The narrow world of public discourse in the United States has recently been consumed by the spectacle of Bruce Jenner purporting to turn himself into a woman. As with many of the onlookers in our culture, I found myself appalled by the spectacle. It wasn’t so much that the “transition” was an affront to my settled morality — one cannot live long in our world without growing accustomed to having one’s morality unsettled — it was rather that the narrative, illustrated in living color by Annie Leibovitz on the cover of Vanity Fair, represented man in open revolt against nature.
Human vitality requires contact with the primary realities of nature. I have written before of my walks in Dallas’s Trinity Forest, of how essential those walks are for my flourishing, and also of how I find in hunting and fishing an essential engagement with the natural forces that shelter and sustain my humanity.
Jose Ortega y Gasset said that, “Like the hunter in the absolute outside of the countryside, the philosopher is the alert man in the absolute inside of ideas, which are also an unconquerable and dangerous jungle.” The same may be said for the ascetic and the world of the spirit, only the spiritual reality is more real, the requisite attention more acute. “And what I say to you I say to all: Watch!” (Mark 13:37).
Creation is God’s first word to his creatures, what the learned have called the analogia entis. But nature is more than emblematic. Perhaps what rings most true to me in the discourse of Christianity is its reverential deference to the interwoven strands of matter and form — spirit, soul, and body — that comprise the fabric of reality at its most fundamental level. The world of nature is the primary “data” of reality, in the truest sense of that word’s Latin etymology: what is “given.” It is the first intimation of God’s “longsuffering to usward” (2 Peter 3:9). Indeed, that a pious heart should experience awe at the spectacle of the Incarnation of the eternal Word, and ultimately of the Cross itself, is a function of the unexpectedness of so replete an emanation from the divine economy. As W.H. Auden put it in his poem Friday’s Child:
He told us we were free to choose
But, children as we were, we thought—
“Paternal Love will only use
Force in the last resort
On those too bumptious to repent.”
Accustomed to religious dread,
It never crossed our minds He meant
Exactly what He said.
But the experience of this kind of awe is really only possible for those who cultivate a close attention to the data of nature. Gratitude (eucharistia) steps through the door of man’s deference to the truth. It was necessary for the children of Israel to come to terms with the facts of their slavery in Egypt in order for them to thank God sincerely for their deliverance.
It should therefore come as no surprise that the technophilia of our society should result in such moral confusion as we find in Bruce-Jenner kinds of phenomena. I recall sitting in a Chaucer lecture in college, and the professor, Robert Benson, asking who in the class had ever seen a live chicken. A significant minority of the students raised their hands and the professor beamed: “Oh good!” he said, “The light of civilization is not entirely extinguished!” Benson, now retired, recently published a book of essays entitled Wedding the Wild Particular (a phrase from a poem by Donald Davidson). In it he writes:
The general lack of natural literacy in an increasingly urban and technological society comes as no surprise, but ignorance of the natural world, of common animals and local plants, is not just a void, but is an ignorance full of half truths and howling errors. Rather than going to the woods and looking and trying to understand what is there, it is enough for some to imagine a natural world without big carnivores, a world in which clever and rapacious predators … can be embraced, figuratively and perhaps literally speaking, because they are cute. If the living reality is discomforting for any reason, change it.
Any number of responses to the “living reality” of nature may be appropriate. But a given response will only be appropriate if it is rooted in a deference to the reality itself. This past Spring the woods were filled with wild onion (Allium canadense). I collected and ate them gratefully. But this grateful eating was rooted in my deference to the reality of the onion itself, that it “is pleasant to the eye and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). It might puzzle the technophile that one can honor a wild onion by eating it or an animal by shooting it. But it is so.
Natural literacy has been ruled out in our society by the epidemic of introspection. Our gaze simply no longer falls on what God has made, and is therefore no longer lifted thence in gratitude to God himself. When I look out my window on what was once an endless expanse of tallgrass prairie, I see concrete and steel, bricks and mortar and plastic. Even what is “natural” within my horizon is alien: Chinese photinia, crepe myrtles from the Indian subcontinent, and everywhere Bermuda grass from the Mediterranean. The effort to understand nature has been displaced by a mad rush to dismantle it, releasing its innate energies, which are in turn recaptured and placed in the service of man — the principle underwriting the internal combustion engine and the nuclear bomb. One writer talks of how the nuclear bomb is like a perverse acorn, and the mushroom cloud a travesty of the oak tree, all sped up and writ large, a means of death instead of life.
Augustine wrote in the Confessions of how he interrogated nature to learn something of God.
I questioned the earth, and it said, “I am not He;” and all that is in it confessed the same. I questioned the sea and the depths, and the creeping things which have life, and they replied, “We are not your God, seek above us.” I questioned the blowing winds, and the whole air with its inhabitants replied “I am not God.” I questioned the heavens, the sun, moon, stars; “Neither are we God whom you seek,” they said. And I said to all those things which stand about the doors of my flesh, “You have told me of my God, that you are not He; tell me now something of him.” And they cried out with a loud voice, “He made us!” My question had come from my observation of them, and their reply came from their beauty of order.
Nature thus bears primordial witness to the sovereignty of God. But a reverential deference to nature, a supple heart, a willingness to be conformed to the data, to nature’s givenness, is a necessary condition for our attending to this witness. Robert Benson said:
The life of the mind makes clearest sense when directly connected to the primary world. I am not convinced that college students who don’t know a dove from a killdeer can read English poetry with understanding. Natural literacy is not optional.
Various touchstones of our culture’s technophilic introspection, from the Manhattan Project to Caitlyn Jenner, are beginning to make it clear that not only is our alienation from the data of nature imperiling the life of the mind, but it is a menace to life itself.
The featured image is of a bunch of wild onions (Allium canadense), and was supplied by the author.