I’ve a suspicion that the lessons of nature that go unlearned end up being…well, unlearnable…period.
Let me try again: Our knowledge is metaphorical and imaginary….
Let me try again: We cannot appreciate a concept unless we have had an experience from which we can image it…
When we are told by St. Paul that God’s attributes are evident from nature’s book, we should expect to find the creaturely finger that points to his power, beauty, justice etc. And they are very evident. Now, if I were to say that God is acertonastical. What does that mean? Maybe I’d add that it refers to an indefinable, completely and utterly unexperiencable state of acertonisty. “Oh” you say knowingly, “I see,” but you’re lying because there is nothing there to learn. If you’ve not experienced something analogous, there is nothing there to see.
How about the word holy? What does it mean? If Otto was right about The Numinous, then where do we go in our experience to fill up the meaning? More often than not we go to one of the other attributes- to things like power or justice. “Holiness is really one of these,” we say. We end up making God’s people speak in redundancies- “God is good and (good).” We might as well drop one of those “goods,” and it really ought to be the one that isn’t spelled g-o-o-d. Holiness disappears.
This is one of two possible outcomes, if what we are talking about is beyond our experience. Either the particular facet of God, to which the word Holiness is meant to refer becomes lost because mistaken for something else, or we are simply going around mouthing words that have no meaning at all. Either way, the practical molding influence that only an understanding of God’s Holiness can provide is lost. Is that a big deal? It depends on how important God’s holiness is. You tell me.
It seems to me (another suspicion) that there is more than coincidence involved in the fact that experiences of “Otherness” are “pooh-poohed” in both nature and in the worship of nature’s God. A disregard for the transcendent seems to lie at the heart of the whole business. Or worse, it’s the collapsing down of the transcendent into the mundane and immanent. Spooky moments are nothing but superstition and irrational fear. God is nothing more than Creation blown infinite. A lot of “Nothing mores” and “Nothing buts” going on there. But that is the great error of our time- “Nothingbutteryism.”
Modernity knows (for dissection has established it to be a fact) that one place is no different than another. Any desire to lower your voice in a cathedral, a graveyard or darkened forest is “nothing but”…and should be out grown. God’s holiness is nothing more than sheer power and majesty and so you should obey him simply because he can squish you like a bug if you resist. Just like Hitler or…wait. That can’t be right. Why do we follow/worship God?
Practically, I believe that a disregard for the mysterious and disturbingly “other” experiences of our world is both a symptom and a cause of the loss of reverence. That’s where the piper comes to be paid- in the loss of Reverence. We are taught that there is nothing in this world that is truly unnatural, uncanny…spooky- at least not for the educated. God is explicable in terms of human qualities- only ones blown up really big. And so we should approach him like we approach anyone else- only really loud. In our relationships there is no area, station or calling that can be considered “other.” There is nothing sacrosanct. Not the umpire overseeing the game- “punch the blind bastard,” not the King- “who does he think he is,” nor a woman’s honor.
The whole concept of Reverence seems as old fashioned and nonsensical in our culture as taking seriously a child’s fear of the night. But that is the point.
Thomas Howard tells of a group of students taken by a learned cultural anthropologist into the depths of an unmapped jungle. They wander into a village just in time to see a scantily clad witch doctor slicing the head off of a chicken. Violently flinging the warm blood across the altar in front of him, the old man repeatedly bows towards the image. The scientist turns towards the students and says “Here we have a perfect example of the earliest stages of religious evolution and a clear manifestation of the myth of the fertility god’s enacted death…” Obviously, the two men see something very different taking place.
If you had to choose, who would you side with? Are you with the Scientist or the Witch Doctor? Seems a clear choice to me: The witch doctor knows many things the Scientist does not- that there are some things before which we must bow, that sacrifice is required and that it must be made in blood, that there is more to reality than can be seen, etc, etc
The battle is decided when one side concedes the bedrock contention of the other. It seems to me that we need to be careful whose weapons we are using and what we are aiming at.
If there is “more than” to God, if he is truly “other,” then that otherness finds expression in the image of his creation. Those innocent, profound and radically molding places, times and encounters should be recognized and treasured- brought captive to the King to whom they rightfully belong. This is simply seeing them for what they are- facets of our God’s great glory. Since the garden, this has been man’s challenge- to properly name God’s creation. It’s always been that way. Modern men and women have the distinction of adding an additional challenge- they have set out to feel shame at the awareness of certain creatures (Spookiness wasn’t the first) or to deny that they exist at all. That’s a tough row to hoe…because they do.
One night you’ll be alone. The moon will be full, but ducking behind the gray stretched clouds, as if afraid to watch. A solitary dog will bark in the distance and a cold blast of air will send the dead leaves past your face and swirling upwards. A thought occurs to you. Not a thought really, more of an awareness; and you respond by glancing over your shoulder at the woods that lay behind. You’re looking for something in the almost perfect blackness that lies between the trees. Not sure what, just …something. You shudder and gather up the groceries as quickly as you can; trying to tell yourself that nothing is going on.
Is there? Anything going on, I mean. I hope you answer, “Yes, Indeed” and offer thanks for the visitation.