Reading the Word: Musing on the physical
Some natural beauty is quiet and surprising, like the tiny flower with delicate white petals and bright yellow stamen that I happened upon that was growing in a crack in the asphalt in front of a deserted building. The place reeked of abandonment, of things gone wrong, of jobs lost and dreams disappointed, and the invasive weeds spreading across the parking lot seemed to confirm the sense of failure and decay. And then there was this little flower, blooming bravely (or so it seemed to me) with a beauty so full of wonder as to feel almost ferocious when I knelt to look more closely.
I doubted the flower would last long. Flowers tend to fade all too rapidly anyway and this one seemed to have landed in a tenuous and unstable spot. There was little soil that I could see in the crack in the asphalt and there were signs that demolition might begin soon on the site. The Hebrew prophet Isaiah, interestingly enough, saw even the fading of flowers within the care and providence of their Creator (Isaiah 40:7-8). God has not withdrawn from them but oversees their decline and return to the dust.
The wonder, the mystery, the order, the beauty is all around us if we are not too busy or distracted to stop and observe. “After the one extravagant gesture of creation in the first place,” Annie Dillard notes, “the universe has continued to deal exclusively in extravagances, flinging intricacies and colossi down aeons of emptiness, heaping profusions on profligacies with ever-fresh vigor. The whole show has been on fire from the word go.”
The beauty is not secondary. The Hebrew Scripture insists, for example that the Creator called trees into existence not merely because they were “good for food” but because they were “pleasant to the sight” (Genesis 2:9). God’s concern was to meet both the practical, nutritional and the spiritual, aesthetic needs of those made in his image. He adorned what he made with a trace of his magnificence and it would be both churlish and foolish to ignore or miss it.
Several years ago, along the southeastern edge of Lake Michigan Margie and I hiked past immense oak trees, ancient, weathered and impressive, stretching up into the sky. We stopped in wonder, remarking on their massive, craggily gnarly branches, and standing for a while simply to gaze. Later I deleted the photos I took because none came close to capturing even a miniscule hint of their majestic solidity.
Some people speak as if mystery is found exclusively in the spiritual realm of existence, as if it is absent in the physical. I suspect this is because the material is open to scientific study and so we are trained to see it in reductionist terms. Yet each discovery, glorious and fascinating in its own right always reveals how much more remains to be discovered. New tools and research methods uncover phenomena previously unknown or only guessed at. I am not a scientist but I suspect the complexity, order and precision of the physical universe is why so many researchers happily give their lives to the unfolding and yet often tedious exploration and experimentation of science. If we have missed the mystery, awe and wonder of the physical we simply aren’t paying attention.
Scientists assure us that the wonder holds not just for the surface of things but the closer we look, down through a microscope or out into farthest space. And, as Richard Dawkins notes, the sense of stunned marvel holds the more deeply the research penetrates into the intricate and inexplicable beauty of nature.
The feeling of awed wonder that science can give us is one of the highest experiences of which the human psyche is capable. It is a deep aesthetic passion to rank with the finest that music and poetry can deliver. It is truly one of the things that make life worth living and it does so, if anything, more effectively if it convinces us that the time we have for living is quite finite.
I can appreciate that. Still, to my mind, it is a bit too weak. Dawkins’ naturalist assumptions will allow for no more, and so I applaud his honesty, but I would also suggest a far richer perspective is both possible and more plausible.
I prefer the take on things expressed by poet, academic and Anglican priest Malcolm Guite in the 2019 Laing Lectures at Regent College (Vancouver). The conference topic was Imagining the Kingdom: Parable, Poetry & Gospel. In the second lecture, “Christ and the Moral Imagination,” Guite asks us to reflect on Christ’s teaching, particularly in the parables of nature. He calls attention to the simple yet profound one of a seed falling into the ground and dying. “Truly, truly, I say to you,” St John records Jesus as saying, “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. Whoever loves his life loses it, and whoever hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (12:24-25). Guite wants us to see
the way Jesus appeals to our imagination in his parables. The way he invites us not only to see the beautiful appearances of nature but also to read them imaginatively, to read them as symbols, indeed to read them as a kind of language so that in those parables he can teach us the invisible through the visible.
