Wednesday, July 20, 2011

On the Nature of Nature - Add on to Shul Hopping #2

Nature and humanity live together in a complex relationship. We seek to both dominate and be dominated by nature. With science, that progressive march towards power and control, we attempt to bring nature under the dominion of Man. Some see this venture as bestowing dignity upon man, while others view this dominion as a manifestation of Man's hubris. Instead, this latter group believes, man’s dignity arises when we humble ourselves before nature (This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t create new medicine or new technology, it’s more a question of attitude.) As modern people, we espouse both views. At the same time we try to use nature we attempt to preserve it. At the same time we lord ourselves over it, we also look to nature to make us feel humble, to make us feel small in a way that allows us to transcend ourselves. I touched upon this topic in my most recent Shul Hopping piece(See interesting stuff on the side of this blog), but I presented the relationship with nature in a slightly simplistic manner, in a way that minimizes our problematic modern conception of wilderness.
In certain ways, the problem with privatized religion mimics the issue with our conception of wilderness. This makes sense in that the attraction to both wilderness and a personal religion stem from the need for elemental autonomy. As Professor Robert Cronon points out in his essay The Trouble with Wilderness, we live in a mire of irony in regards nature. Into the wild we dash to seek certain, by now, formulaic experiences: experiences of escape from the fetters of the modern world, experiences that reconnect us with the elemental aspects of human nature. We look to nature to breathe, freely, untainted air, both physically and mentally. Nature provides an experience of independence, of self sufficiency, and importantly, of awe, of a connection to the magnitude of all being. Sit before a stream, a tiny stream that wraps around the trunk of towering tree, and allow your bare feet to dance with the individual strands of grass as they insinuate themselves between your toes. Lie down and look up. Stare, but really just stare for just five minutes, and likely, you will stumble upon the experience of the sublime, of something transcendent. Yet, the problem with these ideas, the problem with thinking of the wilderness as a haven, similarly to a privatized religion, is history’s persistence in impinging on our pleasure. 
The heavy irony of today’s wilderness experience stems from the fact that we needed to use the tools and values of modernity to create a haven from modernity. No true wilderness  exists for us anymore. We get there in our cars, use our industrialized tools: coals, tents, plastic utensils, flashlights, sleeping bags, bug spray all to make the “elemental wild” palatable. Untamed wilderness, as Cronon points out, before the industrial period stood not as a symbol of elemental, independent, God infused living, but as a symbol of the terror at the core of life. Cronon has no intention of deflating our enjoyment of nature, or of the wilderness. He seeks to enlighten us to our complex relationship with nature. Because wilderness is our creation, he claims, we can seek similar experiences even within our modern city. He believes that in setting up this dichotomy between civilization and nature we tend rationalize our treatment of nature within civilization, a claim that twenty years ago echoed more truly than it does now simply because of the boom of interest in the environment.
            Besides this more complex view of our relationship with nature, I believe we need to flesh out the complicated relationship between nature and religion. I will let the experts chime in on this topic. Pascal wrote his Pensees (thoughts in French) as a book of Christian apologetics. The fame of this book stems from Pascal’s famous wager, but he writes beautifully on a range of religious topics. Here, in part 4, he describes the relationship between nature and religion:
In addressing their argument to infidels, their first chapter is to prove Divinity from the works of nature. I should not be astonished at their enterprise, if they were addressing their argument to the faithful; for it is certain that those who have the living faith in their hearts see at once that all existence is none other than the work of the God whom they adore. But for those in whom this light is extinguished, and in whom we purpose to rekindle it, persons destitute of faith and grace, who, seeking with all their light whatever they see in nature that can bring them to this knowledge, find only obscurity and darkness; to tell them that they have only to look at the smallest things which surround them, and they will see God openly, to give them, as a complete proof of this great and important matter, the course of the moon and planets, and to claim to have concluded the proof with such an argument, is to give them ground for believing that the proofs of our religion are very weak. And I see by reason and experience that nothing is more calculated to arouse their contempt.

Pascal claims that nature will act as a mirror to your preconceived notions. If you believe in God you will see his hand everywhere in the natural world, but if you do not, nature might arouse awe, but awe at the enormity of the universe, perhaps even at the arbitrariness of the universe, but not awe towards a creator. Pascal takes his claim further and asserts that the scriptures themselves never attempt to use Nature as evidence of God for that exact reason:

It is not after this manner that Scripture speaks, which has a better knowledge of the things that are of God. It says, on the contrary, that God is a hidden God…
This is what Scripture points out to us, when it says in so many places that those who seek God find Him. It is not of that light, "like the noonday sun," that this is said. We do not say that those who seek the noonday sun, or water in the sea, shall find them; and hence the evidence of God must not be of this nature. So it tells us elsewhere: Vere tu es Deus absconditus. [Is. 45. 15. "Verily, thou art a God that hidest thyself."] It is an astounding fact that no canonical writer has ever made use of nature to prove God. They all strive to make us believe in Him. David, Solomon, etc., have never said, "There is no void, therefore there is a God." They must have had more knowledge than the most learned people who came after them, and who have all made use of this argument. This is worthy of attention.Why! Do you not say yourself that the heavens and birds prove God?" No. "And does your religion not say so"? No. For although it is true in a sense for some souls to whom God gives this light, yet it is false with respect to the majority of men.

