Tuesday, June 5, 2012

What Do You See?

Those who live at earth’s farthest bounds are awed by your signs;
you make the gateways of the morning and the evening shout for joy.
9You visit the earth and water it, you greatly enrich it;
the river of God is full of water; you provide the people with grain,
for so you have prepared it.
10You water its furrows abundantly, settling its ridges,
softening it with showers, and blessing its growth.
11You crown the year with your bounty;
your wagon tracks overflow with richness.
12The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
13the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.
Psalm 65:8-13

Every once in a while I receive an email that ends with the instruction, “Forward if you believe in GOD!” Sometimes there are several exclamation points. Occasionally, there is a note warning me that “this is a test.” A few promise rewards for forwarding and penalties for failing to forward.

I never forward any of them. But they often provide occasions for reflection.

One of those emails tells the unlikely story of a teacher preparing to teach a classroom of six year-olds about evolution. The implicit assumption is that believing in God and evolution are mutually exclusive, which is nonsense, but that’s really not relevant to the story.

The teacher asks a little boy if he can see the grass outside and then asks him to go outside and look up at the sky and then come back and tell the class what he saw. (I know, you’re thinking that if you send a 6 year-old boy outside on a nice day there is no way he’s going to just look up at the sky and then run right back to the classroom. But I already said that it’s an unlikely story. You’ll just have to pretend that he would come right back.) When he gets back, she asks if he saw the sky, which he did. Then she asks if he saw God in the sky, and he says that he didn’t. “Well,” says the teacher, “maybe the reason you didn’t see God is because he isn’t there. Maybe he doesn’t exist.”

At this point a little girl raises her hand and asks if she can ask the little boy some questions. First, she asks him if he can see the teacher, and he says that he can. Then she asks him if he can see the teacher’s brain, and he says that he can’t. “Then,” says the little girl, “according to what we were just taught, maybe that’s because she doesn’t have one!”

The story is smug and offensive on several different levels. And the point, of course, is that just because you can’t see something doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist. But my reflections took me in the opposite direction.

For some of us, when we look at the sky, we do see God. We don’t see God “in the sky,” and we don’t believe that the sky is God, but when we look at the sky we see God. When I was growing up on Cape Cod, I would look at the ocean, vast and mysterious, serene and powerful, and I wondered if I could ever have the same spiritual experience away from the shore. Later I was surprised to hear that other people felt that way about the mountains, or the forest. When I went to Israel with a group of rabbis I marveled that they felt the same way about the desert wilderness that I did about the ocean. And then I went to the wilderness and I understood. On a clear summer night in those places where there is not too much light pollution, I am amazed to see the Milky Way stretching out almost beyond imagination.

Thomas Altizer said that God is present “in every human hand and face.” I don’t know whether this looking and seeing comes naturally to some people and not to others. Some of my more spiritually gifted friends speak of the practice of “mindfulness,” an active open attention to the present moment and an intentional awakening to that experience.

What do you see when you look at the world around you?


  1. Isn't it odd that many of the same people who refuse to look at the wonders of nature scientifically - because they think the scientists are all atheists, like the teacher in the story - also seem to believe that wondrous nature is junk God made in error and is hankering to destroy... that it's not a spiritual creation God called "good" but rather a sin-riddled mistake that God will dispose of like an empty McDonald's coffe cup...

  2. Yesterday, after the rain, a double rainbow was in the sky!
    Feelings of awe and wonder flowed through my being.
    It felt you were wrapped in the arms of a most loving God!
    Oh what peace and joy!

  3. As a scientist I always felt science was an important part of my faith. The more I learned about the world and how it works the more it inspired awe in me and the more I saw God all around me. From the large oceans to the tiny D.N.A. I was working to detect. The most exciting part is that our discoveries are never ending so we always have the opportunity to be even more in awe and thankfulness than the day before.