Above me, in the boughs of a massive white pine a blue jay is objecting to my presence. He screams, flies off to do whatever is on his list to accomplish today, but comes back regularly to hop along a branch, cock an eye in my direction and scream again. Autumn is just beginning, and a red squirrel and a chipmunk, both collecting seeds from fallen pinecones and running off to their hidden larders occasionally meet under the tree, dash off madly in opposite directions and scold each other. At night, loons call out on the lake, their eerie cries echoing off the woods on the far side. A bald eagle loops across the sky looking for prey, their fierce scream a warning they are at the top of the food chain here. A flock of ducks swim past the dock in the afternoon, scooping bits of food from the surface of the water, quiet quacks sounding full of contentment. Only at sundown does the wind die down enough that it does not rustle the leaves in the birches that surround the cabin. Then too, the lapping of little waves against the shore ceases. We have come here for the quiet, but it is not a silent place.
These noises, however, seem qualitatively different from the noises we have escaped by leaving the city. There the constant sounds blend into a backdrop of white noise until they are almost unnoticed. Almost is the crucial word here, since though we largely ignore it the noise of urban life, always in the background of our consciousness, subtly quickens the pace of our lives. So we have left the city and its noise and pace of life behind, because the quiet of the woods, with its different set of noises acts like a balm for our souls. Though not silent, the lake and woods and myriad creatures living there brings a welcome quiet, something we need periodically so that creativity can be renewed and the life of the spirit deepened.
Perhaps because of their novelty to us, the sounds at the cabin all attract our attention. We notice the scream of the eagle, the shrill warning of the jay, even the gentle contented quacking of the mallards scooting past near the edge of the water. Still, we think of it as quiet.
Because the stories of J. R. R. Tolkien are indelibly imprinted on my imagination, as I sit under the white pine I wonder what that majestic, ancient tree would say if it could speak. For Tolkien the old trees were slow but steady and deeply rooted, never easily moved, and animated by a deep wisdom hardly ever found in the more flighty and transient creatures of the forest. In the biblical tradition, it is the Almighty himself that has taught them. “All the trees of the field shall know that I am the Lord,” God says through the prophet Ezekiel. “I bring low the high tree, and make high the low tree, dry up the green tree, and make the dry tree flourish. I am the Lord; I have spoken, and I will do it” (17:24).
There is a long tradition of belief that even the mute parts of nature speak, that things we experience as always silent sometimes are not. Isaiah, a poet and seer who began prophesying around 740 BC, would have understood what Tolkien imagined. When God’s kingdom was consummated, Isaiah promised, “all the trees of the field shall clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). Three centuries before Isaiah, David, the second king of Israel believed the trees would do more than that. “Then shall the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord,” he said, “for he comes to judge the earth” (1 Chronicles 16:33, Psalm 96:12). And a millennium or more before Isaiah, Jotham indicted his murderous brother Abimelech for his bloody grab for power by telling a story about trees. “The trees once went out to anoint a king over them,” Jotham began, “and they said to the olive tree, ‘Reign over us’” (Judges 9:8). The olive refused, Jotham said, as did the fig and the vine, so they were left with the bramble as a leader. It didn’t turn out well.
Among the Lower Coast Salish tribe of Vancouver Island there is a myth that explains why the Raven, which they believe is an important bridge to the spirit world, is so greedy. In it the Raven cheats his little sisters the Crows out of a day’s collection of blackberries. He would have gotten away with it except for a tiny snail. “‘I saw what you did, and I’m telling,’ little Snail told Raven… The crows mobbed Raven and boxed his ears, and for his punishment, made him row all the way back to the village to explain to everyone why there would be no blackberries for supper.” If snails are difficult to imagine as truth-tellers, Jesus pushes the envelope even further, claiming even rocks could fulfill the task. Criticized by religious leaders for allowing his followers to celebrate his entrance into Jerusalem in messianic or kingly terms, Jesus insisted the proclamation must be made. “‘I tell you,’ he replied, ‘if they keep quiet, the stones will cry out’” (Luke 19:40). I remember hearing that story as a child and wishing the disciples had shut up. What sound, I wondered, would the stones have made?
