‘Empowered Creatress’ Venus—A religious naturalist Mothering Sunday meditation

Venus in the Cambridge Manse garden
Opening Prayer from ‘Characteristics of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times’ by Anthony Ashley Cooper, 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (1671-1713) (ed. Lawrence Klein, Cambridge University Press, 1999 p. 298-99)

The speaker is standing on a hilltop at sunrise:

O glorious nature! Supremely fair and sovereignly good! All-loving and all-lovely, all-divine! Whose looks are so becoming and of such infinite grace, whose study brings such wisdom and whose contemplation such delight, whose every single work affords an ampler scene and is a nobler spectacle than all which every art presented! — O mighty nature! Wise substitute of Providence! Empowered creatress! Or thou empowering deity, supreme creator! Thee I invoke and thee alone adore. To thee this solitude, this place, these rural meditations are sacred while thus inspired with harmony of thought, though unconfined by words and in loose numbers, I sing of nature’s order in created beings and celebrate the beauties which resolve in thee, the source and principle of all beauty and perfection.

Thy being is boundless, unsearchable, impenetrable. In thy immensity all thought is lost, fancy gives over its flight and wearied imagination spends itself in vain, finding no coast nor limit of this ocean, nor, in the widest tract through which it soars, one point yet nearer the circumference than the first centre whence it parted. — Thus having oft essayed, thus sallied forth into the wide expanse, when I return again within myself, struck with the sense of this so narrow being and of the fullness of that immense one, I dare no more behold the amazing depths nor sound the abyss of deity.—

Yet since by thee, O sovereign mind, I have been formed such as I am, intelligent and rational, since the peculiar dignity of my nature is to know and contemplate thee, permit that with due freedom I exert those faculties with which thou has adorned me. Bear with my venturous and bold approach. And since nor vain curiosity, nor fond conceit, nor love of aught save thee alone inspires me with such thoughts as these, be thou my assistant and guide me in this pursuit, while I venture thus to tread the labyrinth of wide nature and endeavour to trace thee in thy works.


Introduction to the readings

Today is Mothering Sunday which, to remind you, was not originally a celebration of individual human mothers (that’s what Mother's Day is about) but, instead, about honouring a rather more ‘transcendent’ concept of mothering. In the medieval Christian context, Mothering Sunday was the day upon which a person would either visit or send gifts to their mother church and its associated community. This was done because it was widely believed that the earthly mother church was both a symbol of, or portal through which we could glimpse our free, heavenly mother, Jerusalem above.

We get this image from St Paul and his letter to the Galatians where, in his own very distinctive and to us, today puzzling and obscure Jewish/Christian language, he articulates a common intuition that behind or above our earthly world, a world in which all actual mothers and all actual individual instances of mothering die and pass from view, there is some kind of primordial, free, eternally creative mother and mothering upon which a person's life, and indeed all life, always already depends. He wrote:

Tell me, you who desire to be subject to the law, will you not listen to the law? For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and the other by a free woman. One, the child of the slave, was born according to the flesh; the other, the child of the free woman, was born through the promise. Now this is an allegory: these women are two covenants. One woman, in fact, is Hagar, from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia and corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the other woman corresponds to the Jerusalem above; she is free, and she is our mother (Galatians 4: 21-26).

Now, in past Mothering Sunday addresses I’ve tended to explore and critique either the earthly or ‘transcendent’ idea separately but this year it seemed to me that in order to remain true both to the historical and present day reality of the day then it would be good if I could find a way to keep them together. Fortunately, as I began one of my regular re-readings of Lucretius’ sublime Epicurean poem ‘On the Nature of Things’, a way to do this came into view and so from this here are two relevant extracts.

