November 30, 2010 / Theology
This essay is neither for nor against Glenn Beck. The philosopher Michel Foucault warns us …
October 7, 2019
To see a World in a Grain of Sand—William Blake, “Auguries of Innocence”
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And eternity in an hour
The teacher in Ecclesiastes tells us that trying to get more life is a vaporous striving. We may build machines or design pills to help us live longer, but time shows no mercy. As the novelist Laura Wiess reminds us, “Time is not your friend. It doesn’t care if you live fast or die slow.” However, I have found that nature has a peculiar way of disrupting this antagonistic relationship with time. Interacting with nature will not extend our units of time, but such interactions can deepen our sense of time, putting us in touch with the mystical moment. Or as the poet William Blake suggests, nature allows us to hold “Infinity in the palm of [our] hand.”1
In our day-to-day hustle,this mysticalmoment is challenging to capture. It is the mystic’s holy grail. Celtic and pre-Celtic clans called it the thin place. The writer Eric Weiner calls it the moment when “the distance between heaven and earth collapses, and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine.”2 The Hindus call it ananta, a state of quiet bliss, where the meaning of doing is swallowed up by the snake of being. Christians call it heaven. Jews say it resides somewhere deep in Abraham’s bosom. Aristotle called it eudaimonia, a state of contentment beyond the boundary of form. Atheists or agnostics may describe it as a state of ecstasy or well-being, an elusive sense of profound contentment.
Regardless of our theological bent, we get confused in our quest for this contentment by a corporate engine that guzzles our desire like fuel, which promises power, poignancy, and peace but delivers slavery. Robert Lustig, in his recent work, The Hacking of the American Mind, explores the corporate underbelly, describing it as a sinister force that uses our desire for happiness and transforms it into a consumptive complex. Lustig takes the six biggest industries of hedonic pleasure—tobacco, alcohol, food, guns, cars, and energy—and layers the digital landscape on top. “Add to [these industries] the consumer electronics sector, which further takes advantage of our neurobiology, and wrap it all up in some slick Madison Avenue packaging,” he says, “and you have an unbeatable recipe for corporate profit.” I find myself singing along with Pink Floyd: “Welcome, my friend, welcome, to the machine.”3
Our sense of awe and adventure becomes lost in a complex labyrinth of consumerism. We spelunk in the fiber optic caverns of a million virtual worlds, and these worlds seem to have limitless possibilities. But in these explorations, we have a sensual problem. A virtual landscape compels only two of our five senses—seeing and hearing. This is a dismal fraction of the tools we learn with, and thus, it leaves us—and our bodies—wanting. It seems fair to say that this digital punch in the gut has had a profound impact on our ability to navigate our way into shalom. As Nicholas Carr puts it in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book, “What the Net seems to be doing is chipping away my capacity for concentration and contemplation. Whether I’m online or not, my mind now expects to take in information the way the Net distributes it: in a swiftly moving stream of particles. Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski.”4
It’s not necessarily the pace that is the problem, though. Inside our bodies, we are moving extremely fast. On average, our blood travels about twelve thousand miles through our system per day—that is equivalent to four trips back and forth between the shores of North America. But there is a lesson here, in the blood. At about three miles per hour, our hearts pump nearly fifteen quarts through our bodies every minute. Is that fast? Yes. But it is steady and paced; it is in a rhythm with the rest of our bodies.
Steady rhythm exists within us and all around us. We might not notice it at first, but it’s there. A dandelion fights the wind; clouds roll in; rain builds, pours, and dissipates. Birds wake up in thin light, sing through the day, and bed down as light grows thin. Leaves grow, wither, fall, and die. Fast and slow has little to do with it. Rhythm and cycle disclose harmony. Contentment is not about convenience or time crunching. It isn’t busy with success over failure, or title over insignificance. It just is—life and death, strength and frailty—all in a conversation together without words. And we are a part of this harmony.
Perhaps this is why the conservationist Rachel Carson compels us “to turn again to the earth and in the contemplation of her beauties to know the sense of wonder and humility.”5 When we make room for concentration and contemplation, we are opening doors into the wonder of the moment. For Carson, nature was the place that holds this wonder so vividly in its skin and structure. Harmony exists here without the aid of machine or human intervention, and it thus acts to bring us more easily into a state of humble acceptance. It places us on the path of memory, as it were, back to being expert moment-takers. Here, like Adam and Eve, we wake to the paradise of Eden.