An even older story is found in the opening pages of the Hebrew Torah, a story of the first murder of a human being. One brother, we are told, kills another, and then lies about it when confronted about what he’s done. For viewers of CSI there is precious little data provided—no hint of whether a weapon was used, or if there was a struggle, or where the body was left—but that is not the purpose of the text. Here the dignity of persons is the emphasis. In the beginning normality was life in a world of abundance and significance. In this world, creatures made in God’s image were free to create, explore, and learn, cultivating and caring for God’s good world. This normality was shattered, however, when human beings granted real choice in a cosmos where choice really mattered decided their autonomy was to be preferred over trusting God’s word to be true. We still live in the abnormal world that resulted, sensing the fragmentation within and without, and still find the siren call of autonomy to be seductive. Little surprise the killing of people, even their wholesale slaughter, continues as well.
This report of the Torah includes a detail seldom associated with killings today, but in terms of the wisdom taught in this ancient tradition, it is meant to shape all human understanding since that day. The murderer is confronted by God, as the Torah would insist all his creatures are. He not only denies the charge, he insists he has no responsibility for his brother. And then God speaks, introducing a fascinating idea into the proceedings. “Listen!” the Lord tells him. “Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground” (Genesis 4:10).
The idea haunts me: If we were to be able to hear it, what would that cry be like?
Centuries prior to Moses (scholars are uncertain of the exact date) a fabled wise man of the east left an extended poetic meditation on the meaning of suffering. Job talks with three friends about the true source of his difficulties, but the result is unsatisfying. They argue that he must have sinned grievously since we get in life what we deserve. Job counters this is not true, and points to his land as a witness in his defense. It would cry out against him, Job insists, if he has treated it with less than careful stewardship (Job 31:38).
Millennia later the Hebrew prophet Habakkuk warned that not just the ground but also the artifacts of human invention will bear testimony to human injustice—and not just murder, but economic injustice too. Habakkuk’s focus is on the drive to gain so much wealth that the rich can withdraw beyond scrutiny or accountability and the petty troubles of ordinary existence. The decisions—perhaps legal but not compassionate—by which they profited so handsomely caused loss for some and collapse for many, but they have the power to safely enjoy the trappings of their success without being called to account. Here too, Habakkuk says, things we imagine to be mute will testify to the injustice that has been committed.
Woe to him who builds his realm by unjust gain
to set his nest on high,
to escape the clutches of ruin!
You have plotted the ruin of many peoples,
shaming your own house and forfeiting your life.
The stones of the wall will cry out,
and the beams of the woodwork will echo it (Habakkuk 2:9-11).
I ask again: If we had ears to hear, what would these cries be like? It is easy to dismiss such ideas and texts as “mere poetic expressions,” though why poetry is so easily set aside as untrustworthy is unclear to me. If I had to judge by the psalms of David, the prophetic epic of Isaiah, the poems of Christina Rossetti, and the lyrics of Bob Dylan I would conclude that good poetic expression is most likely a remarkably clear window into the deeper truth, beauty, and goodness of reality.
The Christian poet and hymn-writer William Cowper pointed out that in Holy Scripture the speech of human beings before the Fall and after the final Consummation are all recorded as poetry. He said this suggests poetry is the primal, natural language of creatures created in God’s image but that in this fragmented world we are left with mere prose as our ordinary mode of speech. Even if his theory turns out to be mistaken, Cowper’s biblical insight suggests one more reason we dare not be dismissive of poetic expression.
All these voices from the past are speaking of some reality, I assume, even if the details are expressed in the language of metaphor. I do not have to believe that a snail spoke to a murder of crows—that’s what a flock of crows is called—but I do believe that the evidence of history and revelation points to the fact that in the hearing of the Creator even mute artifacts of creation can cry out.
Implicit in these stories is the conviction that creation itself bears witness against all human injustice, not just injustice in general but each injustice in particular. If, as the Christian view of reality insists, injustice is abnormal, then it is contrary to the very nature of creation and leaves its dark stain even if we humans happen to be unable to spot the evidence. The ground into which innocent blood slowly soaks, the furrows of fields tilled in unsustainable ways, the beams of buildings erected by greed at the expense of others, all bear eloquent testimony to the injustice they have witnessed. And the Judge that matters hears their cries.
