John Erdevig and Kenji Yano are two friends that I know from the First Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Ann Arbor. The “I” in this guest post is John, but Kenji contributed just as someone who is interviewed contributes to an interview. Here is what they have to say.
John’s Note: This post continues some themes explored in my guest post “Head and Heart in ‘Saving’ the Earth.” How do those who cleave to science andreject the supernatural maintain a vital connection to the biosphere, and confront the moral and existential challenge of climate change?
My friend Kenji wasborn in Delaware, mostly raised in Japan, and has lived in the U.S. Midwest most of his adultlife. We had a long talk over lunch last week about our religious beliefs. Kenjiis a biology PhD, but earned instant skeptical blowback from another friend, achemist with a lower tolerance for “god talk,” when Kenji said that “nature ismy god.” It’s become clear to me that he says this, however, in the sense that his vital relationship with the biosphere is very close to what the average listener might understand as an individual-to-god relationship. I say, it was clear to me, because there wasn’t a hint of any of the Yahweh-like personality in this nature god. You know, like there was no big old bearded guy in the clouds calling the shots, choosing nations to covenant with, and listening to and granting prayers. God the Father, Almighty God, the Creator… no, no, none of that. Nor any homegrown Japanese supernaturalism, as would be entailed in a literal interpretation of expressions that Kenji grew up with: “The Sun watches you by day, and the Moon watches you by night.”
That is a phrase Kenji’s mother used to awaken Kenji’s conscience. But these globes only “watch us” in the sense that our awareness of the omnipresent sun and moon awakens our preexisting moral awareness. Our moral awareness is partly rooted in awareness of our concentric spheres of concern (more co-equal and overlapping, in Kenji’s worldview), extending all the way throughout our households/ecosystems. As sun and moon regulate everything from moods to growth to tides, they “watch us” and “watch over us” in several ways. So please, ye who must pooh-pooh tendencies toward a belief in the supernatural among our discussion circle, Kenji’s belief is not that. Indeed, that would be a fatal contradiction for Kenji. There is nothing outside of and above nature. Therefore there is nothing supernatural to believe in. I hope to bypass the debate that gets framed in terms of “Does God exist?” For me, the questions are, “What and perhaps who, in existence, do you find more or less divine? Describe your relationship with it/these.”
So what is the next level of the sacred that is not God, what we’ll call for the sake of discussion “our vital relationship with the biosphere” which I share with Kenji. I approach our convergence from a different way, say, from a West-to-East direction. The vitality on the human side of the relationship might include deep reverence, awe and wonder, at newfound scientific knowledge, enduring mysteries, and piercing sensations. Moreover, in our daily thoughts, if not through concerted efforts in art and ritual, we feel, if not consistently and thoughtfully express, appreciation and reciprocity. The biosphere being what it is – it giveth and taketh away, or better put, everything gets recycled – then a certain humility, even submission, is in order. This should sound like some human inter-relationships, but on a different scale, with a kind of ultimacy, pervasiveness, and unmatched emotion. E.g. “Islam” means “submission.” That’s why I assert that Kenji’s and my relationship with the life-giving biosphere is logically atheistic, but often acts “as if” nature is our god. We could use the corresponding adjective, “divine,” to describe the religious-biospheric process, our story/history… mostly, our correspondence with the biosphere. In Unitarian-Universalism’s 7th Principle, we say, perhaps more tepidly, that we have “respect for the interdependent web of life of which we are a part.”
That we our grounded in our individual bodies and in our smaller spheres (family, community) leads us to reaffirm compassion and reciprocity on the species scale. However, casting one’s gaze toward the dirt and heavens, perhaps with an inner eye during indoor meditation, or perhaps with a hike among the druidic hemlock forest giants, we can expand compassion and reciprocity beyond the species in a way that is practically useful to humans as well as intellectually and emotionally congruent with our modern experience – resolving tensions between science and religion, science and artistic expression, science and love. To me, both study and an almost ecstatic contemplation of the biosphere together lead to a sensible and healthy concern for not only my and my children’s generation, but “The Seventh Generation,” to borrow the Native American phrase. Gaia and my parents launched me and left a legacy. Am I The Prodigal Son, or worse, not only using my fortune but spoiling my children’s chances? In gratitude and reciprocity, can I do better than that?
Not all of nature seems accessible in the worldview and religious practice I just described. True, our biosphere coats a “Goldilocks Planet,” a dynamic and fertile rock favored by a remarkable astronomical and natural history. In nearer space, the orbital and geologic circumstances are discernable and heartwarming. Further off in space and time, we understand that we are elemental dust born in starbursts. Much of the cosmos, however, feels alien… is undeniably cold and radioactive. Beyond biosphere, ozone layer, ionosphere, and the sun’s happy medium of warmth, there are forces ready to not just snuff out our already mortal individual existence, but also quite ready to annihilate all trace of humankind. My mythopoetic relationship over this distance is tenuous. Awe and submission probably are my dominant sacred thoughts. I do not linger as long as the spiritually-minded cosmologists. Not much in the line of enduring grace or “warm fuzzy,” gazing at ancient light (not the stars as they now burn), millions of light years away, or watching science shows about the end of the biosphere, or the end of the entire solar system by various scientifically projected means. Apocalypse has a place in my horizon, but if “religion” is “re-tying” or “connecting,” then the band here is loose or frayed. So, to return to the bosom of Gaia, who/which invites a more generous interpretation of existence…
My first week back from sunny Spain, I skied in County Farm Park three consecutive mornings. High altitude snowflakes or windblown frost from the silvery tree branches swirled and sparkled like fairy dust in the slanting sunshine. “Dawn stretched her rosy fingers across the sky.” – Homer’s Odyssey. The shadows shown blue with reddish highlights, just as the Impressionists taught us. At first, just crows overhead, and rabbit tracks below. Then a tawny-coated, healthy-looking urban coyote crossed warily on a prairie rise ahead of me. And then four minutes later a young buck pranced through the woodlot understory. Too cold for people and dogs, thanks be. To cap it, the sensation of gliding over terra firma begets a giddiness and warmth so effacing of the winter blues that set in for the first couple months of the season.
Another morning, I walked in soggy snow – the welcome January thaw – with the sky a protective envelope of water vapor enclosing warmer temperatures and filtering an ever stronger and longer sunshine. The Carolina Wren whistled exuberantly and sparrows chirped. Of all things, a tiny spider was crawling over the snowy path this time. I am clothed in thick leather, wool and cotton, making my own heat from nuts, grains, fruits, ham, and a quickened pace, and from recollection of last night’s meeting of friends, beer and nachos afterward, and Saturday night’s karaoke and dance party. I start to sing “Lean on Me” until I reach a verse with memory holes in it. So I recite “On Stopping by a Woods on a Snowy Evening,” and it occurs to me that if you whisper almost anything in any language, but certainly these lines by Robert Frost, “the only other sound’s the sweep / of easy wind, and downy flake.”
And May It Be So With You. – John
Provocative Epigram of the Day: “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and science.” – Albert Einstein