The scientist who recognizes God knows only the God of Newton. To him the God imagined by Laplace and Comte is wholly inadequate. He feels that God is in nature, that the orderly ways in which nature works are themselves the manifestations of God's will and purpose. Its laws are his orderly way of working.
The principle thing I stand for is, I suppose, not a "return to nature," which is a phrase capable of a quite childish interpretation, but the return to a poetic relation to nature. Man is out of relation to his background…When man is in a poetic relation to his background, he achieves a religious sense of life, and this is the sense that makes him Man.
[These plants] are here to remind me that mystery is everywhere. The windowsill is an altar, a Holy of Holies. Here is the gift of transubstantiation: dirt, water, air and sun into succulence. The earth teems and roils. On the window sill that old magician -- life -- has some green silks up his sleeve.
The passage shows how different aspects of virtue connect. Patience is part intellectual virtue, part moral virtue and part physical virtue, as it is portrayed here. The humility which allows Leopold to lie down in the muck unselfconsciously is a moral virtue, but humble recognition of our own ignorance is also a key intellectual virtue, as Socrates so often reminds us (see also William Beebe’s description of the ideal naturalist quoted earlier). Humility also makes possible Leopold’s aesthetic appreciation of the grace of the yellow-leg, and in his recognition of the beauty of the yellow-leg’s natural “poetry,” we see the genesis of his recognition of its intrinsic value. The passage also shows that virtues can be put to diverse and complementary uses. The patience and persistence needed to explore the marsh are also needed to write a compelling account of the experience for his readers. Many revisions were made to this narrative which reads so effortlessly, just as many trips to the marsh were necessary for Leopold to see the grebes so closely and to appreciate all the rest of what he saw. Presumably patience and persistence were also needed to teach his classes at the university, raise his children, wrangle with politicians and bureaucrats, and do the many other things that Leopold did so well during the course of his life.
Some images of the molecules of life, as they are displayed on the color computer screen, resemble the gorgeous stained-glass windows and soaring architectural members of the Gothic cathedrals. A cross-section of the B DNA double helix, for example, bears a likeness to the magnificent rose window at Chartres. The webbed vaulting of the clathrin protein and the flying buttresses of the sugar-phosphate side chains of the DNA evoke the same sense of architectural deja vu. No medieval architect could have raised more fitting structures. The medieval builders wanted the visible structures of the Gothic cathedral to reflect the invisible realities of the spirit world; the cathedral was conceived as an earthly image of the kingdom of God. Similarly, computer representations of the molecules of life are attempts to represent an unseen reality with visible images. And here, too, there is an almost mystical vision of a hidden harmony that has been established throughout the cosmos.
As we reached the tiny clump of trees festooned with butterflies as thick as jungle foliage, we Yanks buzzed about, snapping pics, taking notes, storing up impressions with which to later regale our friends back home. The Mexicans by and large sat silently in the forest, kids in laps, eyes somberly fixed on the massed monarchs. It was difficult to read their emotions, but 1 believe that many of the Mexican visitors to the Chincua Monarch Sanctuary were driven by the same urge that might have led them on another weekend to the Virgin's shrine at Guadalupe: a sense of the holy. And further. think that unless those of us with our Vibram soles and fanny packs can reclaim a sense of the holy, the monarchs will remain endangered. By holy, I refer to whatever it is in the ceaselessly spinning DNA and chemical machinery that causes a creeping caterpillar to rearrange its molecules into a winged angel, and sends that angel fluttering across a continent to a patch of fir trees in Mexico it has never seen before.
The philosopher William James said, "At bottom the whole concern of both morality and religion is with the manner of our acceptance of the universe." What I think I saw on the faces of the Mexican visitors to the Chincua Sanctuary was a dignified and unquestioning acceptance, an understanding that what they saw was natural and right and utterly essential to the completeness of creation. The poet E. E. Cummings wrote of acceptance "for everything which is natural which is infinite which is yes." Science and politics alone will not save the monarchs, any more than they will save other threatened species and habitats, any more than they wall save the monarch meadows and milkweed stands along my path. What is required is something that we have mostly lost in the high-tech, high-velocity, virtual world of the developed countries: a deeply felt, unintellectualized, instinctive "yes' sense that behind the gaudy delight of 20 million butterflies hanging on fir trees, there is a natural and infinite power that binds all life in a holy web.
The finest emotion of which we are capable is the mystic emotion. Herein lies the germ of all art and all true science. Anyone to whom this feeling is alien, who is no longer capable of wonderment and lives in a state of fear is a dead man. To know that what is impenatrable for us really exists and manifests itself as the highest wisdom and the most radiant beauty, whose gross forms alone are intelligible to our poor faculties – this knowledge, this feeling … that is the core of the true religious sentiment. In this sense, and in this sense alone, I rank myself amoung profoundly religious men.
In his Spiritual Exercises, the Greek novelist Nikos Kazantzakis writes:
We have seen the highest circle of spiraling powers. We have named this circle God. We might have given it any other name we wished: Abyss, Mystery, Absolute Darkness, Absolute Light, Matter, Spirit, Ultimate Hope, Ultimate Despair, Silence. But we have named it God because only this name, for primordial reasons, can stir the heart profoundly. And this deeply felt emotion is indispensable if we are to touch, body with body, the dread essence beyond logic.
I have often quoted this passage in my various writings because it seems to capture profoundly the Deus absconditus of the mystics, the thing seen through a glass darkly, the mysterium tremendum et fascinans of the theologian Rudolph Otto, the numinous flame that burns in every atom, every flower, every grain of sand, every star-the hidden thing behind nature's veil. Can Dawkins be right and Kazantzakis wrong? Is "God" the wrong word for the "dread essence beyond logic"? Give Dawkins this: the word is indeed almost irretrievably burdened with personhood. It is our golden calf, our idol.
Our response to the natural world is one of reverence and humility in the face of a mystery that transcends empirical knowing-now, certainly, and perhaps forever. "Agnostic" does not do justice to the celebratory aspect of our position. Nor does "pantheist" adequately express our sense of what nature hides. "Creation-based spirituality" has a respectable pedigree, although "creation" hints at an anthropomorphic Creator. "Religious naturalism" gets close to the mark.
The golden mean is the secret of tolerance, of modesty, of a healthy skepticism-of knowing that every dogmatic definition of God is a pale intimation of the truth and, inevitably it seems, an excuse for jihad, pogrom, or crusade.