Think for a moment of the thousands of young women who in recent years have been ruthlessly raped by the ragtag but murderous militias of competing warlords marauding across the countryside in the Congo. Scores of women have been rounded up under the forest canopy to be brutalized, and then left, perhaps to live and perhaps not, but with no hope that any magistrate will ever dignify their suffering by hearing their case and listening to the tale of their horror. Weeks and months pass, the conflict rages on, tropical rain drenches the blood and semen stained earth and the rapists feel confident no witness is available to testify against them. Woe to you, Habakkuk would say. Woe. To. You. The God who was and is and is to come hears the evidence against you and will most assuredly restore justice in the earth.
I do not think I could be an optimistic atheist. I must be careful here, because I have not been an atheist and so cannot speak of this with certainty. Things look very different, obviously, when you actually inhabit a worldview rather than just examine it from the outside. I do not want to be presumptuous but believe it to be true: I think it would be hard to be an optimistic atheist. Most of the New Atheists are rather optimistic. Journalist Christopher Hitchens, scientist Richard Dawkins, musician and scientist Greg Graffin and philosopher Alain de Botton all agree there is no God, and that existence is finally a matter of chance in an impersonal universe. Still they tend to be optimistic about human potential, arguing that human beings cannot only learn from the past to live virtuous lives and form good societies but even, with advances in science and technology learn to guide the evolution of our species.
In this the New Atheists represent a marked change from the atheists that preceded them, although none, to my mind at least, have produced a compelling reason for the assumption of optimism over pessimism. Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900) argued that if God is dead, so is morality and meaning. We are left he said, with the raw will to power, an idea that helped lay the philosophical foundation for the brutal tyrannies of the 20th century.
Greg Graffin, scientist, lyricist, and vocalist for the punk group Bad Religion is confident, for example, that even without God human beings can find meaning and the basis for a good life and harmonious society.
Can naturalism compete with religion in providing a basis for a meaningful life? I believe it can. Naturalism is not a religion. It does not presuppose a world beyond the world that we can witness empirically, as most religions do. But naturalism can offer a template for a meaningful, internally consistent worldview. At the very least, an understanding of evolution can offer a basis for coming together as rational beings to agree on the answers to difficult questions…
Humans impart meaning and purpose to almost all aspects of life. This sense of meaning and purpose gives us a road map for how to live a good life. This guidance emerges spontaneously from the interactions of human beings living in societies and thinking together about how best to get along. It doesn’t require a god or a sacred text. Furthermore, from the naturalist perspective, the knowledge that is acquired in pursuit of a good life is subject to further observation and verification. Life is a work in progress, and recognizing errors can lead to correction. We should enjoy and make the most of life, not because we are in constant fear of what might happen to us in a mythical afterlife, but because we have only one opportunity to live.
As I commented in my review of Alain de Botton’s Religion for Atheists [Critique 2013:2], I do not believe secularists have convincingly demonstrated this claim in practice at any point in history but I wish them the best in seeking to encourage a virtuous society. Nor is it clear to me why this vision of secularism, rather than Nietzsche’s, is more compelling on secular terms, but that is not my problem and I look forward to reading their reasons.
Graffin concludes, correctly, that naturalism is unable to provide a basis for any meaning to human life and history in some ultimate sense. “If there is no destiny,” he says, “there is no design. There’s only life and death.” Still, though there is no chance of absolute meaning to life and existence, he is content with a sense of proximate significance.
Even though I can’t formulate any ultimate meaning for it all—I know I am just a small part of it and I will soon be dead and so will my offspring—I know that the studying, teaching and sharing of natural history provides a lifetime of meaningful enterprise for me. I don’t feel empty or at any kind of loss from my conclusion that life has no ultimate purpose. Passing on proximately meaningful traditions and rituals is enough for me. It always has felt like enough for me. Maybe that will change, but I doubt it. As I have learned more I have felt an even greater pull toward my conclusion that there are no ultimates.
And if there are no ultimates or afterlife or God, then the hope for some final reckoning, some ultimate fulfillment of justice is also impossible. For the naturalist, unanswered injustice and tragic suffering are merely facts of existence.
