God in Nature

This sermon was preached by Rev. Dan Harper at First Unitarian Church in New Bedford. As usual, the sermon below is a reading text. The actual sermon as preached contained ad libs, interjections, and other improvisation. Sermon copyright (c) 2006 Daniel Harper.


The first reading this morning is a poem by Ralph Waldo Emerson, titled “Blight.”

Give me truths,
For I am weary of the surfaces,
And die of inanition. If I knew
Only the herbs and simples of the wood,
Rue, cinquefoil, gill, vervain, and pimpernel,
Blue-vetch, and trillium, hawkweed, sassafras,
Milkweeds, and murky brakes, quaint pipes and sundew,
And rare and virtuous roots, which in these woods
Draw untold juices from the common earth,
Untold, unknown, and I could surely spell
Their fragrance, and their chemistry apply
By sweet affinities to human flesh,
Driving the foe and stablishing the friend,–
O that were much, and I could be a part
Of the round day, related to the sun,
And planted world, and full executor
Of their imperfect functions.
But these young scholars who invade our hills,
Bold as the engineer who fells the wood,
And travelling often in the cut he makes,
Love not the flower they pluck, and know it not,
And all their botany is Latin names.
The old men studied magic in the flower,
And human fortunes in astronomy,
And an omnipotence in chemistry,
Preferring things to names, for these were men,
Were unitarians of the united world,
And wheresoever their clear eyebeams fell,
They caught the footsteps of the SAME. Our eyes
Are armed, but we are strangers to the stars,
And strangers to the mystic beast and bird,
And strangers to the plant and to the mine;
The injured elements say, Not in us;
And night and day, ocean and continent,
Fire, plant, and mineral say, Not in us,
And haughtily return us stare for stare.
For we invade them impiously for gain,
We devastate them unreligiously,
And coldly ask their pottage, not their love,
Therefore they shove us from them, yield to us
Only what to our griping toil is due;
But the sweet affluence of love and song,
The rich results of the divine consents
Of man and earth, of world beloved and lover,
The nectar and ambrosia are withheld;
And in the midst of spoils and slaves, we thieves
And pirates of the universe, shut out
Daily to a more thin and outward rind,
Turn pale and starve….

The second reading this morning is by Bernard Loomer, Bernard, from his essay “The Size of God” [in The Size of God: The Theology of Bernard Loomer in Context, ed. by William Dean and Larry Axel. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press]:

“In our traditions the term ‘God’ is the symbol of ultimate values and meanings in all of their dimensions. It connotes an absolute claim on our loyalty. It points the direction of a greatness of fulfillment. It signifies a richness of resources for the living of life at its depths. It suggests the enshrinement of our common and ecological life. It proclaims an adequate object of worship. It symbolizes a transcendent and inexhaustible meaning that forever eludes our grasp. The world is God because it is the source and preserver of meaning; because the creative advance of the world in its adventure is the supreme cause to be served; because even in our desecration of our space and time within it, the world is holy ground; and because it contains and yet enshrouds the ultimate mystery inherent within existence itself” (Loomer 1987, 42)

SERMON — “God in Nature”

In case you’re wondering, I’m not going to preach about Christmas this week. It’s only NOvember, and still too early to preach about Christmas. Instead, this sermon is the third in a series of sermons on Unitarian Universalist views on God.

I’ve been thinking about the current hullabaloo raised by Richard Dawkins’s latest book, The God Delusion. Dawkins, as you probably know, is an evolutionary biologist; he is also an atheist who delights in pointing out the ridiculousness of believing in God; and as a result he has been getting lots of coverage in the popular press. I have to admit, I don’t even plan to read his book. Tending towards cynicism as I do, it’s hard for me to take Dawkins seriously, because it’s clear that the more he fulminates against established religion, the more books he will sell. In today’s world, iconoclasm can be very profitable.

Come to think of it, maybe I should read Dawkins’s book, and learn how to write my own bestselling book in which I trash-talk religion from a minister’s point of view.

On the other hand, while the media has been giving Dawkins lots of coverage, but they have not been covering how theological scholars are responding to Dawkins’s book; popular culture doesn’t want to hear experts on religion talk about religion. The theologians are politely saying that Dawkins’s book simply displays his ignorance of theology: that the God Dawkins describes is not a God that any theologian would take seriously either. They are also saying Dawkins should know better: in order to write seriously about a subject you should read up on the subject first, and Dawkins clearly knows nothing about theology.

On the other other hand, the theologians are probably jealous that their books don’t sell as well as Dawkins’s. Which may be because too many of the theologians write about a traditional, abstract God that I can’t believe in. So where does that leave someone like me? I don’t believe in the cartoon-caricature of God that Dawkins vilifies; who does? Nor am I interested in the traditional God of the theologians, a lifeless God which I sometimes find even less believable than Dawkins’s cartoonish God.