Proem to Book One of Lucretius’ On the Nature of Things, trans. by David R. Slavitt (University of California Press, 2008)

     Mother of Aeneas and of his Rome, and of gods
and men the joy, dear Venus, who underneath the gliding
heavenly signals busies the seas with ships and makes
earth fruitful (for only through you are living things conceived
and because of you they rise up to bask in the light of the sun):
from you the harsh winds flee and the skies’ black storm clouds scatter
at your approach; for you the intricate earth sprouts flowers,
wide ocean roads subside into gentle smiling, and furthest
reaches of heaven glow serene in response to your prompting.
In the spring’s first days, the nurturing western breezes breathe
free again, and birds in the air, smitten by you,
warble the news of your coming, as beasts of woods and fields
cavort in the meadows and splash through brooks—and all for love.
Under your spell, all creatures follow your bidding, captive
eager even. Look to the teeming seas, the mountains,
the fast flowing streams, the treetops, or rolling gorse where the birds
flutter and dance the reel of lust as earth once more
renews itself as you have ordained, for you alone
govern the nature of things, and nothing comes forth to the light
except by you, and nothing joyful or lovely is made.
I seek, therefore, your blessing and help in writing these verses
that I presume to compose on the Nature of Things, the way
things come about and are—for Memmius’s sake, my friend
whom you have favoured, goddess: for his sake give me words.
     Make it happen that war interrupts its savage work
on land and sea, for this would be in your power
and you can bring to mortals that peace we long for as Mars,
who is mighty in warfare and rules over bloody deeds, adores you,
will lay his head on your lap, defenseless, utterly vanquished
and altogether undone by love’s unhealable wound.

From Book II

Now let us turn our attention to the fascinating subject
of how far the various atoms differ in shape and form.
Some are endowed with a similar morphology, but often
they are altogether different — and this is hardly surprising,
seeing as how there are so many of them. The supply
is, one may say, quite endless. And out of this infinite number
we should expect to find a great many shapes and sizes.
Look at the race of men, or schools of scaly fish,
or herds of cattle, or packs of wild beasts in the forest,
or the flocks of birds that throng the banks of brooks and ponds
or call back and forth in the pathless woods. Examine them closely
and you will find that each of the members of these groups
differs, if only slightly, from all the others' appearance.
Look at any of these with care, and you will discover
subtle differences in shape or size or appearance.
How else could a newborn know its mother? Or how could the mother
distinguish her own offspring? But we see that they can do this,
and they know one another as clearly as men do. Think of a shrine
where a calf has been slain on the altar, the smells of gore and incense
mixing together. The mother, bereaved, wanders the meadow
searching the greensward for any trace of the cloven hoof
of her dear calf. She surveys, looking everywhere for the lost
creature and fills the air with grievous lowing and wailing,
and again and again she returns to the stall, each time with hopes
that are always disappointed. And the tenderest willow branches
she spurns, and the freshest fodder, grass still wet with the dewdrops.
Nothing can divert or delight her troubled mind
or lighten her burden of woe. The sight of the other happy
calves in the pasture cannot lessen her grief as she mourns
her own, her only child that she knows so well and seeks
without respite. Think of the tender kids that know
their own mothers, or bleating wobbly lambs that find
almost always the right ewe with the right udder
to satisfy their urgent demands and nature's too.


 Venus, ‘Empowered Creatress’—A religious naturalist Mothering Sunday meditation

Before we turn directly to the two passages taken from Lucretius heard in our readings and our opening prayer by Lord Shaftesbury, I need to bring before you once again two terms I regularly use which are borrowed from Spinoza: natura naturans (‘nature naturing’) and natura naturata (‘nature natured’)

The latter term, ‘nature natured’, refers to all the actual, existent things in the current state of the universe such as pencils, starfish, nails, squeaky doors, planets, quarks, chocolate and, importantly today, actual existent mothers (whether of human or other living beings).

The former term, ‘nature naturing’ can be conceived as something primordial, the ultimate dynamic and creative principle or power implicit in nature itself, something which, at its most fundamental level, is process, not pattern (c.f. Crosby: ‘Living with Ambiguity’, p. 7). It’s important to observe that this latter, primordial process has often been given the colloquial name “Mother Nature” and today, following Lucretius’ example in the first extract we heard from his poem, I want also to give it the poetic proper name ‘Venus’ and, along with Lord Shaftesbury in his prayer, the honorific title, “Empowered Creatress”.

