“We say God and the imagination are one... How high that highest candle lights the dark”—a religion without God and an ecology without Nature?


From Timothy Morton’s introduction to his book “Ecology Without Nature: Rethinking Environmental Aesthetics” (Harvard University Press, 2007, pp. 18-19

The more we study it, the more we see that, beyond the fact that many different people have many different opinions about it, nature in itself flickers between things — it is both/and or neither/nor. This flickering affects how we write about it. Nature is ... animals, trees, the weather ... the bioregion, the ecosystem. It is both the set and the contents of the set. It is the world and the entities in that world. It appears like a ghost at the never-arriving end of an infinite series: crabs, waves, lightning, rabbits, silicon ... Nature. Of all things, nature should be natural. But we cannot point to it. What we usually get is a suggestive effusion on something “Whose dwelling is in the light of setting suns, / In the round ocean, and the living air, / And the blue sky, and in the mind of man,” as Wordsworth marvelously put it. Nature becomes supernatural, a process made clear in John Gatta’s decisive treatment of the history of Puritan ideas about nature and wilderness (though Gatta sets aside the more radical Puritan possibilities of the Diggers, the mystic Jacob Boehme and the vegetarian Thomas Tryon). Or nature dissolves and we are left with sheer matter, and a sequence of ideas with numerous high points in radical materialist philosophy, such as Spinoza. We want there to be something in between. But would that be natural? Would it not be supernatural? Would that be supernatural like a spirit — more of a refined essence — or a ghost — something more substantial, maybe made of ectoplasm? We could go on splitting hairs infinitely. Our journey to the middle, to the “in between” space, whatever we call it, would go on generating binary pairs, and we would always be coming down on one side or the other, missing the exact center. It does not matter whether this is materialist spirituality, or spiritual materialism. Thinking posits something “over there” that maintains a mysterious allure. 

Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour (1954) by Wallace Stevens

Light the first light of evening, as in a room
In which we rest and, for small reason, think
The world imagined is the ultimate good.

This is, therefore, the intensest rendezvous.
It is in that thought that we collect ourselves,
Out of all the indifferences, into one thing:

Within a single thing, a single shawl
Wrapped tightly round us, since we are poor, a warmth,
A light, a power, the miraculous influence.

Here, now, we forget each other and ourselves.
We feel the obscurity of an order, a whole,
A knowledge, that which arranged the rendezvous.

Within its vital boundary, in the mind.
We say God and the imagination are one . . . 
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind,
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.


“We say God and the imagination are one...  How high that highest candle lights the dark”—a religion without God and an ecology without Nature?

In one way or another I regularly return to the question of the meaning and the appropriateness or not of using, the word “God” (capital “G”). That this is not merely a personal quirk of mine or this local congregation was revealed a few weeks ago by an edition of the national Unitarian magazine, The Inquirer, which was entirely devoted to this theme.

There is no doubt about it that in our liberal religious movement (and, indeed within the Quakers) the word “God” is deeply problematic and many people among our number would really rather do without it — I certainly hear this view expressed to me many times a year. Given that many of those who speak to me about this issue are generally aware that I sometimes self-describe as a kind of Christian a-theist they are, therefore, quite naturally puzzled as to why I’m not leading the charge against the word “God” and continue to use the word myself.

I have a number of reasons for this but, today, I’ll just stick to offering you the main one.

The most succinct expression of this reason I know was uttered an interview by the writer, last president of Czechoslovakia (from 1989 until its dissolution in 1992) and 1st President of the Czech Republic (from 1993 to 2003), Václav Havel (1936–2011). I last placed these words before you for your consideration only back in February of this year but they deserve repeating. He began by noting that

“. . . the arrogant anthropocentrism of modern man, who is convinced he can know everything and bring everything under his control, is somewhere in the present crisis.”

And, given this, Havel believed that the only way for the world to change for the better was by starting with “a change in human consciousness” and going on to say that

“Man must in someway come to his senses. He must discover again a deeper sense of responsibility toward something higher than himself. I think that only through directing oneself toward the moral and spiritual orientation based on the respect for some ‘extramundane’ authority — for the order of nature or the universe, for a moral order and its impersonal origin, for the absolute — can we arrive at a state in which life on this earth is no longer threatened by some form of ‘megasuicide’ and becomes bearable, has, in other words, a genuinely human dimension. This direction, and this direction alone, can lead to the creation of social structures in which a person can once more be a person, a specific human personality” (“Disturbing the Peace”, Faber, 1990, pp. 11-12).

The need for a widely recognised placeholder word for this “something higher” seems to me to be unquestionable. We need this “source” of a sacramental energy which pushes against the extreme and highly destructive hubris that humankind is continually tempted to display (as well as, of course, the positive sacramental energy for transformation in the face of complacency).

Indeed, in connection with this thought I’ve become increasingly sympathetic towards the (alas) little known German/US political philosopher Eric Voegelin (1901-1985) who explores similar ideas in his thought. I find myself responding very positively and strongly to his pithy statement to a friend that “Of course there is no God. But we must believe in Him.”

What both Voegelin and Havel seem to be circling around in their own ways is the human religious, political and ethical/moral need for what the poet Wallace Stevens (1879-1955) called “a supreme fiction” which might be able to provide us with some kind of shared civic, hubris- and complacency-resisting transformative myth that we know to be a fiction and yet we believe in nonetheless. This idea is clearly present in one of Stevens final poems called “Final Soliloquy of the Interior Paramour” (a paramour is, of course, a kind of lover):

We say God and the imagination are one . . .
How high that highest candle lights the dark.

