Friday, February 7, 2020

What is Natural?

What wakes you up in the morning?  An alarm clock?  A clock-radio set to your favorite station?  The sunlight coming through your window?  Your dog?  Your child who wakes up before you do?

The answer depends upon your particular life circumstances.  At one stage in my life, when I worked at a job that began before daybreak, I would often rouse up before the clock-radio, out of my anxiety that I would oversleep.  Now that I am retired from that job, I can enjoy letting my body's own internal "clock" wake me up.

Thinking about what wakes us up in the morning is an easy place to begin reflecting upon a complex question:  Namely, what is natural?  That sunrise certainly is natural, in contrast to that electronic clock that mimics the sun's 12-hour-average day.  Our body's internal "clocks" are also natural -- although they can be thrown off their rhythms by our having stayed up late the night before, using artificially created electricity to run our man-made computers.

There is more at stake in that word "natural" than the matter of how we wake up.  That is because in trying to understand ourselves, we try to discover some aspects of our human nature that have some connection to the world of Nature.  Even as we declare some human actions to be right or wrong, we also describe some of those actions as being "natural" or "unnatural."  We ask, "What is human nature?"

Over the past few decades, a number of scientists have presented depictions of human nature that have drawn upon the biologist Richard Dawkins' idea of "the selfish gene."  As Dawkins now famously wrote:
"We are... robot vehicles blindly programmed to preserve the selfish molecules
 known as genes."
However, there is something askew about Dawkins' characterization.  He attributes more personality to genes ("selfish molecules") than he does to human beings.  Whereas genes are able to guide outcomes, we are just robots.

One of the conclusions Dawkins puts forward from his depiction of genes is that humans are fundamentally selfish in nature.  As he wrote, "We are born selfish."  It is here that the philosopher Mary Midgley stepped in to critique what she saw as being the crude simplifications resulting from selfish-gene rhetoric.  Midgley admits the valuable point that genes that contribute to the reproductive and survival potential of a species are more likely preserved.  But she points out that part of that process is genes' making us naturally mammals and social creatures.  And so, one of our gene-related potentials is our ability to take care of other individuals.  As Midgley puts it:
A natural gesture.
"If we ask whether we are indeed... creatures that are naturally just hell-bent egoists, we can see that this cannot be true because ancestral creatures like that would never have gone through all the trouble and sacrifice that are needed to rear human children.
Such people would leave no descendants."

Midgley underscores our natural potential for offering care by spotlighting a parent's love for their child (even if that child does sometimes wake up the parent who wanted to sleep longer).  Even though as an infant our earliest yearning was to be loved, love was built into our mammalian, social nature.

Midgley's worry is that "the crude metaphor" of "selfish gene" has been employed to promote "an ideology of everyday cynicism."  She writes:
"To repeat -- officially, the doctrine of selfish genes does not mean
 that individuals are motivated only by self-interest."

Remembering love early in the day.Our human lives and societies are complex integrations of the natural and the man-made.  Valentine's Day is an artificial, societal construction.  And yet, like those natural cycles of the sun, Valentine's Day's annual rhythm can wake us up again to the importance of being loving.  Loving toward partners.  Toward friends.  And even by being courteous to the stranger we meet.

~ ~ ~

(Where do you see love at work?)

(The Dawkins quotations are from The Selfish Gene, © 1976, 1989, pp. 127 & 3.)
(The Midgley quotations are from her article "The Origins of Don Giovanni" in the magazine Philosophy Now, Winter 1999/2000, p. 32.)

Friday, January 3, 2020

Of Campfires and Stars

Comforting light in the darkness.Even before there was writing, humans gathered around fires.
And even before there was writing, humans told stories.  As those ancient humans sat around fires at night, telling stories, they would have noticed some of the sparks from the fire ascending against the darkness of the night sky.  As their eyes followed those sparks upward, some of those sparks would have seemed to almost merge with their cousins -- the stars.  And as those humans looked upward and told stories, some of those random stars became transformed into constellations. They saw animals and legendary heroes there:  A bear.  A scorpion.  Orion.  And thus, the cosmic dome became part of the narratives about human lives.

Today, the idealized campfire is a symbol of belonging and peace.  It is a place where we hope people will come together to find belonging and a warmth of spirit.