So, now we are ready to start our Mothering Sunday reflections proper and I’ll begin with ‘Empowered Creatress’ Venus to whom both Lord Shaftesbury and Lucretius offer up their thanks, gratitude, wonder, reverence and awe. She is for them a symbol of the ineffable and utterly mysterious ‘nature naturing’.

Venus in my study
In bringing this ineffability temporarily under the form of an effable, poetic Venus, we embodied creatures — examples of ‘nature natured’ — are enabled to say a proper, effable, face-to-face thank-you to the ineffable creative process of ‘nature naturing’. Those of you who have been in my study will know there is a statue of Venus, and those who have even been in our little garden at the Manse will know there is yet another and, in my reflective prayerful moments, at work or at rest, I often find myself giving thanks to her for the simple fact of being alive. But it is vital to understand that this Venus I address is a wholly poetic supreme fiction and I take it that what Lucretius, Lord Shaftesbury and I are personifying and addressing is an ineffable process and most certainly not an actual, effable thing.

Now those of you who have been coming to this church for a long while will know that one of my most important philosophical sparring partners, mentors and friends was Professor Jonathan Harrison who, in the last years of his life, became a member of this church community. Jonathan’s magnum opus, ‘God, Freedom and Immortality’, was once described in a professional peer review as being comparable in merit to Hume’s “Dialogues on Natural Religion”, something I’m happy to second without hesitation. I mention this because Jonathan’s view of God in that important and fine book comes close to what I want to suggest is true about the ‘Empowered Creatress’ Venus in the hands of Lucretius and Lord Shaftesbury. Jonathan wrote:

‘Once upon a time I thought that God did not exist, but might be the object of favourable attitudes (for example love) in spite of this. I have since revised that view and now hold (very tentatively) that a better way of putting the matter is to say that God neither exists nor does not exist. (This is a view that has been held by some mystics.) By saying God neither exists nor does not exist I hope to do justice to two strands in sensible thought about religion, the fact that there are no traces of God in nature and the fact that at least some men need God, and have experience that presents itself as direct awareness of him’ (p. 672).  

This is certainly true of Venus because, for starters, we know there are absolutely no traces of a real, existent ‘Empowered Creatress’ Venus to be found anywhere in nature. Also, as I get older, especially at the coming of spring, I increasingly find myself having experiences that present themselves as akin to a ‘direct awareness of her’ in the sense that, as I linger in the increasing warmth of the sun, listen to the joyous sound of spring bird-song and imbibe the sublime colour and fragrance of the spring flowers and blossom, the poetic picture that, wholly unbidden, comes into my mind is the ‘Empowered Creatress’ Venus — Mother Nature if you like — and to her I find myself spontaneously giving thanks. What no longer ever comes unbidden to my mind is the male personification of the heavenly creator father still preferred by the Christian religion of my birth. I’m admitting here that that my own emotional, poetic needs as a religious human being are, today, far, far better served by an image of the feminine than they are by masculine images which latter are simply no longer congenial to my general religious naturalist disposition and sensibilities.

Make of this what you will but, personal, poetic emotional preferences aside, it is vital to understand that, at least in the way I’m telling this story, Venus — like Jonathan’s understanding of God — is best thought of as neither existing nor not existing.

So, on Mothering Sunday today, I am unhesitatingly giving thanks to the ‘Empowered Creatress’ Venus, Mother Nature and, in so doing, I find I’m able to honour the ancient idea we saw expressed by St Paul that there is some kind of primordial, eternally and freely creative mother and mothering upon which my life and all life always-already depends. This primordial mother and mothering may no longer be anything supernatural — it is a wholly natural phenomenon — but it is still something transcendent, ineffable and yet ever-present and ever-creative throughout the whole cosmos.

So, all in all, the foregoing is, for me, about what we can call the ’transcendent’ side of Mothering Sunday. Let me now turn to the obviously earthly side of Mother’s Day.

