Piety and Wonder

by Rebecca Bynum (May 2006)



Oriana Fallaci makes the striking argument in “The Force of Reason” that war is an integral part of the natural world; even that war is inherent in the struggle for existence. Says she:


“War is not a curse which characterizes human nature: it is a curse which characterizes Life. There is no way to avoid war because war is a part of Life. Repulsive, hideous? Of course. So hideous that my atheism stems mainly from it. That is, from my refusal to accept the idea of a Creator who invented a world where Life kills Life, where Life eats Life. A world where in order to survive one has to kill and eat other living beings. Be they chickens or clams or tomatoes. If such an existence had been conceived by a Creator, I say, that Creator would be a very nasty one indeed.”


I believe this to be the feeling of a great many people today; people at least two generations removed from the soil and who no longer work with nature and thus feel independent of her, disconnected from her, and are now turning scornful and resentful of her. People indeed, who are no longer in awe of the mystery of existence, but judgmental of it; and instead of feeling gratitude for the privilege of being, are more likely to feel resentful at decay of the physical form. Fallaci rages “against the dying of the light,” against life itself, and her anguish is of course understandable to anyone who has ever suffered.


Carried within this attitude is also the modern posture of science and technology with their combined and continuing aggressive assault upon nature. Modern man is given to understand that nature may be transcended through technology. If the climate is too hot, we have air conditioning; too cold, we have central heat. Don’t like your nose? We can change it. Don’t like your sex? We can change that too. Don’t like growing older? We can make you look younger. And so on.


Nature is something to be feared and fought. Nature is viruses and bacteria. Nature is hurricanes and tornadoes and earthquakes. Nature is illness. Nature is decay. Nature is death.


Commenting on this state of affairs, Richard Weaver wrote:

            “I would maintain that modern man is a parricide. He has taken up arms against, and he has effectively slain, what former men have regarded with filial veneration. He has not been conscious of crime but has, on the contrary – and certainly this is nothing new to students of human behavior – regarded his action as a proof of virtue.

            “It is highly significant to learn that when Plato undertakes a discussion of the nature of piety and impiety, he chooses as interlocutor a young man who is actually bent upon parricide. Eurthyphro, a youth filled with arrogant knowledge and certain he understands “what is dear to the gods,” has come to Athens to prosecute his father for murder. Struck by the originality of this proceeding, Socrates questions him in the usual fashion. His conclusion is that piety, which consists of co-operation with the gods in the kind of order they have instituted, is a part of the larger concept of justice. It can be added that the outcome of the dialectic does not encourage the prosecution. The implication is that Euthyphro has no right, out of his partial and immature knowledge, to proceed contemptuously against an ancient relationship.

            “In our contemporary setting the young man stands for science and technology, and the father for the order of nature. For centuries now we have been told that our happiness requires an unrelenting assault upon this order; dominion, conquest, triumph – all these names have been used as if it were a military campaign. Somehow the notion has been loosed that nature is hostile to man or that her ways are offensive or slovenly, so that every step of progress is measured by how far we have altered these. Nothing short of recovery of the ancient virtue of pietas can absolve man from this sin.” (Ideas Have Consequences, Univ. of Chicago Press, 1948, pgs. 170-171)


At the other extreme are environmentalists who view nature as a form of divine perfection corrupted by the machinations of ugly mankind. These people seem to come very close to nature worship. Indeed, with the modern breakdown of metaphysical reasoning, 21st century man seems to have reverted to his ancient religious posture embodied in the fear and worship of nature. With no metaphysic to give him distance and perspective on nature, modern man lurches between two extremes: nature must be venerated and protected on the one hand, or conquered and exploited on the other, there is no middle ground.


Intelligent Design in one sense is a reaction to this loss of piety toward nature. Modern science gives man the mistaken impression that nature has no mysteries remaining to her and that all natural phenomena may be explained as a simple chain reaction of cause and effect, with need neither to reference a first cause nor to consider a final effect. All bridges to the next level of intellectual integration, the meaning of life in other words, have been burned. And if life itself has no meaning, then the obvious conclusion for the layman is that his life has no meaning either. Indeed, if life contains no meaning, neither can it contain any purpose. So by pointing to all that is unknown, the Intelligent Design movement is attempting to restore our sense of wonder and humility toward nature, even a sense of piety and reverence, which has been forgotten in the rush of scientific conquest; but which is the proper posture of man toward nature.


