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Haunted by nature in our secular ageHaunted by nature in our secular age

Haunted by nature in our secular age

Doug Sikkema
3 minute read

It’s World Environment Day, but rather than join the cacophony of usual suspects clamouring for increased sustainability, decreased reliance on pollution-increasing energy sources, and other predictable (and good) messages from your local, neighbourhood eco-warrior, I wonder if I could trace a more intriguing line of thought. I wonder if I could briefly try to unpack what the natural world might be for many in our “secular age” incapable of imagining it to be so. To do this, I want to focus in on a particular “crack in the secular,”—to shamelessly borrow from Jamie Smith’s Comment editorial last September—where the transcendent might break into the immanent frame many imagine themselves to exist within and penetrate the buffered selves many imagine themselves to be.

To start, I want to talk about those mysterious “moments of fullness” one gets in the natural world, regardless of their (a)religious orientation. There is “something” about the natural world at certain moments that surprises us with its poignancy yet often eludes our abilities to articulate it. You know what I’m talking about? Perhaps you’ve had the experience when you’ve summited a mountain or hiked to the bottom of a terrifyingly beautiful waterfall or entered a forest at the dying of summer. Or maybe you’ve even felt “it”—this ambiguous “something”—on a cool evening in your manicured suburban backyard as the sun goes down or in the shabby, neglected city park near your home as you’ve watched birds gathering food. There’s a strange sense that there is some meaning, some enigma, here for you to interpret and make sense of. It’s as if the natural world was trying to communicate something to you. You likely don’t know the what, but you’ve experienced the how. It’s haunting.

Yet the secular social imaginary when it comes to the natural world has a hard time making sense of such experiences. One might just ask: Is there some chemical, synaptic phenomenon taking place within my mind? Is this a version of the Stendahl syndrome?  But perhaps it’s during these rare moments of fullness that we entertain the striking possibility that our ancient brothers and sisters who really believed the nymphs hadn’t yet departed were not so naïve as Anthropology 101 implied. Sure, they were ignorant of many things we’ve discovered with careful observation and testing, but their worship seems to be a much more appropriate response to the natural world than calculated analysis or a searching after causal explanation—as good as those things are.

Of course, in a secular age, such moments of “fullness” rarely translate into full-fledged worship; rather, they are more likely muted, suppressed, and ignored. But again, in ways that elude any strict materialistic or scientific explanation, they do happen.

One of the reasons I’m increasingly fascinated in the tiny branch of literary studies that goes by the name ecocriticism is really not because I’m some uber environmentally savvy or ecologically conscientious granola cruncher who’s attained the 8th echelon of veganism. No; really, it’s because much literature highlights this fascinating need we seem to have always felt to say something about the world in which we find ourselves, to respond to it in some way, whether that be worship or indifference or complete hostility. Since recorded history we’ve told poetry, sang songs, danced, painted pictures, orchestrated symphonies, and, well, even written blogs just trying to put our finger on what this planet is and is for and for whom.

As we continue to respond to the world around us, we see that the immanent frame—the disenchanted world that has severed the transcendent—is cracked here; it has no satisfactory way to explain for this. But perhaps it’s here where the light can shine in as to what this natural world might be. Could the natural world, if we trust Paul’s epistle to the Romans and John’s gospel account, actually be the expressed language of a Creator? Could it, even more, be a summons? If so, then in the very act of creating languages, creating literatures and songs, in the act of trying to “make sense” of the world as we find it, we are—despite our religious leanings—opening ourselves up to a participation in “something” in which, by which, and through which the immanent frame has significance.

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