I suspect there are quite a few you out there who find themselves in this same position. The cartoon-God of the God-bashers, while entertaining, is also faintly embarrassing because it’s too easy to bash a cartoonish God. The traditional concepts of God hold little interest for us any more. The academic God of the theologians seems simply irrelevant. Yet here we are, sitting in a church; we’re still religious. Whether or not we believe in God, we still take religion seriously.

So this morning I’d like to talk about one concept of God that I find I can take seriously; and that’s the idea that God is inextricably intertwined with Nature, with the natural world. Not that you or I or anyone should unquestioningly accept this concept of God-in-Nature;– but I do think it’s worthy of our serious attention, for at least three reasons: first, because many people find personal religious inspiration in Nature; second, because it seems easy to reconcile such a God with the insights of science; and third, because it seems that such a God could help us understand the current ecological crisis, and help us understand why we should do something about that crisis.

Let’s start with that first reason:– It’s worth considering God as Nature because many of us find personal religious inspiration in Nature. By “religious” inspiration, I mean an experience of awe and wonder, or an experience a sense of the sublime; a personal sense of religion often grows out of such experiences. Not that these experiences lead necessarily towards one narrow religious viewpoint. You can experience a religious awe and wonder at the coming of springtime and the rebirth of the natural world; but that doesn’t mean that you will necessarily fit that experience of awe and wonder into the traditional Western Christian celebration of Easter and the risen Christ; no more does it mean that you will fit that experience into the celebration of the ancient Celtic pagan holiday of Beltane. Or you can experience a religious sense of the sublime when you are in the eye of a hurricane, when you see and hear the storm raging all around you but overhead there is that small, quiet patch of blue sky; but that sense of the insignificant self being overwhelmed by the sublime power and grandeur of the universe does not lead to any specific religious theological belief system.

I get a good deal of my own religious inspiration from Nature. When I’m in the White Mountains, hiking above treeline into the alpine ecosystem, being in the midst of the low shrubby trees and tiny delicate flowers, that is a religious experience for me. Or the other day when I was out on Pope’s Island, I flushed a Cooper’s Hawk out of some shrubs near the city marina, and the surprise of its sudden appearance, and the sight of it flying off low over the waters of the harbor, was a religious experience. I don’t know how to explain that feeling of connection to another living being except as a religious connection; I’m not going to eat a Cooper’s Hawk, nor will it eat me; seeing a patch of lichen above treeline is not going to give me some evolutionary advantage that will help me pass along my genes to the next generation. These powerful experiences of nature don’t move me to believe in the traditional God, but my personal experiences of the natural world make me think that it might make sense to describe Nature as God.

And this is related to the fact that it is possible, even easy, to reconcile such a God, God-in-Nature, with the insights of science.

Science can provoke awe and wonder and sense of sublime; at least, I suspect it can do so for nearly everyone in this room. Haven’t you ever been thrilled by one of those science programs on television? Admittedly, some of them are terminally boring, but I do get excited by the programs about astronomy. How can you not get excited when you hear about the Big Bang that (so it is theorized) was the beginning of our whole universe? How can you not react in awe and wonder when you learn about the vast distances in our universe? What’s even more thrilling is when you get to experience science first-hand. Last winter, one of the local astronomy clubs brought their telescopes out for AHA! Night one month, and I got a chance to look through their telescopes at Uranus and Mars — that was far more memorable than a television program, and it was certainly an experience of awe and wonder for me.

On a more personal level, as an avid bird watcher I’m thrilled by bird biology. When you see two different kinds of sandpipers feeding side by side at the edge of the ocean, almost identical to one another except for the length of their bills, and you know that they evolved from a common ancestor, evolving different bill lengths so one could dig a little deeper in the sand and mud and exploit a slightly different ecological niche, I find that thrilling. Those two birds are living, breathing examples of how evolution works, which I find awe-inspiring and wonderful. Now I had better stop talking about birds before your eyes glaze over in boredom. The science of ornithology happens to fill me with awe and wonder; even if you find birds mind-numbingly boring, I trust that you will be able to think of other examples of science that fills you with awe and wonder.

Richard Dawkins notwithstanding, many religious people have no problem reconciling God with science. Liberal Christians find it easy to reconcile a fairly traditional Christian God with science, as long as you don’t take the Bible literally. Pagans, Jews, and many other religious faiths say that science is completely compatible with belief in Goddess or God. But I would like to tell you about “religious naturalism,” a religious position which I probably adhere to.

Jerry Stone, a philosopher of religion who is affiliated with Meadville Lombard Theological School, came up with the term “religious naturalism.” I went to hear Jerry give a talk about religious naturalism last June at General Assembly, our big annual denominational meeting. Jerry says that ‘naturalism’ means “a set of beliefs and attitudes that focus on this world,” whereas ‘supernaturalism’ would imply that there is something beyond the natural world. So according to Jerry Stone, “religious naturalism is a philosophy or theology that there are religious aspects of this world which can be appreciated within a naturalist framework.” Which means that religious naturalism is easily compatible with science.

