And every common bush afire with God:
But only lie who sees, takes off his shoes.
— Elizabeth Barrett Browning
The Kingdom of Nature intermingles with the Kingdom of Spirit. Each is the complement of the other, and no arbitrary boundary exists between them. Truth is a rounded unit. Any distortion or suppression of it, however narrowly localized, involves general loss. The scientist, while studying forms and laws, may be color-blind to the presence of an infinite spiritual dominion. If he dissociates Nature from her vital relations, his accomplishment can be but partial. So far as he fails to recognize her as a Theophany, he misses her true significance. Likewise the theologian, who has eyes only for the supernatural, fails to find the vital supports and relations of his own chosen realm. Each thereby makes his own system incomplete and untruthful. Nature and spirit can no more be divorced than a stream and its fountain. The attempt to translate Religion into an arbitrary, supernatural realm, has robbed it of its spontaneity and vitality. To the world the supernatural is unnatural, and the unnatural is morbid.
Spiritual vitality, like an over-flowing fountain, must outwardly manifest its exuberance. The natural type can only be interpreted as the divine type. When the veil of forms and chemistries is lifted, spiritual meanings are brought to light. Religion may be defined as natural unfoldment which brings into manifestation the divine type. The methods and transmutations of the natural world are a revelation of the Father. The spirit of Nature and the genius of the Gospel are in perfect accord because they have the same source. A spiritual interpretation is the only key which can unlock the motives and mysteries of cosmic forces, and reveal the rhythmical order of their operations. The lover of Nature will persistently follow her through outward shapings and phenomena, until her harmonies become audible. Such a pursuit takes us beyond the realm of shadows and illusions, and brings us face to face with idealistic Realism.
Whatever is abnormal generates unwholesome pessimism, and clouds the human horizon. The mere developments of material science cannot lighten the load of human woe, nor satisfy the cravings of man's spiritual being. The incubus of Artificialism is upon literature, society, and institutions. A debasing so-called realism in fiction and real life perpetuates its quality by what it feeds upon. Even education, in its ordinary sense, is powerless to raise men above the plane of shadows and illusions. When a false philosophy severs Nature from her vital relations, she becomes coldly mechanical and even adverse. Unrecognized as a process of divine evolution, she seems unfriendly and often vindictive. The friction, which, if rightly interpreted, would turn man back into a path of restoration, becomes so galling that—with its purpose lost sight of—it materializes into features of Satanic malignity. The subtle refinements which allure us away from the natural type, end in a chaotic degeneration. In the degree that institutions and systems take on abnormal shapes, they court decay. Civilizations, even when most distinguished for material progress and aesthetic culture, become top-heavy and fall because they lack a simple but true archetypal basis.
The term natural is sometimes used in a peculiar and degraded sense. St. Paul speaks of the natural man, meaning the baser and carnal selfhood, as distinguished from that which is higher and normal. But the former is the perverted and misshapen self; while the latter, after the divine type, is called "the temple of the Holy Ghost." To be spiritual is to be in the highest degree natural, and it is an abuse of language to use the two terms in antithesis.
He who sees God in Nature, feels the ecstatic thrill of the infinite Presence. The visible universe becomes to him a repository of mystery, harmony, and sanctity. This wholesome delight will all be missed by intellectual accomplishment if it be linked to a feeble spiritual intuition. A childlike soul which has no knowledge of Botany, but which is in touch with the Infinite, will find more in a flower than he whose technical but unsanctified understanding can fully define its laws and mechanism.
As our spiritual vision gains in acuteness, the objective universe grows more beautiful. A changed consciousness brings a new revelation of outward harmony and unity. God is the essence of Nature. We see him in the unfolding of the leaves, in every flower and blade of grass, in the air, the clouds, the sunshine, the sea. All are gilded and beautified. Each is a letter in the great open volume of the universe. As the sea contains all its waves, so the One Life embraces all lower forms of vitality. Such an interpretation is spiritual Theism, and has no alliance with Pantheism. Outward forms are beautiful in proportion as our consciousness grasps their plasticity to spiritual molding.