Suffering is an inevitable consequence of evolution. Naturalists see tragedy as an outgrowth of natural processes that have been occurring in multicellular organisms throughout history: bacterial parasitism, infant mortality, infection, starvation, catastrophe, species extinction. Does all this suffering serve any purpose other than reminding us to try to avoid suffering in the future? Perhaps it’s too much to ask of any worldview—whether based on naturalism or religion—that it provide an ultimate answer to the question of tragedy…
Life is best seen as a series of tragedies marked by fitful progress and recurring setbacks. There is as much disappointment as joy. But tragedies need not cause despair. They can remind us about the realities of the natural world of which we are all a part.
I do not mean to suggest in what I write here that Dr. Graffin is unconcerned for justice since I have listened to the music of Bad Religion enough to know the opposite is true. He is a man who feels passionately about life. But I doubt I would find his optimism, based on his own presuppositions about life and existence compelling if I were not a Christian. To see the brutal treatment of Congolese women and be forced to conclude that such suffering is merely “an inevitable consequence of evolution” would drive me, at the very least, into the arms of Friedrich Nietzsche.
One possible alternative would be Buddhism. But even here, at least when I look into that worldview as a Christian I find myself drawing back. Here too, the choice of optimism strikes me as unconvincing.
Since everything is but an apparition, perfect in being what it is, having nothing to do with good or bad, acceptance or rejection, one may well burst out in laughter.
That is a saying attributed to Longchenpa (1308–1364), who is revered as one of the premier teachers in the long tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. Perhaps things look different from the inside of the worldview of Buddhism, but I find myself wondering why the result is laughter. Why not rage? Doesn’t injustice invite it?
I am philosophically astute enough to realize that my preference for the Christian answer to injustice does not provide a compelling or convincing reason to believe the Christian answer is true. That is a different discussion and a worthwhile one. Still, it is not insignificant to this Christian that the Christian answer to injustice is so profoundly satisfying.
It is too large a leap of faith for me to believe that suffering is simply a fact of nature, or an illusion. I cannot hear the news from the Congo and be satisfied with that. Nor would I be satisfied with the postmodern notion of god who loves to the exclusion of wrath. I cannot and will not worship a god like that—I can only worship a God who sees the brutality against women in the Congo, summons the ground to testify, and is angry that such evil is perpetrated. And it is an even larger leap to imagine responding to these realities with laughter. It is asking me to believe too much that runs counter to my experience of life and the wisdom of the ancient Hebrew prophets that have proved themselves in so many ways. It is far easier, and far more satisfying to believe, with Habakkuk and so many others that the mute parts of creation can cry out, and will cry out when the Judge of all the earth requires an accounting for injustice. This accounting will not merely stop injustice in its tracks, though it will do that. Nor will it merely draw a line in the future so that further injustice never occurs, though it will do that as well. The biblical promise is that the Judge is also the Redeemer and the infinite One who is forever I Am, not limited by time but for whom every moment simply is. His decree, Habakkuk stated, means injustice will be fully undone by grace.
For the earth will be filled
with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea. (Habakkuk 2:14)
I am glad I cannot hear the cries of the ground and the woodwork. I have no doubt that I could not bear it. But that the ground and the woodwork and the fields and the rain-washed earth under the forest canopy can and will cry out? This I can, and do believe.
Source1. Ravensong: A Natural and Fabulous History of Ravens and Crows by Catherine Feher Elston (Flagstaff, AZ: Northland Publishing; 1991) p. 39.
2. Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science and Bad Religion in a World Without God by Greg Graffin and Steve Olson (New York, NY: Harper Collins; 2010) p. 19, 206-207.
3. Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science and Bad Religion in a World Without God by Greg Graffin and Steve Olson (New York, NY: Harper Collins; 2010) p. 214.
4. Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant? A Professor and a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism & Christianity edited by Preston Jones (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2006) p. 139.
5. Anarchy Evolution: Faith, Science and Bad Religion in a World Without God by Greg Graffin and Steve Olson (New York, NY: Harper Collins; 2010) p. 128-139
6. “Sunbeams” in The Sun (October 2013) p. 48.