Wednesday, July 09, 2014

God, or Nature: On the Varieties of Religious Experience in Arkansas, the Natural State

Baruch Spinoza had a way of talking about God that has frequently been misunderstood. He often wrote two words together as a pair, "God, or nature" (Deus siva Natura) as a way of naming God. He did so not to equate the two, but rather to indicate the surplus meaning available in the name God, which could include an understanding of God as nature, a dynamic nature that indicates how vital and alive immanence itself is.

Natural bridge over which we drove our ATVs
If Spinoza really believed that the words God and nature were equal, he could have written it (God = Nature), or simply replaced the name God with the name Nature. But he didn't. So we have, for the past few centuries, had to develop our philosophies and theologies, influenced by Spinoza, in ways that take account of the more complex way he unites the two terms. Nature in God. Nature as a subset of God. Or in the original way he wrote it, which I quite like: "God, or nature."

There is a popular way of expressing this: Some people like to say that they get out in a deer stand, or on a hike, or volunteer at the park, and that is their worship. They see or encounter God in natural settings, and so they prioritize spending their Sabbath time in natural places.

Although as a pastor I don't agree theologically with notions that equate Christian worship with spending time outdoors in the woods, I do sympathize with the general tendency. Ideally, Christian worship would be so evocative of the surplus of beauty and meaning in God's creation that worship would feel like nature... and concomitantly, I would hope as a Christian leader I can help equip those out on hikes with deepened sensibilities of how to experience (and think about the experience) of being in nature specifically as a Christian.

Last week our family spent a few days on vacation in The Natural State. We got in the car early Sunday morning and crossed the Boston Mountains towards Fort Smith. I had a few podcasts queued up for the drive, so I spent a portion of the drive listening to Krista Tippett interview Roseanne Cash for her show On Being. Roseanne Cash experiences God in music to such a degree that if she were to write like Spinoza, she would probably give God this name: "God, or music." It's a powerful interview, and I confess I totally teared up when John Leventhal kicked in with guitar backup before she sang "God Is in the Roses" live for the show:

children's message at St. Luke's
It reminded me of another NPR installment I had heard recently, about Nature-Deficit Disorder. I had been wondering, like many of us do, what it means for us to lose balance with nature as we spend increasing amount of time staring at devices, and inside buildings.

We had left Fayetteville early Sunday morning so we could attend worship at St. Luke's Lutheran Church in Forth Smith. Call me old school, but when I'm on vacation, I still want to go to church, and part of our travels always includes research into where we might attend. St. Luke's is our closest ELCA congregation to the south, and is kind of on the "frontier" for our kind of Lutherans in Arkansas. Head south from Fort Smith as a pastor, and you're like an old-time circuit rider, you have to go quite a ways into Texas before you find the next ELCA congregation.

We had a very warm welcome at St. Luke's 10:30 a.m. service. They provided busy bags for the kids, free brownies for us when we left, and the guest preacher offered a fun children's message for the kids. Some of the guys tried to conscript me for the church choir. It was a good way to start the trip.

From Fort Smith, after a brief drive down the affluent Free Ferry Street and some play at a local park, we continued our drive to Mount Magazine. There are a lot of fascinating sights along the way, including a family chapel in honor of a deceased mother, that included an extensive collection of bells. The chapel was beautifully appointed with pews, a small organ, and everything anyone would need for a small worship gathering in the mountains.

Family shrine with bells
On this part of the drive, I listened to Tripp Fuller interview  Greg Horton, a professor of religion in Oklahoma, on Homebrewed Christianity. He had some fascinating insights into the tensions between how religion is taught in religious studies departments, and how religion is practiced in the state of Oklahoma.

Our reason for the drive, however, was Mount Magazine State Park itself. We had heard great things about the lodge and hiking there. The mountain itself includes the highest point in any of the central southern and midwest states, higher than any point in Minnesota, Iowa, Wisconsin, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi, etc. Like many of the state park Arkansas lodges, it's a rustic destination with high quality facilities.

Over the course of our four days there, we did a three hour ATV tour, hiked four different trails on Mt. Magazine itself (all short trails, we hike with an eight, six, and three year old), and did two ranger led tours, one overlooking the valley and describing the state park itself, and the amphitheater they are rebuilding, the other focused on hummingbirds.
Under a cliff

Mount Magazine itself has some unique topography. Some plants grow only on this mountain, and then further east in the Appalachians. I'm personally quite fascinated with these mid-United States mountains, flattened and ancient as they are.

The whole time we were out in this "nature," I was continuing to ponder the relationship between God and nature. What can we learn about worship in church buildings with other Christians by being out in nature? What do we learn about nature by gathering for Christian worship? Are the two mutually exclusive? How are they related?

It's especially hard to think through these questions in the modern period because so much of what we do is still technologized. Even the photos I'm providing in this blog post (not to mention the blog itself) are digital mediations of the "nature" we went to Mount Magazine to see. So if you are reading this blog post, is the post disconnecting you to nature, or connecting you to it? Is what we experience in nature real enough on its own, or does it become more real, or only real, when we share it virtually?

If I am out in "the nature" always anticipating how I might take a photograph of it or otherwise mediate it for others (like in a tweet or blog), is my experience of nature always "framed" by the ways I anticipate mediating it virtually?

Similarly, although we sometimes think taking children to worship is different than taking them on a hike, actually the two share a lot in common. Our children tire as quickly on a hike as they do in a worship service. An hour starts to be a long time. They want snacks and distractions. In this sense, both the trail or the pew provide unique challenges and opportunities, and a screen or electronic device seems a plausible solution in either situation. I can't say I encounter God more or less in either place, it quite depends on the specifics--I do know I find both contexts challenging as a parent, and technology an ever present temptation.

Mt. Magazine Lodge
We packed up after a few days at the lodge. The kids loved it and want to go back (I think because they liked the room and the pool as much as the hikes and the nature). Driving back to Fayetteville on the south side of Mount Magazine, we encountered some portions of Yell County. I think Yell is a county that encapsulates in some ways the perceive culture of Arkansas as a whole. At least the Arkansans I know in Northwest Arkansas have some choice things to say about Yell County.

Faith Lutheran Church, Boonville, AR
The drive back through Havana and Magazine and Boonville and Van Buren is a pretty rural drive. The area is sparsely populated, the towns struggling somewhat economically, although there are some vital businesses like Rockline Industries along the way. In Boonville you have a small ELCA mission outpost, Faith Lutheran Church. The fact that our state park trip was bracketed by brief visits to the only two ELCA congregations in the southwest quadrant of the state framed this God and nature topic even more starkly for me. We sometimes say that we experience God more clearly when we go "off-grid" into nature. Is it also possible that some churches that are on the frontiers, away from the central pleas, also experience God more clearly because they are in diaspora, on the edges?

Is it perhaps the case that in a modern, denatured world, both worship in a church, or a hike on a trail, are precisely some of the places God comes to meet us, not because God is nature, but rather because the surplus of meaning available through worship is clarified by places passing through and beyond, that inexorably draw us up not into transcendence, but re-embed us in immanence? All of which leaves me completely perplexed as to whether our experience of the digitally mediated world is transcendent, or immanent, or something else entirely.

1 comment:

  1. The word I was introduced to in seminary that describes immanence in nature is panentheism. Today's technology may not seem like it is consistent with nature -- but it is -- following the the same physical rules as everything else -- though in a very refined and purposeful way.