Searching for paths into the moment is where my wife, Sara, and I have been for the past decade, and in this search we have sought to follow the counsel of William Wordsworth, who writes, “Come forth into the light of things; Let nature be your teacher.”6 We spent our second year of marriage on the Pacific Crest Trail. In the midst of all the adventure it presented, the most profound tutorial our time on the trail gave us was, and still is, the powerful experience of waking and resting diurnally. It’s profundity rests in the harmonious and monotonous rhythm of the rise and fall of light, the rise and fall of our own bodies.7 Perhaps this is why the sun has been worshipped more than any other natural feature throughout religious history.
Another profound lesson we have learned over the years is that nature plays countless relational roles in our lives. Sometimes it is my therapist—there is no greater antianxiety medication in my life than a stream. With the grace of infinite renewal, it beckons for worries to be released and carried away in the current. Sometimes nature is a mother, nurturing the earth by purifying the air, unleashing pleasant aromas of ironweed, sycamore, and sassafras. Nature avails to us a constant flow of medicinal remedy, and thus acts as healer. Its beautiful work gives us the perpetual canvas of an artist. When it invites us to come away and spend time with it, it functions as a friend. And nature is a transformer of time. As we enter into nature and let it be, moments slow down, as if life is being preserved and prolonged. This is a lesson on life extension beyond the anxiety of time, an extension not in years but in the quality of moments. Infinity in the palm of our hand.
We can do some interesting theological work with this idea of accessible infinity if we take Christ at his word. When he says, “The kingdom of heaven is at hand,” he means it (Matt. 4:17 ESV). Infinity incarnate is standing about three feet away from you, and you can literally reach out and touch it.8 We had the ability to do so for thirty-three years, to actually touch the infinite man—not to touch an abstract idea but to feel him. We could smell and taste him.
In his letter to the Colossians, Paul establishes Christ as the centerpiece of being, firstborn of all that is. And then Christ shows up in our world in the flesh, and in his body all deity dwells.9 This is the mysterious union that all of church history celebrates and holds to. And as Paul continues to write to the church in Colossae, he urges them (and us) to consider that the point of life is to be established within this same fullness: “You have come to fullness in him, who is the head of every ruler and authority” (Col. 2:9–10).10 Much of the rest of the letter offers more practical advice and exhortation about how not to be taken by the vaporous vanities of the world, by empty pursuits and divisive philosophies that take our mind off of the Creator, and by extension, true creation.
There is much that applies here to our current landscape of business and work. During Paul’s time, Colossae was a microcosm of the commerce we are now experiencing globally. It was a town in the Lycus River region with a rich silk trade and religious plurality. In chapter 3, Paul plays the role of a parent and spiritual director, saying, “Put to death what is earthly” (3:5)—things like coveting, misguided passions, and false allegiances—but rather, “Put on the new self, renewed in the image of its Creator” (3:10). This new self is a shout out back to our Edenic self, a self filled with the infinite breath of God.
Entering the creativity of the Creator is a way in which we begin to become aware of our own imprint, like kids playing in the forest and “reading” the Bible all around them—words established from the foundation of the world, the very words of Christ, of Christ as Word. When we explore creation, we are not distanced from words on a page; we are sensing Word itself. Logos hiding in stamen, root, and leaf, in the refreshing flow of the stream, even in the terrible thunder and flooding rain. It’s God bringing us and all things back to a whole.
Touching what has been made is to touch the Christ and to come more fully into our own selves as made and renewed. Likewise, when the Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann talks about Jesus’s baptism in the Jordan, he stresses that when Christ went into the water, it wasn’t to be blessed; it was an act wherein he blessed all the waters in the world.11 This gives the practice of holy water its awesome significance, and it makes baptism something to behold rather than to pragmatically squawk about in defense of your camp’s perspective.
Perhaps the greatest pronouncement of the infinite moment is God’s statement to Moses and his announcement to the world’s empires, “I Am” (Exod. 3:14). I imagine then, as now, that the temptation to seek imperial gain or to stockpile resources was just as much a distraction as it is today, and those desires built barriers on the border of life’s joy and wonder, barriers God intends to break. Consider that after freeing the Israelites, the Lord immediately took them into the wilderness in order to build a sense of Eden again, a sense of connection to the moment, wherein God resides. The people then experienced the divine in the elements of creation—the waters of the sea and the clouds in the sky. God was in the wind and fire; God was in the earth. When the Lord says, “I am your God and you are my people” (Exod. 6:7), we should receive this as an invitation to journey with the Lord into the Lord’s decidedly untamed world.
