"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Mother Nature–Cold, Implacable, and Indifferent

Zapotec civilization had its beginnings in the Central Oaxaca (Mexico) Valley in the 6th Century BC, and was a significant cultural, social, and political force in the region for over 700 years.

Zapotec religion was animistic. Although not monotheists, "they did recognize a supreme being who was without beginning or end, ‘ who created everything but was not himself created,’ but he was so infinite and incorporeal that no images were ever made of him" (Marcus 1994:345). "This supreme being had, in turn, created a series of powerful supernatural forces including lightning, sun, earthquake, fire, and clouds which interacted with the Zapotecs..(www.angelfire.com)

The Zapotecs lived in a world of natural, immanent power.  Spiritual forces were in the lightning and thunder, the violent storms, predatory animals, and in the rising and setting of the moon and sun.  They were brooding in the massive mountains or in the night sky.  They were everywhere, frighteningly real.  There was no distinction between human life, nature, and the gods.  Here in the Oaxaca valley under a powerful sun and surrounded by mountains, there was no escaping the temperamental and eruptive forces of Nature and the gods. 

Human sacrifice was at the center of Zapotec religion.  Only human sacrifice could appease the manifestly all-powerful gods – an act that could stay their wrath and vengeance, beseech their forgiveness, and supplicate them for compassion.  The sacrifice at which thousands of believers bowed before the sacrificial mount, was an ecstatic expression of belief linking them to the cycle of life and death and joining humanity and deity in one supreme act.  

Nature has been endowed with many attributes.  Throughout history it has never been a neutral, indifferent element of universal life; but a principal actor in human affairs.  The Aztecs many centuries after the Zapotecs dressed in animal skins before battles so that they could fight with the ferocious spirits of panthers, mountain lions, and eagles.  These skins and feathers were not just symbols for the Aztecs but powerful talismans with the power to transform human warriors into savage beasts.

Animists even today believe that the natural world is populated by spirits; but trees, rocks, bushes and clouds are not just places where supernatural forces resided, but were supernatural themselves.  There is no distinction between spirit and tree.  The tree is both spirit and a spiritual creation.

Nature has been thought of as a retributive weapon of God and an expression of his goodness.  Storms were punishment for disobedience or indifferent worship.  Calm, warm, and bright weather a reward.

Shakespeare’s King Lear is perhaps the best example of Man’s relationship with Nature.  The tempest on the heath parallels Lear’s madness.  In its wild fury, it is a physical expression of Lear’s frenzied and tormented mind.  The storm and Lear are one.  There is no distinction between this uncontrollable and ferocious force of physical nature and the innate – and in the case of Lear, disturbed and turbulent – human nature.

God and Nature are interchangeable.  A lone hiker in the high mountains who feels his insignificance compared to the immanent, majestic power of the Andes or Sierras, and for the first time senses the all-powerful nature of God, is worshipping God and Nature. Wordsworth writes of his own epiphany in Mont Blanc in which he describes the ascent of a lone climber who, when the clouds and mist suddenly clear, has a a view of the majestic snow-covered Mont Blanc. There is no mistaking the spiritual metaphor and religious significance of the event.  Either Nature is God’s archangel, pointing the way to spiritual renewal or redemption; or is God himself.

The Bible (Genesis 1:26), however, made it clear that God was singular, almighty, and all-powerful; and that Man was created to rule the world, not to worship it:

And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.

Man is supreme, God said.  He is the lord and master of the physical world, and all things are under his dominion.  For this reason Jewish and Christian theologians have rejected animism, pantheism, and deism.  Man was created by God with a soul, anointed by him as his spiritual children.  There was no question in either the Old or New Testament about the singular power of God and his son, Jesus Christ.  The Trinity was inviolable, and there was no leakage into Nature.  The First Commandment is an injunction against the worship of false idols, and naturalism was one.

Given the susceptibility of mankind and the obvious power of Nature, it has been impossible for Man to fully subscribe to this Biblical injunction.  Even in today’s modern technological world where Nature is explained and demystified, we still are in awe of the destructive force of tornadoes, hurricanes, and tsunamis. These events simply cannot be random or meaningless.  At the very least they are – like the thunder and lightening over the Oaxaca Valley – signs of God’s omnipotence and Man’s insignificance. 

The environmental movement has both animistic and deeply Christian roots.  Human destruction of rainforests, pollution of air and water, and the wholesale ransacking of forests, woods, and natural preserves is morally wrong, an insult to the immanent spiritual forces residing in them. The Gaia movement postulates that the Earth is not a collection of random elements and forces, but a living, organic whole.  It is a sentient mega-being made up of network of interrelated bio-ecological neurons.  No hurt or physical insult goes unnoticed, and damage on one part will be felt throughout.  Although few environmentalists are true Gaia believer, the attachment they have to Nature is not simply practical.  There is a pervasive spirituality behind the movement.  The cutting down of a tree in Absaroka Mountains causes psychic hurt.

