God and Nature: The Poet’s Vision

An Address to the Estero Bay United Methodist Church
October 19 2008

Introduction

Thank you for inviting me here to speak today. I’m honored to be part of your series on Religion and the Environment.

I’ve taught courses at Cal Poly on Environmental Literature and on the Bible as Literature and in Literature. This is a place where those topics converge.

Two Books: Scripture and Nature

There’s a powerful idea set forth in the writings of St. Augustine and earlier, that God created the universe as two books: the book of Scripture and the book of Nature. Scripture and Nature are both expressions of God’s word; both are intelligible codes that decipher and reinforce one another. This idea of the two books has been propounded by thinkers who attempt to reconcile theology and science, from St. Thomas Aquinas in the twelfth century and Galileo in the seventeenth, to present day exponents of creationism and intelligent design.

But rather than as philosophy or theology, I’d like to explore the idea of the two books as a poetic metaphor—a figure of speech that stimulates the imagination. Here it is elaborated in Psalm 19:

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,
which is like a bridegroom coming forth from his pavilion,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.

The statement that the heavens express the greatness of God includes an enthusiastic outpouring of figurative descriptions of the sun: it’s a bridegroom before or after consummating his love, it’s a race horse in action. These go beyond just elaborating the point about God. With sound effects and imagery they awaken the experience of the sun’s brilliance and energy in the reader’s mind. Both nature and the author of scripture are exuberant poets. Both the world and the word are books of poetry.

A close look at its language as poetry illuminates the first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1. It chronicles the process of the creation as an orderly, intelligible, symmetric, and progressively more complex sequence of steps, each building upon the previous one.

And it characterizes the process as the creative effort of a poet:

the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. God saw that the light was good, and He separated the light from the darkness. God called the light “day,” and the darkness he called “night.”

The creator starts with a dark confusion over which he hovers tentatively, gathering his wits, perhaps waiting for inspiration. Then he finds words, then he utters words, then he materializes the words, then he evaluates the outcome, then he names his first creation like the title, or a section of a larger structure.

Genesis dramatizes the work of the creator in carrying out this process: it is deeply satisfying. He regards each of his accomplishments separately as “good,” and at the conclusion of the whole process, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” The effort is also depicted as tiring. “By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested from all his work.”

The language of the narrative draws attention to itself, becoming more expansive and lyrical as the story proceeds from the 48 sparse words of the first day, which differentiate light and darkness, to the sixth day’s 260-word description of the ecological web of relationships among all living creatures. Yet it also retains a uniform pattern of meter and parallelism to emphasize the coherence between the parts and the whole.

The majesty and elegance of the writing of this creation story prompts us to wonder who the poet is, who wrote the text of Genesis 1? This makes for puzzlement, since the Creator is referred to here in the third person, eliminating the possibility that it was God himself who was the author of the words narrating his feats. One ancient answer, suggested in the Book of Proverbs and elaborated in the Kabbalah states that “Scripture was created prior to the creation of the world, and it was used as the blueprint for Creation.” (The Zohar, Vol. 11 Trumah Section 61) But the more traditional answer is that the author was Moses, and that God dictated Genesis to him along with the other four books of the Torah on Mt. Sinai.

Whichever if any of these explanations one prefers, the Divine Voice here can be recognized as the voice of a poet. The first literary critic in English, Sir Phillip Sidney, defended the value of literature against its detractors among English Puritans in the year 1581 by observing that the authors of Scripture were poets:

the chiefe both in antiquitie and excellencie, were they that did imitate the unconceivable excellencies of God. Such were David in his Psalmes, Salomon in his song of songs, in his Ecclesiastes and Proverbes. Moses and Debora, in their Hymnes, and the wryter of Jobe… against these none will speake that hath the holie Ghost in due holie reverence. (An Apology for Poesy)

Two Books of Comfort

The poetry of scripture frequently extols the beauty and friendliness of nature, its pleasuring and consoling aspects.

In the garden of Eden, “all kinds of trees grew out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” and “man and his wife were both naked, and they felt no shame.”

In the Song of Solomon, the lovers escape from the city to the countryside to find their satisfaction:

My lover spoke and said to me,
“Arise, my darling,
my beautiful one, and come with me.

See! The winter is past;
the rains are over and gone.

