For The Beauty Of The Earth
But the ungodly by their words and deeds summoned death;
considering him a friend, they pined away
and made a covenant with him,
because they are fit to belong to his company.
For they reasoned unsoundly, saying to themselves,
‘Short and sorrowful is our life,
and there is no remedy when a life comes to its end,
and no one has been known to return from Hades.
For we were born by mere chance,
and hereafter we shall be as though we had never been,
for the breath in our nostrils is smoke,
and reason is a spark kindled by the beating of our hearts;
when it is extinguished, the body will turn to ashes,
and the spirit will dissolve like empty air.
Our name will be forgotten in time,
and no one will remember our works;
our life will pass away like the traces of a cloud,
and be scattered like mist
that is chased by the rays of the sun
and overcome by its heat.
For our allotted time is the passing of a shadow,
and there is no return from our death,
because it is sealed up and no one turns back.
‘Come, therefore, let us enjoy the good things that exist,
and make use of the creation to the full as in youth.
Let us take our fill of costly wine and perfumes,
and let no flower of spring pass us by.
Let us crown ourselves with rosebuds before they wither.
Let none of us fail to share in our revelry;
everywhere let us leave signs of enjoyment,
because this is our portion, and this our lot.
Let us oppress the righteous poor man;
let us not spare the widow
or regard the grey hairs of the aged.
But let our might be our law of right,
for what is weak proves itself to be useless.
‘Let us lie in wait for the righteous man,
because he is inconvenient to us and opposes our actions;
he reproaches us for sins against the law,
and accuses us of sins against our training.
He professes to have knowledge of God,
and calls himself a child of the Lord.
He became to us a reproof of our thoughts;
the very sight of him is a burden to us,
because his manner of life is unlike that of others,
and his ways are strange.
We are considered by him as something base,
and he avoids our ways as unclean;
he calls the last end of the righteous happy,
and boasts that God is his father.
Let us see if his words are true,
and let us test what will happen at the end of his life;
for if the righteous man is God’s child, he will help him,
and will deliver him from the hand of his adversaries.
Let us test him with insult and torture,
so that we may find out how gentle he is,
and make trial of his forbearance.
Let us condemn him to a shameful death,
for, according to what he says, he will be protected.’
Thus they reasoned, but they were led astray,
for their wickedness blinded them – Wisdom of Solomon 1:16-2:21
Last summer, not long after we’d moved here to Rockford, we sat around the dinner table looking out our bow window, watching a mother rabbit lead her kits outside for what might well have been the first time. We laughed as they tried and sometimes failed to get the hang of their over-large, over-strong hind legs. One actually managed a back-flip, trying desperately to figure out how to use those gangly things to get about. This went on for quite a while, and we cleaned up our dishes and the rabbits continued their trials and tribulations.
I should add that this took place in a large patch of manicured flowers and hostas, so there was plenty of cover. The mother rabbit hovered close, but not too close. One of the kits ventured out to the lawn, hipping and hopping with what seemed more than a bit like rabbit joy. We were finishing cleaning up and I saw movement and glanced up. There was a hawk in the front yard. I said something to Lisa, who pounded out the front door. The hawk glanced at her, then took off with what appeared to be leisurely contempt, a rabbit kit clutched in its talons.
Lisa came inside, crying. She was angry at the hawk. The little rabbit was just playing, not hurting anyone, she said. She was, in some sense, correct. Yet, the hawk wasn’t doing anything wrong, either. On the contrary, the hawk was doing something as important as the clutch of rabbits – it was providing food for itself and, perhaps, some chicks as well. As much as we human beings become attached to cute, furry little animals, we must also remember that hawks and other predators have to live, have as much right to eat as young rabbits have the right to figure out how to use their limbs.
This terrible beauty is as much a part of our world as the view of Grand Teton National Park above. It is more than “the cycle of life”. To insist nothing more than “eat or be eaten” is happening is to reduce all of the world around us to simple, basic, cause-and-effect. It is, in a sense, to fall in to the sin of the godless as described by the Wisdom of Solomon above. If we reduce all around us to geological and chemical and biological and physical causes, we do more than miss the subtle yet harsh beauty of a hawk catching its prey. The godless, as described above, are those who hold all the world in contempt. They hold other people in contempt. They are, in our modern parlance, sociopaths.
A photo such as this would mean nothing to them. Friends? Hardly. They would insist that at least one if not more of the people in this photo is working some kind of angle, some way of getting something for themselves from one or more of the others. Perhaps it’s sex – more than likely it’s sex – but it could also be money, or maybe something as simple as a way to get away with something they might not otherwise be able to get.
I am attempting, yet again, to read Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries by Jean Delumeau. It is a long, dense, complicated, yet subtle book, and I’m hoping fifth or sixth try might be the one that carries me over the top. A major theme is the emergence, first within monastic communities in late antiquity, then spreading through much of society until it became a major part of Renaissance culture in both the Mediterranean region and northern and central Europe, of what was known as contemptus mundi. This idea of hatred for the world could find some justification in Scriptures, although, as Delumeau makes clear, the word “world” in the Bible can best be described as “equivocal”. Yet, as he also points out, much of the language used by those espousing contemptus mundi echoed not Godly piety but those called Godless by The Wisdom of Solomon.
And these attitudes are still with us. I’m old enough to remember Ronald Reagan’s first Secretary of the Interior, James Watt, insisting we should exploit all our natural resources to the fullest precisely because it didn’t matter because Jesus was returning soon. All the hullabaloo about homosexuality is rooted, at least in part, in a contemptus mundi that understands any kind of sexual pleasure not as a gift from God, but a trap from what is called “the Prince of this world,” as if somehow the Devil made sex pleasurable so that we would forget to praise God for it. The way we ignore global warming and its effects, I believe, can be laid at the feet of contemptus mundi, as well. After all, it’s just the world, and it’s a sinful world at that.
The affirmation in perhaps the most repeated Scripture (at least in the United States) that God loves the world never quite gets past a kind of generalized disgust with the way the world is. We fear snakes and spiders and other creatures. We see other human beings either as objects to exploit or worse, or a threat waiting to exploit (or worse) us. Just read the literature from the NRA – the pictures they paint of all those hordes of criminals waiting to break in to your homes and steal your possessions and hurt your family necessitate having a gun on hand to kill them before they can hurt you. Most of all, we Christians who say every Sunday that we are saved from sin and death, fear death so much we are part of a society and culture that denies its very existence. We shuffle our aged out of the way. We insist that any death is an injustice. We assume, for instance, the death of a child is punishment for some wrong we have done. We refuse to acknowledge that death is as much a part of God’s world as birth and life. The difference, at least for those of us who claim the name of the risen Christ, is that we should no longer fear it, but just see it as part of the world as it is, this world that God loves. We should remember the affirmation that even death, one day, will be gone.
When I affirm the beauty of the world, the joy of companionship and family and love, the pleasure of sex, I am only praising God for this world that God made for us. This world full of beauty – some of it harsh, some of it overwhelming, some of it subtle, all of it beloved and worthy of preserving because it is God’s world, and we are its caretakers. Any other claim, despite a long history in both official Christian doctrine and popular lore (sermons, tracts, monastic guides, etc.), rests not on Scripture but a far older, Platonic tradition that is antithetical to the God who created this world, created us, so that all of it can give praise to God. Do not trust, do not believe those who say this world is evil, or ugly, or filled with hatred and violence precisely because it is “the world”. There are those things, to be sure, and it is our job as disciples of Jesus Christ to work to end them, to transform this world, to see and hear and experience the beauty of creation in all its myriad ways.