Human beings consistently seek affirmation of their existence, something to give their lives meaning. Of particular poignancy is the modern reverence for mass communication embodied in the desire to be on television, for there is a semblance of meaning in fame. Those whose faces are recognizable to large numbers of people through this medium seem to be perceived as more real because their reality exists in a larger realm, in a larger community: their reality is shared and thus they touch a certain oneness, but oneness not with God, in the sense of higher values or higher truths; but with man, and so immediately values are lowered.


One truly wonders if murderers are doing their evil work in an ever more heinous fashion in order to gain that mystical communion with their fellows through the television screen. That they are known is more important than what they are known for. The person is more important than the virtue, man is over god, and the world is turned upside down.


Particularly pathetic are the poor souls playing to the crowd and parading every vice known to man on shows like the one hosted by Jerry Springer; humiliating themselves and their families before the world in order to “be on TV,” because being on TV is the only thing in the modern world that has the power to make someone a person of significance. You are somebody if your face is on television. The cry of the masses is: “I want to be real!” And this is the only way that seems promising to them, for religion, true religion, in the sense man used to have of identifying with spiritual value or moral truth as a way of “becoming real,” has vanished. The conscious development of righteousness of character along with a sense of spiritual progress is so eroded a concept as to be almost imperceptible in the modern world. Substituted is a proliferation of literature consisting of various guides to self-affirmation; but we cannot affirm ourselves to ourselves and come away with anything of value. The masses watching Jerry Springer know they must seek affirmation from outside themselves, and since they cannot seek it from a God they are told does not exist, they seek it from a mystical union with man, which is worship of man.


Islam crystallizes the worship of man both in the concept of the ummah, or “community of believers” which takes precedence over the individual, and also in the worshipful veneration of one specific man, Muhammad, so much so that the tiniest details of his personal habits are imitated to this day. The likes and dislikes and sayings and doings of Muhammad form the entire basis for good and evil in the Islamic system. There is no other measure. In Islam, man (in abstract) is not the measure of all things; one specific man is. Islam puts man in place of God, the material in place of the spiritual, and the group in place of the individual; and for certain we see its fruits.


But let us consider nature. If we look carefully at the natural world one of the first things we notice is the great individuality expressed there. No two blossoms, butterfly wings, blades of grass or snowflakes are exactly alike. And when we look at butterfly wings, for example, we grasp plainly a geometric pattern and we also grasp, just as plainly, that what makes the wing a particular individual wing, is its deviation from that perfect pattern, as it exists in the abstract. The same with blossoms, each one varies in a color and pattern.


At the same time we witness in living things a seeking after an ever more perfect expression. Plants, for example, are constantly moving and jockeying for a more perfect position in relation to light above and water beneath. There seems to be inherent in life a yearning, not simply to be, but to become, and to become more “perfect” even though this perfection exists only “in the mind of God” as an abstraction. So a rose expresses “roseness” in the sense of a pre-existent perfect pattern and simultaneously expresses that roseness in a unique and individual fashion.


There can be no concept of spiritual progress without the concept of “perfecting” one’s life individually, of substituting higher motives in place of baser ones, of adapting oneself to a universe containing moral law. Every businessman knows that “what goes around, comes around” and the successful ones find lasting success by dealing honestly and fairly with both customers and creditors. The concept of karma has been borrowed for modern usage to express this concept of an objective, morally structured, universe that must be dealt with on its own terms. Our fathers took for granted that “God is not mocked,” but modern man is no longer certain of this. If God doesn’t exist, then how can there be sin?


Pride and sloth are currently celebrated, as is the casual feeding of the sexual appetite. Consequently, crime escalates and broken homes proliferate. Man is no longer responsible for the care of an immortal soul, so we no longer seek to secure our eternal destiny through the gradual perfecting of that soul; rather we pursue the perfect orgasm instead. 


