Power Struggles with the Untamed: What Nature Can Teach You About Yourself

When you learn to ride a horse, you become painfully aware of two things. The first is that the reins in front of you are just an illusion of control. The second is that, no matter how strong your thighs are, if that horse decides you belong on the ground, there’s a good likelihood you’ll end up there pretty soon. A relationship with a horse is risky. There’s no way you can completely control an animal that weighs half a ton. Yet, as you might know from experience, a relationship with a horse is a privilege. It’s an honor to move with a beautiful creature that is so much more powerful than you.

When Christians talk about nature, we usually talk about creation stewardship. We care for the earth because in the beginning God called the earth good, and in the New Testament we see that God desires to reconcile all things to Himself through Christ. Yet even creation care can sometimes focus too much on controlling or ruling nature rather than learning from it. Are we to interact with nature simply because we were told to take care of it, or does it exist to teach us something? Rightly regarding nature helps us understand human power correctly, and it can give us insight into our relationship with the earth and God.

In Melville’s Moby Dick, we see that when man practices bad stewardship, he develops an unrealistic understanding of his power that leads to man’s destruction. Captain Ahab is driven to fight nature because his perspective of the world is anthropocentric—he assumes that he has the inherent right to conquer the whale and misunderstands who he is in relation to the natural world. Ahab’s missing leg and his “gashed soul” are, Melville tells us, the direct result of the attack of the great white whale. Despite this, Ahab is unable to accept his powerlessness in the face of nature, embodied by the whale, and he becomes obsessed with regaining power: “All…demonisms…all evil, to crazy Ahab, were…made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down.” For Ahab, nature is the sole source of all human pain and destruction. Ahab completely relinquishes his roles as a husband and father and leads his entire crew into a dangerous oblivion, which ultimately claims the life of almost every crewmember.

The fate of Captain Ahab and his crew could have been changed if Ahab saw fault not in the whale but in himself. In his pride, Ahab fails to see nature for what it truly is, and he fails to see himself for what he truly is. In Ahab’s world, there is only domination. Either Ahab will dominate the whale, or the whale will dominate him. He will be either a slayer of the earth or a slave to it. But there is a middle way that Ahab has forgotten: man’s primary role as caretaker and lover of the earth.

Melville contrasts Captain Ahab with Ishmael. The only crewmember to survive the wreck of the Pequod, Ishmael does not claim control over the leviathan, and he includes many facts about the whale throughout his account of his journey, proving he is more interested in trying to know this unknowable thing than conquering it. He contemplates the foolishness of man in thinking that we can control nature at all: “However baby man may brag of his science and skill…yet for ever and for every, to the crack of doom, the sea will insult and murder him, and pulverize the stateliest frigate he can make…man has lost that sense of the full awfulness of the sea which aboriginally belongs to it.”

Oughtn’t we come to terms with the fact that nature could, at any moment, “insult and murder” us, as Ishmael so bluntly tells us it could? It is a harsh truth that the earth is more powerful than we are, but this truth does not have to destroy us like it does Captain Ahab, who is wrong in assuming that the harshness of nature means nature is against us. Nature can be frighteningly untamable, but that which is untamable is not necessarily evil. Instead of losing his sanity because he cannot control the earth, Ishmael humbly accepts who he is in relation to the earth. He hungers for knowledge of it but is not obsessed with overpowering any part of it, including Moby Dick. He recognizes that he cannot hate the untamable parts of the earth because they reflect something human. Contained within the earth there is an image of something with which he identifies. Ishmael ponders, “Consider both, the sea and the land; and do you not find a strange analogy to something in yourself?”

The mysteries of the earth and endless depths of the sea remind us of all we do not know about this world and even about ourselves. Our souls are mysterious. Our bodies are mysterious. We gather facts like Ishmael, but the same questions God spoke to Job still hover over every created thing: where were we when all of this was created? How were the vast mountains and our tiny nerves fashioned? By reminding us of all we do not know and all we cannot know or control, nature humbles us. We, like Ishmael, should approach the earth not with the desire for control but instead with respect and a willingness to experience wonder. We are the creatures whom God made in His image, yet we have been given a world we cannot (and should not) fully tame, and that reminds us both of how finite human power is and how glorious our God is.

Rooted in Love–What We Can Learn From the Flowers

Humans have an innate appreciation for nature.  Except for the occasional bee sting or troublesome allergies, nature often enchants all of our senses.  Smelling the crisp scent of evergreens, tasting the salty sea air, feeling the soft grass against our toes, hearing the chirping of the birds, and seeing the beauty of God’s creation around us are a few examples of how we experience and enjoy nature.  It is natural and good that we thank God for giving us these good things.  But to stop with gratitude would be to limit ourselves to self-centered appreciation of God’s creation.  We should step away from our own experience of nature and engage with something much bigger than ourselves.  If we allow ourselves to listen, the flowers remind us of the vanity of our own existence and the reality of our eternal value in Christ.

