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Three Transcendents, part 2: Nature

October 15, 2012
Snowfall, by H. Kopp Delaney

Through participation in nature, we take part in the evolving process of life itself.

- by B. T. Newberg

This post continues the series on transcendence in naturalism.  Part 1 introduced naturalistic transcendence.  Part 3 will cover community, and part 4 will delve into mind.

Nature

In our modern parlance, nature connotes that part of the environment which is beyond the domesticated human sphere.  In its broader and more original sense, though, nature is quite simply all that is.

Those are two different meanings, and their tension is instructive.  The former is an “other”, the latter a oneness that transcends self and other.  This is a dynamic that proves characteristic of transcendence.

In encountering wild nature, that which is quite other than our usual domestic, artificial, controlled habitat, we may become aware of an acute alienation, a sense of distance.  In perceiving the vastness of nature, its scale and ancientness, we feel small by comparison.  “Creature feeling” may overwhelm us, to use the term of Rudolf Otto.  An experience of the numinous* may arise as we behold the mysterium tremendum et fascinans.

Then, in contemplating how we too are a part of that vastness, how we have come out of it, belong to it, and contribute to it with every thought and action, the natural/artificial duality erodes.  An experience of the mystical* may arise as individual identity dissolves and a sense of participation pervades nature.

Finally, as we attempt to integrate this insight into our identity, an experience of the visionary* may arise as inspiration flashes before us our true place in nature and how we ought to live our lives in consequence.  Integration affirms the worth of the individual even as it appropriately subordinates it to the whole.

This kind of experience can happen whether looking into the eyes of a wolf, as in Aldo Leopold’s hunting experience, or gazing at the farthest reaches of the galaxy, as in Neil deGrasse Tyson’s “most astounding fact.”

Life and evolution

Insight into our relationship with nature can be aided by examining the concept itself.  When we delve into its history, we find nature is not so much a thing as a process.

Our word “nature” comes from the Latin natura, which translates the Greek physis (whence we get “physics”).  Gerard Naddaf explains in The Greek Concept of Nature that this word first appears in Homer as the intrinsic way of growth of a particular species of plant.  As the term is picked up by philosophy, it continues to refer to how a thing comes to be of its own accord.

This emphasis on growth, on the dynamic self-unfolding of a thing, captures the process of life.  It remains more or less intact in our concept of nature today, and is nowhere better embodied than the theory of evolution.

Thus, when we speak of participation in nature, we speak of taking part in the evolving process of life itself.  We join in what Karl E. Peters calls “dancing with the sacred.”

Cosmos

With the beholding of our place in the marvelous unfolding of existence, nature becomes cosmos.  This is a term most employed at the universal scale these days, but it’s actual meaning is an ordered, beautiful world:

cosmos.  from Gk. kosmos “order, good order, orderly arrangement,” a word with several main senses rooted in those notions: The verb kosmein meant generally “to dispose, prepare,” but especially “to order and arrange (troops for battle), to set (an army) in array;” also “to establish (a government or regime);” “to deck, adorn, equip, dress” (especially of women). Thus kosmos had an important secondary sense of “ornaments of a woman’s dress, decoration” (cf. kosmokomes “dressing the hair”) as well as “the universe, the world.” (Online Etymology Dictionary)

When we speak of cosmos, then, we speak of “good order” and, anthropomorphically, the ornamented “dress, decoration” and beautiful “hair” of our mother, nature.

We are participants in that beautiful order, one of the flecks in one of the diamonds in one of the barrettes in her flowing hair.

* numinous, mystical, visionary: Religious experiences as defined in Loyal Rue’s Religion Is Not About God:
In numinous experiences the subject-object distinction is preserved, even amplified, as the subject is filled with intense love and peace that comes with a sense of the presence of a holy and awesome transcendent power.  …
Mystical experiences are characterized by the annihilation of conscious distinction between subject and object, self and world.  The mystic enters an altered state of pure unified consciousness wherein all reality, the self included, is immediately and blissfully apprehended as essential oneness.  …
Visionary, or prophetic, experiences are often characterized by a trance-like state in which the seer receives a concrete message or vision communicated directly from an irresistible transcendent source.
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