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Reflections on Emerson’s Vision of “Nature”

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What is the nature of “Nature” in relation to “Humanity” and to “Spirit?” In his famous essay entitled Nature, Ralph Waldo Emerson endeavored to address this question. Here is a brief synopsis of his essay as found in Wikipedia, followed by my own commentary:

In “Nature,” Emerson lays out a abstract problem that he attempts to solve throughout the essay: that humans do not fully accept nature’s beauty and all that it has to offer. According to Emerson, people are distracted by the world around them; nature gives to humans, but humans do not reciprocate. Emerson breaks his essay into eight sections—–Nature, Commodity, Beauty, Language, Discipline, Idealism, Spirit and Prospects—–each of which sheds a different perspective on the relationship between humans and nature.

According to Emerson, humans must take themselves away from society’s flaws and distractions in order to experience the “wholeness” with nature for which they are naturally suited. Emerson believes that solitude is the only way humans can fully adhere to what nature has to offer. Reflecting upon this idea of solitude, and humans’ search for it, Emerson states, “To go into solitude, a man needs to retire as much from his chamber as from society. I am not solitary whilst I read and write, though nobody is with me. But if a man would be alone, let him look at the stars.” Clearly, a person must allow nature to “take him away,” society can destroy humans’ wholeness. Nature and humans must create a reciprocal relationship, “Nature, in its ministry to man, is not only the material, but is also the process and the result. All the parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of man. The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish man,” as Jefferson says, nature and humans need each other to be beneficial. This relationship that Emerson depicts is somewhat spiritual; humans must recognize the spirit of nature, and accept it as the Universal Being. “Nature is not fixed but fluid. Spirit alters, moulds, makes it. The immobility or bruteness of nature, is the absence of spirit; to pure spirit, it is fluid, it is volatile, it is obedient.” Emerson explains that nature is not “fixed or fluid;” to a pure spirit, nature is everything.

Although highly metaphorical, “Nature” creates such a different perspective towards one’s view of nature. Emerson abstractly speaks to everyone; metaphorically creating common ground.

Emerson uses spirituality as a major theme in his essay, “Nature”. Emerson believed in reimagining the divine as something large and visible, which he referred to as nature; such an idea is known as transcendentalism, in which one perceives anew God and their body, and becomes one with their surroundings. Emerson confidently exemplifies transcendentalism, stating, “From the earth, as a shore, I look out into that silent sea. I seem to partake its rapid transformations: the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind”, proving that humans and wind are one. Emerson referred to nature as the “Universal Being”; he believed that there was a spiritual sense of the natural world around him. Depicting this sense of “Universal Being”, Emerson states, “The aspect of nature is devout. Like the figure of Jesus, she stands with bended head, and hands folded upon the breast. The happiest man is he who learns from nature the lesson of worship”.

Here is my brief commentary: Emerson uses highly metaphorical and poetic language throughout all his essays to explore the fundamental relationships of human beings, including our relationship to nature and spirit, solitude and community, work and leisure, freedom and fate. In Nature he offers a series of perspectives and in so doing makes clear that there are a variety of ways to perceive and relate to Nature. As an American Transcendentalist he believes that man has become estranged from Nature through is over-involvement in utilitarian, instrumental, commercial and associational society. What would Emerson think if he came back to look at the contemporary American culture of corporate capitalism, conspicuous consumerism and Total Work today? Along with the other Transcendentalists Emerson sought the inspiration and solace of solitude and serenity amidst the unspoiled beauty and wonder of nature as both a way of healing and a path to Spirit. Emerson views Nature not from a materialist or dualist perspective but from a combination of pantheistic and panpsychist perspective. Not all forms of panpsychism are pantheistic or idealist, but Emerson’s seems to be. He seeks Nature as the Universal Being, the garment of the Divine. He sees Nature enlivened by Spirit, and the two as inseparable if not identical. He notices that on one side Nature seems to be fixed, like fate, and on the other side it seems to be fluid, like freedom, and Emerson attributes this freedom and fluidity to the indwelling presence of Spirit in Nature.

There is, of course, no way to employ reason, evidence, intuition and experience to settle the question of worldviews without presupposing whatever worldview we adopt as our interpretative paradigm in the first place. Worldviews such as materialism, dualism, pantheism and panpsychism all seem to engage in a kind of circular reasoning within the assumptions, beliefs, values and commitments of their own relatively hegemonic hermeneutical circle, but it is still fascinating to discover how each of them attempts to make sense of the world, and to consider what practical consequences might follow from these beliefs. The enduring appeal of Emerson and of the Transcendentalist vision, and of the Romantic Tradition to which it is closely related, is that is gives us a way of communing with nature, entering into solitude, delighting in beauty, awakening to wonder, knowing with our souls, identifying with Universal Being, and dwelling in the depths of Spirit. The Romantic and Transcendentalist vision reminds us, as Wordsworth put it, that there is more to life than “getting and spending, laying waste our powers, seeing little in Nature that is ours.”