And religious naturalism allows belief in God. (Jerry Stone also says that there are also religious naturalists who see no need for any concept of God at all; but that’s a topic for a different sermon.) Some religious naturalists would say that God is the whole universe, the totality of everything; as we heard Bernard Loomer say in the first reading this morning. Other religious naturalists would say that God is a part of the total universe; for example, a theologian named Henry Nelson Wieman said that the creative process in the universe is God. Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau fall into one of these two camps: they found God in natural processes and in the connections between living beings, and it may be that they find God in everything.

To find God in the interconnections between living beings: it seems to me that such a God could help us understand why we should do something about the current ecological crisis. This is the big problem I have with people like Richard Dawkins: he gives me no compelling reason why I should try to stop species extinctions, or try to clean up New Bedford harbor, or do anything at all about the ecological crisis.

Our ecological crisis fascinates me. It horrifies me, too, but I’m fascinated by the fact that we have the science and the technological know-how to end the ecological crisis — and yet we aren’t ending the crisis. I’m fascinated by the fact that we have the financial resources to pay for solving global warming, to take one example, to pay for it with relatively little disruption to the economy — and yet we aren’t ending global warming, or any part of the ecological crisis. I’m fascinated from a religious point of view, because I think our society refuses to deal with the current ecological crisis because of certain prevailing religious beliefs. Let me outline what some of those religious beliefs might be.

First, and most obviously, there are substantial numbers of right-wing Christians who don’t worry about the current ecological crisis because they fully expect the end of the world to come, and all the true believers will be “raptured” up to heaven. If you think you’re going to get “raptured” up to heaven, I’ll bet you don’t think you have to deal with global warming, species extinctions, or the PCBs in New Bedford harbor. Second, there are substantial numbers of people of many different religious persuasions who are willing to passively sit back and trust to God, or to Goddess, or whomever. If you think it was meant to be this way, ecological disasters and all, if you say “I’m sure God will provide”; I’d have to say there isn’t much incentive for you to take responsibility yourself to clean up the world.

Thirdly, and least obviously, there are lots of people who believe that human beings are the most important life form, not only more important than any other plant or animal but also more important than the ecosystem considered as a whole. If you think you, as a human being, are so special then why would you cut back on your fuel consumption just because global warming is going to melt the polar ice caps thus killing off all the polar bears? This third group includes plenty of people who would not think of themselves as religious, but I count them as religious since they hold onto this belief with religious zeal in spite of all evidence to the contrary. Yet if the theory of evolution teaches us anything, it teaches us that human beings are not special and not unique; we’re just another organism that happened to develop through the chance processes of evolution.

We human beings do have a deep need to feel special. At the moment, too many of us satisfy our need to feel special at the expense of all other life forms. If we are willing to affirm God as being intertwined with Nature in some way, that means that we, too, are a part of God. It doesn’t get any more special than that: there is that of God in each of us; or maybe it’s that there’s that of each of us in God; in either case, we too are divine, we too are Godly. If you prefer, you can substitute “Goddess” for “God” here, and everything will still be equally true.

Yet if we say that God or Goddess is intertwined with Nature, we have every incentive to do no harm to Nature, for doing harm to Nature is not only doing harm to God or Goddess, it is also doing harm to ourselves; since we too are divine. It is morally and ethically wrong to cause harm to Nature.

In the first reading this morning, Ralph Waldo Emerson tells us that we have become strangers to animals and plants, strangers to ocean and continent, strangers even to the night and to the day. Why is this so?: “For we invade them impiously for gain,/We devastate them unreligiously…”. Emerson tell us that it is morally and ethically wrong to cause harm to Nature. He also tells us that in causing such harm, we only harm ourselves: “The nectar and ambrosia” of the Gods “are withheld” from us; “And in the midst of spoils and slaves, we thieves/ And pirates of the universe, shut out/ Daily to a more thin and outward rind,/ Turn pale and starve.” Causing harm to ourselves is itself morally and ethically wrong, to say nothing of being stupid.

“Give me truths,” says Emerson, not delusions. The truth is that it wouldn’t do us any harm to start treating Nature as divine. I’m not trying to convince you that you should accept this idea of God; I’m not even sure that I accept this notion of God; I need to think about this some more. But the idea of God as Nature is worth taking seriously.

Affirm that Nature is divine, and maybe humans will stop unleashing blight on the natural world. Affirm the divinity of Nature, and maybe we will figure out how to extend our morals and ethics beyond human beings to all of Nature. Such affirmations do not strike me as delusional, but as good practical common sense.