One etymological reading of “atheism” is to be abandoned by the gods, godless. And as if abandonment wasn’t enough to spur repentance, a beloved and deeply spiritual teacher once told me that to be an atheist is to declare a world without the divine.
Why, I wondered, does that world seem as attractive as a strip mall, so terribly un-poetic and not at all like a reality that I want to inhabit? My attempts to answer this question have charted an interesting intellectual and (dare I say) spiritual course. It’s true that a godless world isn’t absent its natural beauty, but in a godless world I am confined to behold it without mysticism.
I prefer Emerson’s belief that “the world exists to the soul to satisfy the desire of beauty.” If only so I can observe with him “…the spectacle of morning from the hilltop over against my house, from daybreak to sunrise, with emotions which an angel might share. […] I seem to partake its rapid transformations; the active enchantment reaches my dust, and I dilate and conspire with the morning wind.” At the same time I resist Thoreau’s disenchantment when he writes of spirit, “however much it is to be regretted, with years I have grown more coarse and indifferent. Perhaps these questions are entertained only in youth, as most believe of poetry.”
Throughout history poets, painters, philosophers, musicians have drawn on the human condition and its mysteries to inspire their craft – from Emerson’s Christianity to Thoreau’s reliance on the Hindu Vedas. After all, society expects this from those of us in the humanities who seek to understand what it means to be human. I share their desire for a beautiful life animated by spirit, enlivened by the mysterious and written in poetry. This desire fuels a personal resistance to an explainable life. In this I am at least in pretty good company. Among others, conservationist Aldo Leopold who considers it fortunate that “no matter how intently one studies the hundred little dramas of the woods and meadows, one can never learn all of the salient facts about any one of them.”
I was thinking of this and of Leopold recently when a colleague in biology compared Leopold and his Land Ethic with the prophet Muhammad and Christ. Did I hear what I think I heard? Certainly the Transcendental style of Leopold’s predecessors can be read in Leopold’s own, and as often as Thoreau resisted doctrinal spirituality, he embraced naturalism and animism in turn. I would even argue that it is impossible to read Thoreau’s chapter titled “Where I Lived and What I Lived For” in Walden without recalling Leopold’s chapter called “July” in the Sand County Almanac. And as influences go, Leopold’s voice emerges also in concert with his contemporary John Muir. Muir’s observations on the Wisconsin prairie are cited in Leopold’s Almanac and call to mind Muir’s description of the great forests of the western United States as “God’s first temples.”
Nevertheless it is one thing to acknowledge a spiritual quality in our own work and in the work of someone like Leopold; to chart his influences back to a mostly Christian origin provides context and reveals some of what is unspoken in philosophy and science. And it is another thing entirely to elevate the work and the man to the level of prophet. We would do well to remember that heresy and prophecy are two sides of the same coin and they make dangerous the critique that is essential to responsible scholarship.
Marianne Patinelli-Dubay is a philosopher living, teaching and writing in the Adirondacks
Photo from The Aldo Leopold Foundation