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One of the deep and lamentable errors of the late 20th century Reformed movement was not only their propensity for iconoclasm but carrying the banner against natural revelation. Honorably, some of these great Reformed leaders observed the tyranny of Nazism and declared an unequivocal “No!” for a human’s ability to discern the divine within the natural order. While watching the Nazi propaganda films one need look no further than their elevation of the human body into some sort of divine trait. In the contrary anything that was arbitrarily deemed a weakness was eventually obliterated. The infirm, homosexuals, gypsies, developmentally disabled and Jews were thought to deface the Arian myth of supremacy.
So an overreaction is understandable in the years following such atrocities. This overreaction is lamentable from even a cursory reading of our holy texts. In them we read that the heavens declare the glory of God and as a deer pants for water so does our soul pant for God. Christ himself talks of lilies, sparrows, mother hens, stones, seeds, fig trees and mountains.
This is where American transcendentalists and the Continental theological tradition give us such a positive pause. The transcendentalists from Melville to Thoreau see in nature something greater than what meets the eye, even if it is just beauty. Ralph Waldo Emerson declares that even in a corpse there is beauty.
We find the same type of reverence for nature in surprising continental sources as well. Jonathan Edward’s iconic sermon Sinners In the Hands of An Angry God has the indelible image of a spider or insect dangling over an open flame as an illustration. Edward’s reflection upon nature here is no anomaly. His pre-ministry writings, late sermons and miscellanies are centrally concerned with the natural order and how the revelation of scripture would bring about a coherent link with God.
While today we may differ from his conclusions Edwards keen gaze toward the fields, springs and sunlight surrounding him actually are at the center of a Reformed idea as old as John Calvin. In his theological opus The Institutes of Christian Religion Calvin declares that “creation is the theatre of God’s glory.” Calvin was not a person who shunned God’s glory in the nature that surrounded him.
It is interesting to note the lack of importance the observable world through nature’s revelation has become in a Post-Modern world. Although we may strenuously object to the firm “No!” voiced by the deniers of natural revelation our actions toward nature betray our ignorance and arrogance. When not suffering from nature deficit disorder it seems we tend toward a triumphalism that strives toward defeating nature as a foe.
Our first problem is that we have a deficit in our interaction with nature itself. One only needs to take a stroll down the isle of our cinder block and metal mega-stores to understand our predicament. Prepackaged, artificially colored, blemish eliminated, waxed and preserved items resemble more the automated technical world than anything within nature. There are no longer seasons in our produce departments, unattractive cuts are never seen and slightly damaged packaging is discarded. In a world of value and convenience we do not value seeing our food sources and seeing its production is an inconvenience.
Second, we see nature as something that needs to be controlled and conquered for our own benefit. This can be seen in our “crisis” over rising oil prices. Political dialogue has had limited discussion and even littler will at creating alternative fuel sources for the public. As scandalous as this may seem there has been negligible discussion about public sacrifice in being better participants in our natural order. The trouble with our finite resources is a solvable problem. Stop driving, limit electricity, limit food choices, limit trucking and limit travel. It is telling that speaking of any of these solutions is unthinkable in our current political climate. Yet, we will continue to build coal and nuclear power plants unhindered. We will search and explore for oil fields through the encouragement of tax breaks and subsidies. Instead of saying no more, we are looking to do more, create more and destroy more in our fear of being inconvenienced.
One does not need to believe in the existence of global warming to see that the destruction of entire mountains, the decimation of entire species, the pollution of drinking water sources and the choking air from urban sprawl are immoral. Still, blithely many think it is their God given right to remain forever unchanged. Salvation will only come through repentance.
Why such apathy and antipathy? It is because we have lost a biblical sense of wonder. We have lost the awe of being a part of a creation that is good when we find ourselves in a harmonious relationship with it. It will not be through raw power or synthetic activism that will cause us to care. It is the simple beginning of the romantic awe one has in cultivating a garden. The miracle of germination, sprout, growth, fruition and harvest that centers us back to the earth. It is mindfully feeling our steps on the grass and appreciating weeds that help us understand our place. There is something praiseworthy in the symphonic chorus of pre-dawn birds, the melody of barking dogs and the final notes of dusk’s insects. Until we remember that the dirt we plow is where we originate and where we will finally rest it will remain a meaningless obstruction to progress.
Nature is not only where we begin, it is where we are centered. How can any true spirituality ignore the essential position of our mammalian beings? We are not over and above, but amidst and between creation. We must find a way to bring ourselves back into right relationship to the world in which we inhabit.
As Hermann Hesse implores:
Heads up, dear friends! Just try it once–a tree, or at least a considerable section of the sky, is to be seen anywhere…Accustom yourself every morning to look for a moment, at the sky and suddenly you will be aware of the air around you, the scent of morning freshness that is bestowed upon you between sleep and labor.
These are the “small joys” that help us find release. We live as part of a creation constantly singing, smelling and coloring our landscapes with praise. Our sight and joy in the Almighty is blinded without wonderful interplay with creation. We must return to the earth to rediscover our wonder and awe in the creator. it is an essential way that God is being revealed and it is the way for us to find our place.
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