The God of Nature and The Nature of God


“I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown
deep like the rivers.” I love those lines from the Langston
Hughes poem, that we read earlier. Those lines remind me of my
grandmother and of her relationship with nature. Perhaps the third
most important relationship in her long life.

You see, my grandmother Laura kept a garden. Whether it was the rural
Alabama of her youth or the urban Michigan of her old age, Laura
always kept a garden. Laura’s garden in Alabama kept her children
fed in the long years after my grandfather’s untimely death.
Though Laura married him as a child of only 13, and was a widow at 41,
there would be only one man in her life. I think that was her most
important relationship. She never remarried, though she was a great
beauty and doubtlessly had many suitors. She had her four sons and
five daughters and they comprised her second most important
relationship. And she had her garden. Those three relationships –
husband, children, and nature, sustained her through a life of 93
years.

Once they reached manhood, Laura’s sons came north, part of the
early twentieth century black migration from southern farmland to
northern factory. They came and found greater freedom and opportunity
in the cities of the north. Most settled in and around Detroit and
worked for the automobile companies. Their sisters stayed behind for a
while, finding their way into technical school or college, becoming
teachers, secretaries, and bookkeepers. But once their incomes allowed
it, the brothers sent for their sisters to join them up north. And
once their homes and families were established, the sisters sent for
their mother. I can imagine my grandmother Laura carrying the seeds
from the South to plant her new garden up north.

Even in the middle of the urban Detroit neighborhood where she spent
her final years and where I spent my earliest years, Laura grew an
improbable assortment of fruits, vegetables, and flowers.
Strawberries, peaches, grapes, rhubarb, watermelon, cabbage, string
beans, peanuts, even an ear of corn sprouted in our yard one year. And
there were tulips, hydrangeas, ferns, and countless varieties of
roses.

It was somewhat disconcerting to me as a child having all these crops
in our urban backyard. For a skinny, short kid who wasn’t good at
sports and wore glasses, this was just one more thing for the
neighborhood kids to tease me about. Couldn’t we afford food from
the grocery store, I wondered aloud? My mother assured me that indeed
we could afford food from the grocery store. Then why weren’t we
growing grass like all the normal people in the neighborhood?
“We’re not like normal people,” my mother said,
thoughtfully. “Son, we’re southern.”

Laura planted the soil in our backyard until she no longer had the
physical capacity to get down on hands and knees. After that, Laura
would stand over my mother, directing her as she planted the
vegetables and flowers by proxy. I think Laura enjoyed the experience
far more than my mother. But even when gardening by proxy, after the
hole was dug and just before the plant was set in place, Laura would
take a palm full of rich, black planting soil in one of her ancient,
crinkled hands. She’d squeeze the soil tight between her fingers,
as if imbuing it with some essence of herself, and then drop it into
the waiting hole where the plant would sit. Once the roots were buried
and the plant sat upright, Laura would drizzle water from our garden
hose, a last libation to the earth before entrusting it to grow the
life now planted.

My grandmother was a grandmaster when it came to connecting with the
spirit of nature. Her garden reflected this mastery. She could grow
anything, pretty much anywhere. Her garden connected Laura with nature
and I believe that connection enlivened her spirit every one of those
93 years.

African Americans lived much closer to the earth when we lived in the
South following slavery. Leaving the South and its prejudices behind
also meant leaving the earth behind. It meant abandoning our closeness
with the natural world. We willingly gave up our knowledge of the
rhythms of planting and harvesting, because that knowledge seemed to
be a part of what kept us enslaved. It was part of what made us
valuable as property. African slaves were prized not just for their
brawn and endurance, but also for their knowledge of how to cultivate
crops in hot climates. But the knowledge of nature that made us
valuable as slaves had other uses beyond those envisioned by our
enslavers.

Our knowledge of nature could be our ticket to freedom. We would steal
away in the darkest night, trusting the stars to guide our steps
towards liberty. But up north for only a generation and we forgot how
to read, let alone how to follow, that stellar compass. Stars which
once showed the way over river and ravine, couldn’t even guide us
to the corner market. Up north, to be “country,” that is, to
have the mannerisms and customs that marked one as newly arrived from
the rural south, was a thing to be ashamed of. It was a mark of
ignorance and gullibility, rather than a sign of deep knowledge and
understanding of the natural world. This kind of country knowledge was
of little use in steel factories and treeless neighborhoods.

We willingly cut ourselves off from nature because to be close to
nature was to be close to slavery. To be close to nature was to be a
gullible, newly arrived, ignorant-of-the-ways-of-the-world yokel. To
be close to nature was to be a part of the past. The future was a
northern city with dirt safely tucked beneath the pavement. Freedom
was in the factory, not on the farm, and certainly not in the forest.