Two years ago, Sara and I founded the Knox Forest School, which teaches young children nature connection as part of life.12 This school, in Knoxville, Tennessee, is part of a vast network of forest schools all over the globe that coalesce around the idea that children already have a profound amount of wonder in them, wonder that is yet unimpeded by the woes and worries of adult life. We believe that if we give these children space and a little guidance, this wonder blooms into beautiful, magical things.
We recently saw something magical like that happen in one of our little girls. Zoe sat on the ground, her ear pitched low to the dirt, hand hovering above. She moved it carefully. Sara watched her for several minutes. The minutes turned into half an hour. Soon, an hour. Zoe listened closely and calmly, enthralled by the dirt beneath her fingers.
Later in the day, Sara asked, “What were you doing, earlier, by the stream?”
“Listening,” Zoe said.
“What were you listening to?”
“That’s cool. What were the worms saying?”
“Miss Sara, that’s silly,” Zoe said. “Worms don’t talk. They dig.”
Sara’s heart widened. She had recently read in a history of native Cherokee medicinal practices about healing sit spots in the forest. In the old days, when a Cherokee was ailed by a physical or emotional sickness, a common first prescription was a sit spot. The length of the sit was defined as long enough to hear the worms digging through the earth. Sara had never told Zoe about the Cherokee practice, and so she was astounded that a five-year-old had entered into it naturally on her own, that somehow, Zoe just knew this was good for her. Or perhaps even before a delineated health prescription, Zoe was just delighted about being connected to the earth, dirt, and worms beneath her. A magic mystical moment.
We are seeing this happen more frequently with the children at our school. They start fast and wide-eyed, and then, once they are deep in the forest, during certain moments they will enter into a contemplative play where they watch and wait—a slow, methodical, steady, quiet wait—full of rich curiosity. Like a good wine, they are full of earth. The more time we spend with children at play in the forest, the more we, as adults, are letting go—letting go of our sense of importance and title, our need to diversify portfolios and expand empire. These have become lesser wonders, and our taste for them is quietly diminishing. Fame is puerile. Wealth is ephemeral. Beauty is paramount, and love is the great wonder of the world.
Of course, there exists a harmony of the lesser entities in the realm of resources, but quite simply, they tend to dull in color and meaning. When in a city, I often look at the skyline of buildings, and I think, “How small we are, trying to make our own mountains.” What human mountains do best is break down and demand repair. The mountains of creation, organic, infinitely changing, are beautiful even amid the most violent earthquake. What’s more, mountains aren’t made within the shadowy hubris of corporate stature. I once ran across a state boundary line while hiking the Appalachian Trail between Maine and New Hampshire, and I asked the mountain what it thought of our boundaries. It said nothing. But I swear I could hear it snoring.
On one occasion, a group of our forest-school children came running up to Sara, who was whittling with one of the other kids, excited and jazzed. When Sara inquired, they dragged her hand and foot to their discovery—a group of yellow jackets dismantling a wolf spider and carrying it to their hole in the ground. The children experienced all that life has to offer in that moment of simple watching and listening: courage, exuberance, horror, battle, victory, sadness, lament, and death. The kids discovered it on their own because they were keyed to the moment. Sara explained that the spider will be used for meat, that these soldier jackets will die in the winter, and that the queen will bury herself and hibernate. Then, in the spring, the eggs will hatch and new life will emerge. The death of the spider will be the very thing that allows new life to grow. The kids inadvertently stumbled upon the doctrine of death and resurrection in a hole in the ground. This is catechism at its very purest.
There is a set of principles we must possess in order to read the natural world as a Bible, of course, and it starts with humility and curiosity. When reading nature, we learn to open up to the vast mystery and magic beyond our grasp. Our pores open; our minds expand. Thin space is made, and we see how heaven and earth interweave like DNA. This is how infinity finds room in us, through the cracks in our pride. The mystery begs us to stop thinking we have the answers and to start asking. As E. E. Cummings said, “Always the beautiful answer who asks a more beautiful question.”13 When we allow the open question, infinity enters and begins to fill up every nook and cranny, and the quality of life is extended in very tangible, interconnected moments.