Christina Rossetti, a 19th century poet, is widely known for her gloomy, yet biblically centered poetry.  Hope and despair are prevalent themes in her writing.  While Rossetti often despairs about earthly griefs, she remains grounded in her eternal hope.  In her poetry, Rossetti constantly uses nature to re-ground herself in her hope. In “Consider the Lilies of the Field (p24,25), she writes:

“Flowers preach to us if we will hear…
Men scent our fragrance on the air,
Yet take no heed
Of humble lessons we would read…”

Anyone can smell the flowers and take pleasure in it.  However, very few actually learn from the flowers.  Learning from the flowers takes humility and a willingness to experience nature in a way much bigger than our own personal enjoyment.  It is easiest to view the flowers in their relation to us.  “Thank you God for allowing us to enjoy these beautiful flowers.”  And that response is perfectly acceptable.  However, the flowers can teach us so much more rather than just reinforcing a me-centered existence.

It is the natural human tendency to think of our existence in terms of ourselves.  Well, duh, you may say, we are the ones existing.  However, in a God-centered universe, we are never the main focus.  We may be the ones doing the actual living, but nothing we do can give value to our lives.  Yet we are never perfect at living a God-centered life.  We forget how fleeting and invaluable we are on our own.

This is not a new problem.  In Psalm 90:12, the Psalmist asks God on behalf of the Israelites, “Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.”  Israel forgot how short their life was.  Disobedience to God’s commands is the natural result of forgetting your place in eternity.  After experiencing punishment for embarking on a self-centered lifestyle, they come crawling back to God asking him to help them remember.  In a God-centered universe, a self-centered lifestyle does not satisfy.  Especially when you are being directly punished by God!

Isaiah says, “All flesh is grass, and all its beauty is like the flower of the field.  The grass withers, the flower fades… surely the people are grass… but the word of our God will stand forever” (Isaiah 40:6-8). The quickly fading flower reminds us that our “blossom” is but a brief moment in eternity.  Hopeless can often be the result of this realization if we view our brief existence simply in terms of our life here on earth.  However, investing in an eternal hope through Jesus Christ allows us to live a hope-filled life while here on earth.  We live full lives here on earth, all the while knowing our ultimate value is not found in this world.  Nature can remind us of how small we are on our own and allow us to re-ground ourselves in truth—that true value can only come through God.

But the flowers’ teaching does not stop there.  They remind us of something much greater than our own insignificance.  They remind us of God’s great love for us in spite of our puny existence.  In Luke, Jesus says “If God so clothes the grass.. how much more will he clothe you(Luke 12:28).”  Nature IS beautiful! Even though a flower only blooms for a short time, it is none the less beautiful! So it is with us.  Even though we are seemingly insignificant, God values us.  Even though our life is but a moment, God concerns himself with the details of our life.

In her poem, “Consider the Lilies of the Field,” Rossetti continues,

“Flowers ….
Tell of his love who sends the dew,
The rain and sunshine too,
To nourish one small seed.”

The flowers do not just tell us truths about ourselves, but truths about God, too!

Contrary to what you may be thinking, this is not just a happy go lucky post.   Life is not just daisies and roses.  Even with a firm understanding of your eternal value and God’s love for you, life sucks sometimes.  Sadness is a natural part of life.  From Rossetti’s poetry, it seems like she was seriously depressed most of the time.  We would be lying to ourselves if we tried to never experience sadness.  Even Jesus wept.  But at the same time, we should never be guided by our emotions.  When experiencing despair, we should always anchor ourselves in our eternal hope.  Rossetti got through her darkest moments because of her eternal hope.  So also should we, in moments of despair, cling to the One that can never be taken away from us, Jesus Christ, our Lord.  Taking a moment to listen to the flowers can help reground you in what is truly valuable.

Whether it’s in the simple hustle and bustle of everyday life or one of your darkest moments, grounding yourself in Christ’s deep love for you gives you strength to carry on.  However, being reminded of your true value in Christ is worthless if your actions do not change.   Taking a moment to listen to the flowers can help you live your life in a meaningful way.

So next time you are outside, stop and listen to the flowers.  What are they saying to you?

“In this world you will have tribulation.  But take heart, I have overcome the world.” John 16:33

*Quotations taken from “Christina Rossetti: Selected Poems.”  Penguin Classics.

 

 

 

The Next iPhone: On the Love of Technology

In case it isn’t already clear, I’m definitely a fan of technology. In fact, I probably read about technology more than I read about most other things, with the exception of philosophy (since I am a graduate philosophy student). Later today, Apple will announce it’s next iPhone–whether that is an iPhone 4S or an iPhone 5 is anybody’s guess–and the blog-world is filled with speculation and questions. There are a lot of significant things happening with this release: this is the first release where it is likely Apple will release a phone that will work with all major carriers (the iPhone 4 is available on both AT&T and Verizon, here in the States, but the Verizon release came later). This is also the first iPhone released since Steve Jobs stepped down. People are wondering if Tim Cook can fill the shoes of Steve Jobs–not an easy task–but only time will tell. Continue reading The Next iPhone: On the Love of Technology