Why isn’t Wonder Wonderful Enough?

Why isn’t Wonder Wonderful Enough? January 21, 2016

Editor’s Note: When I read Grounded, Finding God in the World, by well-known liberal Christian author Diana Butler Bass, I thought it would be perfect for a nature lover like Chris Highland. I was right! He read it overnight and reviewed it the next day. The two of them are so close philosophically, it seems that only “God” stands between them.

==========================

By Chris Highland

When I left the ministry and moved to my island cabin in the Northwest I had no God, but a good, wild “Spirit of Nature” seemed close by. A “natural spirituality” was sprouting from the soggy land and new paths were opening as I cut trails through the thick, mossy forest surrounding my simple home. I found myself speaking to and listening for this wild Spirit. Everyday was a walk into dirty, wet wonder. As I wrote and walked with the orcas, owls, eagles and frogs, I sensed a companionship with the forest, the earth and my wild friends.

As Diana Butler Bass said after she left evangelicalism as a young person,

“I unexpectedly discovered that God was also present in the woods.”

forest

I left that cabin, that island, and moved away to another beautiful place. The natural “Spirit” was left behind too, evaporated like feathery frost in the dark forest fog.

As I read through Grounded, I found myself appreciating the author’s earth-based theology that borders on Deism. It took me back to my time on the island. While the sense of the divine soaking into the ground is compelling, I ultimately find the image unsettling and inadequate. Adding an artificial ingredient (Nature + Super; Nature + God) distracts from Nature. I sense a disconnect from real grounding. The intricate astonishment of the cosmos fades into a backdrop for theologizing.

Diana Butler Bass presents some intriguing insights throughout this engaging book. Early on she speaks of a “sacred revolution” that is underway.

“And this revolution rests upon a simple insight: God is the ground, the grounding, that which grounds us. We experience this when we understand that soil is holy, water gives life, the sky opens the imagination, our roots matter, home is a divine place, and our lives are linked with our neighbors’ and with those around the globe. This world, not heaven, is the sacred stage of our times.”

Though I studied and discussed this kind of grounded, earthy theology away back in seminary (theological cemetery) days, Bass’s easy style welcomes even seculars like me, though, as she says, we are “devoid of the divine.” I welcome her call to recognize and respond to the “fragile and endangered” earth. I only wish that it wasn’t in the context of “more and more people beginning to see God in the ground.” For some of us that God is indeed in the ground, but not in the way she means it.

tombstone

As I read Bass’s stories, some of which are very compelling (even tear-squeezing), I kept hoping she might mention John Muir who over 100 years ago embodied the concept of “grounding.” But he wasn’t a theologian or student of religion. Muir wasn’t particularly interested in finding God in every grasshopper, river or mountain. He actually did speak of hearing “sermons” from the natural world and even reading the “scripture” of Nature. But it was because he heard the grasshopper’s voice or the waterfall’s choir, not the word of God. I evoke Muir because I get antsy reading endlessly about seeing and hearing and feeling and touching and sensing “God” in everything. Why can’t Bass simply sink to the sand and feel grateful for the sea and the wind and the earth and life without having to think of God or do theology again? This is what I get impatient about, what irritates me. This irritation is shared by Muir in his words,

“But glad to leave these ecclesiastical fires and blunders, I joyfully return to the immortal truth and immortal beauty of Nature.” (A Thousand Mile Walk to the Gulf )

John_Muir_c1902

 

Don’t get me wrong, I applaud a Christian’s emergence from a “God up there” mentality and the narrowly confining worldview of the Church’s walled-in thinking. I have no doubt that Diana and I could take a walk in the woods and find much to be silent about! She is walking the edge of wonder and delight in nature. My question would always (and irritatingly) be:

Can’t you just be here, walk here, sit here and appreciate the beauty of Nature? Does it always and forever have to be about Your God, or even to “Be God”?

To me that’s the unfortunate disconnect that distracts. In a deeply meaningful moment, she kneels and kisses the beach. She says she was

“just a person taking a walk at first light, someone who, overwhelmed with the beauty of the earth, the water, and the sky, was, quite literally, pulled to the ground by gratitude.”

