Thursday, March 12, 2009

Is it God or is it Nature?

The experience of Nature is for many people the first memory they have of mystical union. A religious person who’s beliefs are under stress may look at Nature and say ‘Whatever else I believe, I know this is holy.’ In my Marylhurst Cohort, the diverse wonderful bunch of people I am taking classes with, we agree that Nature is holy. It’s a touchstone around which we gather, using its symbols to create unity between us.

However, if we dug a little deeper, if we wanted to discover our disunity instead of celebrating our unity, we might find that we don’t entirely agree about Nature. For some of us Nature may only be God’s handiwork. It is beautiful because God made it and it shows the world of men and women that God is good and great. Nature is holy because it is made by God. For others Nature contains some part of God. If we strip away the noise of impermanent things we will hear, as St Augustine says, "the very Self which in these things we love". I can imagine this as that deepest vibration within the world’s atoms. In this view, God is in nature not just the creator of nature. For some people this God in the world is explanation enough. God is as great as Nature because God is Nature, no more but no less. For others God is both in the world and also exists as some larger animation or principle. St. Augustine believed this and later in his poem asked his readers to imagine going "beyond ourselves to attain a flash of that eternal wisdom which abides above all things".

God’s relationship to Nature has acquired greater interest in the last fifty years with the rise of post-modern science. Post-modern science allows for mysticism in a way that Cartesian science did not. Post-modern physics has some theories about matter that almost require a mystical intuition to truly understand. People who have rejected religion often return to mysticism rather than to God. Sometimes that movement toward mysticism will begin a journey toward God. However, whether the journey toward mysticism moves one toward God it will very often lead back toward those original feelings about Nature.

In my tradition, Unitarian Universalism, we also gather around symbols and language of Nature in the way my Marylhurst cohort does. Nature is a ‘safe’ place for the modern skeptic to begin to reacquaint with the Holy and to rise above sectarian differences. The questions about the connection between Nature, Mysticism and God break out anew as a skeptic attempts to deepen his or her religious practice.

The other reason reason to look at God in Nature is our ecological crisis. Issues around God and Nature attract an energy and urgency they didn’t when our planet was not in mortal danger. The ecological crisis is becoming apocryphal and our duty and relation to the earth is not just an abstruse argument among theologians but is a common ethical discussion between people in their homes, in our new President’s speeches, in church, and on the letters-to-the-editor page.

Sallie McFague, in The Body of God, discusses the theological underpinnings of an ecological theology. She begins with the idea of embodiment. With all caveats in place, she asks us to consider a model of God as a body, and that body is our Universe.

McFague is a Christian and she makes, not such a great leap, and enlarges yet again who belongs inside the circle of ‘reconstituted Israel’. In 80AD Luke wrote a Gospel that enlarged the idea of who qualified for inclusion in God’s covenant with Abraham. The Good Samaritan is one example of what McFague calls "one of the central features of Jesus’ ministry--his destablizing parables that side with the outcast". McFague thinks it is time to enlarge that sense again and bring our suffering planet in "Indeed we might see nature in our time as the new poor of Jesus’ parables".

Although McFague does not mention my favorite parable, the Good Samaritan, it’s not hard to imagine that she would be sympathetic to an argument that compared the beaten man to our poor damaged earth, and the Good Samaritan as anyone moved by pity and love to step in and restore it.

(this is an extract from one of my academic papers. Its one of the good bits, where i got to stretch myself out a little :) ! )

Monday, March 2, 2009

Cyborg Skiers

I was getting restless. My husband has been on an inhuman work schedule and I have been spending all my time in God country. I was beginning to feel like I needed to spend at least a little time in God's actual country.

I looked around for some playmates and signed up for a day ski with a local cross country ski club. I had been on their trips before, and they were decent people who generally knew how to ski. The weather looked good. I should have realized my folly when the guy organizing it said 'we are going 14 miles, have you ever skied fourteen miles?' Well I didn't really know if I had, but I said yes I had.

When I showed up at the car-pool location I didn't sense anything different. Middle-aged to slightly old participants with a lot of grey to white hair. Half retired, half still working. Nothing special in the way of equipment. We drove through the Gorge and up toward Wind River. I made a joke about working on the Bicycle Master Plan, I said ' I am trying to get them to put some kind of hook on the bottom of hills so you can grab on and get pulled up to the top.' They laughed politely than one said 'but bicycling is good exercise.' 'Yes I know' I said 'but those hills ha ha'. I laughed alone.

Except for the humor challenges it was a nice group. We got out of the car and got our gear on and then we went. There was an actual breeze as the pack moved out and I was quickly the very last one going uphill. Not only was I last but the gap was widening!!! I thought 'well sometimes it takes a while for me to warm up. I'll be fine.'

But I wasn't really fine. I respond to group pressure and so I started to really push myself. I was sweating and had to stop so I could take off my jacket. I puffed purposely forward but taking off the jacket had only put me farther behind. I came around a bend and the nice leader was there looking a bit anxious, "are you ok?". It is the question that the insanely, competitive dread. "Oh, I'm fine!" I trilled,"I guess I'm just not as fast as you are," stating the obvious. "but I will make it" I could only hope it was true.

Than it began in earnest. He chose to believe me, so he went ahead of me. On any ski tour some of it has to be uphill. That's ok, but on a 14 mile ski tour, at least five miles of it are uphill. In this case it was the first five miles. I began a series of legs where I would see them waiting for me far ahead, reach them puffing, wheezing and exhorting myself, and they would look back at me, ask me how I was doing and then move on. I knew they were probably getting cold waiting but I never got to take a BREAK. Everytime I would reach them they would move on and I would force myself to follow--it was like stalking a herd of elk!

Finally, finally we stopped for lunch. I struggled a little out of my skis because of an icing problem with my bindings and devoured my lunch. I was so hungry I was gulping huge bites of my sandwich but before I was done I looked around and they were DONE with lunch and getting ready to move on. They were even faster eaters than I was!

Then it happened. As they were packing up I said "I need to take a leak." They looked at me dumbly and said, 'we'll wait for you around the bend'. That was when I began to wonder. Am I skiing with cyborgs? They had eaten lunch with me, but maybe that was just to fit in. Not one of them stopped the whole day to take a leak. I only took one but I was the only one who did.

Things did get better after lunch. We had done the major uphill stint. I could just barely keep up with them on downhill stretches. I was so exhausted though that I wasn't really enjoying myself. I still had to push like the dickens to keep up and I couldn't tell you what the woods were like.

This trip wasn't the idealic return to nature that I had hoped. I had turned into the 'little engine that could', following a pack of cyborg elk. I rounded a bend and negotiated a long challenging down hill, we were in sight of the broad easy road that would lead to the car. I was just thinking, hey this is finally kind of fun when my ski chattered over and hooked itself under a limb that was snow-glued to the ground. It is just the kind of thing that happens when you are beyond tired.

Wham bam, thank you mam! I went down hard. The limb stayed put and my ski was soundly hooked. I had to crawl backwards up the hill to push the ski back through the hole formed by the sturdy branch, my butt in the air, my chest and arms hugging the icy ground. I pulled the ski out. Then I found out I could not get back up, I was just too darned tired. I sat defeated for a moment, then gave it one more heave ho! I managed to move forward a little unsteadily, and there they were my cyborg friends. I got closer, 'man, I hooked my ski!' I shouted, they made sad faces at me and then turned as one and moved briskly away back toward the car.