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    PloughCast 12: Can Nature Be Evil? and Other Listener Questions

    Creatures, Part 6

    By Peter Mommsen and Susannah Black Roberts

    July 6, 2021
    • Red Robbo

      We are an evolutionarly hodgepodge made largely of bacteria, viruses, fungi and archaea. Our eyes see less than 1 percent of the light spectrum, retinas detach easily - even the humble shrimp has better vision! We are also fitted with sub-optimal plumbing (breathing, eating, excretory and reproductive) and programmed to die. But perhaps this should not come as a surprise: we are part of a world where at least 40 percent of animal species are parasites (the ichneumonidae is far from alone), and over 99 percent of all species that ever lived are extinct. Actually, the five mass extinction events took place long before we arrived – at 23:58:43 if Earth’s history is pictured as a 24-hour clock.

    About this Episode

    Peter and Susannah address listener questions. First, what do we make of natural evil? Things like parasites seem to call into question the idea of nature as designed by a loving God. What’s the relationship of the fall of man to the theodicy of cicada-killing wasps?

    Then they turn to the question of the nature of online worlds. Can we talk coherently about the nature of Twitter, say? What does the way we behave online say about us? Is online a “place” with its own identity?

    Next: Why not let children be feral? What’s the point of school, and doesn’t it just ruin our ability to be naturally and fully human? Related to that, why read anything but scripture? Then, they return to the question of UFOs: if they were proved to exist, would their existence affect Peter and Susannah’s faith?

    Finally, they turn to the big questions: what is nature anyway? And what have they learned from doing this podcast series? What are their takeaways?

    [You can listen to this episode of The PloughCast on Apple, Spotify, Amazon Music, Google or wherever you get your podcasts.]

    Recommended Reading


    Listener Questions: Natural Evil: From Parasitic Wasps to Twitter Beefs

    Susannah: Welcome back to The PloughCast, where we’ll continue discussing all things bright and beautiful.

    Peter: Actually, we’ve been reflecting on the amazing pieces that appeared in the most recent Plough magazine, our nature issue. And we’ve been talking to a number of our contributors. I’m Peter Mommsen, editor of the Plough Quarterly.

    Susannah: And I’m Susannah Black, senior editor at Plough. And if you haven’t yet, you should really catch up on the first five episodes in the series. It’s been a great series.

    Peter: In this episode of The PloughCast, we’ll be answering questions from you, our listeners, and we’ll be reflecting on what we learned and what we’re taking away after five PloughCasts, where we began to crack open the book of nature.

    So: listener questions. Susannah, we have a whole bunch and I think we should start with Darwin.

    Susannah: Sure.

    Peter: The question from Darwin that came to us over Twitter. And let me see if I can pull it up here because Darwin is kind of getting at some pretty deep stuff and if we get to it too late, we might not be able to answer this question. Darwin says, “I cannot persuade myself that a beneficent and omnipotent God would have designedly created the ichneumonidae, with the express intention of their feeding within the living bodies of caterpillars, or that a cat should play with mice.” So the first question is what are ichneumonidae?

    Susannah: What are ichneumonidae, Pete?

    Peter: Well, I looked it up and they are parasitic wasps. And they remind me actually of the parasitic wasps I see right around us right now.

    Susannah: Not … like … in this room.

    Peter: Not in this room. But right outside this room. Which always seemed to me like the prime example of natural evil, because they come out when the cicadas come out. The wasps follow the cicadas. Do you want to know what happens with the wasps, the cicada killer wasps?

    Susannah: I probably don’t but I think you’re going to tell me.

    Peter: I am. I am. So this is kind of like an all-natural horror show that you can watch and it’s free and you’ll see the cicadas happily buzzing around. We all know the cicadas are returning after all that time; like they’ve spent years preparing for this big moment. And out they come and these cicada-killer wasps are ready for them, and actually attach themselves to them, to their backs, while the cicadas are in flight.

    And they have a big old stinger and get it in there and steer the cicada in flight down to some grassy bank where they have made a little hole, ready for the now somewhat paralyzed cicada, drag it in and lay their eggs in the still-live cicada. And the little larvae grow in the still-live cicada, and then come out and do this all over again.

