I’ve recently written some posts about how I encounter the Divine when I’m out in nature – surrounded by the beauty of God’s creation. I had another one of those wonderful experiences this past weekend as I went on a back-country camping trip with my family in the Catskills, where we got to see views like this one:
I was still basking in the weekend’s glow when I took my hound dog out yesterday morning for her daily run in the woods. As I neared the end of the wooded trail, suddenly an exquisite yellow and white butterfly flitted unevenly across my path. Although I had limited time between dropping off and picking the kids up at camp and needed to get on with my day, I stopped in my tracks, mesmerized by this beautiful creature. I decided I needed to take a picture of it, and waited patiently for it to land so I could get a good shot. But the butterfly did not cooperate. It flitted this way and that, unable to commit to a landing spot. Just when I was getting ready to give up, it graciously alighted on this:
Yes, that’s right. The beautiful butterfly landed on dog shit.
So, I took the shot (how could I resist?) and made my way home. On the way back I contemplated how when people speak of experiencing God in nature, they typically have in mind the aesthetically pleasing aspects of nature such as golden sunsets on the beach, majestic mountain views, and delicate, exquisitely crafted butterflies. Dog feces….not so much. But feces is just as much a part of nature as any of those other things. It’s just that my human brain has evolved in a way to find the former pleasing, and the latter repellent (particularly when my dog does it and I have to pick it up). Our impulse to romanticize nature makes us forget that it contains not just beauty and majesty, but also eviscerated prey, burned-out forests, and earthquakes – all things that are fundamentally threatening to humanity.
Yet as negatively as we perceive these natural phenomena, they all lead in one way or another to new life. The prey feeds those who need to eat, the (naturally caused) forest fires clear out underbrush to strengthen the trees, and animal feces fertilizes the earth to generate new plant life (I swear this butterfly was actually getting something out of the poo too although I’d prefer not to think too much about that). Even the movement of tectonic plates that leads to volcanic eruptions and earthquakes is part of what makes our planet healthy – something I learned from listening to Krista Tippet’s interview with geologist Jelle Zeilinga de Boer. While these natural phenomena often make people ask what sort of God would allow such human suffering, Tippet rightly points out:
…the human leap to such questions reflects a rather narrow perspective on “the creation.” It reveals a general religious tendency that has come under suspicion in our time — to imagine human beings as the center of the universe, as the living beings whose well-being matters, and to whom the rest of nature should conform.
When we claim that some forces in nature are evil because they lead to human death, we are falling victim to this anthropocentric bias. If instead we embrace Paul Tillich’s conception of God as ‘the Ground of Being’ – namely – as that force behind all that exists, as that which affirms the goodness of existence as opposed to non-existence, we realize that God is indeed in all aspects of nature. God can be seen in the natural cycle of death and rebirth – because even though there is destruction, this destruction always affirms existence by creating something new. Even when a star dies and explodes, it leads to the creation of new stars and planets.
In fact, as far as I can tell, the only forces of destruction that don’t ultimately lead to new creation are the ones developed by humans. Afghan tribes massacring each other, nations working to acquire weapons of mass destruction, governments slaughtering their own people, one unstable man loosing rounds of ammo on a crowded movie theater: these are acts of humanity that utterly deny existence, that annihilate life for absolutely no reason, with no regenerative promise. This to my mind is the one place where we can find true evil – in the acts of mankind – that creature supposedly made in God’s image. Only we have developed the consciousness, intelligence and free will to engage in acts that embrace non-being.
I know some folks may look at what happened in Aurora, Colorado as yet another reason to lose faith in God, because any God worth worshiping couldn’t possibly let such evil occur. As for me, such events just make me hope even more fervently that there is God because given our track record, seems to me like us humans could use a little help.