Immanence

Last month, while I was on vacation in Puerto Rico, I had a chance to visit the great radio observatory at Arecibo. That was one of the highlights of my trip, but there was another.

Puerto Rico has the only tropical rainforest in the United States national park system. On the northeast coast of the islands, at the foot of the Luquillo Mountains, is the 28,000-acre preserve of El Yunque National Forest. Set aside in 1876 by the Spanish king Alfonso XII, El Yunque is one of the oldest nature reserves in the Western Hemisphere.

There wasn’t the chance to do much hiking, but even the paved roads in the park cut through deep jungle. The walkway leading into El Portal, the visitors’ center, was elevated to treetop height, so visitors on their way in were at eye level with the canopy of the rainforest. The sunlight streaming down through the trees gave a gloriously beautiful cast to it all:

A view from the walkway into the treetops:

I did my best, but I doubt any camera could capture the most overwhelming impression of the forest: the sheer sense of rich, exuberant life, unbounded in its creativity. Every ecological niche was filled by an exultant diversity of species, living side by side in a dense, thriving tangle abounding with interaction and competition. Everywhere you looked, there were whole ecological communities in miniature – in the steaming light of the trees’ high branches, in the cool, mossy damp at their feet, in the crumbling remnants of fallen logs – like a fractal web of life, revealing more scales of complexity the deeper your search goes. In all of Earth’s multibillion-year history, the tropical rainforest is likely the richest and most diverse ecosystem that has ever existed. Standing beneath the tall trees’ cathedral light, it wasn’t at all difficult to believe that.





Of course, not all the rainforest’s countless interactions are harmonious. Despite the environment’s richness – or more accurately, because of its richness – life in El Yunque is a constant struggle, a silent battle being waged on every scale of space and time. Individuals of different species, and of the same species, are always fiercely thrusting each other aside, striving for space, for light, for nutrients, for water. In the midday silence of the forest, it almost seemed possible to hear natural selection: a quiet, relentless ratcheting pressure on every side, like the grinding of interlocking gears. In the cauldron of the forest, gene frequencies are shifting, mutations arising, and new innovations being born in the great evolutionary chess game of move and countermove. Sadly, it’s a conflict that many of the native species are losing: some of the most common plant species to be seen in El Yunque, including bamboo and palm trees, are alien interlopers, introduced either deliberately or accidentally and now thriving at the expense of the natives.







There was one feature of my trip there that I treasure above all others. While we were at the visitors’ center, the thing that I had been hoping for happened: it started to rain. (Admittedly, not a rare event in a place that gets 240 inches of rain each year.) The visitors’ center was like a long passageway with a high, vaulted ceiling: open to the air, but with a roof, so there was no need to get rained on. However, I wanted to be rained on.

I stood on an outlook overseeing the endless green of the forest and the shimmering blue of the ocean in the distance beyond, and let the rain come. It was a gentle shower, not a hammering deluge: the kind of rainfall that comes on sunny spring days and soon passes by, leaving the world washed in glistening brightness. In the humid, earthy heat of the forest, it was welcoming, warm like lifeblood. As the rain fell on me, I reached out and brushed the broad, dripping leaf of a tree growing within reach of the balcony, and thought of the unbroken chain of generations that united us both with our long-gone common ancestor.

It wasn’t long before the rain cleared and the sun returned. But the memory of that shower is still with me; even now, I know, I carry some of those molecules of water in my skin. And as far as I’m concerned, the priests in their dusty churches can keep their silly, self-important dabblings and splashings. Let them persist in their delusion that muttering archaic words over a basin of water makes it specially holy. I’ve stood beneath the sweet sacred rain of El Yunque, and I think it was a finer baptism than any that human beings have yet invented.





And yet, I think I understand those believers a little better now. I think what I felt was the origin of the religious doctrine of immanence, the belief that God’s spirit imbues the things of the natural world. But I think the theologians who invented this concept have misconstrued its origin. Before an awe-inspiring natural landscape, we imagine that we feel a vast love surrounding us – and, in fact, we do. But it’s not God’s love surrounding us from outside, as many religious believers would have it. What it is, instead, is our own love for the world, projected outward. It’s the rapture of being alive, of realizing our true depth of interconnection and solidarity with all living beings, that priests and churches try to recapture with ritual and ceremony. But their efforts are, at best, a pale shadow of the real thing.