A powerful expression of something many of us have felt. Yet, she can’t resist the real point of the moment:

“God is here.”

She has left the “elevator church”—the vertical God-in-the-Sky kind of thinking.  But I wonder why wonder isn’t enough? When she says that God is in the world and the world is in God but God is “the one behind, within, and just beyond the cosmos,” what exactly does that mean? God is, in the author’s view, “at the edge of the visible world.” So, we ask, how do we cross that imagined edge or make sense of something or someone beyond? The “just beyond” always presents peculiar problems.

Here’s the thing: labeling the natural world with words such as sacred, spiritual, holy, and God seems to be a human propensity; but is it helpful? Is the sacred revolution Bass is seeing and calling believers to, simply a deistic (somewhat generic but with a Christian flavor) worldview—the end of the story? Does all Nature merely lead to more theology, more God?   One might think of those who describe some beautiful event or wonderful scene and then add,“because, you know, Jesus.”

Fortunately we don’t hear that message coming from this book. (Though Jesus makes frequent appearances!) If anything, Grounded is a post-Christian or a post-Churchianity credo. It could even be a step toward a post-Religion world, at least in the sense that there is encouragement to leave tribalism (though not some tribal language) behind.

If secular humanists can weed through Bass’s god-language, I think there is room for some common ground even in statements such as this:

“Was I ever spiritually satisfied worshipping God inside a building with four walls and no connection to the world outside? Over the decades, faith has taken me increasingly toward the soil, not away from it. To this garden, to the earth. And God is here. God the Earthmaker, God the Gardener. God the Ground of Being.”

If believers who choose this new “revolutionary” path to the earth (or back to a more secular experience) can accept even a non-theistic name for that Ground of Being, there may be light enough for all of us, spiritual and secular. There certainly is plenty of wonder for us all.

Postscript— I read this book over the Martin Luther King holiday and I had just been reading the last Sunday sermon he gave in the National Cathedral—“Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution.” Bass ends her book with this call to believers: “It is time for the church to wake up. There is nothing worse than sleeping through a revolution.”   It is a clarion for both believers and non-believers who can find true common ground and grounding in Nature and the eternal wonders Nature presents.

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Chris Highland 2008Chris Highland served as an Interfaith Chaplain for 25 years. In 2001 he left his Christian ordination and “came out” as a non-theist freethinker.  He is a teacher, writer, housing manager and a member of the Speakers’ Bureau of the Secular Student Alliance. Chris is the author of ten books and host of Secular Chaplain.  Originally from Seattle, he lives in the SF Bay Area with his wife Carol, director of the Marin Interfaith Council.

>>>Photo Credits: “Gravestone of Andrew Drake” by Richard Arthur Norton (1958- ) archive. Licensed under CC BY 2.5 via Wikipedia – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gravestone_of_Andrew_Drake.jpg#/media/File:Gravestone_of_Andrew_Drake.jpg

“John Muir c1902” by unattributed – Library of CongressNative nameLibrary of CongressLocationWashington, D.C.Coordinates38° 53′ 19″ N, 77° 00′ 17″ WEstablished1800Websitewww.loc.gov. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:John_Muir_c1902.jpg#/media/File:John_Muir_c1902.jpg

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • alwayspuzzled

    Why does one person’s appreciation of nature have to be more or less authentic than another person’s appreciation of nature? The claim of superior authenticity appears to be more about fulfilling a psychological need than about appreciating nature.

    • I see your point. It always seems to be a matter of what we *bring* to Nature that shapes/colors the experience. We want to put words to it and call our emotions or reflections a “spiritual” experience. I get it. Of course this is why we have the huge problem of anthropomorphism. We want so desperately to see ourselves in the cosmos. We want Nature-with-a-Face-and-Name to care about us. Simply admitting that can be the first step in recovery (of reason; of senses; and maybe, of true wonder). Thanks for your comment.

  • The author seems to say that she senses a kind of “agency” in nature, in her story. I also don’t see why there is such a desire to see a “post-Religion” world, or for others to give up a belief in “a god above” type belief.

