Natural Beauty, Humility and Stature: Thinking in Jewish 45
Last night at dinner our server, a delightful woman named Amy, and I got to talking about places to visit in order to take in the natural wonders of the Southwestern United States. I think the conversation began when Amy and my wife began comparing ski resorts but it quickly evolved to places we have been. We spoke of the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and Saguaro National Park when I mentioned that I had just checked off Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park from my bucket list. Amy then commented, “It surely makes you feel small, almost insignificant, when you see the beauty of this world. The time it took to carve these magnificent landscapes and the short time we are here to enjoy them.” The only thing she left out of her comment, but it was clearly on the tip of her tongue, was the God which obviously created these landscapes. I don’t mean to put words in her mouth, for she didn’t actually add the bit about God, but I was certain that she didn’t want to offend by making God a central character in the drama of nature.
To a large extent, her restraint was refreshing. I have been in similar situations where my interlocutor was not so thoughtful nor so humble. More often than not, the fundamentalist Christian response to such a conversation about natural wonders includes the notion that the creator God made this beauty in order to humble mankind, to make us feel insignificant in order to understand the power of the creator. To that I generally respond, “Poppycock!” There is no reason to believe that there is a creator God because of the natural forces that shaped the wonders of our planet. In fact, there are geological explanations that trump the mystic late Bronze and early Iron Age mythologies, no matter whose mythologies one chooses to adapt.
While natural wonders tend to humble the viewer, one does not require a creator God in order to be humbled by the grandeur of the natural world. To the contrary, humility comes from the eons required for a small, rather insignificant, river to carve through layers of stone to create a canyon which one can stand in awe of. The geological forces required to converge to create the canyons and mountains that make us breathe a bit quicker as we stand in their glory (religious terminology need not be exclusive to religious belief) explain a great deal without removing the humbling effect of these natural wonders. Standing on the rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, looking nearly straight down on to the Gunnison River some 2,000 feet below, hearing the rush of the water as it continues (albeit more slowly than ever because the dams upstream limit the flow of water through the canyon floor) to carve through layers of rock, is truly something to stand in awe of but not something to attribute to the whims of a creator God. Beauty need not be compromised by failing to understand the science contributing to the creation of these magnificent structures. Amen.
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