If more people knew what this feeling really is and what really causes it, we might be able to foster a true sense of human spirituality: one that captures what is best in the religious impulse, without tying it to the barren earth of ancient myth and superstition. My brief time beneath the living green of El Yunque persuades me that it is possible. I only wonder if enough people can be brought to the same realization while there are still places like this left.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • terrence

    Absolutely beautiful. Reminds me of the dear departed comic strip Rick O’Shay, where the goodhearted gunfighter Hipshot always refused to join Sheriff Rick and the townsfolk on Easter or Christmas, and the last panel always had him paying respects in his own “church” of the great outdoors.

  • B.C. Lack

    Thanks for sharing your story, it was beautiful!

    It’s the rapture of being alive, of realizing our true depth of interconnection and solidarity with all living beings, that priests and churches try to recapture with ritual and ceremony.

    How curious it is that one person can have this experience and not “find God” and another person can have the same, or similar, experience and “find God”.

    Many, many winters ago I was very young. There were already feet of snow on the ground, and fresh snow was falling from the clouds. I ran outside to make a snow angel, but after I plopped down into the snow I just stopped and laid there. The world was so quiet, there was the faint smell of smoke in the air, I could feel the wind blowing faintly, and I could feel the snowflakes gradually covering me. Right then I thought that I understood what it was like to be snow, and then it was like knocking over a row of dominoes…I felt like the smokey air, the wind, everything.
    Such a nice memory!

  • http://elliptica.blogspot.com Lynet

    Thank you for that refreshing shower of rain.

    Before an awe-inspiring natural landscape, we imagine that we feel a vast love surrounding us – and, in fact, we do. But it’s not God’s love surrounding us from outside, as many religious believers would have it. What it is, instead, is our own love for the world, projected outward.

    So true. I hadn’t thought of that.

  • Alan

    I have a similar experience every time I visit the Pacific Northwest. My wife and I love Washington’s Northwest Peninsula. We spent an entire day being rained on in the Hoh Rainforest, and it was so worth it! In fact, it rained during on our entire week in Olympic State Park.

    It’s strange, but it seems that it’s always raining during our most memorable moments together. We wouldn’t have it any other way.

  • Eric

    I have lived in Alaska for 17 years. I work as a professional backcountry guide and expedetion leader. My home is in a very small rural Alaska town at the end of the panhandle, surrounded my the majesty and granduer of the Coast and Chilkat Mountains. I have the rivers and the ocean all within my doorstep. Bears wander through my backyard frequently and not a day goes by where I am not watching seals, sea lions, eagles or something.

    I have taken thousands of people into the backcountry, from relgious zealots to atheists and freethinkers. All are changed by the experience, but i am always saddened by the jesus-buffs and religion fans who look out at this and see only an imaginary sky-fairy creating this. I find great comfort, solace and strength looking out at this grand 2 billion year old experience and know that part of me is there and part of it compromises me. The Mountains are just that, Mountains. Nothing more and nothing less. And that is great comfort to me. I know that when I look out at them all my petty problems which seem so huge and overwhelming are nothing. Long after I am gone those Mountains will be standing there, and long before I was here they stood sentinal over this valley. I am just another layer in the rock and that makes me realize just how small I am in the cosmos, and I sleep better at night knowing this.

    This is a snippet from my journal, it seems relevant here, it was from November 10, 2004:

    The first real snow of winter is slowly giving way to the warmer temperatures settling into our valley. It is not uncommon here to have the snow one day and rain or warming, melting air the next. Even here, at the end of the panhandle, snow doesn’t stay too long unless it is in the high country or deep in late winter.

    During morning tea many harbour seals were flopping about out in Dyea. They are wonderful to watch and observe when the waters are calm. Their faces pop out through the surface and they look up with a curious yet guarded stare. Eagles flying and resting stoically at the edge of the water make the wild mosaic even richer. Our valley may not have an abundance of culture, and modern amenities, but it has a grace and primeval beauty, which replaces the longing for movie theatres, malls, and large grocery stores. To choose an Appelbee’s over harbour seals swimming and feeding under the watchful eyes of the Chilkat Mountains seems like a fool’s choice. Desiring Starbucks over eagles riding the thermals above folly.

    Up here every day is an adventure. Our abundance sometimes lends itself to a sort of malaise or jadedness, but it is near impossible to forget or not be impressed by what is here. Seeing these animals almost daily, or watching northern lights dancing in the night sky…

    I have made my life around the backcountry and the wonder of this natural world in the north. It has come at great sacrifice, knowing I may not find the woman to share this with as it is a not an easy choice to make. I have sacrificed the ability to have a large circle of friends becauuse there just arenn’t that many people HERE! Yet, at no point have I regretted one SECOND of this. This is life. This is the connection to the web and cycles of the world which I thrive on. It saddens me to no end knowing most people have lost even the remostest notion of what it is to be part of this.