    • I’m not sure I would push for a post-religion world. That would be a bit foolish, since the religious sentiment runs deep in humans, and there is indeed much good to be found, if we dig around in the composting soil of faith. On the other hand, as Bass argues, I think it’s high time we come down from the theological heights and get grounded. I only wish the artificial additives (like labeling things “sacred”) would evaporate.

      • But who is to say that there isn’t a god “above?”

        • Well, I guess there could be. Maybe Zeus? Who’s to say there isn’t a Man in the Moon? I’m remembering the Charlie Brown comic when he, Lucy and Linus are lying on the grass staring up at the clouds. Each sees a different face. Of course, Charlie sees a Ducky. The human condition, I suppose. The sky’s the limit.

          • Except that there’s evidence against a person on the moon. So we can reject, rather than just dismiss, such a claim.

          • Unless. . .someone “sees” that face and then has a “relationship” with that “person.” Is there more evidence of a “god above”?

          • Again, you can find empirical evidence relating to the existence of a person on the moon. We have. There’s empirical evidence that the so called “face” is just “lunar maria.”

      • yes, “Sacred” is way over used. When the word Sacred is given to practically everything – it loses meaning. Maybe the word sacred (small letters) CAN be used to counter the cold heartless materialism in “cut it down, its just an f..n tree.” A child we could think of as sacred – not simply spawn of homo sapiens .

  • carolyntclark

    Very solid revue,Chris.
    Clinging to the last shred of attachment to the lovely myth of a deity is an emotional issue, not a rational or academic one. Deep Christian roots can make it too painful to totally accept the absence of supernatural.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Interesting insight, Carolyn. I wonder how Bulter Bass feels about the supernatural. She doesn’t focus on it, at all. She barely mentions it.

      I have the Kindle version of her book and found only one reference to the supernatural, when describing how the “water” is approached in Bible stories: “…unlike many other ancient water stories, there are no supernatural elements present,….”
      Locations 1271-1272).

    • cadunphy280

      I agree Carolyn. The work of theology and of theologians to imbue the world around them with the meaning they seek can be a tiresome exercise to observe. I’m glad you reviewed this book and critiqued Butler Bass.

      • mason

        exhausting for the poor souls… at times reminds me of people strung out on drugs

        • cadunphy280

          you might be on to something Mason!

          • mason

            I’ve was around people who were permanently screwed up by LSD when I lived in Hawaii, and every time I attempt to read the seemingly endless blather of a those who try to make the absurd and irrational sound sensible and rational I immediately remember the LSD survivors I heard talking about their insights into reality.

        • Linda_LaScola

          Or people trying to make sense of the unknowable?

          • mason

            exactly…theological “scientists” counting the atoms in a ghost

  • Mark Rutledge

    Chris, I just sent this article to 19 folks taking my class on “Beyond Atheism” at Duke’s Life Long Learning Institute (OLLI). It is perfect for conversations along the lines we’re discussing, e.g. is god “real”; can you personalize nature/the cosmos? etc… And for considering alongside both Michael Dowd (God is nature), and Gordon Kaufman (god is the process of mysterious cosmic creativity within nature). One member of the class has taught a course on John Muir which he titled “The Cathedral in the World.” I’ve been pondering this FB aphorism: someone said “I was in church thinking about kayaking; to which someone answered “I was kayaking and thinking about god.” Thanks for posting this.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Wonderful Mark — I hope you can report back here with any feedback from your class.

    • Glad to hear your class has more to chew on, Mark! Sounds like a great course. We must be tapping into something. I have 20 students registered for my new college class: “Nature as Secular Sanctuary: Freethinkers from Paine to Burroughs.” All last year I taught classes on “A Wild Spirituality of Nature” and “The Wilderness Within,” calling on Muir time and again, so I appreciate the cathedral in the world concept.
      I wish you well in the class, walking the webs of secular/spiritual relations!

  • mason

    Well done Chris! I think Wonder isn’t Wonderful Enough because the childish sense of greed is an integral part of theistic Christianity. The believers don’t think as themselves as greedy, but they are very greedy; far more greedy than Mr. Wonderful Kevin on TV’s “Shark Tank.”

