Sunday, April 25, 2010

Are God and Nature One and the Same?

I’m going to ask you to do something, and for the sake of the exercise I want to ask you to follow your first instinct. Don’t think about it. Just do it. Don’t feel self conscious. No one will be watching. Are you ready? Without hesitation, I want to ask you to point to God. There is no right or wrong answer to this question of course. Wherever you pointed, including the decision not to point anywhere, was perfect. Maybe you pointed to yourself where you sense the seed of wholeness that resides within. Awesome.

Maybe you pointed to people near you where you sense the energy of love and connection between. Awesome. Maybe you pointed outside to a glimpse of nature, where you sense the beauty of God beyond. Awesome. Maybe you swirled your hand in all directions where you sense the whole, evolving web of life. Awesome. Maybe you didn’t participate because your intuition doesn’t resonate with the name God, or else nothing in your present experience matches your understanding of God. Maybe you didn’t participate because no one tells you what to do. All perfectly acceptable.

When was the last time you experienced God? Was it natural, i.e. was it an experience that involved your senses and could be explained with words? Did it involve tangible things like flowers or people? Was it maybe even in nature, in an incredible moment of wonder and peace? Or was it supernatural, i.e. an experience that seemed to take place beyond your rational explanation? Was it an experience or a feeling that didn’t relate to any particular tangible part of nature?

In the next twenty minutes I am going to direct you to an ever present experience of mystery and beauty that many call God. In the process, I am going to untangle some of the knots that keep you wedded to beliefs that your common sense no longer needs to believe. I’m going to build a bridge between primitive beliefs and where we find ourselves today. Along the way I am going to show how you can help ease the ecological crisis. As an added bonus, I am going to show you how this ever present experience of God will revolutionize your life and relationships and liberate you from so much suffering and pain. Are you with me? Are you ready for this experience? Your openness is all I ask. Take a deep breath, and let’s dive in.

The Gods Must Be Crazy

Begin with some untangling of ancient beliefs. Do you remember the 1980’s movie The Gods Must Be Crazy? It’s about a primitive Kalihari tribe who believe that everything that happens is directed by the gods. When they hear the sound of thunder but see no clouds, they assume that the gods have eaten too much and their tummies are rumbling. When they see the trail of airplanes, they believe that it’s the gods having flatulence. They have a simple worldview. Everything that happens is related to the actions of the gods. Their worldview is thrown into turmoil when a pilot drops an empty coke bottle out his window and they find it. At first it’s intriguing to them. But because there is only one bottle, they soon discover the challenge of personal ownership. The bottle becomes a cause of division so one of them decides to walk to the end of the earth and dispose of it. He walks for days and eventually arrives at a huge cliff high above a cloud covered gorge. He decides that this must be the end of the earth, and so he drops the bottle over the cliff.

As he arrives at the cliff face, the narrator says, “He was beginning to think he would never find the end of the Earth. And one day, suddenly, there it was.” There is a nice real life connection. The place in South Africa where the movie was filmed is called “God’s Window.”

I wonder if some of you have searched for answers for so long that it feels like you could travel to the ends of the earth and never find anything. If you are open today, I want to lead you to God’s window, where you will suddenly say, “There it is.” You can have an intimate experience of God and you don’t have to hold primitive beliefs.

The first step is to untangle unbelievable beliefs from the past. The experience of the Kalihari tribes is informative when it comes to understanding the origins of most religious beliefs. Most religions began at a time when they believed that nature was filled with spirits. Every flowing stream and rustling leaf was an indication that gods and spirits were present. In Hebrew scripture, God appears in a burning bush that isn’t actually burning, as if to suggest that God suspended the laws of combustion. Yahweh told King David to watch for the dancing of the Mulberry leaves to know when to smite the Philistines. Not that I’m encouraging any smiting, but it’s interesting to consider whether God speaks through nature.

What we now call Easter was an anxious time in the ancient world. They believed that the darkness of winter was due to the gods being in the underworld. What we call spring was the reappearance of the gods. The light and warmth was a sign that the gods were back in the land of the living. While we wait impatiently for warmth we are entitled to, they waited with bated breath for a hint of a survival they cherished.

This tendency is broader than just the Judeo/ Christian tradition. According to the Hindu scriptures, the earth is resting on a serpent, which is resting on an elephant, which is resting on a turtle. What’s beneath the turtle? Another turtle. And beneath that turtle is another turtle, and all the way down its turtles. This animistic view of nature persisted through the time of Jesus and into the Middle Ages. There were pros and cons in this worldview. On the one hand, they appreciated the life giving quality of nature so much more than we do. Life was surprising and miraculous. On the other hand, they lived in dread and fear, bound by superstitious reverence. Nature was full of hobgoblins and crazed gods who lived magically in every mountain and valley and held the fate of humans in their hands.

We learn some important lessons from the primitive worldview. There is an old saying that in primitive cultures they had a name for every bend in the river, but they had no name for the river itself. They were limited by their understanding of the world where God appeared randomly and unpredictably, but they had no larger context to put their beliefs in. We now know that evolution is the name for nature, and that each part of nature is related to this whole.