What we think of as culture often consists of an insistence on self-control. It is the conformity that comes to man’s rescue to help deliver him from the slavery of his passions. It reminds man he is not the center of the universe and that self-indulgence is the prelude to self-destruction. Now, having abandoned the concept of God’s will as an objective reality, we are left with no “should be,” no basis for righteousness, indeed no basis for right versus wrong at all. Thus our culture has become directionless with no way of judging better or worse outside individual egotistical desire and we see the wreckage this has caused all around us.


Modern man is taught that he is naturally good and that evil, if it exists at all, originates from forces outside the self or, specifically in the case of Islam, outside the group. Modern man is taught there is no higher will than his own so, if he owes responsibility to anything, it is to his fellows, the community. The communal good is the highest good, communal loyalty is the highest form of devotion, and the advance of an earthly kingdom is substituted for the advance of the heavenly one in the hearts of men. Islam, as an extreme form of this thought, engenders no sense of wonder toward that which is “outside,” for it recognizes no greater reality than the Islamic system itself.


To recover true piety, it is first necessary to recover our sense of wonder toward a reality much greater than ourselves and much greater than any human system of thought, a reality that is infinitely complex and infinitely beautiful, with layer upon layer of meaning and ultimately of value as well. In other words we must come to recognize that goodness, truth, and beauty exist as realities outside ourselves, realities that existed before we were born and will continue to exist after we are gone from this world. We may even contemplate them as existing eternally.


Perhaps it is necessary to discover love as a reality in the inner world before we can see it as a reality in the outer world, but once it is truly discovered, the former world of war, struggle, ugliness and death, gradually transforms into a world of fantastic beauty and awe-inspiring complexity. Indeed we may conclude that the universe we inhabit is a good and benevolent place and that love is the very substance of life.


In the absence of this spiritual orientation, once an integral part of thought, modern man lurches between “sentimentality on the one hand and brutality on the other” with no middle ground in between. We are supposed to able to find meaning in our individual lives but we are not allowed to integrate that meaning into a larger framework; so we live with a central contradiction (meaning vs. non-meaning) that allows us tolerate a myriad of other contradictions, and finally we are left with no reliable way to identify value or to distinguish better from worse.


The human mind, which was once thought of as the great arena of moral decision-making, filled with tragedy and pathos and consequences eternal, is now thought to simply be a repository of sensory input. The former majesty and grandeur of human life is reduced to the process of filling up the data bank, which is of course promptly destroyed upon physical death, leaving nothing behind but the faulty and temporary records in the data banks of others, or the scribbling on paper, which will also be destroyed in the end. Is it any wonder the masses flock to entertainment and seek self-indulgence as a means of staving off these conclusions? 


And is it any wonder the worship of man in the form of Islam has come to claim adherents? And is it not the purpose of this false worship to deny the reality and substance of love? Brothers beating and killing sisters. Fathers murdering their own daughters. Everyone sacrificing their sons and brothers. An inner “thought police” so powerful as to never allow deviation from the thought system, a system that must deny the existence of that which it cannot control, a system at war with human affection.


In order to remedy this state of affairs we must begin by admitting the reality of the unseen substance of life. Like the wind, we do not behold it directly, but we perceive it in its effects upon the material world. Second, we must restore the concept of God’s will as the highest good, and redefine sin as deliberate rebellion against this Good. Third, we must come to acknowledge that it is not necessary to grasp a concept in its entirety, but it is necessary to grasp the concept of the existence of higher concepts. In other words, we needn’t grasp truth absolutely in order to grasp the concept of the necessary existence of absolute Truth. Fourth, we must begin to approach our own existence with some degree of humility, recognizing that the order of the universe contains mysteries we cannot fathom and complexities we will never fully understand. And when we look out upon the stars we ought to be awed by the vastness of creation and when we look upon a microscopic cell we ought to be awed by its intense complexity and intricate beauty. We may even allow this feeling of awe to cultivate within us a sense of proper piety toward Nature.


And then, when we hear a bird sing, we may begin to hear an expression of Love.



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