Living Between Worldviews: Toward a Trans-Modern Integration of Humanity, Nature and Spirit

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In ancient spiritually and transcendentally oriented societies, it was taken for granted that the foundation for both nature and humanity is Eternal Spirit as Divine Source. In the modern secular age of exclusive immanence and non-transcendence, it is equally taken for granted that there is not Eternal Spirit or Divine Source that serves as a foundation for nature and spirit. We’re on our own, orphaned and forlorn without divine consolation, ontological meaning or transcendent hope, yet radically free to create ourselves out of a tissue of nothingness for the fleeting duration of our passionate yet absurd lives in a universe that consists only of “matter and the void,” as the existential materialist might say.

It is within this modern secular naturalistic and increasingly nihilistic context that some people today are seeking to transcend both the mythic consciousness of pre-modern civilization and the materialistic consciousness of modern civilization, to affirm the natural and humanistic dimensions without altogether denying the transcendent reality of a spiritual dimension.

The so-called “cultural creatives” constitute an emerging demographic sub-culture today that is seeking to transcend the dialectic between traditional religious culture and modern secular culture with a new creative synthesis that is inadequately described as “spiritual but not religious.” Anyone interested in exploring this new creative synthesis is invited to read Paul Ray’s book, “The Cultural Creatives,” or to look at how various integral and holistic thinkers like Ken Wilber, Arthur Young, Fritjof Capra, Christian DeQuincey, Thomas Nagel, David Ray Griffin, Raimon Panikkar, Ervin Laszlo, Kingsley Dennis, Duane Elgin, Marilyn Schlitz, Jean Houston, E.F. Schumacher, among countless others, have been attempting to create a new scientific, humanistic and spiritual paradigm for the planetary future, one that includes all dimensions and levels of reality within an encompassing whole.

At the same time, as a counter-balance to all Grand Narratives and Theories of Everything, there is merit in the alternative approach that includes Socratic Doubt, Montaignian Skepticism, Shakespearean Irony and Equivocation, Keatsian “Negative Capability” and Rilkian “Living the Questions.” This “agnostic” approach does not so much affirm a transcendental and depth dimension to the encompassing reality as evoke the Mystery beyond the limits of human language and “make room” for the spiritual dimension by acknowledging the limitations of human comprehension in the presence of the Eternal Questions.

There seems to be some integral wisdom in holding these two approaches in creative tension. Moreover, it may be entirely possible, though not obviously so, that the insights of idealism, materialism, panpsychism and dualism may each be “partly right” rather than absolutely and mutually exclusive. The Universal Human living in the global age will at least need to come to terms with each of these worldview perspectives that have captured the hearts and minds of billions of human beings across the ages and in our contemporary world.

The Cosmotheandric Experience: Toward an Encompassing Vision of Reality

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In his book, “Three Philosophical Poets: Lucretius, Dante, Goethe”, George Santayana envisioned a future day when the ancient, medieval and modern wisdom traditions of Lucretius the Naturalistic poet, Dante the Spiritual poet, and Goethe the Romantic poet might be reconciled and integrated into an encompassing vision of reality. In his book, “The Cosmotheandric Experience,” Raimon Panikkar attempts to do just that, to reconcile and integrate the cosmological, anthropological, and theological dimensions that constitute the encompassing reality. It is, of course, the theological dimension that will be most problematic for modern secular people for whom any traditional theistic conception of “theos” has become archaic and incredible.

In “The Experience of God,” Panikkar understands and anticipates this problem by defining the word “God” as a symbol, not a concept. For Panikkar, “God” is a symbol “to designate the ultimate, the infinite, the mysterious, the unknown, the unseizable.” Karl Jasper sets forth a similar notion with his idea of “The Comprehensive.” Of course this concept of God as “Ultimate Mystery” will not be acceptable to those who conceive of “God” in traditional theistic terms as a transcendent, sovereign, benevolent Divine Person (or a Communion of Persons) who possess conscious, creative and purposeful agency.

In the unfolding history of the world’s religions, it may be helpful to speak of four cultural primary forms that that the “divine milieu” has taken to express itself. These are the forms identified with the figures of the Shaman, Sage, Prophet and Mystic. The Shaman engages in a vision quest and brings back gifts of healing and insight to his people. The Sage seeks to perceive the underlying principles of life that constitute the way of harmony and balance. The Prophet seeks to speak truth to power, to challenge cruelty, oppression, tyranny and injustice, and to envision the future consummation of all things in a realm of peace and freedom, harmony and joy. The Mystic seeks to envision the unity and oneness of all things.

It is, of course, possible to pit these four spiritual wisdom traditions against each other, to create a culture war between them, as has been all to common in the history of man’s various quests to capture the Ultimate Mystery of the nets of his own language, stories, concepts and traditions. But it is also possible to see these attempts to name the ineffable as complementary symbol systems that can learn from each other, realizing that none of them and even all of them together can capture the Infinite Horizon in the nets of finite human comprehension. That seems to be the point of Panakkar’s vision of the emerging global religious consciousness.

In my next blog I’ll have some things to say about the Natural and Human Dimensions, and about how we might envision an interdependent and symbiotic relationship between the Natural, Human and Transcendent dimensions of the Encompassing Mystery of Reality.