Thursday, July 26, 2007

Nature and "the new world religion"

More reflections after visiting The Clark Institute

As I was publishing Tuesday's post, I felt vaguely uncomfortable that the photographs I was including were not of Monet's (or any other human being's) art, but of "Nature's art." I remembered that when I looked out a window in one of the galleries and spied the pond, I felt more drawn to it than to any of the man-made objects inside. And I supposed that individuals all over the world, of whatever religion (or irreligion) probably respond more reliably to the beauty of a lily pond than they do to any man-made work of art. Respond to Nature, that is.

But do they? Like everything else, Nature leaves it to each of us how to interpret it, how to respond. A friend of mine seems to interpret Nature as obvious proof positive of the existence and benevolence of God (notwithstanding all of the suffering and destruction embodied in Nature's food chain, which she seems to forgive as a mysterious manifestation of the overarching understanding and provision of The Creator, etc.). Others of her faith, equally religious in their own way, interpret Nature as something grand to blow up (if it's in the enemy's territory or has situated within it the appropriate people to be blown up along with the site).

Christians too—and members of all other faiths of course—can respond as my friend does. But certain Christian businessmen (who may be fine Christians on Sunday morning) are more like those other members of my friend's faith the rest of the week...out there slowly blowing up Nature and making people sick or dead by subduing and polluting the planet's hills and streams and water tables and oceans with their smokestack gases and drainpipe effluents.

Some atheists (perhaps scientists in particular) get a thrill from observing and contemplating the grandeur of Nature itself—they may even feel that they're in the presence of some sort of transcendence. Other scientists are more workaday—blinkered technocrats working for corporations whose short-term financial interests they serve for pay. For them there's nothing transcendent about Nature at all, it's just a commodity.

What I'm thinking now, alas, is that there's probably nothing whatsoever that evokes the same response in everyone—not even the concept God. Maybe especially not the concept of God, being man-made as it is. A world religion seems to be utterly impossible. It's the Tower of Babel all over, or continuously. Suppose for a moment that God exists and that God could (and on a particular occasion would) speak to every individual on the planet. Do you think that everyone would hear Her? Or do you think that everyone who did hear Her would recognize that it was God? The Episcopal pastor in Peggy Payne's 1988 novel Revelation wasn't sure that that voice he heard in his backyard was God's or not, and his congregation was quite sure it wasn't.

Nor does a world irreligion (a sort of Sam Harris utopia) seem possible. Science (as a rational, intellectual inquiry) reports its findings continually and is, theoretically, available to everyone. But even if literally everyone did hear the reports, many wouldn't recognize what they were reporting, wouldn't understand them, would find them boring, or, more likely, would reject them out of hand and insist on...Creationism or some other improbable fantasy. They'd continue to imagine in their magical way that there's a Spiritual Something out there performing miracles despite—and in defiance of—the Laws of Nature.

Maybe this egalitarian response is as good a proof as we can get that God does exist, for maybe God is like James Joyce, who said that he took credit for all the interpretations by every Ulysses scholar in the world, whether or not any of them had occurred to him personally.*

Or maybe not. Maybe the egalitarian response is as good a proof as we can get that God doesn't exist. That it's every man and woman for himerself.

* According to Bernard Holland in his July 24 article in The New York Times, "Debussy's Ghost Is Playing, So What Can a Critic Say?"


  1. People a few generations ago (they tell me) would refer to nature as the book of creation. Contemplating it was enough for folks (then) to conclude that there must be a creator, so manifest was its design. And that's still valid today (though challenged by many). Didn't you tell me awhile back of a colleage who claimed to have "proof" of God's existance? And, if memory serves, it was proof of the probability other words, the probability of this or that happening spontaneously is so astromically high that it can be practically regarded as impossible. And that there are any number of areas in which that statement holds true. Yes, i remember we discussed that.

    But the book of creation's not enough to give one the entire picture. As you observed, it does not account for the suffering and destruction inherent in life today. Thus there is also a "book of knowledge" which addresses these matters. That is, the book of creation primarily addresses the "what" and the book of knowledge addresses the "why" (glimpses of the who, where, when can be seen in both, but primarily the book of knowledge.)

    I guess you know what I regard as the book of knowledge.

    Also, I reread your sheep and goats post. Now I remember! Much as I appreciate your mention, I didn't reply because there was almost nothing of Lodge's words I agreed with. and I didn't want to get into a row! To some extent, we've been down that road before.

    Still, some of the specifics regarding what Lodge writes we haven't discussed yet. I'm up for doing it if you are. But where? Here?

    Go well, good fellow.

  2. Thanks much, Tom, for coming to see what left me feeling "beatific" last night!

    To start with your concluding offer, no, I'm afraid I'm not up to discussing specifics from Lodge with you (any more than you were up to commenting on them to me upon first reading my post).

    In general, I think we'd be wise to avoid rows by discussing things that we fundamentally disagree on. For example, I don't agree that nature has a design that must have been created with the design in mind. That argument wasn't valid then, isn't valid now. But I think it is crucial to your world view that you believe that it was and is valid. It would be no fun whatsoever to discuss this with you. Your quoting set scriptural interpretations sets my teeth on edge, and my dentist has warned me against grinding them.

    I never saw that local biologist's "proof," so I don't know how it went. I just mentioned some remark made by the intermediary who told me about it, and I believe it was you who jumped to the conclusion—through an opening hoping to win a point—that it was a probabilistic argument along the lines you indicate. In fact, you sent me some links to similar published arguments.

    And the same as I do indeed know what your "book of knowledge" is, you know my opinion of that book. (My post for tomorrow, before I go to the hospital for some sinus surgery, quotes Christopher Hitchens—and Bart D. Ehrman, whom he quotes—on the very book.)

  3. One does have to pay attention to one's dentist.

  4. My sinus surgery went well, thanks. I arrived at the hospital at 6 a.m. and by noon was already being discharged, even though there had been some possibility that I could have to stay the night. I'm quite sure that if I had, I wouldn't be blogging this evening <smile>.

    But the nurses might have been right that I should not drive or sign anything for 24 hours, for the way I'm feeling now, your brief statement seems to be thickly coated in sarcasm and—especially if it is sarcastic—seems to be a sort of QED that indeed we cannot discuss these things....