While we can disagree with Pascal’s assertion regarding scripture and its mode of proving God, I believe this sentiment rings true for many a modern person. We watch Planet Earth, or Oceans, and we feel something, but for many of us it triggers emotions not of God, but of the randomness of nature and the infinitesimal stature of man. Often, people will claim that atheistic scientists cannot feel awe at the beauty of nature, but this is a specious claim. One need not believe in God to feel the contrast between our everyday modern experience, surrounded by man made creations, and the experience of the wilderness as something completely Other, something that appears to care little for the needs and desires of Man. (Think of all the natural disasters that has ravaged the world in the past few years.)
It’s interesting to note though, that one of America’s most beloved and venerable explorers of spirituality disagrees, despite the fact that she searches and doesn’t necessarily profess to believe in God as a creator. Annie Dillard in her seminal Pilgrim At Tinder Creek writes of this duality inherent within the experience of nature itself. 
That it’s rough out there and chancy is no surprise. Every live thing is a survivor on a kind of extended emergency bivouac. But at the same time we are also created. In the Koran, Allah asks, “The heaven and earth and all in between, thinkest thou I made them in jest?” It’s a good question. What do we think of the creative universe, spanning an unthinkable void with an unthinkable profusion of forms? Or what do we think of nothingness, those sickening reaches of time in either direction? ... Pascal uses a nice term to describe the notion of the creator’s once having called for universe, turning his back to it: Deus Absconditus. It this what we think happened? Was the sense of it there, and God absconded with it, ate it, like a wolf who disappears round edge of the house with the Thanksgiving turkey? ... It could be that God has not absconded but spread, as our vision and understanding of the universe have spread, to a fabric of spirit and sense so grand and subtle, so powerful in a new way, that we can only feel blindly at its hem. In making the thick darkness a swaddling band for the, God, ‘set bars and doors’ and said, ‘Hitherto shalt thou come, but no further.” But have we come even that far? Have we rowed out to the thick darkness, or are we all playing pinochle in the bottom of the boat?

Dillard here makes a unique claim. God is not obvious in nature, as others might claim, neither for believers nor for non-believers, nor does nature necessarily hide God completely. Rather God, it appears, hides in nature so we can search for him, not because through the search we will necessarily find him, but we must try, because we might find traces of his existence, because we feel the stirrings of something, something that demands further exploration. This argument falls into the category of the unfalsifiable. You cannot prove it one way or the other. Therefore, I find this argument interesting. Is nature simply a mirror for our beliefs or can it arouse something in us we never thought possible? Is nature ambiguous at best, or the greatest place to experience God? Cronon points out that Nature, with the rise of industrialism became more and more associated as God’s home, but does this assertion point to the ambiguity of the natural world, or did industrialization allow us to see nature in a new light? It depends, I guess.
Besides these viewpoints, regardless of how much of God you see in nature, I believe the experience of the wilderness can allow us to feel emotions that we normally associate as religious. In that way we can either expand our range of emotions, or practice for a relationship with God the same way that human relationships allow us to practice for a different type of relationship with God. For example, on this past camping trip, a friend and I walked through the pitch dark park. The clouds jealously hid the moon so we are talking plague-like darkness. We walked, hoping for our eyes to adjust, but they couldn’t. We continued on, slowly, feeling for the first time in my life, a sense of utter and complete precariousness. It then occurred to me how infrequently I feel this in modern life, how much of our lives entail an attempt of control. It felt good to feel completely out of control. I also realized that this experience mimics the dependency religious people feel upon God. For many, every moment of every day is a walk in complete darkness if not for the flashes of God’s light that lead the way. Maimonides, in his Guide for the Perplexed gives a famous parable in regards to the secrets of life and prophecy, but a parable that works for our experience of nature:
Do not imagine that these most difficult problems can be thoroughly understood by any one of us. This is not the case. At times the truth shines so brilliantly that we perceive it as clear as day. Our nature and habit then draw a veil over our perception, and we return to a darkness almost as dense as before. We are like those who, though beholding frequent flashes of lightning, still find themselves in the thickest darkness of the night.
On some the lightning flashes in rapid succession, and they seem to be in continuous light, and their night is as clear as the day.  By others only once during the whole night is a flash of lightning perceived.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think,
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