Whose body nature is, and God the soul.
External nature is a grand panorama, unrolling day by day, and displaying marvelous beauty, color, and shape, painted by the Divine Artist for the enjoyment of his children. The universe is not soulless, but soulful. Animate creation is a vast pastoral symphony, the delicious intonations of which can only be interpreted by the inner hearing. The sky, sea, forest, and mountain, are the visible draperies which, in graceful folds, thinly veil the Invisible One. As our physical organism is moulded and directed by the soul within, so is the whole creation permeated and vitalized by the Immanent God. When we study the rocks, plants, animals, man, if we delve deeply enough, we find the footprints of the unifying and energizing Presence. This is not merely poetic imagery, but scientific accuracy.
A recognition of the continual Deific manifestation thrills the human soul with joy and gladness. This, in itself, is evidence of its naturalness and truth. Nature is friendly. Her correspondences with man are so intimate and reciprocal that they demonstrate infinite wisdom, design, and unity. The barrenness and untruthfulness of Atheism are evident from their utter lack of power to arouse human responsiveness.
That vision is inspired which beholds mountains, forests, and rocks, as cathedrals and altars which enshrine the divine love and radiance. Every step we take is upon enchanted ground. By patient teachableness we realize not merely poetic beauty, but real truth, in the familiar lines:—
Sermons in stones, and good in everything.
Their different interpretations of Nature, measurably determine the character of governmental systems, institutions, and literatures. Her function in shaping civilization, and giving expression to Art, is vital. The response of the intelligence and imagination of races and nations to her appeal, has determined their relative positions as factors in the world's progress.
Nature to the primitive Aryan was an inspiration, the vigor of which was long perceptible during his migrations and changing conditions. Arcadian simplicity always has been a saving force; an instinctive feeling after the divine type.
The Hebrew regarded Nature as the physical manifestation of the Deity, and looking behind external phenomena he found God. The poetry of Job brings to view some of the most vivid and sublime aspects of Nature—as a Theophany—that are found in any literature. The wonderful 104th Psalm is an inspired artistic picture of the universe, which interprets the profound intimacy with Nature which characterized the spirit of Hebrew psalmody.
"Who coverest thyself with light as with a garment: who stretchest out the heavens like a curtain:
"Who layeth the beams of his chambers in the waters: who maketh the clouds his chariot: who walketh upon the wings of the wind:
"Who maketh his angels spirits: his ministers a naming fire:
"Who laid the foundations of the earth, that it should not be removed forever.
"Thou coveredst it with the deep as with a garment: the waters stood above the mountains.
"At thy rebuke they fled; at the voice of thy thunder they hasted away.
"They go up by the mountains; they go down by the valleys unto the place which thou hast founded for them.
"Thou hast set a bound that they may not pass over; that they turn not again to cover the earth.
"He sendeth the springs into the valleys, which run among the hills.
"They give drink to every beast of the field; the wild asses quench their thirst.
"By them shall the fowls of the heaven have their habitation, which sing among the branches.
"He watereth the hills from his chambers: the earth is satisfied with the fruit of thy works.
"He causeth the grass to grow for the cattle, and herb for the service of man: that he may bring forth food out of the earth;
"And wine that maketh glad the heart of man, and oil to make his face to shine, and bread which strengtheneth man's heart.
"The trees of the Lord are full of sap; the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted;
"Where the birds make their nests: as for the stork, the fir trees are her house."
"O Lord, how manifold are thy works! in wisdom hast thou made them all: the earth is full of thy riches.
"So is this great and wide sea, wherein are things creeping innumerable, both small and great beasts."
"Thou crownest the year with thy goodness; and thy paths drop fatness.
"They drop upon the pastures of the wilderness: and the little hills rejoice on every side.