    These wasps actually come out on the same rhythm as the cicadas do, and it always just struck me that there’s no more horrible animal that I can even think of than a cicada killer. They’re also really, really painful; if you ever have the misfortune of being stung by one, it’s excruciating.

    Susannah: So they don’t only sting cicadas: they will also deign to sting human beings?

    Peter: It’s really hard to get them to sting human beings because they’re all about the cicadas, but if you, like, bother them or sit on one or something, then they will actually get you too.

    Susannah: Yeah, that’s pretty traumatizing.

    Peter: So Darwin’s asking what about that? Or cats playing with mice. Now actually the cat playing with mice piece is answered by one of the readings in our issue by the crazy British poet Christopher Smart and his ode to his cat Jeoffrey, who he says is “the servant of the living God.” Smart wrote this poem apparently while imprisoned in Bedlam, or at least committed there.

    He believed that the cat plays with a mouse because one out of seven mice escape, while the cat is still playing with them. And it’s to him a sign of God’s providence and mercy that the cat plays with the mice and lets some of them get away.

    Susannah: Gives it a shot.

    Peter: Gives it a shot.

    Susannah: Sort of … gentlemanly.

    Peter: Yeah.

    Susannah: I mean, yeah.

    Peter: Do you buy that though?

    Susannah: I guess the way I would think about it is, it’s difficult to think about a cat being fully a cat without playing with mice in a kind of hideous way. When I was growing up, I had cats who would bring – not so much mice, but they would bring the entrails of shrews that they had caught as little gifts to us and they would put them in our shoes. So, we would have shrew guts in shoes, and it was very sweet, like it was clearly that they were giving us the special part. I think they love us.

    Peter: It was love. Yeah. Yeah.

    Susannah: And it’s hard to think about because there’s clearly a post-fall feel to this. And yet, this is part of the nature of the animals. I kind of think this might be one of those giant questions that will remain unanswered.

    Japanese art of a cat catching a mouse

    Ohara Koson, Cat Catching a Mouse

    Peter: Yeah, although I think we can get into it and not just totally pass over it, because we actually did address this in some of the previous episodes of this podcast. First I want to go back to something that Ross Douthat, the New York Times columnist, said in our first episode, which is: Why is it that it was only in the last couple of centuries that these natural evils bothered people so much?

    Because people knew about things like this actually a lot better than we do, back when folks worked with animals a lot more. So, there’s also something in the way we’re set up that we see things like this, and it kind of throws us into a tizzy in a way that it didn’t our forebears. Why is it that they could see predation and parasites and maggots and all these things, and still see the Book of Nature as being written by a loving and omnipotent God?

    Susannah: Yeah. We sort of think that it’s a new problem. Darwin – not the letter writer Darwin but Darwin-Darwin – apparently, when he had this perception of how evolution happened, it seemed incredibly awful: that itself was a threat to his faith and eventually overturned it, because it seemed to him like, how could God be this wasteful? How could this be the way that the current forms of creatures had evolved, through this much suffering and this much loss? But it’s not actually more information; he didn’t have more information about [the amount of suffering and death in the world] than people in previous ages.

    Peter: No, and it seems to me that actually the crisis has less to do with some brand-new insights of Darwinian evolution or modern science and a lot more to do with how our emotional and sentimental lives are set up. And that’s what’s really being overturned when we encounter nature, it’s not because, as Richard Dawkins would have it, perhaps, that new discoveries disprove that there’s a loving God who made all things. It’s more that we’d like to have everything pretty tidily in boxes. And it’s not just the natural world either: history itself, the whole Old Testament, is full of pretty difficult ways that God moved in the history of life and of humankind.

    And so, yeah, we’re not going to answer this quickly here when we’re answering our list of questions except let me just say that this really kind of points back to some of those fundamental questions about the fall and redemption that Paul, for instance, talks about in his letter to the Romans And these are all related questions about things that are really, really difficult in life, in biology, in history. And the early Christians I think would say well, that’s precisely the point: that’s why Jesus came.

