Sunday, June 29, 2014

"Religious Experience" and the World of Nature

Does God leave any sign in this world that he is out there? Does he leave a footprint, a track, a trace? Hinman's recent book, The Trace of God, reviews a number of studies on religious experience. I'd like to concentrate here on just one trend: that one of the most common triggers of religious experience is an experience of the natural world.

My first point is this: If we consider that God is the cause behind the natural world in any sense -- use what language you like, whether you think of God as "Creator" or "Ground of Being" -- then we would expect to find the trace of God in the natural world because God is the cause behind the natural world. I think this is a common experience. "Religious experience" has a whole range of different levels of intensity, from the ecstatic religious experience or peak experience on the one end, down to a quiet sense of the holy. This sense is often experienced in a place that is wilderness. The poet Coleridge made this connection, between what is "savage" (wild) and what is holy: 
A savage place! as holy and enchanted ...
(Coleridge, Xanadu)
The Psalmist of the Bible drew a connection between the natural world and a sense of the holy, which in his tradition is associated with the glory of God:
The heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19)
And in this, both Coleridge and the Psalmist speak to what is a fairly common human experience: the sense of the holy in the natural world. The point here is simple: If God is the cause of the natural world, then we would expect to find the "trace of God" there. This is not an argument from "experience of the holy" to an act of Creation. It is more a comment directed to religious people that, on the view that God caused the world, we should expect to find traces of him there, and feel a closeness to him there, more than in a man-made setting. Consider how often religious retreats choose natural settings, and how often monasteries and holy places of various different religions are in the wilderness or at least surrounded by nature. These are testimony to how effective it is to heighten the religious sense by regaining our connection to the natural world.

My other point is this: It is not spiritually healthy to be too far removed from the natural world. As the world becomes more urban and more citified, has that been a contributing cause to the increase in atheism? The atheists I'm sure would object that any modern increase in atheism is due to "progress". Perhaps; but perhaps it is also -- at least in part -- due to decreasing religious experience in everyday life, as people are removed from natural settings in which they experience the holy.


Martin LaBar said...

Thanks for pointing out that it's not spiritually healthy to be apart from the natural world.

See also Romans 1:20, and Job 36:22 - 41:34, where first Elihu, then God Himself, tell Job that God is revealed through nature.

Weekend Fisher said...

I like the passage in Job especially.

Take care & God bless
Anne / WF