Krista's Journal: The Morality of Nature

April 7, 2005

Theologians refer to catastrophic natural disasters as "natural evil." Insurers call them "acts of God." After December’s Indian Ocean tsunami, even the op-ed page of the New York Times revisited the classic questions of theodicy: Where is God when nature destroys human lives and livelihoods? How could this world of earthquakes and tsunamis be the creation of a benevolent Deity? Such doubts were raised compellingly by European thinkers like Voltaire and Kant after the Lisbon earthquake on All Saints Day in 1755. The Church in Europe and elsewhere has struggled under their weight ever since.

These are important questions. But it seems to me that the human leap to such questions reflects a rather narrow perspective on "the creation." It reveals a general religious tendency that has come under suspicion in our time — to imagine human beings as the center of the universe, as the living beings whose well-being matters, and to whom the rest of nature should conform.

This week, I interview two scientists who reflect on human life in the largest possible context of the natural world. Jelle Zeilinga de Boer is a Dutch geologist who grew up in Indonesia. His sense of human reality was formed in a region of the world with routine seismic activity, including living volcanoes. At Wesleyan University, he designed a course that traces the short- and long-term effects of seismic events in human history. De Boer is fascinated by earthquakes and volcanoes and tsunamis as manifestations of a living earth. He has spent his life studying the constant movement of the tectonic plates that compose the earth’s surface and sometimes collide and fracture. In the longest possible view of time, he knows, these fractures make our world inhabitable and hospitable to human life.

De Boer’s research also offers a different kind of window on the relationship between theology and earthquakes. As he describes it, many of the most enduring "reverberations" of earthquakes in history have been religious in nature. The horrific Lisbon earthquake of 1755 destroyed that city and Portugal’s imperial aspirations. It also weakened the Catholic Church in Europe and fueled the Enlightenment’s challenge to faith. De Boer also revisits the religious effects of earthquakes in places like England and Missouri and ancient Palestine. Earthquakes informed religious perspectives as early as ancient Greece, he shows, and are vividly interpreted in ancient Biblical stories. John Wesley incorporated his experience of earthquakes into reformist theology and wrote them into the lines of famous 19th century hymns.

My conversation with Jelle de Boer suggests new angles for considering the theodicy question. But more powerfully than that, it reminds me of other, more basic, existential concerns. For the first time in my life, after speaking with him, I understand that we are all living in earthquake territory. Earthquakes drive home a constant reality we would rather ignore: the fact that life itself is always driven by change and decay. The very ground we stand on, like our individual lives, is formed by movement and upheaval. We build our certainties upon impermanent raw material with potential that is both wondrous and terrifying. Religious traditions help us live with such insights and make meaning of them.

My other guest this week, the biologist Ursula Goodenough, makes the provocative suggestion that we don’t need theology to grapple with such insights creatively, even reverently. She takes her sense of the sacred directly from her knowledge of the natural world. But to see nature as sacred, she insists, is not to suggest that it’s all rosy. It inhabits the same spectrum of good and evil, beauty and suffering, that unfolds in human life. She cites a lovely notion of transcendence as "horizontal" rather than "vertical" that will stay with me for a long time. Just as we look upwards to explain a natural disaster, she says, we tend to look upwards to feel like we are part of something larger than ourselves. This is an essential human need, as deeply rooted as our tendency to put ourselves at the center. Goodenough believes that we can also find transcendence by reaching outwards and around, by being in relationship with the whole world, including (but not limited to) other human beings.

Ursula Goodenough is one of those voices our listeners have asked for more of — a non-theistic person who is also, like the religious among us, pursuing questions of meaning and morality. And I’ll give Ursula Goodenough the last word here, with this passage from her lovely book, The Sacred Depths of Nature:

And so I profess my Faith. For me, the existence of all this complexity and awareness and intent and beauty, and my ability to apprehend it, serves as the ultimate meaning and the ultimate value. The continuation of life reaches around, grabs its own tail, and forms a sacred circle that requires no further justification, no Creator, no superordinate meaning of meaning, no purpose other than that the continuation continue until the sun collapses or the final meteor collides. I confess a credo of continuation.

And in so doing, I confess as well a credo of human continuation. We may be the only questioners in the universe, the only ones who have come to understand the astonishing dynamics of cosmic evolution… We are also, whether we like it or not, the dominant species and the stewards of this planet. If we can revere how things are, and can find a way to express gratitude for our existence, then we should be able to figure out, with a great deal of work and good will, how to share the earth with one another and with other creatures, how to restore and preserve its elegance and grace, and how to commit ourselves with love and joy and laughter and hope.

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is Harold T. Stearns Professor Emeritus of Earth Science at Wesleyan University and author of Earthquakes in Human History.

is professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis and author of The Sacred Depths of Nature.