My father-in-law died last summer from COVID-19. Minimizers and deniers might ask “Did he die of COVID? Or with COVID?” He never had the virus. He withered and waned from months of confinement to his small room with minimal human contact.
Like the stories we’ve heard too many times, his death was made more difficult by isolation, by travel restrictions, by the inability to gather for some sort of funeral.
But the Holy Spirit likes Pearl Jam. Who knew?
As my wife grieved across an ocean, somehow the song “Man of the Hour” was brought to her mind. Written by Eddie Vedder for the 2003 film Big Fish, the film and the song revolve around a child’s ambivalent relationship with a father of oversized passions and larger-than-life stories — a tidal wave of a man. But the song’s chorus eases toward sorrow and love, “The man of hour is taking his final bow. Good-bye for now.” Reconciliation wrestles with resentment. Gratitude and anger stand side-by-side.
But it was the second verse of “Man of the Hour” that caught me, taking me in quite a different direction.
“Nature has its own religion, gospel from the land.”
These lyrics flashed all sorts of synapses in my head.
I wonder if the song is suggesting that the “Big Fish father” is a practitioner of “nature’s religion”? A religion where second place is the first loser; of eat or be eaten; an eye for an eye. For me, this puts into sharper relief the contrast between nature’s gospel and Jesus’ — where the last are first. Freedom is surrender. Life comes through death. Power is weakness.
Nature is dominance — grace is sacrifice. Nature is struggling — grace is mercy. Nature is fear — grace is love. Nature is butterflies and flower bulbs — grace is resurrection. Overdrawn? No doubt. Hinting at something? Probably.
I’m often awed by the beauty, complexity, balance, and interconnectedness of creation. But I’m equally astonished by the brutality, harshness, and competitiveness of creation. Tennyson described nature as “red in tooth and claw,” while Hobbes opined that life in the state of nature is “nasty, brutish and short.” I recall reading that violent death is how almost every creature’s life on earth ends.
A seminary memory from days of yore: studying the religious reactions when the theory of evolution appeared. Many Christians were dismayed — but not because of any apparent contradiction with scriptures’ creation stories. Rather it was because they could not comprehend the idea that nature was a bloody, ruthless struggle. Their sentimental and innocent illusions of nature were shattered by Darwin et al. Meanwhile, hard-nosed Calvinists had no such qualms. They could easily accept that creation was filled with fear, striving, and conflict.
Maybe Pearl Jam is agreeing with Karl Barth? The Belgic Confession is wrong. There are not two ways to God — creation and Jesus Christ. A natural religion might bring you to a big, amazing and powerful god, an awesome, yet awful god. But can it bring you to a gracious and loving God?
What I am not doing here is trotting out the hackneyed accusations that Christians often toss at environmentalists — pantheism or paganism. But I do wonder if by uncritically blending nature’s religion with Jesus’ — believing that we are adding wonder, beauty, harmony — we aren’t inadvertently making it easier for a cruel social Darwinism to leech on to the Gospel. In other words, thinking we are making a fuller, more balanced gospel, do we open the door to sanctioning the cruelty and competition of nature? Violence becomes acceptable, necessary, and inevitable.
Another thing I’m not trying to do: here on “The Twelve” we often read beautiful and compelling voices calling us to attend to and care for creation. I don’t have the expertise of Debra Rienstra, Tim Van Deelen or Tom Boogaart. I come away from their writing more informed and concerned about the ecological crisis we are in. I am onboard. If I sound like I’m trying to differentiate myself from them, or that I’m critical of or uneasy with those who are more dedicated to caring for creation, then I’ve missed my target. I’m not suggesting that environmentalists are naive, soft, or corrupting Christ’s message. Instead, I’m wondering — genuinely asking — does being a hard-nosed Calvinist who sees the struggle and brutality of nature make you a different sort of environmentalist?
All this all feels similar to a juncture I work more often — the wisdom tradition versus eschatological ethics. The wisdom tradition rises out of the earth. It gives shape to the practical, the daily, the ordinary, the sustainable, and balanced. Yet it can seem tame and prosaic, even an excuse for selfishness and feathering one’s nest. In contrast, eschatological ethics come from beyond, are bold, disruptive, and urgent, sometimes appearing foolhardy and short-lived. While I have always leaned toward eschatological ethics, over time I’ve learned much from the subtle goodness of wisdom. A line that was blurry to begin with, has only become more so.
What I think I’m trying to do is preserve the “otherness” of grace. Grace may come to us in nature, but even more, it stands beyond nature, and everything else. And grace is always linked, sometimes obviously, other times subtly, to Jesus.