    This greed manifests in the ideas of 1. Eternal life 2. Huge mansions in heaven. 3. Rank and power as they reign the Universe forever with their King. 4. A heavenly crown. 5. Gloating about those who were so stupid and recalcitrant they refused to believe and are being punished forever. 5. Living where there are streets of gold. Goldman Sachs couldn’t even conceive that scale of greed!

    When these silly hopeful dreams are discarded, Wonder becomes far more than Wonderful Enough.

  • the writer may be on a quest, a path away from the sky-god, the overseer, judge…but yes a theology of God = Nature has a lot of problems. Its one thing to “visit” nature when the sky is beautiful, when tree limbs aren’t falling, when aged deer aren’t being eaten alive by hungry coyotes, but this is idea is simply a romantic portrait of nature ~ not reality. I spend a couple hours almost everyday in the woods, taking care of a young forest on our property. Nature can be brutal, unmerciful, vicious. Mother nature can be a bitch. But Nature IS honest and doesn’t hide raw truth. You and I are going to die, like these trees, and you will rot back into the soil maybe as a youth,(young trees die all the time-being forced out by stronger trees) or maybe as a gnarly elder.But yes even the giants of the forest fall. At our traditional ceremonial grounds we give thanks for the plants the medicines the waters, the thunder and winds ,all various powers, the life forces but we also admit we are only a part of an amazing mystery. This mystery can only be tasted when we allow ourselves to open our eyes, our minds and be thankful just for the experience of being here.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Thank you Sohahiyoh — your comments have given me more insight as I skim “Grounded” for references to natural disasters. In each case, “God” is with us – standing by, with powers that are not greater than those of a good and loyal friend.

      It’s comforting to have a friend who is always there, but I doubt that this limited, human-like perception of God will play well among the majority of people who have been taught to believe in a powerful god who protects us. It’s a realistic, but severe downgrade of what we’ve expected from God.

    • Thank you. I’ve always thought it made more sense to express gratitude to the living things that give us life, rather than to an invisible someone somewhere. As for Nature being “unmerciful” or “vicious” I would say that’s part of our anthropomorphic projection of emotion on the universe. As I see it, Nature doesn’t care because it isn’t a person. Naming or putting a face on the mysteries of the world seems unhelpful. Yet, I agree we could practice more appreciation for simply “being here.” Good be with you.

      • Chris, I agree. Nature just is. The coyote who is eating a living deer is not being “brutal” as if it were a humanbeing doing so. When using the terms vicious and unmerciful I’m using it to contrast with the notion that nature is always delightful. Come to think of it, Its actually difficult to write about nature without attaching archaic figures of speech. We all say sunrise, sunset and quarter moon and we aren’t going to get very far if we try to correct those who uses them. In fact I don’t know if academics even HAVE a new way of expressing “sunrise!”

        • Point well made. Maybe we simply say, “Good Morning!”

        • Elizabeth.

          maybe “firstlight”?

  • This is really an interesting topic, and very close to home for me involved in a Native American Community. The downfalls of magical thinking can be at times troublesome but one benefit I see of anthropomorphic projection is it serves to create empathy. Empathy is one of our greatest human qualities. To identify with the suffering of individuals, rivers, animals, wild plants even trees bulldozed and broken over to simply harvest the giants. Can Empathy arise without Identifying? What happens when the world around us is only seen as “stuff” raw material to use as we see fit? When we hunt and harvest game, medicines, even trees for special use, we talk to them as brothers that we share our world with. We’re all related, we’re made of the same substances. In our traditions the Sun is our elder brother(who can be fierce or relentless or warm and kind), the moon is a grandmother who “guides” a woman’s cycle. Keeping this kind of attitude can actually keep us from a sliding slope towards total corporatation-like materialism. We ALL talk to our pets as if they understand us,we ALL say “sunrise” but know the sun doesn’t rise, Some of this is simply our way of human beings to identify. Theology becomes a problem when it makes UNIVERSAL world wide claims “God is Omniscient -Omnipotent -Omnipresent Omnibenevolent” because there is no evidence for these and they contradict themselves and their own religious doctrines….maybe anthropomorphic projection isn’t bad, when you realize what you are doing.

