A Wider View
On my walk home from work yesterday, I listened to part of a lecture on the nature of science. The speaker was very matter-of-factly talking about matters of cosmology, describing the forces that contribute to the ongoing operations of the cosmos, the relationship between the sun and the moon and the earth, and the general picture of how life is produced and sustained on this big chunk of rock rotating “as on a spit” around a fiery ball. Throughout the portion I listened to on my walk, the speaker’s voice barely changed in its tone. You could never have guessed that he was speaking about some of the most profound mysteries the human mind has ever approached. He could have been reading the instruction manual on how to clean my barbecue, for all his voice gave away.
It occurred to me as I was wandering up my driveway that I so rarely take time to appreciate the absolute marvel that life is. That there should be an earth with things like rocks and trees and rivers and animals and people, and that all this physical stuff should need to somehow be conceived as a part of this story full of goodness and evil and meaning by these weird bipedal creatures with hyperactive prefrontal cortices… I take so much for granted, and so rarely stop to consider the mystery and the immensity of all the beauty and horror that is our world or how spectacularly unlikely the whole show with us as a part of it really is. A strange and amazing thing, this life…
Later last night, I read these words from Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:
We don’t know what’s going on here. If these tremendous events are random combinations of matter run amok, the yield of millions of monkeys at millions of typewriters, then what is it in us, hammered out of those same typewriters, that they ignite? We don’t know. Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery, like the idle, curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf. We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape, really see it, and describe what’s going on here. Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.
She is such a fine writer. I especially like Pilgrim at Tinker, Holy is Firm and Teaching a Stone to Talk.
The selection you have quoted here resembles some of the writings of Joseph Wood Krutch and Loren Eiseley, and even Robinson Jeffers.
It represents a difference between the close observers of nature who once called themselves naturalists and the close observers of nature who today call themselves biologists. Dawkins is one of the latter types. He would crudely call the writings of Dillard, Krutch, Eiseley, and Jeffers “sexed-up atheism.” Personally, I think they fit within the broad spectrum known as liberal, or natural, theology, which perhaps resembles atheism in some of its expressions, but is not the antagonistic, arrogant, triumphant atheism of Dawkins.
Dillard and the others so effectively connect metaphors and nature. Words may not correspond to things as some linguistic philosophers have observed, but metaphors do seem to correspond to human experience of nature, ourselves and God.
Elie Wiesel recounts a tale told by an ancient famous rabbi about a man who had a letter from a king whom no one had ever seen. The Bible and nature are like that letter in their effect on us.
This is my first real exposure to Dillard, but I’m enjoying Pilgrim very much (I started The Maytrees once but couldn’t get into it). She is a fine writer indeed. She sees some things very clearly, and her use of metaphor is, as you say, brilliant.
Erazim Kohak, a philosopher at Boston University with deep interests in ecology and theology, wrote a book that you might find interesting. The Embers and The Stars: A Philosophical Inquiry into the Moral Sense of Nature. I am reading it now. It is somewhat hard to read, and hard to evaluate, but nevertheless it strikes me as deeply insightful. I think of his writing as apologetics and ethics – in this case the connections between ethics, nature and God.
His understanding of God is natural, rather than supernatural, but differs from much religious naturalism because his understanding does not exalt science as many religious naturalists do. His understanding of nature is theological, rather than materialistic, but his theology differs from much theology in his emphasis on nature. I think it is fair to say that it is built on something like an idea of redemption, certainly on “the moral sense of nature” rather than on emergence. It differs from process theology in that way.
This book may not be perfect theology or ecology, but then there is no such thing as perfection in those fields. Even though it is not perfect, it is, nevertheless, profound. What a title, “The Embers and the Stars.”
I found it by happenstance – it was on the shelf in a used bookstore in my neighborhood in the ecology section. There it stood on November 29 in its purple cover, heralding advent.
Sounds like a fascinating book, Ken! And difficult to find. A quick search online shows that it I’m going to have to find this one used somewhere :).
How appropriate for Advent, when God comes to make the world right.