This is part two of a two-part essay. Yesterday I wrapped up part one by saying that nature and the city are at spiritual cross-purposes.
I’m thinking about the doctrine of general revelation. General revelation is the way in which God speaks through natural means to tell us of his existence. General revelation gives birth to wonder, to the search for God. As an indirect and incomplete knowledge of God, it is inadequate to satisfy, but in part, that’s the point — it’s the spark to yearn for more of God. The idea is that general revelation through the wonders of creation alerts us to the fact that God exists, but doesn’t give us enough revelation to find him, only to spark our search for him.
Henry David Thoreau spent two years, two months, and two days living in a simple cabin on the shore of Walden Pond. His account of the experience was first published in 1854 as Walden, or, Life in the Woods. I’ve recently considered Walden, and felt that same yearning arise in my soul. I acquired a nice leatherbound copy, and when I hold it in my hands, the feeling returns, inevitably. A fine copy of Walden might cost today about the same as Thoreau paid to build his cabin — or more, in leather. (Not the copies Thoreau himself saw, of course… those first editions might bring up to $40,000 depending on condition.) Driven to the woods, he wrote of the longing for simplicity, to remove the wearying busyness of life.
For the first week, whenever I looked out on the pond it impressed me like a tarn high up on the side of a mountain, its bottom far above the surface of other lakes, and, as the sun arose, I saw it throwing off its nightly clothing of mist, and here and there, by degrees, its soft ripples or its smooth reflecting surface was revealed, while the mists, like ghosts, were stealthily withdrawing in every direction into the woods, as at the breaking up of some nocturnal conventicle. The very dew seemed to hang upon the trees later into the day than usual, as on the sides of mountains.
I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived. I did not wish to live what was not life, living is so dear; nor did I wish to practice resignation, unless it was quite necessary. I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life, to live so sturdily and Spartanlike as to put to rout all that was not life, to cut a broad swath and shave close, to drive life into a corner, and reduce it to its lowest terms, and, if it proved to be mean, why then to get the whole and genuine meanness of it, and publish its meanness to the world; or if it were sublime, to know it by experience, and to be able to give a true account of it in my next excursion. For most men, it appears to me, are in a strange uncertainty about it, whether it is of the devil or of God, and have somewhat hastily concluded that it is the chief end of man here to “glorify God and enjoy him forever.”
Still we live meanly, like ants, though the fable tells us that we were long ago changed into men; like pygmies we fight with cranes; it is error upon error, and clout upon clout, and our best virtue has for its occasion a superfluous and evitable wretchedness. Our life is frittered away by detail. An honest man has hardly need to count more than his ten fingers, or in extreme cases he may add his ten toes, and lump the rest. Simplicity, simplicity, simplicity! I say, let your affairs be as two or three, and not a hundred or a thousand, instead of a million count half a dozen, and keep your accounts on your thumbnail. In the midst of this chopping sea of civilized life, such are the cloud and storms and quicksands and thousand and one items to be allowed for, that a man has to live, if he would not founder and go to the bottom and not make his port at all, by dead reckoning, and he must be a great calculator indeed who succeeds. Simplify, simplify. Instead of three meals a day, if it be necessary eat but one; instead of a hundred dishes, five; and reduce other things in proportion.
Why should we live with such hurry and waste of life? We are determined to be starved before we are hungry. Men say that a stitch in time saves nine, and so they take a thousand stitches today to save nine tomorrow. As for work, we haven’t any of any consequence.
He quotes from the Westminster Confession, and some may be uneasy about the presumption… but this is the essential fact, that people do not experience or determine even their faith for themselves, merely taking instead the word of another in their haste to be about the remainder of their busyness. The city makes us busy, nature makes us still. You should call a well-known verse to your mind… it is this stillness that helps us know God. Go on, read the whole psalm and see how the psalmist speaks of natural wonders in contrast to the crumbling of the kingdoms of men… and then he says, “be still.”