"The pastures are clothed with flocks; the valleys also are covered over with corn; they shout for joy, they also sing."
To the glowing vision of the Hebrew prophets, Nature was but a transparent medium through which they had a near view of the Infinite. The fervid imagery of Isaiah finds expression: "Break forth into singing, ye mountains, O forest and every tree therein." And again: "Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, oh earth;" thus making of all visible things a divine symphony.
But a tinge of anthropomorphism colors all the sacred Hebrew literature. God was viewed more as infinite physical Force than as infinite Spirit and Love. With an abundance of poetic and artistic symbolism, there is wanting that broader consciousness of divine harmony, adjustment, and beauty, with which a truer concept thrills the soul. The Hebrew saw Nature as moved upon by God, rather than as the constant radiant expression of divine life and unfoldment. Human fellowship with it, and translated goodness through it, are later and truer interpretations than those made by the Old Testament poets and prophets.
But what of modern materialistic views even less spiritual than those of the Hebrew? We find them limited to the scientific study of phenomena on the one side, or the aesthetic pleasure of form and color on the other. The significance and vitality of Nature are thereby lost. She is grasped by the intellect rather than enshrined in the heart. Art as an intellectual expression is cold and mechanical. The true artist must feel Nature as instinct with divine life, whether or not he be fully conscious of such an inspiration.
During the long gloomy period between the decay of classic culture and the Renaissance, inspiration through Nature almost ceased. The rigid austerity and asceticism which cast its shadow over the Middle Ages, obliterated the beauty and harmony of the visible creation. In such a light Nature appeared sickly, mechanical, and forbidding. Men found nothing attractive without, because they were conscious of no beauty within. Life became barren because Nature was barred out. Humanity was under a curse, and Nature shared in the disgrace. Men shut themselves up in cells, and lived behind bare walls, and put God's green fields out of their sight. Without the Immanent God, the visible universe was prosaic and stern, and its aspect would not have been improved even by the presence of a Deity who in Himself seemed unlovable.
When life loses its plasticity and grows conventional, it solidifies into unyielding forms, and religion becomes an institution, and worship a prescribed service in temples made with hands. The inner soulful interpretation of God is displaced by external definitions made by priestly orders and ecclesiastical authority. The outward sense is appealed to by imposing ceremonial, but the divine overflowing is lost amid the literal structure and dramatic ritual. Nature is persistent as a spiritual inspiration, but external noises prevent her low, sweet harmonies from being audible. Instead of letting her teach and lead us, we impose our intellectual interpretation upon her. She will not reveal her riches when pursued with gauges, measures, and microscopes, but will bestow her boundless wealth upon the patient seeker after truth, who comes into touch with her spirit.
We have elevated ranges of thought in our lives, which are like chains of material peaks as contrasted with the surrounding levels. "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help." We live too much on the lowlands of our natures. If we linger upon the hills of elevated thought, and dwell among the summits of spiritual aspiration, our lungs will become accustomed to their rare and pure atmosphere. We delve in the glens and caves, and then wonder that life is so cloudy, and our horizon so narrow.
The universe is a reflector of divine adornment, and is everywhere garnished with gems. We are invited to admire its beauty, inhale its fragrance, adore its symmetry and color, and through them to share in the depth and overflow of Deific goodness. Emerson says, "God has not made some beautiful things, but Beauty is the creator of the universe." Nature may always be trusted, for natural laws are divine methods. Each successive season is a benediction in changed form. When Spring awakens a quickening impulse of life, and bursts the bars of wintry frost, she transforms the face of Nature, and clothes it with a charm of fresh life and beauty. Every seed and bulb has within it a promise of the Resurrection. Every flower is a suggestion, and each unfolding leaf an expression of exuberant life, which everywhere manifests the divine redundancy. Nature's ministry soothes and heals human infelicities. She fits herself into man's angular spaces; smoothes and rounds out his broken and imperfect outlines, and like a grand orchestral accompaniment, supports and harmonizes his uncertain operations.