Flowers appear on the earth;
the season of singing has come,
the cooing of doves
is heard in our land.

The fig tree forms its early fruit;
the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
Arise, come, my darling;
my beautiful one, come with me.”

The protective guardian cares for his flock in a rural setting:

The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,

Birds and flowers provide the model for a simple life of modest prosperity:

Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. …

And why do you worry about clothes? See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. (Matthew 6:26-29)

In these pastoral visions of nature, the voice of God, of the human characters, and of the poem’s narrator, share the same lyrical, comforting tone. That tone is echoed and amplified by the natural landscape and its creatures: the voices of creator and creation harmonize. The word expresses the world, the world embodies the word.

In Songs of Innocence, (1789) William Blake renders Scripture’s identifications of divine, human and natural in the mouth of a babe speaking to a little lamb in the soothing tones of a good shepherd:

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice:
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee:
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

Like the psalmist, Ralph Waldo Emerson reads the comforting presence of God in the Book of Nature inscribed in the stars:

One might think the atmosphere was made transparent with this design, to give man, in the heavenly bodies, the perpetual presence of the sublime. … If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore; and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God which had been shown! But every night come out these envoys of beauty, and light the universe with their admonishing smile.

The stars awaken a certain reverence, because though always present, they are inaccessible; but all natural objects make a kindred impression, when the mind is open to their influence. … The flowers, the animals, the mountains, reflected the wisdom of his best hour, as much as they had delighted the simplicity of his childhood.

In the woods… I feel that nothing can befall me in life– no disgrace, no calamity– … which nature cannot repair. Standing on the bare ground– my head bathed by the blithe air, and uplifted into infinite space…, I become a transparent eye-ball; I am nothing; I see all; the currents of the Universal Being circulate through me; I am part or particle of God. (Nature)

Similarly, the contemporary nature poet, Wendell Berry, in “The Peace of Wild Things”:

When despair for the world grows in me
and I wake in the night at the least sound
in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,
I go and lie down where the wood drake
rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.
I come into the peace of wild things
who do not tax their lives with forethought
of grief. I come into the presence of still water.
And I feel above me the day-blind stars
waiting with their light. For a time
I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Two Books of Terror

If God’s word in the two books, Scripture and Nature, is creative, intelligible, and comforting, it is also destructive, inscrutable and threatening.

Not long after making the world in a mood of serenity and joy, an enraged Deity sets out to undo his work

The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the LORD said, “I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth—men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air—for I am grieved that I have made them.” (Genesis 6:6-7)

The violence of nature is described in turbulent poetic language that expresses the rage of the divine destroyer.

For forty days the flood kept coming on the earth, …. The waters rose and covered the mountains to a depth of more than twenty feet. Every living thing that moved on the earth perished—birds, livestock, wild animals, all the creatures that swarm over the earth, and all mankind. Everything on dry land that had the breath of life in its nostrils died. Every living thing on the face of the earth was wiped out; men and animals and the creatures that move along the ground and the birds of the air were wiped from the earth. (Genesis 17-23)

This devastating force is also manifest in the “The Song of the Sea” chanted by the Israelites after the drowning of their Egyptian enemies (Exodus 15: 3-15)

The LORD is a warrior;
the LORD is his name.

Pharaoh’s chariots and his army
he has hurled into the sea.
The best of Pharaoh’s officers
are drowned in the Red Sea.

The deep waters have covered them;
they sank to the depths like a stone. …

In the greatness of your majesty
you threw down those who opposed you.
You unleashed your burning anger;
it consumed them like stubble.

By the blast of your nostrils
the waters piled up.
The surging waters stood firm like a wall;
the deep waters congealed in the heart of the sea.

The lengthiest and most compelling nature poetry in Scripture is found in the Book of Job, uttered by God’s own voice “out of the whirlwind”—that is, through the blast of a tornado:

Does the hawk take flight by your wisdom
and spread his wings toward the south?

Does the eagle soar at your command
and build his nest on high?

He dwells on a cliff and stays there at night;
a rocky crag is his stronghold.

From there he seeks out his food;
his eyes detect it from afar.

His young ones feast on blood,
and where the slain are, there is he. …(39:26-30)

Can you pull in the leviathan with a fishhook
or tie down his tongue with a rope?…

His snorting throws out flashes of light;
his eyes are like the rays of dawn.

