Blogs (Faith), Life-Ecstatic (Faith)

Nature, Joy and Where Atheists Get it

In my last post, Where Surfing Gets It, I spoke about how a lot of surfers seem to understand something about living – connecting with the real world, the world of nature – the world of beauty, power, majesty, humility, and wildness (that’s a new embellishment for this post). I included love and relationships in my definition of the real world and contrasted this with what is often called the ‘real’ world but is actually the man-made world – the world of careers, ambitions, politics and so forth. You’ll need to read the post if you have no idea what I’m talking about.

You will notice that love, relationships and beauty don’t really feature in the ‘real’ world. You don’t talk about relational love when it comes to politics, careers, etc.

I’m always on a quest to connect with this real (natural) world because this is where I actually live. What I mean by ‘connect’ is to enjoy it both intellectually and viscerally. I’m looking to connect with it in some deep, dare I say spiritual way.

Whoa, hold on. Is this some New Age pantheist blog where we talk of ‘becoming one’ with the planet and all that? No. I don’t mean becoming one with the planet. What I mean is enjoying, marveling at, taking care of and savouring nature. I mean relating to it in a healthy way. A part of this savouring and enjoying is all about mystery. It’s the mystery of living and this world that intrigues me. It’s that mystery that I believe has something to do with God.

Before I delve into that, however, I want to state a case for loving this world. I’ll state it from both a philosophical and theological perspective.

Theologically, when I say ‘love this world’ I don’t mean the kind of world the Bible has in mind in 1 John 2:15, where it says: “Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

The ‘world’ there is the ‘real’ world above – the world of power plays and politics and manipulation etc. Man’s world, essentially, the world of injustice.

Romans 1 in the Bible tells us that God’s attributes are seen in nature. There’s an encouragement to use nature as a way of knowing God. My problem is that, interestingly, too few Christians really do this. In fact, atheists are often better at appreciating natural beauty than Christians, because too many Christians want to live in a different world rather than the world they’re actually in. I find this kind of approach sad, incredibly joyless, and, in fact, highly unscriptural.

I also find it leads to unhealthy fundamentalism. While we are ‘aliens in this world’ (1 Peter 2:11) that refers to being an alien and stranger in the world of man. We’re so alien, in fact, that we aim to belong to the created world in a bigger way than the world of man, which longs to manipulate and bend in every way. This is a large concept but I think I’ve stated my basic case. We aim to be down-to-earth while the world of man is constantly trying to aim for heaven. The tower of Babel in the book of Genesis serves as one example of how man longs to be God rather than man, in addition to the whole story of The Fall.

In contrast, healthy Christian theology has always taught that man is man and that man will find great joy once man lives as man and stops trying to live as God. From experience, I find this to be true, but its a pity we don’t realise that man lives in a natural world because God put him there. We ought to love the world God put us in because, well, it’s our world and God made it for us to enjoy. I believe that being comfortable about being a human is part of what leads to contentment and joy.

Nature is deep, mysterious and organic. This means it doesn’t function as a machine, although it does function in an ordered way. But the order is complex and often highly unpredictable. A surfer understands something of the waves and the sea at his favourite surf spot, but at the same time he knows that the sea is unpredictable. In fact, this unpredictability is exactly a part of what makes surfing so enjoyable.

Philosophically, atheists seem to get this idea of beauty. Well, not all of them, but a great deal of the naturalist kind do. I yearn to hear pastors and preachers and Christian writers talk about beauty and the wonder of nature like many atheists do. I have a lot of respect for atheists who know how to love and enjoy the world we’re in.

Check out this video as an example:

This is where mainstream Christianity can learn something from atheism – a proper respect and wonder for the world we live in.

Of course, my belief is that the “Romance” in the mystery of the world points us to God. Atheists won’t agree, I understand, but that’s where discussions around mysticism vs skepticism as worldviews come in.

Another time for that. What I’m talking about here, however, is not nature-worship (I say this for the sake of Christian fundamentalists who will read this blog) but rather a being in awe of a nature in a way that helps us be in awe of the creator. We need to relate to nature in a healthy way. So much so that I think this worship of God through nature, using the art we’re presented with to look in awe at the artist, as it were, is integral to finding joy and contentment. It’s part of how God invites us to enter into His very own joy of his own handiwork.