    Susannah: Yeah. And I mean so the huge questions of – I think that technical term is theodicy, making sense of evil, including natural evil, is in fact the topic we talked about I think when Ross was on, [and it’s the topic] of Job, which is probably the earliest written book of the Bible. And the whole approach of the author of Job is that terrible things happen, and God is still in control, and we don’t quite know how that sorts itself out, but it’s not like we’ve only recently noticed this. If we can look at the story of the flood and find God’s goodness within that, there’s no new information that we have that’s going to shake us more.

    Peter: When I talked about the cicada killers with my kids, because it can’t help making an impression on you when you see this kind of thing, I reminded them that our reaction of horror and disgust really says more about us than it does about the cicada killers, and that they are probably playing a crucial role in the ecosystem that we live in right here. And that ecosystem requires both death and life, and to recognize that there is a kind of higher beauty in this, rather than anthropomorphizing how bad these wasps are.

    Susannah: That’s true, but there’s also the sort of aspect that is … is it in Romans where Paul talks about creation groaning to see our glorification as the children of God?

    Peter: And it’s in bondage to decay.

    Susannah: And bondage to decay. And so there is this sense that creation itself is … it’s not just that we got screwed up in the fall; there is some sense of creation itself somehow not being what it should be. And I’ve thought about that even in terms of like entropy, is entropy a sign of that? Obviously, there’s a lot of questions that that raises, like did this happen retroactively after humans fell? That this all retroactively worked on the world? But no. I figure those questions of time and causality are probably beyond my paygrade, and definitely beyond yours because you don’t get paid.

    Peter: Yeah. Definitely well beyond my paygrade as a mere magazine writer and editor. But there are two things I’d like to leave listeners with just so it doesn’t sound like we’re totally taking a pass on this. And one is: I think these natural evils should remind us to be humble. They remind us that there is a greater plan to the universe that we don’t need to fit into our preconceived emotional map. And the other one is that Christians have always known that these are there, and they have always taken them as pointers to the whole grand story of creation and fall and redemption, and what the universe is actually about.

    In that way, we can actually be thankful for these things. And that’s actually what I ended up talking about with my kids regarding these wasps: when the kingdom of God comes on earth, when there’s a new heaven and new earth, these are the types of things that God is going to deal with and make new. And we actually don’t need to know a lot more than that, as infuriating as that is to us, you know, everything matters, right?

    Susannah: Well.

    Peter: Next question.

    Susannah: Next question. What do we got?

    Peter: I think you had a question about the virtual and nature. So is virtual, the online world, does that have any nature? What was the listener question? Could you read it?

    Susannah: Sure. “Can there be a nature of an online place? Does Twitter have a nature?” How does nature relate to the virtual, essentially?

    Peter: So, is Twitter a natural world?

    Susannah: Is Twitter part of the natural world?

    Peter: Can you read the Book of Nature in Twitter?

    Susannah: Yeah, in Twitter. Yeah.

    Peter: God help us.

    Susannah: I mean, so I kind of think we can, in certain ways. It’s obviously a man-made thing. It is human made, but there are a lot of things that are human made. Like this table is human made, but we can learn something about nature from it. We talked about cities as essentially natural environments to humans. Now, it might be that Twitter is like … what it shows us is a particularly ugly side of human nature and it draws particularly ugly things out of us, I think that can definitely be the case. I think it’s sort of like most things that humans make – it’s a kind of reflection of our nature back onto us.

    And I’m actually quite pro-Twitter myself, I think it caters to our social nature in ways that can be good as long as we don’t let ourselves be taken over by it. But I do think that a lot of the problems that we run into with Twitter have to do with the fact that it is a very unnatural way of communicating because it’s so disembodied, because we can’t look into each other’s faces when we’re tweeting at each other. For that reason, it’s easy to become worse towards each other.

