Posted on Aug 27, 2011 by Tom Gilson
Several years ago my wife and I were hiking in the Anaheim Hills when we heard a drumbeat ahead of us. Our first thought was of a Boy Scout troop, but it turned out instead to be a pagan circle chanting their praises to earth, air, fire, and water. I can’t help thinking about that this week. We’re feeling the approach of Hurricane Irene this morning. It will be my second experience with a serious hurricane, but it’s the first one that has come the same week as a nearby earthquake and a swamp fire that’s been burning for weeks, smoking up the air as far as a hundred miles away. We’re got all four troubling us: earth, air, fire, and water. (Or Earth, Wind, and Fire, as some friends with musical tastes similar to mine have put it.)
We live in a natural world. It’s ironic that one effect of our studying nature has been to distance ourselves from it. I don’t mean separating ourselves from its charms and beauties. Our family paddled canoes nine miles down the Little Miami River a couple weeks ago, and it was as beautiful and refreshing as it could be, especially when I saw a bald eagle swooping down into the trees by the river. What I mean is that the more we’ve learned about the natural world, the more we’ve built an artificial and controlled one.”It’s terribly hot in here, honey, would you please turn down the AC a degree?”
Sometimes nature intrudes upon us anyway, though, and when it does, it’s very impressive. It’s more than a pun to say that the earthquake rattled people near here (not so bad at our house, but a friend of ours had a chimney fall over onto the roof). Our winds are only in the 20-35 mph range at the moment, but we’ve tied everything down, expecting gusts up to 65 mph tonight. (We’re praying that will turn out to be some breathless forecaster’s over-hyped scenario.) We’re outside the flood zone, but many of our friends’ homes will certainly be inundated tonight. We’re making quick-evacuation plans laid in the unlikely event a tree falls on our house. We have drinking water set aside and camping gear prepared to get us through several days without electricity. We expect we’ll be living in something a little more like nature for a while, because nature is forcing itself upon us.
It gives just hint of former days, when the summer temperature was whatever it was, when tomorrow’s weather was little more than a guess, when earthquakes were even more mysterious than they are now, when health or disease seemed just capricious—and when the stars were absolutely glorious every cloudless night, and cool breezes were a delight to savor, and we had a sense of place in the natural world. If I use my imagination this morning, with the wind whistling around the house, I can almost appreciate the human urge to deify earth, air, fire, and water.
I suspect this is one reason atheism seems more credible than it used to be. I don’t think for a moment that science supports atheism. Rather, technology has provided us more psychological room for atheism. The more we think the world is ours to manage, the less we’re going to turn to God or to gods. Science and technology have brought us into our wood, steel, brick and glass cocoons, and shut the deities outside.
I said I could almost appreciate the urge to deify nature. Skeptics will often tell you that monotheism evolved out of nature religion or other primitive forms of polytheism. I seriously doubt it. When it first sprang up in the Hebrew tradition, it sprang up whole, in remarkably advanced form. Plato and Aristotle reasoned from first principles to something vaguely resembling one God, but the Hebrews beat them to it by centuries. They ascribed personality to their God, including holiness and love. This is not what springs immediately to mind when I look out the window this morning.
There are philosophical arguments for a personal God—William Lane Craig draws that conclusion at the end of his Kalam argument—but there are few such arguments, if any, for a just and loving God. It’s really hard to imagine the ancients working out even the Kalam in their tents, in the constant forceful presence of nature. They saw what the world was like. They didn’t need anyone to tell them it wasn’t always good, and that it didn’t always make sense; yet some of them concluded anyway that it was the work of a good and rational God.
Is there something strange about Jews and Christians believing in miracles? Isn’t monotheism itself a miracle? The very belief in one God is evidence of one God.
Today God calls me to worship him, as the psalmist worshiped him in Psalm 46.
God, I don’t understand all that I know about you, but I give you praise. Thank you for your massive power, your deep justice, and your unconquerable love. Thank you for a day to experience you in a new way today. Please grant your protection and safety to all of us who are facing this wind and rain.
[Update August 28: How we fared]