But I want to start by remarking on something that we all take for granted. Which is that there should be any parallels to make up a parable. That there should in fact be any correspondence between the outward that we are told is the blind unfolding of nature and the inner workings of our own minds. If we were to believe the bleak, reductive and exclusively material account of ourselves of the kind you read in Dawkins and others, an account of ourselves as simply a set of survival and defense mechanisms as an unintended series of biochemical reactions whose sheer complexity has accidentally thrown up consciousness as a kind of isolated epiphenomenon. If we were to believe that then we should scarcely expect there to be any real correspondence between our accidental inner life of mind and all the supposedly mindless processes of nature going on out there. We might expect, perhaps, to have evolved so as to be aware of a tree in order not to bump into it, or even perhaps so as to hide in it, but we should scarcely expect that a tree, with its roots, and branches should so perfectly express and embody for us so many aspects of our inner life. The pattern of thought itself—we can’t speak of thoughts except to say they have roots and branches and fruits. The pattern of history, the nature of organizations, and even our inner spiritual life—all in some way we find ourselves drawing on the language of rootedness, branchedness, growth—those outer things of nature provide us with a language which is completely adequate to and illuminating for our invisible, inner life…
So, there might be good evolutionary reasons for our observing the cycles of sowing and growth in nature and for our ability to control those processes a little by plowing furrows and planting seeds for ourselves but the mechanistic and reductive view would scarcely lead us to the actual experience we have which is true for every farmer and indeed every gardener that in letting a seed fall from our hands and be covered in the earth, in waiting for its first fruits to rise we find a perfect outer emblem for a whole series of inward experiences—experiences of loss and letting go that lead to a new fruition. Let alone that we should find it in that cycle of supposedly an indifferent and purposeless nature a parable of death and resurrection that whispers to us a great hope—we shouldn’t expect that were the mechanistic view to be the case.
But on the other hand, if the Christian assertion that all things were created in the Logos, in mind, in order, in meaning, and that that same Logos is also the inner light of every human mind, “the light who lightens everyone who comes into the world.” If that assertion is true, then such rich and fruitful parallels between the inner life of the mind and the outer life of nature are precisely what we should expect to find. If we were further to assert, as John does in his Gospel, that this same Logos, through whom all of nature was made, and who lights every human mind—this same Logos actually came into the world as a human being not only to save but also to teach us then we would pay special attention to the way in which he used the language of the outer world, which was made in and through him—the seeds, the trees, the birds of the air and the flowers of the field—to express for us the life of the spirit. For here we would have the privilege of meeting and listening to Meaning itself. Or rather we should say, to Meaning Himself. The author of the cosmos, this great work in which we find ourselves, would be reading to us and interpreting for us the poem of his own creation. And I think that is precisely what is happening when we sit at the feet of Jesus and hear him teaching in parables.
That is far closer it seems to me, to the truth of things when I follow Jesus in opening my senses to nature.
Sometimes awe is evoked by quiet beauty, and sometimes when nature turns awful. The rolling thunder of a furious storm, wind whipping branches and lightning cracking across the heavens can produce a delicious delight tinged with a touch of fear. Storms put us in our place so that we feel small and insignificant—appropriately so—finally facing our helplessness before such overwhelming force. The false confidence of modernity is stripped away by the most elemental of forces.
The Hebrew psalmist hears in the storm the thundering voice of divinity.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over many waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord breaks the cedars;
the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon…
The voice of the Lord flashes forth flames of fire.
The voice of the Lord shakes the wilderness;
the Lord shakes the wilderness of Kadesh.
The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth
and strips the forests bare,
and in his temple all cry, “Glory!” [Psalms 29:3-5,7-9]
Superhero movies still employ such imagery, with Thor the god of thunder slamming his mighty hammer on the ground to shake the firmament in his wrath. The metaphor works, especially if you have sufficient reasons to believe that all that is exists by the creatively sustaining word of the God on whom all existence depends. To see a flower blooming in a crack in the asphalt or a thundercloud boiling up into the atmosphere and see only bare material phenomena is a leap of faith that beggars my imagination.