    Peter: I think each technology imposes a kind of discipline on how we act to each other if we’re to act lovingly, right. And this, again, isn’t really new. Back in the day, if you’re writing a letter to your wife and you’re a sailor and she won’t get the letter nine months from now, there’s probably a whole bunch of things you don’t tell her that will just worry her pointlessly. She can’t do anything about it. I’ve just been reading, obviously, Patrick O’Brian again.

    Susannah: Yes!

    Peter: So, channeling him. And let’s take email, right? I mean, I know in the context of living in a Christian community like the Bruderhof, email – and this is not meant in any Luddite way, because we rely on it as much as anybody else to get our work done – but it’s really, really bad for relationships that are under strain. And it’s become almost a rule in our community, I mean it’s not written down anywhere, but people will kind of push you on it. If you’re feeling any type of animosity towards somebody, the last thing you should do is write them an email.

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Peter: You pick up the phone, you figure out a way to meet, even if you have to Zoom or whatever, so it’s not to get away from technology, but there’s something about email that removes all the emotional sensitivity and nuance and empathy out of a conversation and allows it to escalate very easily. And I think Twitter does that then in spades.

    Susannah: Times a million. Yeah.

    Peter: Yeah.

    Susannah: I mean, the phenomenon of the Twitter Beef and Meltdown May, as we have just seen come to a spectacular close, kind of points to that.

    Peter: So, what does that have to do with nature?

    Susannah: I mean …

    Peter: I mean, it reflects human nature.

    Susannah: I think it reflects human nature. I think that basically because we are creatures who have a nature, and then we also have, the traditional way of putting this is like, a “second nature,” we’re naturally culture making creatures. Twitter is a part of the culture that we have made and it, for better or worse, reflects – it enables us to be more ourselves in certain ways, both good and bad. And I’m sure if dolphins were using Twitter … actually, dolphins are kind of jerks also.

    Peter: Yeah, they can be real jerks.

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Peter: Adding to that, there’s one more aspect. And that is that human beings do have a nature, which is a bodily nature, where we really do best when we’re talking face to face, using our voices, and as useful and awesome as these various tools are to make new friends and have conversations with people that you wouldn’t otherwise meet, they have huge limitations that we need to learn, basically to recognize, and if we’re trying to be a decent human being, discipline ourselves not to kind of feed into the potential for hurting people with them.

    Susannah: Yeah. And I think one of the things that we had been talking about over the course of the pandemic was, I don’t know, I’ve had this worry that like everyone’s going to get so used to Zooming and they’re going to realize that it’s in fact a lot cheaper to Zoom than to fly places and have conferences and have beers together. And I think that we have decided that we at Plough are going to push quite strongly against that tendency, and we’re going to continue to insist on hanging out and being embodied.

    Peter: It’s actually worth being an inconvenience for each other. That’s not a bad thing.

    I’m going to New York tomorrow to meet someone, a friend, there with you, Susannah. And even though it’s kind of a waste of time to sit in a train, you could say, and go down there and come back up again, to me that’s just so much more worthwhile than doing a phone call, and finally we can.

    Listener Questions: What Good is Culture?: Feral Children and Books Other Than the Bible

    So, we have another question, and this relates to this beautiful article by our colleague, fellow Plough editor Maureen Swinger, called “The Forest Is My Classroom,” I believe. And it recounts her time as a second grader, as a member of a difficult-to-educate group who a master educator basically took out of the classroom and brought into the woods and told them that was their classroom. Up in these Piney Woods, I think they were called.

    Susannah: Mm-hmm.

    Peter: And, of course, what happened then?

    Susannah: Maureen had a wonderful second grade year, and it was very difficult, and she learned a lot and she did not become a feral child.

    Peter: No. So the question I believe this listener sent to us, which I will just paraphrase, was: why have a classroom at all? Why not just let kids go full feral? Let them go in the woods. Let’s do the Rousseau thing, right? Back to nature. And yet there is, the questioner continued, in our minds sort of this Lord of the Flies fear, that if we let kids go back to nature it’ll all just turn out horribly and dark.

    Susannah: So, there’s a couple things to unpack there and I think there’s kind of two different scenarios, or, I don’t know, a bunch of different scenarios. And one is we can talk about kids who are actually kind of feral children, for real, like kids who are lost. There have been a couple of cases of kids who are literally raised by wolves.