Firebrands stream from his mouth;
sparks of fire shoot out.

Smoke pours from his nostrils
as from a boiling pot over a fire of reeds.

His breath sets coals ablaze,
and flames dart from his mouth. …

He makes the depths churn like a boiling caldron
and stirs up the sea like a pot of ointment.

Behind him he leaves a glistening wake;
one would think the deep had white hair. (41:1-2,8-10, 19-21, 31-32)

The intent of these roaring descriptions of wild nature is to terrorize—to induce fright and awe in human beings confronted by a power they can neither challenge nor grasp.

Proclaimed by God simultaneously in Scripture and in Nature, this utterance overwhelms Job after his lengthy, righteous complaint that he has been unfairly treated. He is silenced, humbled and blessed by the direct experience of that which is beyond both moral and intellectual comprehension.

Surely I spoke of things I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me to know. …
My ears had heard of you
but now my eyes have seen you.
Therefore I despise myself
and repent in dust and ashes. (42:3, 5-6)

In one of his Songs of Experience, (1794) William Blake voices what he called a “Contrary State of the Soul” to that of Innocence, echoing Nature and Scripture in the Book of Job:

Tyger! Tyger! burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Could frame thy fearful symmetry?

In what distant deeps or skies
Burnt the fire of thine eyes?
On what wings dare he aspire?
What the hand dare sieze the fire?

And what shoulder, & what art.
Could twist the sinews of thy heart?
And when thy heart began to beat,
What dread hand? & what dread feet?

When the stars threw down their spears,
And watered heaven with their tears,
Did he smile his work to see?
Did he who made the Lamb make thee?

These questions about the sublime ferocity of Nature and the inexplicable purposes of Nature’s creator, like those posed to Job, are left unanswered.

The Bible’s evocation of destruction and death influence later writers. Shakespeare portrays King Lear and Duke Senior as abused and vulnerable elders discovering who they really are while exposed to the “churlish chiding of the Winter’s wind.”  John Muir encounters the Divine presence during a windstorm in the forest.

A great contemporary nature poet, Mary Oliver, writes a song of Experience, “The Hawk,” witnessing the terrible beauty of a predator’s strike:

This morning
the hawk
rose up
out of the meadow’s browse

and swung over the lake—
it settled
on the small black dome
of a dead pine,

alert as an admiral,
its profile
distinguished with sideburns
the color of smoke,

and I said: remember
this is not something
of the red fire, this is
heaven’s fistful

of death and destruction,
and the hawk hooked
one exquisite foot
onto a last twig

to look deeper
into the yellow reeds
along the edges of the water
and I said: remember

the tree, the cave
the white lily of resurrection
and that’s when it simply lifted
its golden feet and floated

into the wind, belly-first,
and then it cruised along the lake—
all the time its eyes fastened
harder than love on some

unimportant rustling in the
yellow reeds—and then it
seemed to crouch high in the air, and then it
turned into a white blade, which fell.

The hawk’s murderous gaze is “harder than love.” It loftily ignores the “white lily of resurrection.”

Conclusion

I’d like to conclude with another poem by Mary Oliver, a pastoral of Innocence that recalls Psalm 19, with which I began. Like the creator of Genesis, the poet uses the resources of language–specifically diction, metaphor and sound—to make a world out of words.

Have you ever seen
anything
in your life
more wonderful

than the way the sun,
every evening,
relaxed and easy,
floats toward the horizon

and into the clouds or the hills,
or the rumpled sea,
and is gone—
and how it slides again

out of the blackness
every morning,
on the other side of the world,
like a red flower

streaming upward on its heavenly oils,
say on a morning in early summer,
at its perfect imperial distance—
and have you ever felt for anything

such wild love—
do you think there is anywhere, in any language,
a word billowing enough
for the pleasure

that fills you,
as the sun
reaches out,
as it warms you

as you stand there,
empty-handed—

Is there a word “billowing enough,” she asks, to capture the feeling of being warmed by the rising sun. It’s her poet’s crafting of the very word, “billowing,” that answers the question, “yes.” With the words of the Book of Scripture, she reads–and writes–the Book of Nature.

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