Nature and a creator

Liu Zongyuan (773-819) is considered one of the great prose writers in Chinese. I was in an odd little bookstore over the weekend and happened to find a paperback titled Poetry and Prose of the Tang and Song (translated by Yang Xianyi and Gladys Yang, published in 1984 by Panda Books, the English-language publishing arm of the Chinese government). In this book is a wonderful short essay by Liu Zongyuan, in which he describes climbing Stone Town Mount, past a small stream, scrambling up rocks that “look like a city wall,” and arriving at the top to be greeted with a view into the far distance. But more fascinating than the distant view is the summit itself:

“Although there is not soil, the fine trees and slender bamboos which grow there are more curiously shaped and firmly rooted than most. Some are high, some are low; some grow in clumps, and others stand apart as if planted by a skilful hand.

“Indeed, I have long been curious to know whether or not a Creator exists; and this sight made me feel that there must surely be one. It seems strange, though, that such wonders are set not in the heart of the country but in barbarous regions like this, where hundreds of years may pass before anyone comes along to appreciate them. This is labor in vain, which hardly befits a god, so perhaps there is none after all!”

In this short passge, I think Liu Zongyuan raises some good issues for those of us trying to do ecological theology. Liu says we can probably neither prove nor disprove the existence of a creator from Nature. We like to think Nature is set up for our especial benefit, but that is open to question. We like to think whatever a god does is for our especial benefit, but that too is open to question. Liu goes one to finish his essay thus:

“Some say, ‘This [the beauty of the summit] is done to comfort good men [sic] who are sent here in disgrace.’

“Others say, ‘This climate does not produce great men, but only freaks of nature. That is why there are few men south of Chu, but many rocks.’

“I do not hold, however, with either view.”

In other words, Nature does not exist for the pleasure of human beings. Nor can we judge Nature solely by human standards.