The literary analyst Harold Bloom provided a revealing analysis of the connection between fire and belonging in one narrative in the Bible's book of Luke (22:54-62).  After Jesus is arrested, his disciple Peter flees into the darkness of the night.  Peter is alone and cut off in the coldness of the night.  But then he notices a fire burning in the distance.  On many occasions in the past, Peter's companions and Jesus spent time around such fires at night, sharing stories.  And so, the lonely Peter is drawn towards this new fire, around which people are huddled.  But when Peter draws closer to this fire, his face becomes illuminated, and so he is recognized as being a disciple of Jesus, the identity which he had been trying to conceal.  Peter and the strangers around the fire have not felt their common humanity.  And Peter flees back into the darkness of the cold night.

There is a larger way the sense of belonging can become lost.  Jeffrey Sobosan recounts an incident involving a mentor of his, "an old priest who had .... contributed brilliantly to his own specialty in theology, and now at the close of life had given himself over to what he once described as his first love, the study of the stars."  Sobosan continues:
"I met him in a garden one evening, where he sat by his beloved telescope...
with a look of ineffable sadness in his eyes.... He spoke of the beauty of the universe...
but in striving after this beauty,... his mind had taken a savage turn ...
toward the damning conclusion: the universe is void of meaning."
The vast cosmos had, for him, become alien.

Feeling the grandness of the world.
It is not hard to understand why Sobosan's mentor-priest felt himself betrayed by the cosmos, which he had hoped would provide him a comforting beauty with its views though the telescope.  Even though telescopes have revealed much more of this vast universe, the view through a telescope is a narrowing of our immediate field of vision. It is somewhat like trying to view an ocean through a ship's small porthole.  As the philosopher Max Oelschlaeger explains, using Galileo as an example:
"By using the telescope, Galileo’s eyes gathered additional light,
and the telescopic image itself was magnified....
What he lost was the sweeping field of view of the naked eye astronomy....
And perhaps, in his intense concentration, he lost also the sounds and smells of the night
and the awareness of himself as a conscious man beholding
a grand and mysterious stellar spectacle."

A sweeping field of vision can encompass both those stars and ourselves in one grand narrative.  And that narrative can give us a sense of universal belonging -- provided we remember our common humanity as part of that domed narrative.  The story-telling circle must become wider than the ring around our particular campfire.

~ ~ ~

(Do you have any recollection of being around a campfire in a way that increased your sense of belonging?  When was it?  What was it like?)

(The Sobosan quotation is from his Romancing the Universe: Theology, Science, and Cosmology. © 1999. p. 1.)
(The Oelschlaeger quotation if from his The Idea of Wilderness. © 1991. p. 78.)

Friday, December 6, 2019

A Crocus in the Snow

A vibrant flower amid the cold.
It is a classic subject for nature photographers:  a vividly purple flower
 in the midst of white snow. Why is that image appealing to us?

Part of its appeal comes from its aesthetic beauty -- so much so that it demonstrates what have long been held to be some of the identifying characteristics of beauty.  One of those is that beauty is created when some features that might otherwise be experienced as being in conflict are instead held together in harmony.  In this case, the intensity of purple contrasts with the absence of color in the snow; yet the two are held in harmony.  The contemporary professor of religion Steven R. Guthrie, explaining this aspect of classical Western thought regarding beauty, writes that, "In Plato's dialogues... harmony in this sense is not uniformity or unanimity but the beauty that emerges from different elements in right relationship.... It is, in Dante's words, 'an order' from 'things disparate.' "

Most people like the image of the crocus in the snow.  That favorable emotional response points to another aspect that the Western philosophical and theological traditions have identified as being a characteristic of beauty.  Namely, that something beautiful creates a resonance within us that is pleasing.  In that regard, Guthrie explains that " [Thomas] Aquinas draws our attention to the immediate impression that beautiful things make upon our senses."

In the case of the crocus in the snow, however, those who find the image beautiful are often responding to more than the aesthetic beauty of purple against white.  A purple blotch on a white background would not elicit the same emotions that the flower does.  What also resonates within us in the case of the crocus, even if unconsciously, is the contrast between the new life of the emerging flower and the surrounding cold snow of winter -- the season in which most plants die back.  This additional form of contrast is also a dimension of the image's beauty that is pleasing to us.  Not only is the tension between purple and white held together, but life and death are held together in a moment of harmony when the crocus emerges out of the snow.  The 18th-century poet Christopher Smart, in his poem praising God, expressed how the crocus stands out from other plants around it.  He wrote:
"The laurels with the winter strive;
The crocus burnishes alive
     Upon the snow-clad earth."

