Beauty, Variety, and the Presence of God

Beauty, Variety, and the Presence of God

By Mark Douglas, Professor of Christian Ethics.

Over thirty years ago, cosmologist Thomas Berry wrote,

Because our sense of the divine is so extensively derived from verbal sources, mostly through the biblical Scriptures, we seldom notice how much we have lost contact with the revelation of the divine in nature.  Yet our exalted sense of the divine comes from the grandeur of the universe, especially from the earth in all the splendid modes of its expression.  Without such experience, we would be terribly impoverished in our religious and spiritual development, even in our emotional, imaginative, and intellectual environment.  If we lived on the moon, our sense of the divine would reflect the lunar landscape, our imagination would be as desolate as the moon, our emotions lacking in the sensitivity developed in our experience of the sensuous variety of the luxuriant earth.  If a beautiful earth gives us an exalted idea of the divine, an industrially despoiled planet will give us a corresponding idea of God.[1]

This extensive quote threatens:  our religious lives are being ravaged— “impoverished,” in Berry’s words—by the environmental destruction around us.  We’re living during the greatest extinction period of the last 65 million years.  Somewhere around a quarter of the world’s coral reefs have been destroyed by bleaching events and scientists worry that that 90% of the reefs could collapse by 2050.  The Great Pacific Garbage Patch in the northern Pacific Ocean is bigger than the state of Texas and only one of at least five such patches around the world.  What will we think of God in such a world?  How will we talk about God in such a world?  What are the consequences of so much catastrophe on our spiritual lives?

Yet the quote also promises:  living in a world of overwhelming variety and extravagant beauty offers us a powerful sense of God—an “exalted” sense, in Berry’s words—full of wisdom, solace, joy, and awe.  The luminously azure waters of the seas, the claustrophobically verdant forests of the tropics, the pulsingly golden fields of the plains, the imposingly alabaster heights of the mountains:  we live in a creation so prismatically varied that colors invite adverbs as a way of giving voice to our pre-linguistic experiences of the natural world around us.  And still words fail us.  It is no wonder that during moments of deep spiritual attentiveness, we find the divine simultaneously intimate and overwhelming; this is, at times, our experience of the natural world.

The world is so full of “thin places”—places that God seems especially present—that we’re probably better served by practices that help us see everywhere as thin than those associated with the search for thin places.  Yet sometimes it helps to get away from familiar places, established habits, and routinized thought in order to discover that we already live in wondrous places, that all our habits can be transformative, and that even our most common thoughts echo profundity.  That is at least one reason I go to the wilderness.

Next January, we return to a wilderness of clear blue Caribbean waters, bright sandy Bahamian cays, and luxuriant flora and fauna for a week of camping, reflection, and growing in awareness of how profoundly our spiritual lives are joined to the natural world—and how vital care for the natural world is for the wellbeing of our spiritual lives.  It may only be a week with sea kayaks but it is ripe with promise for a changed life.  No two trips are the same, but perhaps a few anecdotes hint at such potential:

*Imagine sitting on a beach looking at a full moon so bright that it casts shadows in the sand behind you and realizing not only that you have no idea what time it is but that there is no reason for you to know. And in that freedom, beginning a new conversation with a new friend, relaxing into the promise of a conversation less likely to lead to a conclusion than a silence filled with appreciation and wonder.  Could this be what prayer can feel like?  And if so, what might we do to help others experience such prayer as well?

*Imagine paddling toward a distant island with a light wind at your back and suddenly being passed by a rainbow-hued umbrella held by a fellow kayaker who is using it as a sail and otherwise expending no effort in his travels. Torn between mirth and envy, you are again reminded that ingenuity and its sister, playfulness, regularly trump toil.  Could this be what it feels like to create?  And if so, what might we do to encourage others to live into their identities as creatures created in the image of a creative God?

*Imagine waking in your beach-staked tent to the smell of pancakes and hot coffee prepared by a couple of thoughtful early-risers and then gathering with friends wiping sleep from their eyes to look out at the beauty of an utterly calm bay and a bright new day to eat a meal lovingly prepared by others and to be shared with others. Isn’t this the eucharist?  And if so, how might we help others recognize that we are part of a vast and interdependent web of gifts?

*Imagine sitting in a kayak on a cloudless and moonless night, miles from any artificial light, looking at the Milky Way streak across a star-sparkled sky overhead and the plankton through which you’ve just paddled phosphorescing below. In that moment, you feel both the terror of recognizing how utterly insignificant you are in the universe and the joy of recognizing that you get to have such an experience.  Could this be what the mystics feel in their encounters with God?  And if so, what might we do to help others see they live in an utterly enchanting world?

Who knows what January’s trip will bring?  Or, perhaps more pointedly, don’t you want to know?  To grow?  To discover again that “our exalted sense of the divine comes from the grandeur of the universe, especially from the earth in all the splendid modes of its expression”?

Join Mark Douglas and co-leader Steve Harrington for Sea Kayaking in the Bahamas: An Eco-Travel Seminar from January 4-11, 2018! Registration is open now for this spiritual journey through the islands.

More info here:

[1] Thomas Berry, “Economics:  Its Effect on the Life Systems of the World” in Thomas Berry and the New Cosmology, edited by Anne Lonergan and Caroline Richards (Mystic, CT:  Twenty-Third Publications, 1987), 17.https://issuu.com/columbiatheologicalseminary/docs/sea_kayaking_18__proof3

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2 thoughts on “Beauty, Variety, and the Presence of God”

  1. John Anderson says:

    Your fundamental premise–that there are “thin spots” where the presence of God is more tangible, and that unspoiled nature inevitably leads our hearts and minds to an awareness of God’s presence–is deeply flawed. Until the rise of the Romantic movement the conjoining of “unspoiled nature” and “God’s presence” would have been considered an absurd non-sequitur. Of course, we all love unspoiled nature, and one day a restored environment and God’s actual presence will indeed coexist, but for the time being we need to understand that God’s presence is a fact regardless of our system of aesthetics or the condition of our physical environment. Going further, insisting on a beautiful, untouched-by-human-hands environment is a sad kind of over-privileged selfishness that fails to see that survival for the world’s poor (the 99%) is messy and likely to be inconvenient for those of us in the elite classes.

  2. Theresa says:

    Thank you for sharing this premise with us. If you have never experienced that feeling of nearness to God when in nature, it becomes difficult to imagine the sadness of losing this gift forever. Praise be to God.

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