The Hebrew Bible wisdom masters line up here. Think of Job’s humility trying to answer God’s question about how to hold lightning (36:32) or ride on the back of a blue whale (41). Think of Solomon’s great pursuit for wisdom and ending up with, “Fear the greater power, and, uhh, eat, drink, and be merry! What else is there?” (Eccles. 8:15 and 12:13). Other wisdom masters concur as well. Ponder the words that some have attributed to Socrates: “The only true wisdom is in knowing that you know nothing.”14
On another occasion at Knox Forest School, one of our kids covered himself in mud and danced and screamed into the sky. This is normal for most kids at our school. But not him. Severe sensory issues turned erratic noise, dirt, raindrops, and messy trails into veritable demons in his world. To him, creation was an inescapable bully. But his parents kept bringing him to us. He kept being encouraged, thanks to his guides at school, to work with it—not through it or past it—but with it. And then one day, he dove in. What courage and resilience did this take? The little boy experienced his whole life in that moment. A death and resurrection.
These are the kinds of conclusions I am drawing when I ponder the writings of Paul about time. In some ways, I have been the recipient of a sheltered seminary education. Don’t get me wrong—I loved my seminary life, but much of it was spent in classrooms on a hill and in books of sayings of the dead. My seminary life wasn’t spent growing in the now on a branch on a tree in the forest, or blowing across a vapid, dry desert, or hiding under a reef in the sea, waiting to be discovered. In this way, so much of my learning felt stale and shelved. I can hear the words of Zoe in the halls of academia, “Silly theologians. God doesn’t need Greek. Look at what God did with dirt.”
When we read in Galatians and Colossians about Christ coming in the fullness of time, perhaps we can render the concept of the Christ coming into time as a means of saving us from our idea of time. In other words, he filled the world in a single moment. And that is the point. The kingdom of heaven is not past or future. It is now. Therefore, it is not so much a categorical, historical fulfilling that Christ was after. After all, in the vast expanse of eternity and Earth’s little place in it, is it really apropos to interpret the coming of the Creator in flesh as the result of imperial movements? Does it make sense to say Jesus chose the perfect time to come because Rome had just finished building its vast network of roads or that culture was ready to receive the message of the gospel because Alexander had hellenized the world into a common language? Certainly historical alignment is relevant to our discussions of the growth of the church, but as John Chrysostom reminds us, the time in which Paul wrote and lived (i.e., under Nero) was a time that was going badly for the people of God, not vice versa. In his first homily on Ephesians, Chrysostom says, “All were perishing together, just like in the days of the flood. . . . [But] the ‘fullness of time’ is that divine wisdom by which, at the moment when all were most likely to perish, they were saved.”15
What’s more, a brief glance at the present, at where the gospel is spreading the quickest, slays these kinds of inane theories. The southern part of the globe, where Christianity is advancing most rapidly, by and large has deteriorated road networks, faltering governments, and a blizzard of different local dialects. Indeed, where there is more convenience and organization, and where there is a lack of suffering and hardship, Christianity at present seems to be in decline. Suffering fallows the ground and creates good soil. Decay in the fall and winter months makes room for the blooms of spring.
I posit that what Christ and Paul present to us is a philosophy of being rather than missional utility. This might be a foreign conclusion to come to in our postindustrial, Western pragmatic hemisphere, but we must consider that postindustrialism and pragmatism are pretty young concepts in the universe! They need not dominate our conclusions.
In order to truly understand that Christ is with us, we have to touch, hear, smell, see, and taste Christ’s presence. As Bonaventure asked, “To know much and taste nothing—of what use is that?”16
Do what our school children do before they learn how to become boring and burdened by so-called adult life in which time flies by: Walk the ground without your shoes on. Find a place, hold out your hand, and sit. Stay there long enough to feel the earth beneath you move ever so delicately. Be quiet. Stop trying to win the argument inside your head and in the heads of others. You have no enemies. Stop trying to ascend to God. Let God come to you. Listen to the worms.
Zoe does this each and every day in the forest. She is filled with wonder and deep contentment. She is now ready to connect more deeply with the other kids at play and with her own imagination, and her life becomes a series of connected and full moments. When she looks back on her time, I doubt she will say, “My how life has flown by.” It is more probable that she will say nothing, that she will hear the worms digging through Edenic soil.
Stephen M. Otis
Stephen M. Otis is one of the founders of the Knox Forest School where he teaches elementary schoolers. He has a master’s in historical and ancient studies from Gordon Conwell Theological School but prefers to ponder life, religion, and theology in the hushed context of the great outdoors. His greatest joy is soaking life up with his wife, Sara, and their three wild children: Zoe, Lola, and Walker.