Now, of course, urbanization is everywhere, even in the South. It is
possible to grow up in urban America never having seen an ocean,
river, or even a lake. It is possible to grow up in urban America and
to have never seen a desert, a plain, or a mountain. And if you are
growing up black in urban America, this is not only possible, it is
probable. Black children know pavement better than pasture. Litter,
and not leaves, blow down the streets of black America. The air gives
us asthma, the water comes laced with lead from ancient pipes, and the
stars vanish in a haze of artificial light. The stars that once lit
the way to liberty can no longer be seen.

For six years I chaired the board of trustees of a place known to many
of you as The Mountain, a nonprofit youth camp and adult
retreat center, in North Carolina. Part of what got me to care enough
about The Mountain to serve on its board was its attempt to
introduce urban dwelling black youth to the natural world – a program
initiated by members of this congregation. Every summer, The
Mountain
would give inner city black youth their first experience
with being in nature. And you know what? The experience would terrify
them.

The Mountain is not a place you would expect to inspire fear.
There are places so beautiful that they etch their imprint not just
upon the eye, but upon the spirit itself. There are places that speak
not just to the ear, but directly to the heart. There are places that
reach deep inside you to touch the very core of your humanity. There
are places just this beautiful. The Mountain is one such
place. Yet, inner city black youth find it terrifying.

They fear that the unfamiliar, unpaved ground beneath their feet will
give way and they will fall off the mountain. They fear the deep
blackness of the night and the nearness of the stars, having never
been without artificial light. They fear the percussive music of
cicadas, having never before heard their drumbeat beneath the urban
cacophony of cars, trains, and airplanes. Children who can name the
friend or the family member they have lost to violence, children
prematurely hardened by a harsh reality, such children huddle afraid
at night in a place that doesn’t require door locks. Something is
very out of whack when children are so afraid of nature.

Nature deficit disorder, is the term the columnist and author Richard
Louv uses to describe the alienation of children and adults from the
natural world. I’m quoting now from Louv’s 2006 book, Last
Child in the Woods
1:

Nature deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation
from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention
difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses.
The disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and
communities. Nature deficit can even change human behavior in
cities…since long-standing studies show a relationship between
the absence, or inaccessibility, of parks and open space with high
crime rates, depression, and other urban maladies (p. 34).

Louv is not talking about black Americans in his discourse on nature
deficit disorder. He is talking about Americans in general. Alienation
from nature is not just a black thing, it is an American thing. In
contemporary times, perhaps it is even becoming a world thing. But
such alienation is especially ironic – especially ironic – among black
Americans because it is so against the historical grain. It is so
contrary to the traditions and beliefs of our forebears. I speak now,
not just of our black grandmothers and grandfathers. I speak of those
forebears who never made the journey, who never left the shores of
ancestral West and Central Africa.

UUism is a chosen religion. Most of us come to it from some other
faith tradition. Many of us come to it wounded by some other faith
tradition and to our detriment the wound often never heals. It never
heals because we spend our religious lives disparaging the things we
once believed. To our detriment, many of us never stop recoiling in
pain, anger, or mere indifference when we encounter anything that
smacks of the tradition from which we’ve come. The tradition from
which we’ve been wounded. And this is very much to our detriment.
Because we lose not only the parts of those traditions that wound, we
lose the parts that heal, that nourish, that give spiritual meaning to
life.

But you see I have a different problem. I’m an orphan when it
comes to my most ancient spiritual heritage. I come to UUism, not
wounded by, but rather in relative ignorance of the traditions of my
earliest forebears. Slavery hangs like a curtain between me and the
spirituality of my ancestors. I never knew, never practiced, was never
nourished by the rituals and traditions of my forebears—–save for
those few scraps, those few spiritual remnants recognizable in the
things to which my grandmother turned for solace. Becoming Unitarian
has been for me an opportunity not to recoil or deride the traditions
of my forebears, but rather an opportunity to study traditions made
alien to me not because of woundedness, but because of my own
ignorance.

I have been studying African spirituality for over a decade and have
learned it is very much a spirituality centered in nature. Learning
about it has helped me understand my grandmother and those
embarrassing crops she grew in Detroit. African spirituality is
fundamentally about the enchantment of nature. The African spirit is
embodied in nature. It is constantly immanent in nature and has no
existence outside of the material world. In this way, African
spirituality has much in common with the European pagan and Native
American spiritual traditions that have become better known to UUs
since our adoption of earth-centered traditions as a sixth source of
religious inspiration. African spirituality is a lessor-explored part
of that sixth source within our faith movement.

