Millions of children in the Northeast quadrant of the United States will have to miss their annual spook-fest and candy shake-down on October 31 this year. Something far more terrifying than any Halloween slasher film rose up from the tropics and swooped onto the mainland in the last few days of October. Like a fell creature from JRR Tolkien’s Middle Earth, the “Frankenstorm” named Sandy, spinning counter-clockwise (the Devil’s own widdershins), spread its Nazgûl wings from North Carolina to the Great Lakes. What began as a late-season Hurricane (strange enough) was sucked into an early Arctic cold front, and created a weather system never before experienced in recorded human time.
A 13-foot tide surged into lower Manhattan; 125-mph winds toppled a crane over the side of a skyscraper, threatening destruction of neighboring apartment buildings and mayhem on the streets below. Atlantic City’s Boardwalk washed away; 25-foot surf roared onto the shores of the Great Lakes. Storm winds downed power lines as deep into the interior as Indiana and Illinois. Trees still in full Autumn leaf gave way under heavy wet snows.
Evangelical Christendom, still trying to put “God” into a rational box, sees a link between destructive storms and U.S. policy toward Israel. But western Christian culture has historically sided with the ancient Greeks when trying to understand destructive turns of fate. Whether financial, physical, or naturally-occurring, disaster is not “normal.” Somebody somewhere did something wrong, and will have to pay.
The “wrath of God” is defined as retributive justice, not the logical result of inter-related planetary systems. Nevertheless, if we see human claims of dominion over the Earth as violations of “eco-justice,” then the “wrath of God” is the logical reaction of Gaia – the Earth – to “global warming,” which threatens the survival of all of Earth’s life forms. Earth has been maintaining a life-sustaining temperature for billions of years despite the increasing temperature of the Sun. Faced with a sudden feverish infection, “Frankenstorms” such as Sandy may well be part of Gaia’s immune system, employing climate change to cool the Planet.
Instead of resisting this global resetting of Gaia’s thermostat by denying the process, humanity should pitch in and help. Progressive Christians can start by reclaiming a Biblical understanding of God’s Covenant as distributive justice-compassion.
In pre-modern times – that is before the Enlightenment in the 17th century – most people experienced themselves as part of the natural world around them, and took their cues for living from that natural world. “God” was an immanent presence – not some transcendent manipulator. For example, in the 12th century, Hildegard of Bingen wrote the following,
The air, blowing everywhere serves all creatures. Ever is the firmament its support. Ever is it held, carried, by the power of God. Without the Word of God no creature has being. God’s Word is in all creation, visible and invisible. The Word is living, being, spirit, all verdant greening, all creativity. All creation is awakened, called, by the resounding melody, God’s invocation of the Word. This Word manifests in every creature. Now this is how the spirit is in the flesh – the Word is indivisible from God. Meditations with Hildegard of Bingen, Gabriele Uhlein.
For Hildegard of Bingen in the 12th century, to live ON earth was to be IN the earth, relying on the natural world – earth, air, fire, and water – for healing and wholeness. The 17th-century Cartesian enlightenment put an end to that sense of wholeness. Rational humanity was separated out from the non-rational – science from religion, animals and women from rational men. The Western Christian Church acted very quickly to make certain that religion was just as rational as science, and the stage was set for literalizing metaphor, and completely missing the point. And so today, we have this incredible insistence on the part of fundamentalist literalist Christians that the Earth is 6,000 years old, that dinosaurs shared the planet with humans, and other preposterous ideas from the Virgin Birth to resuscitated corpses walking out of tombs after three days.
Post-modern rationality has no time for such “magical” thinking. We have come from a random game of life, set in motion by a physical law of attraction, and chance combinations of chemical elements determine our moral landscape.
In his recent book, Coming Back to Earth, Lloyd Geering talks about the future of religion given the post-modern, secular cosmology of the 21st century. Geering suggests that our current situation is very similar to that pre-modern relationship to the Cosmos that Hildegard experienced back in the 12th century. First, Earth has reasserted its supremacy over humans. We can certainly see that our very existence as a species of Earth creature depends on whether or not the earth, the air, and the water continue to sustain us. Second, Earth is the mother of all life – at least of life on this planet. Third, Earth sustains all life. Geering’s point is that “even before we have achieved the ideal of a common humanity, we are challenged to acknowledge our oneness with all life, our connectedness with the planet.”
This sense of connection and relationship is what leads to “reenchantment” or “entrancement”: That is, the cultivation of a sense of ourselves as existing in a matrix – a context – a wholeness — a relationship to the natural world that we cannot be separated from. When we experience that, then we might begin to experience the power of the earth, the wind, the fire as a presence that is both within and without, that is accessible to us at a spiritual level. It is a sense of a reality that is other than our own human reality. We can realize a mutual give-and-take with the powers of earth, air, fire, and water. We can experience that some other reality than our own is active – perhaps even aware.
In the 1992 Universe Story, Brian Swimme and Thomas Berry insist that “Without entrancement within this new context of existence it is unlikely that the human community will have the psychic energy needed for the renewal of the Earth. This entrancement comes from the immediate communion of the human with the natural world, a capacity to appreciate the ultimate subjectivity and spontaneities within every form of natural being. . .”
Matthew’s Jesus, at the end of his “sermon on the mount” reminds listeners that they have nothing to fear. He tells them to look at the lilies and the birds and to trust God.
As Superstorm Sandy spins away into the diaspora of Northern winter weather, the lesson is to trust the cycle of life and death, coalescence and destruction, and embrace the fact that we are part of the process.