Our lives today — even, for many, lives in the country — are surrounded by the accomplishments of man. From paved highways and skyscrapers to satellite dishes to high-speed Internet to microwave ovens to gasoline-powered automobiles to disposable diapers to filtered and bottled water. The list should give us pause. We begin by occluding nature, then corrupting it, and finally by having to counterfeit it, filtering and replacing it with some fabricated substitute. I take my kids to the planetarium. Some days when I write, I put a favorite CD on to replicate the sounds of nature. It doesn’t fool me, but it does help, a little. The call of the loon goes straight and deep into my heart, telling me I’m not in a place that surrounds me with the handiwork of God. Not where I’m supposed to be. Words return to me in the King James version that I learned, but the updated form begins like this:
The heavens proclaim the glory of God.
The skies display his craftsmanship.
Day after day they continue to speak;
night after night they make him known.
They speak without a sound or word;
their voice is never heard.
Yet their message has gone throughout the earth,
and their words to all the world.
The heavens proclaim… and I remember standing with friends on a beach, looking out across a lake and taking in the astuounding display of aurora borealis, dancing and changing color and sweeping the sky more broadly than any of us could ever recall having seen before. This passage is the gem of the doctrine of general revelation, and when we behold, not merely seeing, but beholding the sky, we know. But more and more we learn that Joni Mitchell was right: we don’t know what we’ve got ’till it’s gone. And little did we realize that in stamping out nature, we were stamping out God, diffusing the inner longing to find him. We try to give “nature” its place in the city, calling it “greenspace” and marking of a special area where nature is “allowed” to dwell. I ate lunch not but three days ago, looking out the window at one such space, with a manufactured brick wall bounding the area alongside a pathway of interlocking brick. This is not nature. This is our version of some wisp of its former glory, contained for our convenience like some freshly-shorn Samson… whose hair, we forget, still grows. It cannot be subdued, and demands more respect than we pay.
Oh, some are perhaps nervous again… am I going to go off on some pantheistic “mother-nature” druidic new-age heretical view of God in nature? No. But the perfectly sound doctrine of general revelation tells us that nature points to God. Some quarters of the extreme evangelical/fundamentalist right will tell you that all this environmental stuff is “crap,” that it’s a conspiracy to get people to worship the creation instead of the creator. But though they deny any place for creation in God’s redemptive plan, how can they justify the smugly unconcerned stamping out of God’s fingerprints in his creation — the fingerprints that are designed to point us in his direction? A claim is made to respect the revelation of his word… but what of the revelation of his work? They would justify the paving of paradise to put up a parking lot — provided, perhaps, that it’s the parking lot for a megachurch.
So here I begin to wonder… about the single idea that this essay has intended to take out for a walk. Does surrounding ourselves with the achievements of man slowly drown out the voice of God speaking to us through general revelation, calling to us and inviting us into further revelation of himself? I think perhaps it does. Ever before us are our own achievements… and when they fail, oddly enough, it is God we doubt, and not our own efforts. But we continue to erect and behold our own grandeur, or delusions thereof… and magnify ourselves through beholing our works rather than God through beholding his. This of itself is high testimony to the arrogance of man… it is, perhaps, the Tower of Babel that we continue to build. Like the ancients, we have surveyed our own Plains of Shinar and found them lacking, in our estimation. We find they need a city, a tower to the sky. Our efforts to build it are frustrated by many things… at the root of which is the urge to look at what we create rather than what God creates. The two stand in competition, and while I’m not advocating another go at neo-luddism, I am suggesting that perhaps God has put in us a craving to be surrounded by his fingerprints, which ever draw us to him. To this craving we must be attentive, and must nourish it in what fashion we can, wherever we find ourselves. It isn’t easy to look past the din of the city to find God, but it is imperative we make the effort, for in so doing we meet God halfway, as it were, and a spark is ignited to draw us into deeper knowlege, even relationship with him. We must preserve this state of wonder, for wonder alerts us to our thirst, and draws us to God to be refreshed. The loss of wonder is fatal to the soul.
Thank you. I don’t really have anything to add or ask, but this and the last post are so true, and you put things very well.
At night, I definitely chafe a bit under the eerie urban glow, but love the few times I can look at the stars.
mmmm…not sure I agree Brother. How would a comment like ‘city makes us busy, nature makes us still’ sound to the ears of someone who has to wrestle a subsistence living from the ground in the face of drought, storm, insect, etc., where nature must be overcome before the family can survive. Is not this view of nature a Western/North American/European idea? What Bob Ekblad calls ‘the Gore-Tex Theology of the North (hemisphere) which is unaffordable to the poor.