What if you could experience God with just as mystery and life affirming power as the ancients, but without the fear? What if you could experience all the parts of life as precious seeds of God, within and between, and also find your place and purpose in the whole web of life?

The Onset of “Just” Thinking

Judeo/ Christian monotheism planted the seed for a radically different view of God and nature. While animism is evident throughout the old and new testaments, the notion of one God laid the groundwork for a new worldview. One God created the earth and filled it with value, but this God was clearly separate from nature. The Jewish and Christian traditions were built around the tension between their pagan roots that were animistic, and their belief in an “other” God who was unknowable and interventionist in nature. This one God could choose to contravene the laws of nature if it suited divine purpose.

It could be argued that monotheism paved the way for the Enlightenment of the 16th to 18th centuries. This was the age of reason. Nature was now seen to have laws that were predictable and there was little need for gods or spirits to explain nature. The veil was lifted from superstition, and nature was seen in the light of science. A tree was just a tree. A flowing stream was just a flowing stream. Rustling leaves were just rustling leaves. Burning bushes and talking donkeys were just embarrassing carry overs from simple minded primitive cultures.

The Enlightenment offered the freedom to read the Bible critically and think freely. The focus shifted from God and the supernatural to human ingenuity. Poets and artists like Michelangelo were described as divine and given titles like creator, words formerly confined just to God. There was no need for God to explain nature. Nature had its own wisdom and direction. Romantic poets such as Wordsworth and Shelley, suggested that humans would find their way if they found harmony with nature.

Shelley wrote Queen Mab as a love poem to nature. Queen Mab was a fairy in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, who visited people in their dreams to inspire them to fulfill their deepest longings.

Look on yonder earth:
The golden harvests spring; the unfailing sun
Sheds light and life; the fruits, the flowers, the trees,
Arise in due succession; all things speak
Peace, harmony and love.
The universe, in Nature’s silent eloquence, declares
That all fulfil the works of love and joy
All but the outcast, Man. He fabricates
The sword which stabs his peace; he cherisheth
The snakes that gnaw his heart; he raiseth up
The tyrant whose delight is in his woe,
Whose sport is in his agony.

Shelley was expressing something profound. Nature is alive in a new sense. It communicates order and harmony. The earth is communicating, and the experience is completely natural. Nature herself holds the powers that the ancients ascribed to the gods. Nature is offering the clues to the solution for humanity. Humans have the incredible power of choice. When harmony with the earth is lost, people are the outcasts and we bring agony on ourselves.

If we listen to nature, we just might survive the crisis. For Shelley it was a completely secular vision of utopia. He was derisive of religious belief. In his view religion was superstitious and unnecessary.

What do you think? Is religion superstitious and unnecessary, or can we learn something from her stories about an experience of God and the nature of the earth?

In the process of placing power in the hands of human beings, Shelley and other 19th century Romantics did away with much superstitious fear. They introduced rational human faculties to the conversation about nature. The freedom we enjoy to think for ourselves and question tradition is a direct consequence of Enlightenment thinking. This was the upside of the Enlightenment. However there were also some downsides.

The human longing to feel connected to something larger than ourselves was replaced with rationalism. The mystery of experience was de-mythologized, and the power of religious language to hint at the depth of mystical experiences was de-emphasized. They also engendered a sense of intellectual and artistic elitism. The divine was not a direct experience for ordinary people. Divinity was the domain of artistic genius. Ordinary folk could enjoy this genius, but not manifest it firsthand.

What if you could experience the beauty of nature, the miracle of every shooting star and shooting bud, without reducing it all to a neat and rational box? What if every person could experience every moment as miracle, and even name the miracle God, without lapsing into fear and superstition? What if you could have your connection to something larger than yourself without falling back into hobgoblins and fairies?

God and the Earthquake

On one hand, nature was no longer to be feared. In the light of day, nature had predictable patterns. However their relationship with nature went to the other extreme. Through the Enlightenment, nature was idealized with a romantic personal identity. As we have discovered, nature is not always quiet and submissive. It’s often randomly fierce. Nature’s ferocity is the other side of what Shelley called “its silent eloquence”. We have a phrase to describe nature’s ferocity. We call this a natural disaster. With the recent spate of natural disasters, many people have been wondering if this is a message from the earth. In the last week on my Facebook wall, the following comments were posted-

“Australia had a 5.2 earthquake today. The Earth is speaking up, in Her way.” And also this one-
“She is tired of the takers. World wide earth quakes… Chile, China, Japan, Thailand, Mexico etc, that are over 4.5 on the Richter. Hmmm. Can we say a pretty annoyed Mother?”

Where do these sorts of comments fit into my historic summary of beliefs about nature? Is it a new form of animism? Are they suggesting that nature is alive, or are they expressing the type of metaphoric communication that Shelley was describing?

