I heard a contributor on Thought for the Day (BBC Radio 4) this morning compare the recent severe weather to the experience of being subject to the majesty of God. This kind of rhetoric seems to me to fall into the error which Dietrich Bonhoeffer defined as “The God of the Gaps” by which we locate experience of God at the margins of human ability, in weakness, ignorance and sin, risking the discovery that God is irrelevant when humanity succeeds in dealing with these problems by its own means. God, said Bonhoeffer, has come to dwell with us in the midst of life we don’t need to go looking for him/her at its edges
Severe weather that disrupts our normal existence is not an experience of our weakness before God but of our personal and societal weakness before nature. Our common attitude towards nature is that while it may provide glimpses of beauty, grandeur or solitude, it is basically there to be controlled for our use and benefit. When therefore it steps out of line to cause difficulties for us, we are aggrieved, expressing our feelings by names like, “The Beast from the East.”
In fact we are part of the system we call nature, obliged, as the poet Ezra Pound once wrote, to “learn of the green world how take our place in scaled invention and true artistry.” We cannot rule nature but can learn how to cooperate with it in ways that are beneficial to us and life on this planet. But we must allow nature to teach us: a snow storm reminds us that our road system is congested, dangerous and unloved; and that we could develop an integrated travel system that respects ecological norms as well as economic convenience. Such an approach involves treating nature as neither slave nor God, but as our partner in fostering life, if indeed we want, as a species, to foster life, rather than to dream of domination. We are after all the “beast” which has unleashed the global warming whereby this week the Arctic was unsustainably warm, while we shivered in the snow.
Another effect of the severe weather has been to remind people that their lives are frail and shared with other people, other creatures. Decent citizens have invaded the inhuman space of gridlocked motorways bringing food, drink and other comforts to stranded drivers. Concerned people have made efforts to persuade rough sleepers into shelters. In Shakespeare’s King Lear, a terrible storm forces the King to see himself as a “poor, bare, forked creature”, and to feel compassion for the homeless people also caught in the storm. “I have ta’en too little care of this,” he admits.
Ecological intelligence allows us to see ourselves as part of an evolving creation working with, rather than against, nature; while recognising that we need to protect ourselves, as all creatures try to do, against nature’s indifference to our welfare. If we are people of goodwill we will want to extend this protection to our neighbour, so that this indifference, already balanced by the instinctive protection by animals of their own kind, is countered also by us.
When we act to help others we call it kindness, which means choosing to extend to anyone in need the care we naturally give to our own family/ children (German kind = child). This is a truly human contribution to nature because it is a decision of free will rather than a natural instinct; and is the best way of asserting our humanity in the face of nature’s indifference. There are natural processes, events and creatures which have no apparent relation to our concerns. The book of Job instances the lives of Ostriches, Wild Asses, and Hippopotami as aspects of God’s creation which are nothing to do with human welfare, revealing that human happiness is not God’s only responsibility; and that therefore there will always be events that resist human understanding. In such a universe, kindness is our legitimate human protest against the apparent indifference of the universal ecosystem. I say apparent, because we too are the product of that ecosystem, and our kindness may be a crucial contribution to its life.
This week as all weeks the City Mission in Glasgow opened its doors and its caring programmes to more that a hundred homeless people every day. It is devoted to the gospel of God’s love and expresses it by its practical, skilled, kindness to people in desperate need. Human knowledge of kindness led to us attributing that kindness to God. This was not revealed to us from on high but rather in human interactions such as the distribution of food to stranded drivers. Jesus characterised God’s kindness in the words, “Not one sparrow falls to the ground without the Father.”
In the light of Jesus, Christians have come to believe that the astonishing process of unversal evolution, even including its winds and snowstorms, is an expression of the kindness of God.
I read this today, ten days after you posted it, as we’re in the midst of our third major snowstorm in three weeks in New England. Half a meter of snow in many areas. So I’m reading in a timely fashion, so to speak. I love your line about kindness being a legitimate human protest against the “apparent” indifference of nature. I never thought of kindness as protest. You somehow always express things in surprising new ways. A true gift you have and you are!
Thanks for your kind words; they do encourage me.
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It was around midnight last night that I got the news of Stephen Hawking’s death. I went to bed very sad. Hawking was a true giant not only among physicists but a true hero of the human spirit. Thank you for doing your part in elevating my spirit.