Fundamentalist Christians who had been somewhat indifferent to the cause of environmentalism in the past, have recently become more committed. The clear-cutting of an old-growth forest is not just a disruptive act, they say, disturbing an ecological balance and portending ecological dislocations down the mountain; but an immoral one. We are assaulting God’s creation.

A young friend of my son’s attended a very liberal, progressive school in Washington; and environmentalism was one of the causes to which it was committed.  Man – and in particular greedy capitalists, Wall Street bankers, Western ranchers, multi-national corporations, and suburban land developers – was responsible for the depredation of the natural world and must be taken to task.

The young man had the temerity in this very politically correct environment to challenge that assumption and said that Man was a part of nature, and that his actions were simply neutral factors in a constantly changing world.  If man today had an inordinately important role in changing the Chesapeake, the air, or the oyster population, other forces and factors would surely be ascendant in the future.  Who could predict cosmic shifts, virulent epidemics, or other unimaginable forces in an infinite universe?  There is no such thing as a culprit in a world of endless change.

This idea is not new and is a tenet of Buddhism:

Thus early Buddhism declares that in this world there is nothing that is fixed and permanent. Every thing is subject to change and alteration. "Decay is inherent in all component things," declared the Buddha and his followers accepted that existence was a flux, and a continuous becoming.

According to the teachings of the Buddha, life is comparable to a river. It is a progressive moment, a successive series of different moments, joining  together to give the impression of one continuous flow. It moves from cause to cause, effect to effect, one point to another, one state of existence to another, giving an outward impression that it is one continuous and unified movement, where as in reality it is not. The river of yesterday is not the same as the river of today. The river of this moment is not going to be the same as the river of the next moment. So does life. It changes continuously, becomes something or the other from moment to moment (www.urbandharma.org)

There is yet another philosophical take on nature, one that is devoid of even the generous philosophy of Buddhism.  Nature is indifferent.  Alan Lightman writing in the New York Times (5.3.14) says:

Nature is purposeless. Nature simply is. We may find nature beautiful or terrible, but those feelings are human constructions. Such utter and complete mindlessness is hard for us to accept. We feel such a strong connection to nature. But the relationship between nature and us is one-sided. There is no reciprocity. There is no mind on the other side of the wall.

That absence of mind, says Lightman is what is so frightening about powerful events of nature.  ‘Nature’ is a product of understandable bio-ecological, physical, and meteorological forces; but its most violent expressions – tornadoes, hurricanes, earthquakes, and tidal waves – are poorly understood.  Tornadoes destroy houses on one side of the street and not another.  Storms whip up on the Southern Ocean without warning, products of complex convection currents, heating or cooling thousands of miles away, and destroy everything that happens to be in an unlucky patch of water.

I am not an environmentalist because I believe what the young friend of my son’s precociously believed.  Human beings are no more than bits of matter and energy that collide, combine, reproduce, change, disappear, and reappear again in and endless random and infinite cycle.  We are no different from rocks that wear down and become sand, sea water that evaporates and becomes rain; trees that grow, die, decompose, and fertilize the forest floor. ‘Saving the planet’ has no meaning for me, for it is but one spinning, random bit of matter that eventually will erode into space dust, be obliterated by a rogue meteor, zapped by great storms of cosmic rays, or simply peter out and die.

I will always remember the closing scenes of H.G.Wells The Time Machine where the Time Traveller stands on the edge of a still, lifeless ocean. The land is flat and uninterrupted behind him.  The light is universally dim and dull.  The Earth was reaching its final moment of stasis, of entropy.

'The darkness grew apace; a cold wind began to blow in freshening gusts from the east, and the showering white flakes in the air increased in number. From the edge of the sea came a ripple and whisper. Beyond these lifeless sounds the world was silent. Silent? It would be hard to convey the stillness of it. All man, the bleating of sheep, the cries of birds, the hum of insects, the stir that makes the background of our lives--all that was over. As the darkness thickened, the eddying flakes grew more abundant, dancing before my eyes; and the cold of the air more intense. At last, one by one, swiftly, one after the other, the white peaks of the distant hills vanished into blackness. The breeze rose to a moaning wind. I saw the black central shadow of the eclipse sweeping towards me. In another moment the pale stars alone were visible. All else was rayless obscurity. The sky was absolutely black.
Whether the world ends with a whimper or in a cataclysm of fire is of little relevance given the perspective of the Time Traveller or of cosmological infinity.  Which is why Environmentalism should be considered a religion – a spiritual movement which dismisses the idea of randomness and perpetual, neutral change. Religion is very satisfying and gives meaning and purpose to millions. The New Testament offers hope, salvation, and eternal life.  We are here for a purpose, the Bible says, and our stewardship over the beasts and fishes is part of God’s plan.  I see the world quite differently, but – like author Lightman – do so with reason and equanimity. 

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