the stars of the cosmic show; if anything, we arrived a little late to the third rehearsal and better pay attention to what we’ve missed.

There’s a venerable tradition of hymns that celebrate creation’s music, from Francis of Assisi’s “Canticle of the Sun” (better known in William H. Draper’s paraphrase “All Creatures of Our God and King”) to Maltbie D. Babcock’s “This Is My Father’s World.”

These hymns make theologically rich statements of creation’s inherent goodness, but they’re not free from the anthropocentrism that dominates so much Christian thought and practice. In Draper’s hymn, the singer urges earth, water, and celestial bodies to “with us sing,” implying that human music is a kind of default that the rest of creation should imitate. Babcock’s text, meanwhile, positions humans not as fellow singers but as the audience. Creation’s music seems to exist for our benefit, as our “listening ears” take comfort in the sounds of singing birds and rustling grass.

In recent years, some composers of worship music have attempted to more consciously resist authropocentrism. The 2017 Hillsong praise anthem “So Will I (100 Billion X),” for example, begins with “a hundred billion galaxies” being born from God’s speech at the beginning of time. The song thus decenters humanity both in time and space, and it represents human praise as a response to the rest of the cosmos: “If creation sings your praises, so will I.” This, I think, is closer to the vision of the psalmists than either of the hymns above.

Even more radical is the Porter’s Gate worship collective’s song “Declaring Glory (The Earth Sings Its Refrain),” included on their new album Climate Vigil Songs. Unlike any other ecological worship song I know of, “Declaring Glory” adopts the first-person perspective of the earth singing to God: “When I was young / You woke me with the sound of song / The wind and rhythm drew me along / I echoed in the hymn of the dawn.” The song precedes through geological time, with the earth singing as canyons are carved and life evolves. Humans appear only for a verse, and not altogether positively: “The fall to dust / And dress me in decay and rust.” Finally, the earth continues to sing into the distant cosmological future, making music “till my fire’s run out.”

But these songs aren’t a total fix for our anthropocentric music problem. Despite their ecologically astute lyrics, they remain the product of human music-making. They were written, performed, marketed, and purchased by humans. They speak of astronomical time, but their tempos are human ones, in the same metric ballpark as our heartbeats and footsteps. Their phrases are the perfect length for the average human lung capacity. These songs may conjure the idea of a musical creation that exceeds human song, but they do not embody or enact that idea.

Why is this a problem? Because the purpose of worship is not just to sing about justice and liberation and renewal, but to invite them into being. Worship, as eco-liturgical liberation theologian Cláudio Carvalhaes writes, must “start where it hurts.” It must respond materially to the pain of the community in which it takes place. And at times of crisis, this might mean radically disrupting our usual ways of worshiping: “When hunger is growing exponentially with the pandemic, the Eucharist should be a shared meal of the day,” Carvalhaes writes. Or, on a more ecological note, “when rivers are polluted, baptisms should be put on hold until the waters are clean, and fish can swim in it.”

This radicality must extend to our worship music, because as ecomusicologists have pointed out, one of the ways we’ve harmed other creatures is in the realm of sound. Humans are not the only ones who communicate with sound waves, and yet we’ve become convinced that the sonic rights of humans — especially those serving white patriarchal capitalism — outrank those of any other creature, human or non-human. In northern Canada, for example, the noise of helicopters and mining equipment disrupts the sonic communication methods of caribou and throws off their migration routes. This, in turn, disrupts the traditional caribou hunting practices of the native Innu people. When powerful human institutions claim the right to the ears of other creatures, entire ecosystems are harmed.

But if our ecological problem is partly a musical one, music might also be part of the work of restoration. This begins with a more expansive definition of music. For ecomusicologist Daniel P. Shevock, for example, music is “the intentional experiencing of sound,” whether by humans or non-humans.

Other creatures sing, other creatures hear, other creatures listen. As any birdwatcher knows, the sounds of nature have no less melody, rhythm, and harmony than our own songs do. Learning to hear, to respect, to protect, and to participate in this more-than-human music might be a way to get ourselves back in tune with the world.

And if Carvalhaes is right about the ethical demands of worship, then worship is the perfect place to get started. Even non-Christian scholars point to something like liturgical presence when it comes to relationships with other species. Feminist theorist Donna Haraway, for example, talks about building connections with our “companion species” — those with whom we are “cum panis,” or “at table together.” How could we reshape our worship services so that we are musically at table with the microbes, birds, trees, and dogs whose lives we inhabit?

A few ideas:

1) We could listen with new ears to things already happening in our worship services. In a service where water is poured into the baptismal font, for example, what if we heard the sound of water hitting the bowl as a musical component of worship? What if the water molecules contribute their gurgles and splashes to the liturgy in their own kind of hymn?

2) Outdoor worship services could include moments when the humans listen quietly to the songs of birds or to the wind whooshing through the trees. In place of the usual opening hymn of praise, congregants could instead tune into the melodies and harmonies that are already praising God around them.

3) We could reshape the music we play to match the more-than-human music around us. Instrumentalists could imitate bird songs for a prelude, or a 24-hour prayer service could include music that changes as the sun rises and sets. This would take creativity and ingenuity, but how much creativity and ingenuity have we already employed to silence our companion species?

There is no one right way to make or listen to more-than-human music. But that is how it should be. Worship — and the music within it — should respond to the community around it and the land beneath it. It can sound a hundred billion different ways, as long as it moves us closer to the sounds of others, as long as it opens our ears and does not close them.

Josh Parks

Josh Parks has just entered a master's program at Princeton Theological Seminary. Josh is a graduate of Calvin University, where he majored in music and English, and holds a master's in medieval literature from Western Michigan University.

7 Comments

  • Tom says:

    Hmmm. I already feel guilty for being white; and for being male; now I’m supposed to fee guilty for being human and finding joy in singing “All Creatures of Our God and King”. This is getting to be a bit much.

    • Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell says:

      Hmmm…I’m a white male feeling joy and intrigue on joining croaking frogs and listening for birds, wind, and splashing water. Who knows, perhaps trying to do this might even somewhat quell our inveterate Reformed guilt. I don’t sense any insinuation that we need feel guilt about singing our “theologically rich statements.” Does being asked to grow or for new awareness have to induce guilt?

  • Jim says:

    THANK YOU Josh!!! Amen over and over, Amen!! Blessings on you at Princeton and onward. Peace.

  • Thanks Josh for this thoughtful piece.
    I read your words while sitting outside in the country among the sounds of birds and beasts, most of whom I cannot see or name. At all times of day and night they sound their wordless praise— for life, and I assume to the giver of that life.
    Babcock’s “the music of the spheres” describes the other-worldliness of any creatures praise, our own included. [All Nature Sings, Rottman, 2010, Credo]

    • Josh Parks says:

      Yes! I love both of the hymns I mentioned, and I think they’re open to generous and capacious interpretations like this.

  • Jack says:

    Oh dear. Good luck at Princeton. Be still my beating heart.

  • MarkPorter says:

    Totally agree. Some groups are already beginning to go a little in this direction – I’ve written a bit about some of the things that forest churches are doing towards the end of this article: http://markporter.co.uk/PDFs/ecology.pdf

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