    Great post today Ebon.

    Eric

  • http://6thfloorblog.blogspot.com Ceetar

    As beautiful and awe-inspiring as nature is, you’d think these heavily religious groups would be more aligned with environmentalists to preserve and protect it. Instead there are people, like a friend of ours, who’s comforting words to his girlfriend after her dog died was to tell her dogs don’t go to heaven. Religion was founded out of the wonders and mysteries of the world and these religions have become just as bastardized as humans have bastardized many of these wondrous things.

  • mackrelmint

    Ceetar,
    I wonder what your friend would say if he knew that God said he’d demand an accounting from all the animals as well as the humans for any bloodshed caused by them (Gen 9:5). Although it doesn’t say whether the accounting takes place on earth or in heaven, it implies that it is at the end of the accountee’s life.
    Maybe dogs do go to heaven…
    ;)

  • Thumpalumpacus

    The problems with Bible-beaters is that they believe that dominion was granted completely. They see nature as something to be conquered. The closest I come to any religion are the powerful feelings aroused in me by nature in her splendor, and performing music.

    Living here in SoCal, when I’m stuck writing a song and need some help, I grab an acoustic and head to my favorite beach. While I sit and fiddle around with chords, it never leaves my awareness that those waves have been rolling in, in sets of seven and nine, every thirty seconds, for at least 4.2 billion years. Sometimes it inspires me to finish the song. Sometimes it makes me realize that some endings are never heard, and so I set the song away, to perhaps return at a later date. No matter what the result may be, I always walk away feeling more humble, and determined not to play the song, but to let the song play me. And damned glad to be alive.

  • DamienSansBlog

    I wonder what your friend would say if he knew that God said he’d demand an accounting from all the animals as well as the humans for any bloodshed caused by them (Gen 9:5). Although it doesn’t say whether the accounting takes place on earth or in heaven, it implies that it is at the end of the accountee’s life.
    Maybe dogs do go to heaven…

    Actually, according to Revelation 22, dogs will be cast into the outer darkness (where there will presumably be howling and gnashing of fangs), along with wizards, pimps and so on. Apparently, Canis familiaris needs to get a better auditor.

  • Joffan

    Immanence….

    Today’s Astronomy picture of the day shows another dimension of the Universe that can give a sense of awe. Give yourself some time to sink into the picture and feel the depth… and then recall the size of the stars and the spaces between them.

  • Tomas S

    Mackrelmint wrote: I wonder what your friend would say if he knew that God said he’d demand an accounting from all the animals as well as the humans for any bloodshed caused by them (Gen 9:5). Although it doesn’t say whether the accounting takes place on earth or in heaven, it implies that it is at the end of the accountee’s life.

    I’m starting to think that there’s a need for an Atheist Bible study group, perhaps even here on this site. I hesitate to reply in this thread, since mine is not a comment about awe for nature, but here we go… The author/host of this site (Ebon?) clearly believes that the Bible is full of nonsense, but that we should not make a point of harping on “easily harmonized” nonsense. Genesis 9:5 seems to fall cleanly in this second category — if it falls into the category of nonsense at all.

    When I read this passage, it sounds to me like God is saying that life is going to be hard and that “beasts” will shed our blood. Thus, if a dog goes wild and tries to eat its master, we can take comfort that it is just following Geness 9:5, but if our dog dies, we cannot look to this verse to answer the question of whether dogs go to heaven.

  • chickadeescout

    “the religious doctrine of immanence, the belief that God’s spirit imbues the things of the natural world…we imagine that we feel a vast love surrounding us – and, in fact, we do. But it’s not God’s love surrounding us from outside, as many religious believers would have it. What it is, instead, is our own love for the world, projected outward.”

    If God’s spirit (according to the doctrine of immanence) radiates through the natural world, why doesn’t it radiate through us, as well?

  • globaloro

    Feeling this state of immanence
    One with the atoms, in tune with the sun.
    The full state of being, in an outward projection of love, can be felt…….
    Where ? ? ?
    Most any where in a state of all omni presence.
    But myself I feel it every where. I feel it most in the High places, The wild high lands of the North Cascades Mt. The remote jungle highlands of Guatemala, the remote empty tropical beaches of the pacific coast, feeling the power of the big surf and the sea birds in tune with the winds beneath their wings.
    Moving with the pules of the planet, LIFE !!
    ~ Oro


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