Originally published at Covenant, February 16, 2015.
Last week, as I often do, I spent my day off walking through the 7,000 acres of virgin hardwood forest down by the Trinity River. Although it’s only about four miles from downtown Dallas, the area is a world away, mercifully regarded by the city fathers as unfit for agriculture or development, as it lies within the river’s floodplain. One of my favorite parts of the forest is a stand of Texas buckeyes, bur oaks, and pecans, right along the banks of the river. It is gorgeous and riotously lush in the spring, but I like it best in midwinter, when it is bright and quiet, green and gold.
Engagement with the primary reality of creation is a psychic and theological imperative for human beings. In 1753, Benjamin Franklin wrote in a letter to Peter Collinson of how Native American children raised among the English, “taught our language and habituated to our customs,” would never return to civilization if once they had the opportunity of spending time among their kin. Conversely, English children raised among Native Americans would, upon being ransomed by their white families, escape back into the woods at the first opportunity, “whence there is no reclaiming them.” Several decades later, John Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur interviewed two such Europeans who refused to return to civilization. Among the reasons they gave for remaining, de Crèvecoeur says, were “the absence of those cares and corroding solicitudes” that are the all-encompassing preoccupations of the civilized (“Letter 12” in Letters from an American Farmer).
As Saint Paul wrote, “Ever since the creation of the world [God’s] invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made” (Romans 1.20). Yet how quickly is the vision occluded when it must be glimpsed through layer upon layer of abstraction — books and engines and smartphones — or even when it is arrested and stylized, as in a public park or a garden.
Last week, I sat by the muddy flume of the Trinity and ate my lunch and thought about God’s invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity. At its best, theology, unlike the other sciences (unlike physics for example) has no technical vocabulary. It uses ordinary language — words like “father,” or “bread,” or “wine,” or “water” — to translate God and the things of God to us. “God” itself is a word we borrowed from the pagans and was first their word for members of their pantheon. Now it denotes whatever we think most highly of, or, in the lexicon of today’s atheistic scientism, whatever we find most incomprehensible and are angriest at. Ludwig Wittgenstein said that the discipline of philosophy was symptomatic of a sickness of the soul, and to be sure, God is sometimes lost in translation, as though he gets tangled up in our words. Surely our social estrangement from the Spouse of our souls began with, or at least is exacerbated by, our penchant for abstraction, our addiction to it, and the failure of our imagination that has led us to build an artificial universe on the binary foundation of overly simple affirmations and denials, ones and zeros.
The seventeenth-century Christian mystic, Angelus Silesius, wrote:
To become Nothing is to become God
Nothing becomes what is before: if you do not become nothing,
Never will you be born of eternal light.
Three centuries after Silesius, in the wake of his mother’s death, Jacques Derrida glossed this epigram in these terms:
[T]his becoming-self as becoming-God or Nothing — that is what appears impossible, more than impossible, the most impossible possible, more impossible than the impossible if the impossible is the simple negative modality of the possible.
We must take leave of “god” in order to find God. The meek shall inherit the earth.
I finished my lunch and tossed an apple core into the river as an alligator gar stirred the silt, the fish and the silt both relics of the early Cretaceous, the time when the earth brought forth flowering plants and God saw that it was good. I thought of Ezekiel: “And on the banks, on both sides of the river, there will grow all kinds of trees for food.”
A pileated woodpecker, arrogant and reclusive, flashed through the branches and began a mad search for bugs in the bark of a hackberry tree. The tree attracts the bugs, but the bugs can kill the tree, so the bird eats the bugs. “God appointed a plant,” and “God appointed a worm” (Jonah 4:6-7), and God appointed a pileated woodpecker. And the prophet “wrapped his face in his mantle and … behold, there came a voice to him, and said, ‘What are you doing here…?’” (1 Kings 19:13).
There was, years ago, an insane attempt to make Dallas an inland port, and once a steamship even made it from the Gulf all the way up the Trinity to town. It took about a year of dredging and clearing logjams and it was never attempted again. But the point had been made: man can run against creation’s current, though the effort exhausts him. But with enough congressional funding, it can be made to work and done regularly. I read just yesterday that the British House of Commons has approved the making of laboratory babies from the genes of three parents. I used to be interested in the maddening discourse of theodicy, but I have departed in peace. It is simply a mysterious facet of God’s humility that man can thwart his will. They are now building a golf course on several hundred acres of a corner of my forest.
So much for moral evil. But what of sub-rational nature? I once watched in disgust as a seagull pecked a rock dove to death. The seagull stood on top of the dove and pecked at it as the dove flapped helplessly. The gull would pause and strut a few paces away, glance around defiantly, then strut back over to the dove and peck some more. The flapping was reduced to quivering and twitching, and the seagull finally flew off and left the bleeding dove to die.
Many predators are known sometimes to kill seemingly for the sheer joy of it. In 2003, researchers in Canada’s Northwest Territories reported finding the carcasses of 34 caribou calves, all killed by wolves, spread over a three-kilometer area, most of them entirely uneaten. The suggestion of Genesis is that this sort of thing is somehow man’s fault, and this I believe. The very ground — out of which men and seagulls and rock doves and wolves and caribou and poison ivy all grow — is cursed on our account (Genesis 3.17).
But, as Gerard Manley Hopkins said, in words that have become a touchstone for me:
And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.
It is popularly believed that the Holy Ghost has been given short shrift in Western theology, from Augustine’s De Trinitate down to the present. Augustine made much, maybe too much, of a peculiarity of the Latin Vulgate in which God created man ad imaginem Dei (“toward the image of God”). I suppose the idea is that the only word that is perfectly expressive of God is the word God himself utters, the Word, the Son. But the body of man is also created a temple of the Holy Spirit, on account of which we are not our own, but merely stewards of ourselves (1 Cor. 6.19). What sort of selves ought we therefore to be, sinful and susceptible to sickness as we are?
A cold breeze hovered over the Trinity last week. Deep called to deep in the murmuring of its eddies. The only signs of civilization were a morass of plastic grocery bags caught in the branches overhanging the river. But for the moment the woods around me were clean and bright. And the Trinity was slowly and inexorably sweeping everything given to it, and the land itself, toward the limitless expanse of the Gulf.