All Things in the World are one. And one is All in all Things—heeding the seventh trumpet sounded by the IPCC’s report on climate change

In February 2020 I went to see a colleague, Nigel Cooper, who is the lead chaplain at Anglia Ruskin University simply to catch-up with each other’s news. He, like me, has for very many years been deeply concerned about the developing climate emergency and, on this occasion, against the background of various Extinction Rebellion actions and Greta Thunberg’s inspired “School Strike for Climate” (Skolstrejk för klimatet) campaign, Nigel turned the our conversation to the end of Chapter 11 of that strangest and most disturbing book in the New Testament, Revelation

In David Bentley Hart’s recent translation the text reads as follows,         

And the seventh angel sounded the trumpet, and there came loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the cosmos has become the Lord’s and his Anointed’s, and he will reign unto the ages of the ages.” And the twenty-four elders seated before God on their thrones fell on their faces and made obeisance to God, Saying, “We thank you, Lord God the Almighty, who are and who were [and who are to come], because you have taken your great power and have reigned, And the gentiles were indignant, and your ire has come, and the time for the dead to be judged, and for giving the reward to your slaves the prophets and to the holy ones and to those who revere your name, the small and great, and for destroying those who destroy the earth.” And God’s sanctuary in heaven was opened, and the ark of his covenant was seen in his sanctuary, and there came lightning flashes and noises and peals of thunder and an earthquake and a great hailstorm (Revelation 11:15-19).

And so now here we are, Summer 2021, the IPCC’s report has been published and when all but the most wilfully blind and deluded amongst humankind can see that the dire warnings about an impending, human-driven environmental catastrophe — with its own flashes of lightning, noises, peals of thunder, earthquakes, and hailstorms and, of course, those other Biblical catastrophes, flood and fire — were not exaggerations but, if anything, underestimates of how just how serious and how fast the situation was going to deteriorate were we not radically to change our way of being-in-the-world. But the environmental prophets and holy ones and those who revere nature have all been ignored and we did not change. Instead, as George Monbiot has just written,

Our warnings were greeted with denial and insults: we were accused of being jeremiahs, killjoys, communists, fascists etc, etc. Even those who paid lip service to the science refused to act on it. They made speeches and set targets, but shunned the necessary economic change. Everything else came first: the corporate lobbyists, the road building, the unnecessary wars, the urge to appease media billionaires and comfortable, complacent voters. Scarcely anyone told the truth. Self-interest and egotism pushed us towards catastrophe. Even now, as the fires rage, governments delay, obfuscate, look the other way. And we, our senses dulled by consumerism, trivia and the lies and misdirections of the media, remain quiescent.

It is in this context of our dulled senses and quiescence that the paean of thanksgiving and praise uttered by the twenty-four elders in verses 17-18 particularly interests me.

What I want to do here is to re-present it to you in four steps to deliver up an interpretation of the text that, just perhaps, can speak clearly to our own age.  

So, step one. Here, once again, is that paean of thanksgiving and praise:

          We thank you, Lord God the Almighty, who are and who were [and who are to come], 

          because you have taken your great power and have reigned, 

          And the gentiles were indignant, and your ire has come, 

          and the time for the dead to be judged, 

          and for giving the reward to your slaves the prophets and to the holy ones 

          and to those who revere your name, the small and great, 

          and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

Now, in the form of liberal religious life that claims my allegiance the term “Lord God the Almighty” is in some fashion interchangeable with “Nature the Almighty” as nature awe-inspiringly does what nature does. Another, and I think better term for nature doing what nature does is natura naturans or “nature naturing.” In making this change I’m following the lead of one of my great heroes, and one of the great heroes of the seventeenth-century Radical Enlightenment, Benedict Spinoza who used the term deus sive natura, “god-or-nature”, where the “sive”, the “or”, is one of equivalence. Consequently, however one is to understand the activity of god, god is to be understood as nature naturing; however one understands the activity nature naturing, nature naturing is to be understood as god. As the philosopher Frederick C. Beiser 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).      

So, in this context, step two is to hear me, a pastor who professes a species of new naturalism, read again the passage I’ve just quoted from Revelation but with some key changes made:

          We thank you, god-or-nature, who are and who were [and who are to come], 

          because you have taken your great power and have reigned, 

          And those blind to nature naturing were indignant, and your ire has come, 

          and the time for the dead to be judged, 

          and for giving the reward to your co-workers the prophets and to the holy ones 

          and to those who revere your name, the small and great, 

          and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”

Let’s now turn to step three. To take this step we need to see a singular difference between the activity of “Almighty God” as was understood by the writer of Revelation and the mythical twenty-four elders, and the activity of “god-or-nature” I have in mind. However, before doing that, because in what follows I indulge in some anthropomorphizing of nature, I think it is helpful to add Jane Bennett’s active materialist credo that concludes her book “Vibrant Matter”:

I believe in one matter-energy, the maker of things seen and unseen. I believe that this pluriverse is traversed by heterogeneities that are continually doing things. I believe it is wrong to deny vitality to nonhuman bodies, forces, and forms, and that a careful course of anthropomorphization can help reveal that vitality, even though it resists full translation and exceeds my comprehensive grasp. I believe that encounters with lively matter can chasten my fantasies of human mastery, highlight the com­mon materiality of all that is; expose a wider distribution of agency, and reshape the self and its interests (Vibrant Matter, Duke University Press, 2010, p. 122).