Most of us have only a superficial appreciation of African
spirituality, if we have any at all. We associate it with what appear
to be primitive, superstitious beliefs in magic and spirits. A
sizeable gulf divides the modern world and the traditional theological
concepts of Africa. How can we possibly reconcile African spirituality
with modern scientific notions about life and the universe? The same
question can be asked about most of the world’s religions, steeped
as they are in the ideas and language of a pre-scientific era. This is
not just a problem for African religion. African religion is not alone
in clinging to antiquated beliefs and in being stubbornly impregnable
to the ideas of science.

In some respects, my challenge in embracing the African part of my
spiritual heritage is not too different from the challenge faced by
those of you who feel anger at the traditions that have left you
wounded. My challenge, perhaps like yours, is to achieve a
contemporary understanding of ancient ideas and concepts. I want to
share with you some of what I have found within my African spiritual
heritage and I want to share with you my attempt to understand that
heritage in contemporary language and context.

There are many African spiritual traditions and I can’t possibly
tell you everything I have learned about them in the space of one
sermon. So I am going to take just one of those traditions to
illustrate some fundamental aspects of the African spirit – the spirit
of nature.

I have a special fondness for the Ebo people. The Ebo were thought to
be strong and robust workers by slave traders. Despite their need for
such workers in the plantation fields, South Carolinians wanted
nothing to do with the Ebo. Ebo males were perceived as rebellious and
fiercely independent. In 1803, a group of captured Ebo slaves were
sold and loaded onto a ship in Savannah, Georgia for transport to St.
Simons Island. In transit, the Ebo rose up in rebellion and took
control of the ship. Their would-be slave masters were either thrown
or jumped from the ship to their deaths. Upon reaching St. Simons, the
Ebo fled for safety to a swamp. They fled for safety into nature.

Here, the historical record ends. What happened to Ebo after that is a
matter of conjecture, for they were never seen again. They may have
perished in that swamp. Local legend, however, says they used magic to
transform themselves into a flock of buzzards and then flew back to
their homeland in what is now Nigeria. It was belief in this legend
which prejudiced slave traders against the Ebo and kept them off the
South Carolina plantations. You can see why I have a fondness for the
Ebo.

But why would the escaping Ebo slaves flee into nature? Why would they
expect to find safety in a strange swamp? Understanding Ebo religion,
understanding the religious traditions indigenous to Africa, makes the
answer obvious. It is in nature where they expected to find God. It is
in nature where safety and sacredness lie.

The Gods of West and Central Africa are almost all anthropomorphic.
They are projections of the human imagination onto nature. But the God
of the Ebo is perhaps the least anthropomorphic of these deities. God
is known as Chukwu by the Ebo. The root of this word for God is
“Chi,” a word that the Ebo use to describe the energy or
spirit of life. Chi is a word that has become familiar to westerners
since the introduction of T’ai Chi, the Chinese system of exercise
and meditation. There is no linguistic connection between Chinese and
the Ebo language. It is purely coincidence that these two cultures use
the same word to describe a spiritual or life energy.

God to the Ebo is not a supreme being, not a larger, more powerful
version of ourselves. Rather God is life supreme. God is the greatest
embodiment of the energy, the spirit, that lies at the core of life. A
part of this energy, a part of this spirit, exists in all things, that
is to say, all things have some quantity of the energy of life
apportioned to them. But even more importantly God exists no where
except in the material things which make up nature.

The African cultures of my ancestors enumerate both the qualities of
this natural spirit and the human emotions it inspires. The African
spirit embodies ultimacy: It is the ultimate force or principal upon
which all else depends. Evident in the beauty, order, and grandeur of
the universe at all levels, this spirit inspires our awe, our wonder,
and ultimately our reverence.

The African spirit is omnipresent: It exists everywhere and in all
things in measured proportion. It is never disconnected, never
disembodied, never apart from the natural world. Manifest in all
aspects of nature, both living and nonliving, the presence of this
spirit makes all existence sacred. As we encounter and recognize it in
nature, the human reaction is inevitably one of joy.

The African spirit is omnipotent: It powers and rules the universe.
Not as a spirit sitting separate and apart from the universe, not as a
being that intervenes willy-nilly, monkeying around with the laws of
nature at will. The African spirit never violates the laws of nature
because it is synonymous with those laws. It is a spirit greater than
ours, a power to which we can never hope to aspire. It dwarfs our
feeble existence, humbles us, reminds us of our mortality, our
dependence, our limitations.

