Re-story-ation — A religious naturalist meditation on voices from things growing in a churchyard


Behind this address lies an important idea expressed by Steve Dunsky (a film maker with the U.S. Forest Service) in a recent piece by him called “Re-storying the World” for the “Centre for Humans and Nature”. He noted that his colleagues at Oregon’s “H.J. Andrews Experimental Forest” were engaged in something they called “re-story-ation” and Dunsky feels that,

“Before we make new policies, we need new metaphors.”

This seems to me to be something that we desperately also need to learn this in the sphere of liberal and progressive religion as we try to articulate and live a contemporary religion that, although it values much about our Christian past and heritage, also knows deep in its bones that so many of Christianity’s leading metaphors simply no longer speak to us; they are damaging to ourselves and our planet and no longer have the power to move us except repulsively. We really do need some kind of restoration through “re-story-ation” along religious naturalist lines. This can be done in countless small and large ways but here's one way — one possible religious naturalistic re-story-ation courtesy of Thomas Hardy.


Once we held that:

In God we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:28).

Today I suggest we hold that:

In nature we live and move and have our being (Donald A. Crosby A Religion of Nature, SUNY Press 2002, p. 10).

“Voices from things growing in a churchyard” by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928) First published in The London Mercury 1921, rev. 1922

You can hear an excerpt of Gerald Finzi's powerful setting of the poem at this link.

These flowers are I, poor Fanny Hurd,
Sir or Madam,
A little girl here sepultured.
Once I flit-fluttered like a bird
Above the grass, as now I wave
In daisy shapes above my grave,
All day cheerily,
All night eerily!

I am one Bachelor Bowring, “Gent,”
Sir or Madam;
In shingled oak my bones were pent;
Hence more than a hundred years I spent
In my feat of change from a coffin-thrall
To a dancer in green as leaves on a wall.
All day cheerily,
All night eerily!

I, these berries of juice and gloss,
Sir or Madam,
Am clean forgotten as Thomas Voss;
Thin-urned, I have burrowed away from the moss
That covers my sod, and have entered this yew,
And turned to clusters ruddy of view,
All day cheerily,
All night eerily!

The Lady Gertrude, proud, high-bred,
Sir or Madam,
Am I—this laurel that shades your head;
Into its veins I have stilly sped,
And made them of me; and my leaves now shine,
As did my satins superfine,
All day cheerily,
All night eerily!

I, who as innocent with wind climb,
Sir or Madam.
Am one Eve Greensleeves, in olden time
Kissed by men from many a clime,
Beneath sun, stars, in blaze, in breeze,
As now by glowworms and by bees,
All day cheerily,
All night eerily!

I’m old Squire Audeley Grey, who grew,
Sir or Madam,
Aweary of life, and in scorn withdrew;
Till anon I clambered up anew
As ivy-green, when my ache was stayed,
And in that attire I have longtime gayed
All day cheerily,
All night eerily!

And so they breathe, these masks, to each
Sir or Madam
Who lingers there, and their lively speech
Affords an interpreter much to teach,
As their murmurous accents seem to come
Thence hither around in a radiant hum,
All day cheerily,
All night eerily!

From The Dream of the Earth by Thomas Berry (Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 1988, 91-92 quoted in Donald A. Crosby (A Religion of Nature, SUNY Press, 2002, p. 54).

The simpler elements are not known fully until their integration into more comprehensive modes of being is recognized. Later complex unities are not fully intelligible until their component parts are understood. We would not know the real capacities of hydrogen, carbon, oxygen, and nitrogen were it not for their later expression in cellular life and indeed in the entire world of living beings, including the remarkable world of human consciousness. So with consciousness: the thoughts and emotions, the social forms and rituals of the human community, are as much “earth” as the soil and the rocks and the trees and the flowers. We can reduce the flowers to the atoms or the atoms to the flowers. There are no atoms that are just atoms, no flowers that are just flowers.



Next week Susanna and I begin our annual vacation and, as I thought of vacations past, I mused upon the fact that where ever we have gone there were many visits to, and moments of rest and contemplation in, churchyards. Indeed, the cottage where we will be staying for some of the time this summer lies immediately adjacent to a churchyard (see the colour photos in this post).