“There are things in nature which engender an awful quiet in the heart of man,” writes Native American scholar and novelist N. Scott Momaday. “Man must account for it. He must never fail to explain such a thing to himself, or else he is estranged forever from the universe.” To be lost in the cosmos, to use Walker Percy’s phrase, is to be alienated from all that matters most.
The final paragraph of Cormac McCarthy’s brilliantly wrenching novel, The Road, took my breath away. Set in a blasted post-apocalyptic world, a father and son wander, starving and homeless in a gray and dust-filled landscape, fearful of being caught by roving gangs of people desperate to the point of cannibalism. Destruction and misery as far as the eye can see, though the road they travel stretches on into the half-darkness as ash falls like filthy flakes of snow.
Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.
McCarthy knows that the true response to apocalypse is not merely the recovery of the physical that has been ruined beyond recognition. What is missing for the lonely frightened and starving wanderers in The Road is far deeper than that. Being lost, they need to be found and being found includes knowing that the world they inhabit is imbued with hope and true meaning, not just fire, chaos, destruction, and death.
We do not live in a post-apocalyptic world but many wander without ever witnessing the trout in those streams. I find it troubling that in our world of advanced modernity so many people are separated from the awe, stunning beauty and wonder of material reality. Because of the flood of the images that deluge us we think we’ve seen all such things, but that isn’t the same. Imagine this—sadly there are children growing to maturity in urban centers who have never witnessed the glory of the Milky Way. The lights of the city drown out the stars that sing in the heavens. Tell me: is this the way it’s supposed to be?
When we gaze at the stars on a dark night our thoughts seem to expand beyond our own very narrow concerns. Somehow they draw us outward to larger ideas. “When I look at your heavens,” the psalmist says, “the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him?” (Psalm 8:3-4). This is not a special and unusual thing that only ancient Hebrew poets experience, but is, I am convinced a common human response to the mysterious grandeur God has planted in the night sky. It is true that only a few of us will glimpse the Himalaya peaks, or the expanse of the Russian taiga, or the monkeys in the Amazonian canopy, or the seasonal melting of the ice on the Antarctica Ocean. Such wonders are available only to a few—but the stars? They are above us all, available to all those created in God’s image, except to those whose vision is impaired or obstructed. This is not a criticism of artificial lighting; it is a lament that some are prevented from seeing a glimpse of the raw, unfiltered glory of God.
And as a Christian I muse often on the brutal physicality at the heart of my faith. In his death—his physical death—Christ assumed the full weight, the entire significance of our sins. In the cosmic scheme of things, even my little acts of misogyny and racism and unkindness and narcissism and all the rest, once committed, can’t simply be magically erased. They inflict wounds, spawn brokenness, and multiply results that ripple out, perhaps unseen and unnoticed or studiously ignored by me, but very real nevertheless. Christ’s loving act in shouldering this unbearable burden sounds like a spiritual act—spiritual in the sense of not physical, of occurring in a realm of reality far removed from the corporeal. Not so. Christ, St Peter writes, “bore our sins in his body on the tree,” so that “by his wounds” we can receive healing (1 Peter 2:24, my emphasis).
Miss the reality of the physical and we miss not merely the experience of wonder and the apprehension of glory, but the reality of redemption.
Unweaving the Rainbow: Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins (New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin Company; 1998) p. x.
Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard (New York, NY: Harper Perennial; 1974) p. 11.
The Road by Cormac McCarthy (New York, NY: Alfred A. Knopf; 2006) p. 241.
House Made of Dawn by N. Scott Momaday (New York, NY: Harper Collins; 1966, 1967, 1968, 2010) p. 115.
Lost in the Cosmos: The Last Self-Help Bookby Walker Percy (New York, NY: Picador; 1983).
2019 Laing Lectures with Malcolm Guite at Regent College are available free online