The moment of plant-nativity displayed by the crocus can thus evoke within us that enduring quality of hope that sustains our human existence.  Gandhi once wrote:

Glimpses through the clouds."I do dimly perceive that whilst everything around me is ever changing, ever dying, there is underlying all that change a living power that is changeless, that holds
 all together, that creates, dissolves, and re-creates.... And is this power benevolent or malevolent? I see it as purely benevolent. For I can see that in the midst of death life persists, in the midst of untruth truth persists, in the midst of darkness light persists.
 Hence I gather that God is Life, Truth, Light."

It is through our human capacity to not only resonate when experiencing aesthetic beauty but also respond to symbols that we can open ourselves to the transcendent dimension of reality.  The crocus in the snow reveals to us more than the survival capability of a specific flower.  It points to the Ultimate Ground of all existence.  And in that Ground are the "flower-bulbs" and "seeds" of all that can be.  There is an Indian saying that:
"All the flowers of all the tomorrows
 are in the seeds of today."
The real challenge can be spotting those "seeds" and nurturing them.  Sometimes we cannot even see them at all.  But even when we cannot perceive them, we can hope, and like Gandhi we can have faith that they are there despite being hidden beneath the snow.

~ ~ ~

(What do you hope for?  Can you see any way you might contribute to that future growth of something good?)

(The Steven R. Guthrie quotation is from his book Creator Spirit:
 The Holy Spirit and the Art of Becoming Human
, © 2011. pp. 201-202 & 205.)
(The lines by Christopher Smart are from "A Song to David,"
 taken from Encompassing Nature, ed. Robert M. Torrance, © 1998, p. 1015.)
(The Gandhi quotation is from his Young India, 11-10-28, as quoted in Gleanings from
 the writings of Mahatma Gandhi bearing on God, God-Realization and the Godly way
, ed. R. K. Prabhu.)

Friday, November 1, 2019

Knowing Water

Transparent, but a lot to be seen there.All of us have known water since before our earliest memories of anything.  Maybe that first taste of water was from a nippled bottle, maybe from a small cup.  But we encountered water long before we could have thought about it.  Water is basic.

Despite its being so basic, there are many ways that we know water.  Thus there are many ways -- all valid -- of answering the question, "What is water?"  And they demonstrate the variety of ways we know this world.

On a beginning chemistry exam, if I am asked what water is, I know to answer that water is composed of two atoms of hydrogen and one atom of oxygen -- H2O.  I understand water chemically as I understand that formula, along with knowing what a molecule is.  But that is a very abstract type of knowledge.  Long before modern chemistry, humans knew what water is when they were refreshed by drinking it or bathing with it.

Writers of the Bible knew those immediate ways of knowing water.  They also knew how those ways of knowing water are not confined to the human race but are also experienced by other
animals. The writers of the Bible knew how experiencing water’s life-giving properties could open a person to remembering and re-encountering God.  As a typical psalm of creation, Psalm 104 (1--11a, NRSV), puts it, speaking to God:
"You make springs gush forth in the valleys;
they flow between the hills,
giving drink to every wild animal."

We can know more about water as we come to know it through our religious traditions. As a Christian, I understand religiously what water is in several ways:  By attending baptisms. By singing hymns and hearing scriptures containing the word “thirst.”  And by joining with other people of faith to see that homeless people are provided water.  Christianity and Judaism are not unique in their integration of the theme of water into their theological reflections.  In the Islamic tradition, the Qur’an (Koran) states:
"In the water that Allah sends down from the clouds and quickens therewith
the earth after its death and scatters therein all kind of beasts,
and in... the clouds pressed into service between the heaven and the earth,
are indeed Signs for a people who understand."

The telling presence of water.Scientists, in their own way, know which planets might have had forms of life by finding indications that the planet has had water -- water being essential for life.  If I pause to reflect upon water, which I often take for granted, I can re-discovery my commonality with all of life.  A commonality not just in needing water, but also a commonality in yearning, longing, and striving. Also, it is through a recognition of types of striving in other kinds of living beings (animals and plants) that we intuit that they are alive too.