As a cyclist and walker, churches are for me often both important waymarks marking points along the day’s journey and also often the furthest points to aim for, and it is perfectly natural on reaching them to pause a while — sometimes a long while. A well-appointed bench or grassy knoll in the sun or shade (depending on the time of year) in a quiet church-yard remains one of the most pleasant and attractive palces to visit that I know. Given the need for us all, as a matter of urgency, to develop a philosophy of life which is ecologically aware and which encourages slowness, a quiet churchyard is, I think, increasingly becoming one very important place where we can do (and should be doing) the kind of thinking that needs to be done

I am, of course, not at all unusual in engaging in this activity and there are countless examples of writers and thinkers in British culture who have stopped in church-yards to think, contemplate and reflect. Thomas Gray’s (1716-1771) “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard” is perhaps the most famous example in the English language, a poem which was begun in the churchyard of St Giles parish church in Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire, in 1742 and where:

Beneath those rugged elms, that yew-tree’s shade,
         Where heaves the turf in many a mould’ring heap,
Each in his narrow cell for ever laid,
         The rude forefathers of the hamlet sleep.

During the eighteenth century it became very popular for poets to attend closely to what one might see and learn in churchyards and this tendency gave rise to the terms “Graveyard Poets” or, and this is my favourite, “Boneyard Boys”.

Click on the picture to enlarge
Well, I am, I confess, very much a modern “Boneyard Boy” and as a member of this “club” I remember well, the thrill of being given as a present in my early twenties  an early edition (1751) of another famous churchyard poem whose best-known line is, “procrastination is the thief of time”, Edward Young’s (1683-1765) “The Complaint: or, Night-Thoughts on Life, Death, & Immortality” (1742-1745). You can see the frontispiece and title page to the right. It could be me there in my Geneva gown!

Anyway, like the Boneyard Boys of old who were mostly clergymen, I find time spent in a graveyard very helpful to me — necessary in fact — in my own contemplations about our mortality and relationship to that in which “we live and move and have our being”, which the author of Acts calls God (Acts 17:28) and I, following Donald A. Crosby, call “nature” (A Religion of Nature, SUNY Press 2002, p. 10).

When, as a young teenager discovering by bicycle the Tendring Peninsular where I grew up, I first began my visits and musings in country churchyards I was, nominally anyway, still a conventional enough Christian and “God” was certainly still the “focal conception” of my religion (Crosby, p. 18). But, these days, this is no longer the case and as most of you know, although I maintain a genuine loyalty to the example and spirit of the man Jesus, I am today a thorough-going religious naturalist which is, of course, to be a certain kind of a-theist. I still love and admire the poems by people like Gray and Young, but I can no longer think, like Gray, that the souls of the bodies which about me lie are somehow reposing, as he says, “in trembling hope” in the “bosom of his Father and his God”, nor do I any longer think, like Young, that Christian hope in the resurrection of the body will prove eventually to triumph (Night Fourth — The Christian Triumph, lines 703-705) and who could say:

Read nature; nature is a friend to truth;
Nature is Christian; preaches to mankind;
And bids dead matter aid us in our creed.  

Anyway, what I feel I can see and learn from a churchyard is, today, very different from what it once was. Were I a conventional, contemporary new-atheist my musings would obviously be weighted only towards the material, physical world and it’s processes understood in a purely scientific way. Looking around me in a churchyard from my bench or grassy knoll I would say this, and no more: “We are beings simply composed of matter and energy and, when we die, this same impersonal matter and energy is completely dispersed into the impersonal surrounding world — and that is all there is and that is that.”

But, as I have said, I’m a religious naturalist which is to see the world in a different way than do the new-atheists. The adjective “religious” is very important here because it indicates my feeling that nature, considered as a whole, is “a proper focus of religious commitment and concern” (Crosby p. xi) and that we can “grant to nature the kind of reverence, awe, love, and devotion we in the West have formerly reserved for God” (Crosby, p. xi).

Now, before going on, I would like to be clear that I agree completely with the new-atheist's basic materialism and say, along with Peter Atkins, the English chemist and former Professor of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, that it is highly likely “everything there is springs from the natural world and involves no supernatural intervention” and that “the whole of all there is can be accounted for in terms of matter and its interactions” (Peter Atkins: “On Being”, OUP 2011, n. 1, p. xii).

However, I part company with the new-atheists in thinking that this does not also necessarily mean we either must, or can, reduce everything to matter and it's interactions.

I follow the materialist and naturalist philosopher John F. Post in wanting to point out that just because we are beings grounded solely in matter and it’s interactions this does not mean we can be reduced to, and fully understood, as the kind of beings we are, only in terms of matter and it’s interactions. This is because there are other, let’s call them emergent, aspects of our being. Matter and it’s interactions are clearly going to delimit or fix (in both predictable and unpredictable ways) how or what these emergent qualities and aspects of human life are (or are going to be) but that is quite different to saying that these emergent qualities of whole beings can be reduced merely to matter and it’s interactions (cf. John F. Post: The Faces of Existence — An Essay in Nonreductive Metaphysics, Cornell University Press, 1987, pp. 181-182).

