Forgetting nature

While discussing the Book of Romans, my theology class was struck by the paradox of the first chapter:

God is clearly seen through nature

The natural world is seen by everyone

God is seen by everyone

The conclusion was false, so we tried to figure out which premise was false or accidental. The minor premise (here the first one) was from Paul himself, and none of the qualifications we could find to place on it did away with the paradox. The major premise seemed obvious: who doesn’t see the natural world around them? But as we turned over the premise in our mind, it seemed less and less obvious, and more and more false. In the world we found ourselves in, we didn’t see nature. We live in a world of straight lies and right angles, drawn in absolute space, all of which nature is indifferent to. All the plants and animals we see are domesticated, and our relations to them either are part of this domestication or characterized by an annoyance when they don’t keep to the rules of domestication. We rarely see anything born or die, and we tend to see both birth and death merely as problems in need of anesthesia.  The rhythms by which we order our lives are not set by lights in the heavens but by lights we make for ourselves. The stars – which have always been  the cause of our wonder and awareness of the splendor of the universe – are all blotted from view. Real nature is largely unknown, and so we flip flop between seeing it as hostile, then divine; between seeing it as all powerful and in control of us, then powerless before our technology and in need of our help.

(Digression: is it any mystery why contemporary society is so obsessed with sexual activity, so much so that even the Church had to suppress its centuries long proclamation of the superiority of virginity and continence? Sexual activity and love is the last encounter with nature that a contemporary man can have. What else can we think about at night with nothing but concrete underneath us and a starless sky above us? And what is night for us anyway except the position of a switch on the wall?)

I’m not a Luddite or a back-to-nature advocate. I don’t want to live in nature or without the benefits of contemporary civilization and I doubt anyone who reads this does either. Arguably, the life we have made for ourselves is simply better. But it comes with trade-offs and leaves us blind to certain things.

1 Comment

  1. Joseph Drake said,

    March 25, 2011 at 12:38 pm

    We tend to see what we think nature is rather than what it is. It’s when we really see it that we can see God in it. Hopkins the poet saw what nature was. Ironically some scientists can only see it in a test tube.

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