by Pastor Doug Kings
This Monday, October 4, is the commemoration of the Feast of St. Francis of Assisi. Because Francis had a deep love for all the natural world, many churches have begun having services celebrating creation around this time, as we are doing on Sunday. Such services are also prompted by awareness of the global environmental crisis. Scientific predictions of the consequence grow ever more dire, and every season brings new instances of intensifying weather-related disasters.
Yet even as the news grows more ominous, we seem paralyzed and unable to meaningfully to address the crisis. While we have looked mostly to technology and government action for answers, it seems there is another step that needs to be take: changing our attitude towards the natural world and our place in it.
In the opening chapter of our fall discussion book, Days of Awe and Wonder, author Marcus Borg makes the case that we cannot understand Jesus unless we realize that he, like all ancient people, took for granted an unseen spiritual dimension to reality. Borg then goes on to tell of his own spiritual experiences to affirm his belief in a spiritual reality. Surveys show that Borg is not at all unusual in this and that most Americans say that have had spiritual or mystical experiences.
I agree with Borg’s emphasis on spiritual experience (and have had my own). However (and I’m sure Borg agreed), we shouldn’t let such unique experiences detract from our awareness that God’s Spirit penetrates all of reality. Indeed, those special moments of “awakening” to God’s presence should enable us to recognize God’s presence all around us.
A spirit-filled world was the normal experience of people prior to the rise of science. But the development of scientific explanations of natural processes and events was perceived to displace such spirituality, often dismissing it a superstition. Religion tried to fight science on its own turf and failed miserably.
More successful (though perhaps only marginally so at the time) were the poets and artists of the Romantic period of the 18th and 19th centuries. They perceived that the mechanistic view of reality which science promoted was drastically devaluing existence itself and that, therefore, life was losing its meaning and value.
For the Romantics, “spirit” was real even if their understanding of it didn’t conform to orthodox theology.
Fast forward two hundred years and that Romantic vision not only remains but is increasingly welcome in the religious community. Borg represents a growing number of theologians and Christians generally who realize that the Spirit has long been the neglected member of the Trinity. Further, appreciation of the Spirit is leading to a new appreciation of the creation and to a fresh understanding of God’s presence in the world. This is the God who Paul is quoted in Acts saying is “the one in whom we live, and move, and have our being.”
Even more surprising to many (though it’s hardly new) is that science itself has been moving away from the mechanistic Newtonian worldview with which it’s most associated. Relativity and Quantum Mechanics exposed its limitations a century ago. More recently, science has begun to seriously appreciate that the foundation of reality is not particles of “stuff’ but energy.
This energy originated with the Big Bang, science’s “let there be light” moment of creation. Indeed some have described matter as “slowed down light.” Are light and spirit the same? That is too big a jump now, but given the importance of light in nearly all the world’s religious traditions, it does suggest a fascinating way to explore the intersection of science and spirituality.
In the life sciences, too, there is an awareness that a purely mechanistic view leaves out something important. Again, we’re not ready to call that something “spirit.” Yet a comprehensive understanding of life remains elusive and the more it’s studied the more complicated life becomes, from the simplest organisms on up.
The study of plant feelings is now a serious topic, for example. The study of the emotional bonds among animals and between animals and humans has become increasingly complex and profound. Indeed, we have become less dismissive of the notion of indigenous peoples of animal spirits. And many of us are aware of the deep and even mystical relationship we have with our pets.
All of this points to a new and growing awareness of the depth, complexity, and yes, “aliveness” of this universe we inhabit. I believe it is a spiritual awareness that is awakening. But whether one wants to use such language or not, these discoveries and theories point to a world with a new value and profundity. Or perhaps to a new appreciation of an old one.
In any case, this awareness needs to be nurtured and helped to grow. For to abuse such a world is really to abuse ourselves, since the most profound realization we are coming to from all this is that we are inextricably woven together with everything around us. This tie the Bible simple calls love and is the source and foundation of the creation. For the contemporary Romantic poet, Mary Oliver (in her poem “Messenger”), living in and celebrating those natural bonds of love is what life is all about.
My work is loving the world.
Here the sunflowers, there the hummingbird—
equal seekers of sweetness.
Here the quickening yeast; there the blue plums.
Here the clam deep in the speckled sand.
Are my boots old? Is my coat torn?
Am I no longer young, and still half-perfect? Let me
keep my mind on what matters,
which is my work,
which is mostly standing still and learning to be
The phoebe, the delphinium.
The sheep in the pasture, and the pasture.
Which is mostly rejoicing, since all the ingredients are here,
which is gratitude, to be given a mind and a heart
and these body-clothes,
a mouth with which to give shouts of joy
to the moth and the wren, to the sleepy dug-up clam,
telling them all, over and over, how it is
that we live forever.
Blessings in your life and ministry.