Here we can turn properly to Thomas Hardy's poem with which we began, “Voices from things growing in a churchyard.”

I do not pretend to be an expert on the life and beliefs of Hardy but he seems to have been a man who, although he maintained a deep feeling for Christian ritual and worship — especially as they were found in rural communities — had moved definitively away from holding any kind of Christian metaphysical beliefs. Following people like Darwin and Huxley, he repeatedly expressed his own “conviction that the Cause of Things must be unconscious, ‘neither moral or immoral, but unmoral.’” But, even as he held this view, Hardy seemed always to have remained dissatisfied with the idea that everything could be reduced merely to the unconscious playing out of an unfeeling, unmoral natural law and he always sought in his work ways to speak meaningfully to us (as whole beings) of this something more.

It seems to me that in “Voices from things growing in a churchyard” we catch Hardy at work in the laboratory of a country churchyard, trying to discover, to use a word I used earlier, what emerges when, having lost your faith in a supernatural God and grounded yourself in the working out of matter and it’s interactions, you continue to pay close attention to the human feelings and values that are always-already emerging around us. In this sense I take Hardy to be working on a parallel naturalistic project to that undertaken by his scientific contemporaries such as Einstein, Rutherford and Bohr; together they seem to me to have been seeking out how the post-Newtonian, post-Darwinian world is going to play out for whole, living, breathing human, singing, dancing, music, poetry and novel creating beings.

I can’t help but see Hardy sitting in that churchyard acting for us as a religious naturalist experimenter and “interpreter” who, despite his loss of belief in a theistic God, is still able, miracle of miracles, to hear there a meaningful “lively speech” and “murmurous accents.”

He finds that he is still living amidst a cheerily, and yet also eerily “radiant hum” — not only of matter and it's interactions — but also amidst the radiant hum of an almost countless number of other, emergent qualities — qualities that become present to him in the form of the many (and often contradictory) feelings he has and in the poetic and literary images that whirl around and within him and us. I am tempted to say that for Hardy the religious naturalist experimenter and interpreter, this churchyard functions somewhat akin to Glaser’s famous bubble chamber that allowed us to see, for the first time, traces of previously invisible and highly elusive electrically charged particles. Hardy sees and experiences in that graveyard traces of previously invisible, unseen emergent aspects of the natural world and, to me, this poem functions as a kind of religious naturalist re-story-ation of the old life after death stories that we inherited from Christianity by which he, and most of us, can no longer live with a full heart and clean conscience.

As I have already noted, I have little doubt that all of this radiant hum is firmly (and finally) underpinned by matter and it’s interactions which unfolds without any supernatural intervention, but Hardy’s experiment in the churchyard surely helps reveals that whole beings (human or otherwise) can neither be fully be understood nor appreciated by reducing them merely to this substrate of matter and energy.

Hardy sees clearly that life, nature, is fully understood by whole beings only in it's living unfolding and not when it is something dead in the ground and broken into it’s basic constituent pieces as mere carrion for the hawkish, scientistic new-atheists to fight over. I sense Hardy would have responded positively and powerfully to Thomas Berry's words we heard earlier that “the thoughts and emotions, the social forms and rituals of the human community, are as much “earth” as the soil and the rocks and the trees and the flowers” and that, although we can “reduce the flowers to the atoms or the atoms to the flowers” there are, in truth for whole beings “no atoms that are just atoms, no flowers that are just flowers.” 

It is this insight that allows him meaningfully to say that poor Fanny Hurd can be understood to be now waving in daisy shapes above her grave, Bachelor Bowring as now dancing in green as leaves on a wall; Thomas Voss as now turned to clusters ruddy of view; Lady Gertrude as now turned to shining leaves; Eve Greensleeves as now ablaze as glowworms and bees; and Audeley Grey as now as climbing ivy-green.

This summer I know that I'll often be taking time to rest in a quiet and shady graveyard and I look forward once more to aquainting myself first hand with the blessing of that radiant hum that is the lively speech and murmurous accents of whole beings everywhere and whether human or ivy-green.


Harvey said…
Great work, Andrew. Enjoy your vacation. Harvey
Dear Harvey,

Thanks for your thanks. I will certainly try to enjoy my vacation. If you are having one I hope your's is good too.

Best wishes,