I would suggest that nature is alive in the sense that it is an evolving whole. But it is not personal. It has no agenda. Nature is what it is. It’s impersonal, which means that when it’s fierce it doesn’t mean anything by it. It’s just being fierce. It strikes the good and the evil alike. Tsunami waves swallow whole villages with neither glee nor remorse. They just happen. Waves come and waves recede. That’s their nature, and if we fill nature with personal qualities of goodness, where do tragedies such as Tsunamis leave our faith?

Instead of looking for gods and spirits in causes and consequences, what if we experienced God as presence in the midst of nature?

God within, as the experience of oneness with all that arises. The boundaries between subject and object blur. It’s not just a tree, and you aren’t just looking at the tree. In the experience it is as if you are one with the tree. It’s not just a flowing stream, and you aren’t just listening to the stream. In the experience it’s as if you are one with the stream.

God between, as the experience of fellowship with nature. The earth reflects the patterns of your life, and you learn something about divine order from the earth. It’s a relationship of equality, where you are responsible for each other. If one suffers, the other suffers.

God beyond, as the web of life that evolves in its own time and way, sometimes even beyond rational human explanation.

Earth is Crammed With Heaven

Don’t be distracted by the unlikely details of a burning bush in Moses experience. It wasn’t about the bush. It was about the experience that was later described with miraculous language. Moses experienced something extraordinary and they needed extraordinary language to hint at the depth of the experience. The important detail in the story is that he had his eyes open and he had bare feet.

It could have happened anywhere that Moses had his eyes open and his metaphoric shoes off. So it can be for you. You can experience God anywhere that your eyes are open, and you honor the moment with bare feet. It can happen in the most ordinary moments.

Another Romantic poet, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, wrote –

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
And only ~he who sees~ takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.

The question is which sort of person are you. Are you the person with eyes open, or are you sitting around plucking blackberries? If enough of us open our eyes, we just might survive the ecological crisis, not to mention experience the inner bliss of wonder and awareness.

What did Moses do after his burning bush experience? He later presented the Ten Commandments. It’s natural after an experience of mystery and wonder to try and put the experience into words. The Ten Commandments are Moses attempt to put in words the impact of a profound experience. He began with the intimacy of the experience (the oneness of God), and then moved to the ethical responsibilities of having seen God.

So it will be for you. Once you have seen God firsthand and intimately, you can do no other than live with wide eyed wonder, deep seated integrity and open hearted compassion for all the earth and her people.

Just don’t confuse the experience with the language that describes the experience. Most religious wars begin over competing language. Even the Ten Commandments have been institutionalized and used to manipulate and control. Enjoy your experience of God. Just don’t expect others to have the same experience, nor that others need to use your language.

At Ease with God and Nature

Let me bring this all together. You can have the God of your understanding and leave the crazy gods behind. You can honor nature, and leave behind the fear of animism. You can move beyond a cause and effect God and come to an intimate experience of oneness with God. You can honor science and your deductive reasoning, and still find miracles in all manner of places. You can experience the earth as alive and evolving, without filling natural disasters with personal motivation.

God and the earth are both alive and evolving along with your own understanding.

The incredibly liberating truth is that once you stop taking God and nature personally, and instead tune into their non judgmental presence, you can wake up to an inner knowing that stops the madness of competition and rivalry. You wake up to your own divine nature, which is at the same ordinary and miraculous, and fills your life with purpose.

Stop the struggle. A Taoist story tells of an old man who accidentally fell into the river rapids leading to a high and dangerous waterfall. Onlookers feared for his life. Miraculously, he came out alive and unharmed downstream at the bottom of the falls. People asked him how he managed to survive. “I accommodated myself to the water, not the water to me. Without thinking, I allowed myself to be shaped by it. Plunging into the swirl, I came out with the swirl. This is how I survived.”

The earth, in all its wild extremes, is speaking to your inner nature that is both connected and orderly and also reckless and unpredictable. As you learn to work with your nature, rather than working against it, you will find inner peace. As you learn to work with the earth, you will find harmony. Go with the earth; whether it is a serene waterfall or a violent Tsunami. It may or may not be sending you a message. But go with it and see where it leads you. This is part of the answer to the ecological crisis. Be more than an eco guardian who thinks you can control the earth for good or ill. Be more than an eco-romantic, who thinks the earth is all roses and waterfalls. Be an eco-warrior who gets active in the ecological crisis. Be an eco-sage who is in tune with the wisdom that earth speaks. And be can eco-lover for whom living in harmony with the earth is a natural expression of who you are.

All the spiritual powers of healing and peace are present within you and in nature. Nature’s balance in me greets the same in you, and we join in harmony with earth to create a vision of healing and compassion. Namaste.

For Further Reflection-

Do you think the earth is alive?
In what sense do you mean the earth is alive?

In what ways do you experience divine presence?

What language do you turn to describe your experience of God? 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

WOW! A powerful vision. It's early morning here. I'm going to go out with fresh eyes today. Thank you! .