Communion with her visible forms, she speaks
A various language; for his gayer hours
She has a voice of gladness, and a smile
And eloquence of beauty; and she glides
Into his darker musings with a mild
And healing sympathy, that steals away
Their sharpness ere he is aware.
—William Cullen Bryant
What responsive soul can witness the splendor of a glorious sunset without being lifted out of the lower self, and inspired by its unearthly riches? "Who can study the masses of fleecy cloud-forms, piled like Alps upon Alps, refulgent with the rays of the setting orb, and not feel a suggestion of the power by which the Sun of righteousness illumines the mists and fogs of man's deeper nature?
The purity of Nature appeals to all that is pure in humanity. She softens her angles, repairs her rents, carpets her bare spaces, covers her excrescences, and sweetens all taint and corruption. She embroiders her rocks with mosses and lichens, and her running brooks are crystalline in their purity until they are made turbid by man's artifice. Her chemistries rectify all decay, and transmute and sanctify all deformity. Her many voices in a diapason of praise are forever rendering tribute to their Author, and thereby interpreting His love and beneficence to the children of men. His constancy is typified by every blossoming rose, and every violet of the wood teaches a lesson of childlike trust and faith. The hills and mountains are symbols of His strength and majesty. He is the substance of all things.
As holds the sea her waves—Thou hold'st us all.
The scale of Nature is infinite. When we attempt any intellectual solution of her mysteries, we are confronted by the fact that no absolute knowledge is possible, while of relative information we may build up a vast structure. The Absolute is wholly beyond reason and logic; but in the realm of spiritual perception, love, and goodness, we may know the Absolute, and become one with it. "Canst thou by searching find out God?" Through the intellect, never; but through the inner vision we may find Him. The intuitive perception is a natural perception, even though it be upon the spiritual plane. God, the Absolute, we may know through faith and love, and only through these and related unisons can we interpret the spirit of Nature. Her infinite scale as intellectually discerned—and man's limited place upon it—are vividly brought to light by late researches in physical science. Scientific authorities declare that the inexorable logic of the "relativity of knowledge" proves that in the actual (absolute) universe of being, there is neither time nor space, matter nor motion, form nor force, as we know them. Instead of matter as it appears, Modern Science insists that its phenomena are only explainable by the hypothesis of rhythm among attenuated atoms. No matter how compact a body may appear, chemistry and physics unite in affirming that its solidity is a mere illusion. Solid steel is composed of molecules that do not touch each other. These molecules are like a cloud of gnats, and appear as one because they move together. Solidity, like other material terms, only belongs to relative, sensuous, human consciousness, and does not touch absolute conditions. When rhythmical movements are favorable, bodies may pass through each other. Light passes freely through glass, and electricity through copper, though neither can force its way through a piece of wood, which is of much less density. The forces which keep material bodies in their form and being, in their final analysis are spiritual. The world of spirit fashions and supports the world of sense, and therefore the sensuous realm embraces only resultant phenomena. The world we see is a world of transitory illusions. To the degree in which our spiritual sight has been unfolded, we may penetrate beyond the shadows, and gain glimpses of the Real. We have never seen our friend, nor our very selves, but only manifestations and coverings. Gravitation may not be a spiritual power, but perhaps it is the link through which the spiritual domain rules and moulds the material. The reason why we see so little of the spiritual world through Nature, is because our spiritual faculties are but in an infantile stage of development. Even in physical existences, the range of our sensuous and intellectual consciousness is so limited, that, according to Modern Science, whole universes of beings may dwell among us or be passing through us, of whose presence we know nothing. Their colors, forms, and properties are so subtle, that only beings whose senses are far more acute than ours, can be introduced into their society. Weight, size, color, and form are nothing more than human subjective limitations. The discharge of a cannon makes no noise if there are no ears within range. It possesses a power to stimulate the listening ear, but the noise has no existence except in the hearing. There are forms of life below us which have but one, two, or three senses. Who can affirm that there are not other existences, invisible and unknown to us, who possess many more than five senses? An eminent scientist has recently made the startling suggestion, that not only below us may exist molecular universes, with orders, intelligences, and even civilizations, but that above us, perhaps, worlds may be but as molecules of grand universes, containing complex systems, organizations, and personalities. Such speculations in the realm of physical science have no value, unless, by the way of analogy, they may tend to quicken our apprehension of the spiritual verities, of which the material universe is but the letter upon the printed page. Oh, man, made in God's image, and linked to and nourished by Nature, what glorious opening vistas are before you in the eons of eternal progress!