One of the infinite number of things that the ‘Empowered Creatress’ Venus, Mother Nature, ’nature naturing’, brings forth into being is, of course, all actual existent mothers who are examples of ‘nature natured’. Unlike Venus, however, there are everywhere actual traces of such mothers. All of us here form such traces, we are lines of becoming that spring in an obviously causal way from them. To them, as much as to Venus, we clearly owe our thanks for being, our thanks for being here and our thanks for being here together. But, in addition to the existence of human mothers we must not forget that there exists, too, mothers of all other creatures in the world and here we may turn to Lucretius’ beautiful and moving example of the mother cow and her calf.

Lucretius introduces this touching image in the context of a wider argument about the different shapes, sizes and appearances of atoms which he believed move and interact and which make up, along with voids, our whole world. He’s concerned about atoms because he felt that a meditation upon their behaviour revealed to the wise person that everything which happens in the world is as the result of natural processes and not the actions of the gods. (In passing, although we now know that his proto-scientific view is not correct, for all that, the moral and religious force of his argument remains unaffected in our own age of quantum physics). Anyway, for Lucretius the differences in these atoms are not only what allow different creatures to exist (such as men, scaly fish, herds of cattle, wild beasts and birds) but they also enable these same creatures to distinguish between individual members of their own species. He choses to illustrate this skill by the example of the mother cow and her calf.

The choice of illustration at this point in the poem is not random because he also wants to show the reader something of the pernicious consequences of superstitious religion — not least of all the fact that one of the pernicious things superstitious religion did in his own age was offer up living sacrifices to the gods, and not only calves. In Book One of his poem Lucretius reminds us of the horrific story of the virgin Iphigenia who is sacrificed at Diana’s altar on the advice of the seer Calchas by her father Agamemnon in order to appease the god Artemis. As Lucretius says, ‘By Superstition we are driven to do deeds of such great evil’ (Slavitt p. 5).    

Iphigenia and the calf are both poor mother’s children lost on the altar of superstitious religion. You may say that in our own modern culture these sacrifices no longer occur but many poor mother’s children are still broken on the altar of superstitious religion in many more or less brutal ways around the world.

In connection with Mothering Sunday and Mother’s Day Lucretius’ story about the calf helps us viscerally understand the powerful physical and emotional bond of love that exists between (almost) every earthly mother and her child and, in turn, to see that our relationship with the primordial living, creative ‘Empowered Creatress’ Venus, Mother Earth — is far more sacred and natural than anything on offer from superstitious religion.    

In a religion of nature as understood by Lucretius, Lord Shaftesbury and me, no life will ever be sacrificed to propitiate the goddess Venus. Firstly because, unlike theistic conceptions of God, the ‘Empowered Creatress’ Venus neither exists nor does not exist and so there is simply no point sacrificing anything to her — it won’t make a blind bit of difference to her and she will go on in her own creative natural way regardless. Secondly, because as a poetic, supreme fiction Venus is a primordial symbol of new life, of creativity, wonder, awe and of gratitude and reverence for life, sacrificing any actual life to her would be both perverse and blasphemous in the extreme.

But, before I conclude for today, it is important to push strongly, if briefly, against any sentimental reading of Nature here. The true follower of such a religion of nature knows that ‘nature naturing’ does not always wear the face of the ‘Empowered Creatress’ Venus, Mother Earth — she sometimes wears the face of Mars, the god of war and destruction in the form of earthquake, storm, fire, war and disease. We must never forget that, even as it may be for some of us religiously ultimate and worthy of our religious loyalty, ’nature naturing’ is always morally ambiguous.

But it seems important, at least in this version of a religion of nature I derive from from Lucretius, Lord Shaftesbury and Spinoza, that we should honour Venus as a symbol of ‘nature naturing’ above that of Mars because with this emphasis in play we begin to live with a sense that, in the overall push and pull, the wu and the wei of ‘nature naturing’, our mother, the ‘Empowered Creatress’ Venus will always be coming to still Mars’ destruction by laying him down in her lap, ‘defenceless, utterly vanquished and altogether undone by love’s unhealable wound’ (Slavitt p. 2).

Such love for both our divine mother and for our earthy mothers is something that, potentially anyway, can continue to gift a person with the reasonable hope that, despite the vicissitudes of existence, new life, new hopes and new springs always await them.