What does nature tell us about God? Many things. One is a wildness. God is often wild and unpredictable. True beauty often is. Two is relational. The Universe is a relational universe. But this is all for another post.

Blogs (Faith), Life-Ecstatic (Faith)

Where Surfing Gets It

I’ve only tried surfing once and, being such a bad swimmer (and it being a pretty miserable and cold day in East London) I didn’t get very far. Still, the whole culture around surfing and the idea itself has always intrigued me. It does for a lot of people. This weekend I rented a documentary on big wave surfing and a lot of what the surfers said really spoke to me in ways I didn’t expect. Or maybe I did. I don’t know. But I realised something about surfing and life and my own philosophical rantings.

My own philosophy and my theological meanderings always seem to focus around the same core things. At the end of the day I want to feel as if I’m really alive in this world – that each moment is real, that life is real. I want to connect with the real, know truly that I am alive and experience life pumping through my veins.

Matt Warshaw, a surfer, said this: “Surfing expresses … a pure yearning for visceral, physical contact with the natural world.”

This is why I think surfing gets it. When a surfer goes out there he connects with the real – he rides a wave of beauty, power and majesty. He gets a thrill out of doing so. He wants to come back and do it again. He’s connecting with the real world – the beautiful, good and ultimately thrilling world we’re surrounded with. The world that God made and called good in Genesis 1.

There are two worlds. The real world and the ‘real’ world. Many people will look at surfers and say they must come back to the ‘real’ world. What they mean is the man-made world. Careers, power, politics, money, image and so forth. Meanwhile the real world isn’t all that at all – it’s the air you breathe, the feeling of the sand in your toes, your newborn son’s cries, your lover’s touch, the power of a wave beneath you. This is the real world, the world as God created it, the world He enjoys and we can actually enjoy. We’re supposed to enjoy it, not destroy it or hate it and pray that God will one day take us out of it into some ethereal plain made of clouds.

God created life to be about the real – beauty, glory, relationship. While surfing is a notoriously selfish sport in some ways I think the connection with nature is vital. I’m not some pseudo new-ager in disguise, but I find that God in the Scriptures is decidedly down-to-earth. He likes what He made. So much so that He is renewing it, not destroying it, and when he will make a new earth (Rev 21:1) it’s still an earth. He likes the earth and the universe, I suspect.

I find new-age philosophy doesn’t get this. It’s so busy trying to show how humankind is divine that it is unable to connect us with what truly is divine. It sure tries, it sure says it wants to, but it fails.

I wish pop-theology and pop-christian-philosophy would get this. We’re so surrounded by imagery and ideas that are not down-to-earth but weird and super-spiritual and incredibly difficult to live under. Too much of Christian thinking lives in the ‘real’ world, with its politics and power and grand Babylonian-tower ideals and philosophies around how to do everything rather than in the real world, with its beauty, simplicity, dirt and, well, love. Most of the real world is quite mysterious – here formulas don’t work.

That’s why Jesus spoke in parables that relate to the real world – birds and flowers and so forth. I mean, he did for other reasons as well, but I think this might be one. It’s a great pity that contemporary Christianity doesn’t live in the waves with the mystery and beauty one finds there (if you get my metaphor) but rather lives in a concrete, man-made, neat-on-the-outside-but-rotting-on-the-inside jungle of ideas. You can have clean teeth but clean teeth don’t make you clean. It’s what inside that makes you clean (Matt 15:11).

In my blog and writing I’m ultimately trying to draw people away from the ‘real’ world and to the real world. Ultimately to God where the Joy and Connectedness we’re looking for is found (I do believe a big part of this drawing is through nature, which is worth discussing in my next post.) But sometimes even I get sucked into the ‘real’ world where I need to worry about my career and my influence and my ambitions and too many things to count. Some are valid, like investing for my kids’ future; some are truly time-wasting, because they don’t connect me to the real, like scouring the Internet trying to increase my profile as a writer.

What to do, I ask? Well, I’m digressing. Let’s look at what’s more important. In my next post I’ll continue to build the idea of connecting to God through nature and in this I think surfing gets it too. Some surfers or ordinary people probably think I’m being crazy or weird about this, but you’ll see what I mean in the next post.