Out of this same light, out of the central mind
We make a dwelling in the evening air,
In which being there together is enough.

In an age when — to people like me and perhaps you, too — belief in a supernatural God seems impossible,  I remain hopeful, if not optimistic, that around such a poetic, transformative, civic myth of God a decent and progressive modern religious, political and ethical/moral subjectivity may yet still be able to form. Without such a  civic mythical, narrative centre in our lives it seems to me that the primary kind of religious and political subjectivities that are likely to continue to develop are nearly always going to be nihilistic and lead to either a passive individualisms or to active totalitarianisms and nationalisms.

But I recognise that even if you agree with the reasons I’ve just given for keeping in play the word “God”, the word itself remains, of course, deeply problematic and this is why I have often used in our worship Spinoza’s famous locution deus sive natura (“God or Nature”) — where the word “sive” is the “or” of equivalence; God IS Nature and vice versa. (Spinoza, not coincidently, also interested in the creation of a civic religion.) Anyway, deus sive natura, has been attractive to a religious person  who openly and highly values the natural sciences like me because, as Frederick C. Beiser (b. 1949) notes:

“Spinoza’s famous phrase ‘deus sive natura’ made it possible to both divinize nature and naturalize the divine. Following that dictum, a scientist, who professed the most radical naturalism, could still be religious; and a pastor, who confessed the deepest personal faith in God, could still be a naturalist” (“After Hegel: German Philosophy, 1840-1900”, Princeton University Press, pp. 4-7).

But I’m constantly aware that there are at least two significant problems with how the term “God or Nature” is received by many people when I use it in public.

The first is that some people hear it as if it were being uttered by a person who can’t quite make up their mind whether they want to talk about an identifiable “thing” over there called “capital G God” or an identifiable “thing” over there called called “capital N Nature” and who wants, therefore, merely to hedge their bets.

But that is most certainly not what the term means. When Spinoza  and I refer to “God or Nature” we are not referring to any “thing” or “things” at all. We are, instead, referring to natura naturans — which is to say nature naturing, or nature doing what nature does. One of the things that natura naturans (nature naturing) does, is allow (gifts the possibility) that all the things that are, are. All the things that nature allows to be are collectively called natura naturata (nature natured). But natura naturans (nature naturing) is not ITSELF a thing or even a collection of things. Rather it is somewhat like the kingdom of God of which Jesus spoke — it is “something” you can’t ever point to and say “Lo here! or, lo there!” for, behold, natura naturans (nature naturing) is always-already within and among you and all things, all the time.

But when the word “Nature” is used (and especially when it is capitalised) it problematically begins to look like it is supposed to be thought of as an identifiable thing “over there”, just like the word god (with or without a capital G) is commonly thought to be an identifiable thing “over there”.

It is for this reason that I’ve recently been very taken the work of the contemporary philosopher Timothy Morton (b. 1968) who notes [on his “About” page found on his blog] that

“One of the things that modern society has damaged has been thinking. Unfortunately, one of the damaged ideas is that of Nature itself. How do we transition from seeing what we call ‘Nature’ as an object ‘over there’? And how do we avoid ‘new and improved’ versions that end up doing much the same thing (embeddedness, flow and so on), just in a ‘cooler,’ more sophisticated way? When you realize that everything is interconnected, you can’t hold on to a concept of a single, solid, present-at-hand thing ‘over there’ called Nature.”

And here’s what he says about how ecological writing uses the word “Nature”:

“Ecological writing keeps insisting that we are ‘embedded’ in nature. Nature is a surrounding medium that sustains our being. Due to the properties of the rhetoric that evokes the idea of a surrounding medium, ecological writing can never properly establish that this is nature and thus provide a compelling and consistent aesthetic basis for the new worldview that is meant to change society. . . . Putting something called Nature on a pedestal and admiring it from afar does for the environment what patriarchy does for the figure of Woman. It is a paradoxical act of sadistic admiration” (“Ecology Without Nature”, Harvard University Press, 2007, pp. 4-5).

These powerful words of Morton allow me quickly to come to the main point of today’s address which is really an extended question put to both me and you.

It seems to me that — just as Morton thinks it is true of Nature — we can say that putting God on a pedestal is also a paradoxical act of sadistic admiration as, too, can be the use of the term “God or Nature.”

In this sense we most certainly, perhaps even desperately, need a religion without God and an ecology without Nature.

But, the problem is that having said this — AND MEANT IT — I think that unless “something”, some “supreme fiction”, is placed somewhere poetically “above” us in the fashion indicted by Havel, Voegelin, Stevens and Spinoza then we remain in danger of succumbing to the dreadful kind of hubristic behaviour that is so successfully threatening our current politics and religion and also threatening seriously to damage our home planet.

It seems to me that one possible way of speaking about what I mean is to talk more about how we may learn to structure our lives around both civic and internalised poetic “narrative centres” — interior paramours if you like — that flicker between being appropriately named god (although always uncapitalised and always unknown) and being sometimes appropriately named nature (although always uncapitalised and always natura naturans); something that can still be for us the highest candle (for all its flickering) that is able to light the dark and which can help us make a dwelling in the evening air, in which being there together is enough.


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