Every atom and molecule, in all spaces and combinations, has its own peculiar rhythmical movement, and thus it joins in the universal anthem of praise to its Maker. All forms of life are registering their actions, and printing their biographies in the imperishable ether in which we dwell. The vibrations which we set in motion, go forth in indestructible strains, but a minute fraction of which, in passing, is momentarily caught by human ears. The late Professor Babbage, of England, in one of his treatises, compares the atmosphere to "a vast library, on the pages of which are registered unceasingly all that man has ever said, or woman whispered." Another gifted writer1 concludes, "That there may be a world of spiritual existences around us,—inhabiting this same globe, enjoying the same nature,—of which we have no perception; that, in fact, the wonders of the New Jerusalem may be in our midst, and the songs of the angelic hosts filling the air with their celestial harmony, although unheard and unseen by us." Truly, "there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in our philosophy."
If thou would'st know the mystic song
Chanted when the sphere was young.
Aloft, abroad, the paean swells;
O wise man! hear'st thou half it tells?
O wise man! hear'st thou the least part?
'Tis the chronicle of art.
To the open ear it sings,
Sweet the genesis of things,
Of tendency through endless ages,
Of star-dust, and star-pilgrimages,
Of rounded worlds, of space and time,
Of the old flood's subsiding slime,
Of cheinic matter, force, and form,
Of poles and powers, cold, wet, and warm:
The rushing metamorphosis
Dissolving all that fixture is,
Melts things that be to things that seem,
And solid nature to a dream.
Nature is God translated into vitalized color, form, and beauty. The world is embellished by Spirit, and its inaudible testimony is the cadence of the gospel-of love. Nature is a vast kindergarten, whose easy object-lessons train our childlike affections, so that they may gain strength to mount above and beyond. Her mountain-peaks of truth stand out sharp and clear above the fogs and mists of error. To view the Real, we must climb the mountainside, until our standpoint is above the leaden gloom of the lowland outlook.
We try to conform Nature to our notional concept of what she should be, instead of attending her school like willing pupils. We aim to shape her into correspondence with our selfish wills, instead of yielding our hardness to her graceful mold. Let us put our hand in hers, and thus hasten to gain her wholesome ministrations.
In Jesus, the Christ, was the supreme demonstration of the identity, in man, of the natural and spiritual type. His teaching was spontaneous and unconventional, and His education was not shaped by the formulas of the schools. In Him, that which had been buried in philosophies and hidden in institutions was brought to light, and interpreted to man upon his own plane. For the only time Humanity became perfectly transparent, so that the divine light and purity shone through it, unsullied and unperverted. He was the natural, the ideal, and the archetypal man. In Him the divine pattern of humanity was filled to the full. As Nature is a continuous divine manifestation, so Christianity is not limited to any age or dispensation. The historic Jesus was a temporary and material manifestation of the spiritual and eternal Christ. "That was the true Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world." The typical man is spiritual and eternal because he is made in the Father's image. The essential Savior is that manifestation of the love of God toward man, which is both natural and eternal. Sonship is neither fleshly nor limited. Christ as the ideal man was a prophecy, a first fruit. "The last Adam was made a quickening Spirit." The human embodiment of the Word was a manifested love without perversion, and was Nature's ultimate prototype.