Graham Ward talks about city living having eschatological significance; that city living is essential to our discipleship becasue it is there where we learn how to live as citizens of the New City.
Just wondering. But thanks for making me think.
Thanks for your thoughts here — love the Ekblad quote. The contrast of subsistence farming is a good one, obviously not a context I’m addressing here. Farming in the Western world is a different affair than what you describe, despite its ill fortune in the past few decades, so those farms around “us” still fall within the observations I’m making, as I suggested. On the other hand, the toil of the subsistence farmer wrestling with nature….
Thinking of the ancient agrarian societies, there was a pantheon associated with bringing the right weather and growing conditions for the farm, so for them I think the wrestling with nature probably still pushed them to look to spiritual realms. But that was the ancients. Today, I think a subsistence farmer would still find our cities noisy, busy, crowded, and stifling. Simplicity doesn’t mean easy or profitable work, but work that is simple, straightforward. The movement for many from the farm to the city is born of a desire for a better life as defined by increased opportunity or simply more stuff, or even the more reliable delivery of the same “stuff” via the regular paycheque. Many of these will long for the inner quiet they’ve lost, even though their fortunes may have improved significantly.
I’m not familiar with Graham Ward, but I would agree that the city has eschatalogical and spiritual significance… though I don’t think I’d go so far as to say it’s “essential” to our discipleship. The metaphor of city to speak of the Heavenly kingdom holds, but whatever it looks like, I don’t think it will be so void of the handiwork of God as what we see daily. I don’t think this adjusts my thesis too much, but thanks for pressing me to think through this additional context… I’ll continue to mull it over.
Good afternoon Brother Maynard, from a gloriously sunny early autumn Belfast, in Northern Ireland. From where I sit I can look out the window over the cranes that mark the shipyard where the Titanic was built. Stretching from below my window are rows and rows of terraced houses that once sheltered the workers that fuelled the engine of the industrial revolution. In the mid distance are the low hills that ring the city, Cave Hill, the Holywood Hills and the Castlereagh Hills. To my left I can see the shiny new spire atop the Cathedral, and the cranes that are midwives to the new life that is emerging in this city after 40 years of conflict. The city looks beautiful today.
I’m intrigued by the fact that though our biblical story begins in a garden from which we are ejected, the trajectory thereafter takes us to a city. The imagery of that new city seems to point to the garden being encapsulated within it. Maybe if christians were more involved in all aspects of city life, including its architecture and living spaces, and more able to celebrate its good, (as well as condemn its darkness), maybe then the city would point more effectively to the city of God.
Urban spirituality is different; I have to learn how to discern God in it’s streets.
Sorry for hogging the conversation, but I love cities, and I think they get bad press from christians (not that I’m suggesting you are dissing them!)
Good afternoon, Glenn, from a similarly sunny autumn day smack in the middle of Canada — I’ve got to get myself over to your neck of the woods one day and have myself a proper pint, on location.
I think you’ve captured something that can be said about old cities that the younger cities just don’t have… that sense of history that reaches back hundreds of years or more, in a place that is old enough to have a character of its own… and is somehow the warmer for it. You’re right, I’m not trying to dis’ the city entirely, though it’s causing me some issues. ;^)
I think you’re right to point to the story arc in scripture where we start in a garden and end in a city… though the city in the end features a river, and a tree at the center… being built around it rather than on top of it. Importantly, this city is endowed with the presence of God in its streets in a way that we haven’t understood since we left the garden. As such, the pointing of creation to creator is less of an issue in that city… but significantly, it exists mainly as an outflowing of community — it’s there because all of its citizens want to be with God, camped around that tree… and I think perhaps not so much because the city is inherently the “chosen model,” merely that it’s functional.
When we build the city instead of God, we end up with a city dedicated to business, to work, and to our own achievement. Perhaps it’s never been phrased better than in the lyrics of Bruce Cockburn: “Let’s have a laugh for the man of the world, who thinks he can make things work; he tried to build a New Jerusalem, and ended up with New York.”
I’m enjoying the conversation.