Gabriel García Márquez's novel One Hundred Years of Solitude is set in a town in a tropical jungle. In a memorable scene, the protagonists' encounter with a new form of water becomes an encounter of a miraculous kind.  A gypsy opens a chest, revealing to the protagonist and his father José Arcadio "an enormous, transparent block with infinite internal needles in which the light of the sunset was broken up into colored stars."  José  Arcadio ventures a guess as to what it might be:
" ' It's the largest diamond in the world.'
'No,' the gypsy countered. 'It's ice.' "

~ ~ ~

(Can you recall a particular occasion when you had no water handy, and recall how it felt to take that first drink when you were so thirsty?)

(Qur’an quotation is from sura 26, trans. Muhammad Zafrulla Khan, quoted in Matthew Fox's One River, Many Wells, p. 38.)
(Quotation from Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude, © 1970, p. 18.)
(Photographs are in the Public Domain.)

Friday, October 4, 2019

Halloween, and Civilizing Nature

Although I cannot remember her name, I remember hearing on the radio several years ago an Asian-American woman relating her immigrant family’s first encounter with Halloween.  As they experienced it, one evening in October, an unknown child knocked at their door.  And, as best they could understand it through the language barrier, the child was wanting something sweet to eat.  Although not having made any preparations for this unexpected visitor, the family did their best to satisfy the child's seeming hunger because they knew from their own background in Asia the dangers of malnutrition and starvation.

But within the hour, another child came to the door of the family's home!  And then still another child, again asking for something to eat.  The family, having soon exhausted their supply of sweets, went to their refrigerator to get more food, but had only some pickled cucumber to give to the child, which they did.  Hearing this story, I could not help but laugh as I imagined the expression of a trick-or-treating child being given pickled cucumber instead of a Snickers bar.

To act or to rest?This anecdote, besides providing humor, gives some insight into aspects of our human nature.  Our current-day Halloween has mostly lost any real threat that children will perform some practical joke against us (some "trick") if we do not provide a treat as requested.  The Halloween tradition has evolved into the form of giving candy to unknown children to match their preference for sweets.  And with that act of giving, we extend ourselves beyond our human tendencies to hoard for ourselves, or to share primarily with those closest to us, such as our own family.  Halloween thus embodies a suppression of some aspects of our human nature (selfishness) coupled with the encouragement of other aspects of our human nature (compassion for others).

Even in its earlier manifestation that included real tricks, Halloween embodied a channeling and civilizing of potentially troublesome aspects of human nature.  Namely, the danger of children acting out their powerlessness and frustration by destroying something adults own.  Instead of such destructiveness, on one night each year, children (if they did so anonymously) were allowed to perform practical jokes against adults, such as rubbing soap on a house's windows.  That sort of channeling of childhood powerlessness into tricks has been mostly dropped from the celebration.  The gifts of candy are now usually freely given to any child who rings the doorbell.

There is much argument today about what is our "human nature."  And the choices are often presented in terms of opposites.  This is nothing new.  Three centuries ago, Alexander Pope wrote of humans:
"Placed on this isthmus of a middle state,...
He hangs between, in doubt to act or rest;
In doubt to deem himself a god, or beast;"
It does not require much reflection to realize we have sometimes unjustly indicted animals ("beasts") for seeming faults that we possess as humans.  Nevertheless, Pope's point about the tension within our human natures still stands.  On Halloween night, some children do play the role of the "beast" within them by costuming themselves as monsters. And we adults aim to act out the more generous nature within us by giving candy.

Maybe there also lies waiting at the heart of Halloween a deeper mystery that we might know if we could develop a reverence within ourselves.  That reverence would be woven through with humility, because it would be the act of adults (with all their powers) leaning down to children in an act of giving.  The result could be an experience of self-transcendence.  A century ago, the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore captured the wonder of such a loving act in one of what he called his "song offerings."

A writer, and an advocate for childhood education.
Rabindranath Tagore
"When I bring sweet things to your greedy hands,
 I know why there is honey in the cup of the flower
 and why fruits are secretly filled with sweet juice -- 
when I bring sweet things to your greedy hands....
When I bring to you coloured toys, my child,
 I understand why there is such a play of colours on clouds,
 on water, and why flowers are painted in tints -- 
when I give coloured toys to you, my child."

~ ~ ~

(How do you think we might nurture the human qualities Tagore expresses, even if we do not have children of our own?)

(The Pope quotation is from Essay on Man, II, 1.)
(The Tagore quotation is from his book Gitanjali, © 1913, no. 62.)
(All the photos are in the Public Domain.)