So, to return to the paean, “Almighty God” is a being who is relating to we human beings from somewhere “over there”. Such an “Almighty God” is understood to be external to us; Almighty God’s judgement, power and rule are all things that come to us from outside our world.  

But with “god-or-nature” the situation is very different. We are helped to grasp something of the difference by the philosopher Timothy Morton. On his blog he writes,

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.

So, now let’s take step four in which I’ll walk you through the paean of thanksgiving and praise line by line unfolding just some of the implications of my reinterpretation. 

The paean begins:  

We thank you, god-or-nature, who are and who were [and who are to come]

Whatever god-or-nature is, god-or-nature is that which is, was and will be in the sense that everything that is, was and will be is an expression of nature naturing, natura naturans. God-or-nature always-already simply does what god-or-nature does and — and this is vitally important to grasp — we human beings are ourselves expressions of god-or-nature, i.e. of nature naturing. We are emergent creatures as is everything in our various cultures including, very importantly, human morality. In all cases it is vital to see that we are not here and nature is not “over there.” To borrow some words from John Toland in his Pantheisticon of 1720, it is to want to say something like: 

          All Things in the World are one. 

          And one is All in all Things. 

          What’s All in all Things Is GOD, Eternal and Immense, 

          Neither begotten, nor ever to perish.

The paean of thanksgiving and praise continues:

          because you have taken your great power and have reigned, 

Naturally, there could never have been any time or place when god-or-nature didn’t have great power and was not, so to speak, reigning. So what’s going on here? Well, I think we can take this line as simply an expression of gratitude at the way the power of god-or-nature has suddenly broken through our hubristic delusions of separateness, independence, power and control and, having seen the awesome power of nature naturing, we find suddenly that god-or-nature now reigns in all our thinking about everything. Increasing numbers of us (but still far from enough) have come to see that it is simply impossible for humans to have any power or can rule over a nature that is “over there” in the form of natural resources which are ruthlessly to be exploited by oil and gas companies, industrialists of all kinds, corporate lobbyists, road builders, warmongers, media billionaires and comfortable, complacent voters. The power of god-or-nature has helped us see not only that nature is not “over there” but that it is the very same matter/energy out of which we, and everything are made. Nature naturing which is the sign of the reign of god-or-nature is within us and, consequently, the judgement which is coming upon us comes from that which we are, were, and always will be because in god-or-nature we live, move and have our being.   

The paean of thanksgiving and praise continues:

          And those blind to nature naturing were indignant, and your ire has come, 

          and the time for the dead to be judged, 

The “gentiles” mentioned in the original text are, in this context, all those who simply cannot see the power and the reign of god-or-nature, the process of nature naturing. They are angry with the angry judgement of god-or-nature/nature naturing because it really is taking away from them the illusion of human control over, and separateness from things they thought were “over there” to be controlled and exploited by them for short-term and wholly unsustainable ends. But, because this is a revelation that there is no “over there” and that everything is connected (All Things in the World are one. And one is All in all Things), the truth is the angry judgement they are so angry about is really “their” own nature angrily judging the way “they” are currently naturing. They are utterly dead to reality, to god-or-nature and in this “death” they are truly being judged.

The paean of thanksgiving and praise continues:

          and for giving the reward to your co-workers the prophets and to the holy ones 

          and to those who revere your name, the small and great

The reward this moment in time is bringing us is not salvation from this world because, in the old sense of the word anyway, there is for our own age no easy way for us to believe in “another world” where a future salvation is promised. But in a certain way we may say that there is another world, namely, this world seen differently. The reward we have available to us, our salvation is, if you like, in this world and we experience it whenever we see this world, sub species aeternitatis, as deus sive natura, god-or-nature, nature-or-god. Salvation is experienced wherever we are able to see, celebrate and give thanks for natura naturans, nature naturing everywhere and always. Whenever any person intuits or sees this awesome reality, truly sees it that is, then, with gratitude and reverence they find themselves unselfconsciously bowing before the name of god-or-nature, natura naturans. To borrow from a well-known hymn, at the name of god-or-nature every knee shall bow. This recognition, this act of obeisance is, in and of itself, our reward. But it is important to understand that this act of obesience is not made before some external potentate “over there”, but to something everywhere and always active. It is additionally vitally important to realise that an “act of obeisance” is not an abstract idea about the world, a mere intellectual lip-service, but an actual movement of the material body made as a real act of respect or submission to the material body of the world made by the material body of the world itself in the form of the body of this or that human being who is actually engaging in an act of obeisance. In this new way of being-in-the-world, ethics becomes all about material movement, about how we might best move, dance and walk together with all things.

The paean of thanksgiving and praise then concludes by stating that this is also a time

          for destroying those who destroy the earth.

And so, here we are, at a moment in the time in the life of this planet and ours species when god-or-nature, natura naturans, is beginning to destroy us, we who destroy the earth. 

Our only hope is that, since we are ourselves an example of nature naturing, in which god-or-nature is  judging “itself”, when we see that this is so, we can gratefully, if often fearfully, willingly become part of this necessary judgement. All this is to see that our present ways of behaviour require us to repent and radically to change our whole way of being-in-the-world. 

But, once again, please see that this judgement and anger is not external to us, rather it is a judgement that is as much from what we colloquially call an “inner” realm as it is from an “outward” one.

When we see this and begin to live its truth then, even if this turns out to be the beginning of the end of our particular species, then we can be assured we are playing a humble part, not in the destruction of the world, but in its ongoing life.