February 11, 2011 / Mediation, Uncategorized
In 1991, the Academy Award for Best Picture went to the disturbing psycho thriller, The …
March 11, 2012
To use “natural” as a synonym for “good” is almost a reflex for us. We are the godchildren of the Romantics and Transcendentalists, the cultural and religious heirs of the ancient Hebrews whose God made the world and judged it “good.” Nature is normative, sets us straight, shows us wisdom. “Come forth into the light of things, / Let Nature be your teacher,” urged Wordsworth in 1798, for
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Yet there is a counter-current. The notion that a world of “spirit” exists and is superior to the dead, entrapping world of mere “matter” runs chilly in our veins alongside our hot Romanticism and the praise-culture of the Old Testament, with its hand-clapping hills and lions hand-fed by Yahweh. This Manichean mood has a foothold in popular Christianity, where death as liberation from the body coexists uneasily with resurrection of the body, and even so thoughtful and outdoorsy a man as C. S. Lewis can toy with the idea (not original with him) that all Nature has been “satanically perverted” almost from the start (The Problem of Pain, 1940). It has surprising traction in the New Age movement, where spirit-over-body thinking is endemic. In this perception’s harshest mode, Nature is positively cruel, “red in tooth and claw” (Tennyson, 1850). The rabbit squeaks in the eagle’s grip; cholera lurks in the pool where the children play; parasites chew into hides, vitals, eyes, brains. All this brutal machinery of living and dying has always been obvious, and is no invention of Darwin or his scientific heirs, but evolution by natural selection weds us to it with startling new intimacy. For, as I argued last time, evolution rules out (barring complicated divine chicanery) the notion that death and disease might be devilish perversions or sin-induced dysfunctions of a formerly Smurf-friendly Edenic order. It is not so. We, like all that lives, have been created by the selection-patterned flux of a trillion births and deaths through deep time.
In our present-day cultural and theological battlefields, these two almost-opposite ways of appealing to Nature are both in vigorous play. Most popular is the appeal to Nature for justification. Whatever is “natural” must be good, “unnatural” bad, so the Right asserts that homosexuality is “unnatural” and liberals counter that is so natural—see, it’s been observed in over 300 nonhuman animal species! The Social Darwinists wrap themselves in the Nature flag, with (alas) aid and comfort from some scientists: the weak go to the wall, it’s just too damn bad for the rabbits and Rwandans, et cetera. Progressives counter this story of what is “natural” by highlighting the pervasiveness of cooperation and altruism in evolution. Here is Christian evolutionary biologist Joan Roughgarden appealing to a corrected notion of Nature:
Rethinking the place of individualism and criteria for individuality in nature will produce an evolutionary biology having a different philosophical flavor from present-day neo-Darwinism. This will be an evolutionary biology of interdependency, a narrative that we are all of one body and that furthers a vision of Christian community within nature. (Evolution and Christian Faith, 2006, p. 78)
In my last post I reviewed a few samples of advocacy for the view Nature is a horror show, a carnival of waste and death, and natural selection in particular a shockingly unfair “hecatomb.” A traditional line of atheist thought hammers home the obvious conclusion that Nature’s Creator must either be as nasty as it is, or, since claimed to be perfectly good, non-existent. Christians have often been discomfited by the force of this argument—hence speculations of Satanic sabotage, or even, for some individuals, loss of faith. Tennyson, a Christian writing almost a decade before the Origin (1859), nutshelled the dilemma’s evolutionary aspect in In Memoriam:
Are God and Nature then at strife,
That Nature lends such evil dreams?
So careful of the type she seems,
So careless of the single life . . .
Yet she’s not even so careful of the “type” (species or genus), as Tennyson sees, pondering the fossil record:
From scarped cliff and quarried stone
[Nature] cries, “A thousand types are gone:
I care for nothing, all shall go. . . ”
A third line of thinking, more often preached than strictly practiced, is that the facts of Nature, whether nasty or nice, are just facts, and (as Richard Dawkins put it) one can never get an “ought” from an “is.” On this view, Roy and Silo, the famous gay penguins, tell us precisely nothing about the morality of human homosexuality—as does the “natural” need for heterosexual copulation to propagate the race. Cannibalism and cooperation, infanticide and adoption, otters at play and orcas chomping terrified seals, every variety of sexual behavior imaginable—it’s all there, and it’s all real, and none of it can write our rules for us. Evolution, as such, supports no morality whatever. It just happens.
All three views—Nature good, Nature scary, Nature neutral—appeal to me. First and most strongly, Nature is salutary, enlightening. It does straighten me out, show me how to be, make me saner. Thoreau “went to the woods to live deliberately” and, to judge by Walden, found what he was looking for. I’ve lived by faith in Nature’s goodness my whole life, and it has played me true. In fact, I agree with God. Nature is good.
But does that make it a rulebook for morals? No way. Nothing in our religious heritage encourages us to read Nature as a “revelation” in any plodding, literalist, factoid-by-factoid way, even if we could devise some consistent method of doing so, which I doubt. Nature manifests God, but in a way that makes Job grovel, not trot off to introduce a Defense of Marriage Act or a Social Security Act. Jesus pointed to the lilies of the field, but did not, it appears, mean that we should mimic their reproductive tactics. Nature manifests God, but settles no questions. It is holy, not intelligible. It is revelatory, not legislative.
Then there’s the “dark side” of Nature: the worm in the gut, the wasting neurological disorder, the tsunami looming over the playground. I don’t see how anyone can simply brush all this aside, and, as I said last time, I trust no theological sleight of hand to make it all OK: theodicy steers too close, too often, to idiocy. And so, with good old Tennyson,
I stretch lame hands of faith, and grope,
And gather dust and chaff, and call
To what I feel is Lord of all,
And faintly trust the larger hope.
Yet not always faintly. I am about to go for a walk. As soon as I post this thing and get my boots on, I’m heading out. Sun is blazing, breeze stirring, snow melting—a March day in New England. Stepping out my door, I plunge over my head into the dark mystery of Evolution. For if evolution is the story of life, then tapeworms, blood, and death are no more real, no more essential, than this ubiquitous Eden—these living and rotting trees, these myriad four-footed and six-legged and two-winged lives, my own weird bipedal pilgrimage. Red in tooth and claw? Sometimes, but brown and green in root and branch, too, and brimful of light and darkness, and crowned with stars.
Larry Gilman started growing up in West Orange, New Jersey, in 1962. Since the fifth grade he’s lived in other parts of New Jersey, in Chicago, and in Vermont, where he and his wife now hunker in the hills. He was trained as an electrical engineer but has since opted for a life of freelance writing and editing. He is Episcopalian.