But suddenly mind overwhelmed by sense
You hear eternity in present tense—
The tree toads singing in the shallow pond,
Singing and dreaming of tall trees beyond.
—Robert Hillyer, “Hylidae”
Ecology is becoming increasingly dear to me as a subject. Nature formed a crucial lens in my complete re-reading of Paul’s letters last July, and led me to express dissatisfaction with Paul’s assumption that the natural decay of the world was directly related to moral decay, so much so that to Paul it invited cosmic war. This world is corrupt, so the standard Christian story goes, and even a radical reading of Paul retained that perspective. I just don’t buy into that.
In what sense is human morality to be associated with the natural processes of decay and destruction? New life comes from old life, as Paul also says, but we don’t have to agree with him that the old life was evil.
I found out not too long ago that Mary Evelyn Tucker of the Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology will be headlining Westar Institute’s Spring 2015 national meeting in Santa Rosa, California. Tucker was kind enough to send me a copy of her little book of meditations called Journey of the Universe, coauthored with Brian Thomas Swimme. Most of the meditations are only a page or two long, on topics that straddle the scientific and spiritual, such as the birth of stars, nuclei and bonding, timing and creativity. Tucker and Swimme observe that from the very beginning, destruction goes hand in hand with creativity in the universe, and that of course this finds expression in human lives as well:
There is a deep ambiguity threaded throughout [human bonds] that may result not simply in communion but also in collapse. But isn’t this also the nature of the universe—both dangerous and inviting? How do we discover ourselves in forces that are simultaneously fearful and attractive? How do we live amidst shimmering disequilibrium? One thing seems certain: the universe, navigating between extremes, presses ever further into creative intensities. (31–32)
The language of intent and desire threads through these meditations, and it left me worrying and wondering. Can the universe be said to intend or desire anything? I suppose we can say “yes,” on the grounds that we human beings, who are tiny bits of universe, certainly feel both intent and desire, as do many other living things around us. Would I be arrogant if I suggest we are just anthropomorphizing the universe when we use the language of intent? After all, we inherited all we are from the universe, and not the other way around, so it may be equally fair to argue that we inherited desire from our mother element. At the very least, I’d rather say that there is no grand Intender (“God”), only that intent is more like a wave of water, local and dispersible. Tucker and Swimme seem to agree, in that they describe this desire as “preconscious,” implying that it does not belong to a single, knowing entity.
This is important to me because morality turns on intention and desire, which together invite or demand obligation. “Did you mean to hurt me, or was it just an accident? What sort of society do you want or hope for? What should we do about it?” We can’t exit the universe’s cycle of decay, destruction, and creation—we know that now. Tucker and Swimme are simply observing that desire is a “mover” of that cycle, and as such it drives us to assign value to only the very smallest slivers of the universe, on a scale we can comprehend. For instance, after describing the courtship behaviors of a male bowerbird, spider, and peacock, they write:
What is true of each of these males? Why does he throw himself into such activity, all of it costly and some of it life-threatening?
He is seeking to convey his deepest truth—that he finds her valuable. Life has shaped his mind in a particular fashion. He cannot see all the value in the universe, but he can see hers, and it might as well be infinite, for nothing matters in comparison. His great passion is to organize his life around the work of wooing her, of impressing her, of changing himself in whatever way he can so that she will look at him in admiration and will utter in her own wordless way the longed for magic contained in that one word, “Yes.” (74)
How lovely especially here is the observation that we cannot observe all value in the universe, but that we reach instead for our own muse to that fuller context in our smaller, passing world. The whole may only be touched through a precious single instance of value. To live means in some way to give oneself (up) to a value.
Here the moral dimension becomes more apparent to me. If desire and bringing forth of value themselves constitute life, then morality is defined as the pattern by which it is achieved. Morality isn’t about cleansing or purging the corrupt world but rather about drawing value from the rich matter of the world. And it’s not a single ultimate value, such as God, but some value that drives morality. It’s also not any arbitrary value but a particular value that belongs to a greater constellation of values, what philosophers for many generations have called the Good. I find it incredibly moving that Tucker and Swinne suggest that a particular value is not something abstract, like honesty, but rather an individual life, a beloved. We don’t invent value, we discover it naturally from what exists, even if only in hints, hopes and yes, instincts.
This makes morality sound like an elaborate expression of survival of the fittest (I’m sure I’m not the first person to suggest as much). But I think it goes deeper than that. Consider: All living things are capable of perceiving value in the universe, unique to its own context but at the same time not arbitrary because it emerges from a greater whole. Sure, living things often seem to operate out of instinct more than anything else, usually to produce offspring, but obligation at some point can become love. At Stow-on-the-Wold in Gloucestershire there’s a famous church door held up not by stone pillars but by a pair of living Yew trees. Love is like that, a sort of happenstance that becomes structurally necessary. It was fated to take that form only in the sense that its form was possible in the material of the place.
What I’m trying to say is that “should,” the voice of morality, retains a degree of freedom when it both emerges from and upholds a value that matters deeply to you and to me. We all have varying degrees of that freedom in the sense of which values we may perceive, from the simplistic reproductive urge of a single-celled organism to the longings that produced Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata. Nevertheless, morality becomes a means of expressing what is personal about the deep and abiding patterns of the natural universe.
- Westar Spring 2016 national meeting
- Yale Forum on Religion and Ecology
- Journey of the Universe (book)
- Church of St. Edward, Stow-on-the-Wold, England
Cassandra Farrin joined Westar in 2010 and currently serves as the Marketing & Outreach Director. A US-UK Fulbright Scholar, she has an M.A. in Religious Studies from Lancaster University (England) and a B.A. in Religious Studies from Willamette University. She is passionate about books and projects that in some way address the intersection of ethics and early Christian history.