    • Linda_LaScola

      Sohahiyoh – I think you make an excellent case for anthropomorphic projection being good — and natural — unlike theological claims which are thrust upon us. Very insightful — thanks.

      • Thanks Linda! And even our own Native American traditionalists can be guilty of imposing “belief” and forget (or deny) that our indigenous culture(s) colorfully paint pictures of reality, but they are not reality itself.

    • Your last point is well taken. Realizing what we’re doing. . .that’s a large part of our challenge. If the world is simply a mirror to see ourselves and our emotions it seems very flat. Who wants to “relate” just with themselves? Thanks for your words.

      • Thanks, yes…once one sees the word hiding in the puzzle, one can’t NOT see it. When our eyes have been opened, we can’t go back to NOT seeing anymore. I think of it like this: To Realize = Two real eyes

  • Tobias 27772

    I once taught at a school with many Bradford pear trees in the courtyard. They have a beautiful flame shape to them and in the fall their leaves turn a brilliant combination of red and orange and yellow that adds to the flaming image. It really is quite wondrous.

    One day while I was walking through the courtyard, one of my fellow teachers was marveling at the sight of all of the trees in full flame, when she said to me, “How can anyone look at the miracle of this and not see the love of god.”

    After sharing the view with her for a few more seconds, I proceeded to try to explain to her how the red and orange and yellow pigments had been in the leaves all year long, but were only gaining the ability to show themselves as the dominant green chlorophyll receded as the fall sun fed it less and less on every successively shorter day.

    I cannot describe the blankness with which she looked at me – or the minimization of our opportunities for conversation thereafter.

    I find the turning of the leaves far more wondrous for understanding how it works and how it evolved by successfully adapting to natural environmental conditions. I drive my little convertible through the mountains for hours at a time, just digging on the non-miracle of it all. This is such a grooovy planet !!

    • carolyntclark

      agreed Tobias. The seasonal cycles are so much more awesome when viewed from the complexities of natural forces, than would be the easy act for a sky magician.

    • Sure, we have traditional Longhouse wintertime stories about how the leaves turn red in the fall…but they involve a bear and a hunter, but we also know they are our great stories 🙂 the problem with “How can anyone look at the miracle…and not see god” is that to be honest one must include ALL of what happens on earth natural disasters, birth defects, cancer and mental illnesses or else you have a “selective god” painting nice pictures here and ignoring living horror over there.

      • Elizabeth.

        Yes… this is what I always am thinking when my husband exclaims “how can anyone not believe in God” when talking about the intricacies of nature… I am always wondering how he can bracket the horror. (I don’t say anything)

        Many just accept both what humans think of as negative and what we find lovely…. I just haven’t come to that place yet — I don’t want to affirm the horror …not that that effects anything!! : )

        • Elizabeth, Though we all seem to have the capacity to wonder or question everything, it does seem there are many reluctant to do so…for so many reasons. Even watching “Martian” as wonderful as a movie it was, my wife and i couldn’t help thinking even as crowds of earthlings were clapping…”with all the resources used to “rescue one individual, what about the children on earth who need us right now?” to rescue them from abuse, poverty, unnecessary death….but it just seems many aren’t ready to ask those questions.

  • me himself

    A beautiful point. When there is no capacity for wonder we have only rote obediance, which is no life at all.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Many years ago I wrote this line: ‘Wonder charms the shyness out of God.” But I wasn’t really saying, as is strongly suggested by those words, that God reveals him-, her-, itself most clearly and simply in wonder than in knowledge or scripture or faith (though at the time that was part of it) but that we as humans through plain wonder get to apprehend something greater than all our philosophies and religions and reason could grasp. The first time I encountered wonder of the profound variety I had just turned ten. It was my habit to sneak out early Saturday mornings to climb over the locked playground fence to enjoy that area alone; I was something of a troubled kid. I was barely swaying back and forth on the swing when I looked at my hands then at my sneakered feet and said aloud, “I have ten fingers and ten toes and I am ten years old…”: I went somewhere else, both lost in and at the center of the cosmos, a mere cog but integral to existence (later reflections, of course.) Simply put, I realized I was. I had a place here. God did not enter that experience. Yet there is something other of which I know I am a part.