Humbled as we are by its power, we are fortunate in that the African
spirit is beneficent. We have the great fortune to find ourselves in a
universe that on the whole is congenial to our existence. The laws
that govern the universe apply to all impartially, so that the natural
world is both beneficent and just. There are no special favors for a
select few. There is nothing like the Judaic Chosen People, nor the
Calvinist Elect of God, in African spirituality. Nature’s
beneficence is impartial and, perceiving this, the human reaction is
one of profound gratitude.

The African spirit embodies creativity: From it has sprung all
existence. From it flows the beauty visible on both the smallest and
grandest scales. Even in our greatest art, we never come close to
replicating the creativity of nature. No painting ever takes the
breath away as surely as the commonest sunset. No symphony has ever
soared the human spirit as high as the simplest sunrise. We stand ever
in rapt appreciation before nature’s canvas.

Finally, the African spirit embodies omniscience: Within nature lies
all information, all potential knowledge. Though human knowledge
advances day by day, what we know pales in comparison to what is yet
to be discovered in nature. Nature will always be a mystery to us.
Though partially knowable, partially discernable to us, we can never
hope to possess full knowledge of nature. There is always more to be
known, always something just beyond our grasp. The human reaction to
the “omniscience of nature” can only be one of profound awe
and wonder at the mystery.

The African spirit – the spirit manifest in nature – is ultimate,
omnipresent, omnipotent, beneficent, creative, and omniscient. As
such, it inspires our profoundest reverence, joy, humility, gratitude,
appreciation, and wonder. But is the African spirit compatible with
modernity and science?

The noted cell biologist, Ursula Goodenough, describes the sacredness
she finds in nature. A sacredness that lies at the heart of her
personal spirituality. She was a Christian when she wrote this, though
more recently she has become a Unitarian. I’m quoting Dr.
Goodenough:

Our story tells us of the sacredness of life, of the
astonishing complexity of cells and organisms, of the vast lengths
of time it took to generate their splendid diversity, of the
enormous improbability that any of it happened at all. Reverence is
the religious emotion elicited when we perceive the sacred. We are
called to revere the whole enterprise of planetary existence, the
whole and all of its myriad parts as they catalyze and secrete and
replicate and mutate and evolve (p. 170).
“#2”>2

A similar theme is evident in the words of the iconic physicist,
Albert Einstein, as he reflects on the order he perceives in the
universe. Quoting Einstein now:

Everyone who is seriously involved in the pursuit of science
becomes convinced that a spirit is manifest in the laws of the
Universe – a spirit vastly superior to that of man (p. 152).

3

Both scientists are articulating their unique perceptions of the same
universal spirit perceived by my African ancestors.

But science can not prove the existence of a spirit in nature. When we
perceive such a force in the workings of nature, we are responding not
as scientists, but as theologians. We are responding as human beings
whose brains have evolved to discover, to interpret, and to find
meaning in the patterns of events we perceive. Religion and theology
have lost their role in explaining the workings of nature. Science has
taken over that function in the modern world and the technological
prowess of contemporary civilization speaks to science’s success
in this arena. But religion and theology retain their interpretative
role. They remain the primary means through which we discover meaning
in the mechanics of the universe.

The African spirit is not open to empirical verification. But
scientists like Einstein and Goodenough perceive a spiritual quality
in the workings of nature nonetheless. That ancient African cultures
were aware of this same spiritual quality and placed it at the center
of their religion speaks to the power of the drive within ourselves to
find spiritual meaning. As we all lie within the grip of this drive to
find meaning, it is hardly surprising that human beings would perceive
a spiritual force in nature across cultures and across centuries.

My grandmother Laura is a mostly silent figure in my memory. I knew
her until her death during my puberty. I can scarcely recall a single
word that she spoke. Though a constant presence in my early years, I
cannot recollect the sound of her voice. I recall her sitting, always
sitting peacefully. And I recall her in her garden. The place where
her face would light up and her wrinkles would fade. The place where
her knowledge was deepest, and her peace was at its most profound. Her
garden was the place she found respite, healing, perhaps even ecstasy.
As she got old, my grandmother eventually stopped going to church, but
she never stopped going to her garden. Her garden was the place she
found the spirit within nature. The place where her soul indeed grew
deep as the poet’s river. So may it be for us all. Amen.

1Louv, Richard (2006). Last Child
in the Woods. Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill.

2Goodenough, Ursula. The Sacred
Depths of Nature. Oxford University Press, 1998.

3Einstein, Albert. Letter to a
child who asked if scientists pray, January 24, 1936. Quoted in
Calaprice, Alice (Ed.) (1996). The Quotable Einstein. Princeton
University Press, Princeton, NJ.