    Peter: Romulus and Remus in reality.

    Susannah: Romulus and Remus. There have been a number of these cases where kids have actually been raised by wolves, or the equivalent where they just have, starting from a very young age, had no contact with other human beings. And they don’t turn out so well, they do not turn into in fact noble savages. They don’t end up speaking the language of Eden, which is something that I think Frederick the Great thought might happen and he did a little experiment on a kid, which didn’t turn out that great.

    They turn out … I mean, they’re human beings, they’re made in God’s image, but they are not full human beings in some sense, like they don’t have language – they pass through the stage where you can acquire a language – and they find it virtually impossible to learn language afterwards, even if they’re rescued.

    It seems that their kind of affect is flat; they don’t have the full range of emotions, or at least they don’t express them, they’re not … It’s natural for us to be in culture, it’s natural for us to be brought up in families, and it’s even natural for us to wear clothes, in a weird kind of way. We are these creatures whose nature is to have culture. And so, I guess that’s one aspect of it, but there’s another aspect kind of looking to the Lord of the Flies scenario that I think you thought of.

    Peter: Right. Well, I mean this story struck me, I read it first in the pandemic and then I read it again just recently back in April, the real true story of The Lord of the Flies, right. Actually, The Lord of the Flies, of course, was written by William Golding in 1955, but eleven years later, there’s a true story of six young teenage boys who were shipwrecked for fifteen months on an island. I think they set out from the island of Tonga and were actually taking a fishing vessel on a joy ride. It got shipwrecked and there they stayed until they were rescued by Peter Warner, I believe, a British naval officer who just died this year. And so this is all in his obituary, he found them, and you saw this story too.

    I mean, it was the opposite of The Lord of the Flies; rather than descending to the depths of depravity, they did exactly what you were talking about Susannah, they built a human society.

    Susannah: They made badminton courts.

    Peter: And they shared out the duties and work, and they had a way of maintaining discipline and order. If somebody acted out, there was a judgment of their peers and I think there were various fairly non-violent consequences, like kind of sitting out under a tree while the others did something fun.

    Susannah: They had this, it also sounded like they just sort of had customs that they developed that were ways to lower the temperature on bad tempers, like they would walk to the other side of the island and stay there until they cooled off.

    Peter: One of the first things they did when they were shipwrecked, and they recognized what had happened, was the boys got together and made a solemn promise to each other not to quarrel.

    Susannah: Mm-hmm! It’s so sweet.

    Peter: Which was really, really sweet.

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Peter: Now there were interviews and articles I read – and we’ll drop links – with some of the boys who were asked, Well, didn’t you miss fifteen months of school? And he said, Well, I think I actually learned a lot more out there in nature. Just how to get along with other people, and lots of practical skills too.

    Susannah: The other interesting thing about that is that this is not the sort of Tom Hanks movie scenario where he ends up talking to a deflated volleyball. Part of what it seems to me enabled these kids to stay sane and to actually kind of even have a weirdly good experience was the fact that they were with each other. There was like a human community going on here and as soon as there are a couple of human beings together, as soon as you’re not alone, that’s when kind of culture really begins to kick in, I think.

    Peter: So, should I just drop my three kids off on an island and let them raise themselves far from the evil influence of twenty-first century society?

    Susannah: I mean, Manhattan’s an island.

    Peter: This is true. I do have friends who did a version of this in a way that I thought was really unwise and they were kind of homeschooling, back-to-the-land types, whose kids were just a tiny bit feral. They actually, in order to evade the laws regarding homeschooling in Germany, moved to countries in Eastern Europe and kind of went around in a kind of moving caravan with their oxen. And I always kind of felt bad for the kids because unlike the Tongan kids, they were just with their parents all day.

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Peter: I’m a big believer in schools, I realized there’s people like Ivan Illich who believe that school is a kind of factory that oppresses kids. The thing is, it’s actually really natural for kids to be with their peer group and for there to be older mentors who teach them how to do things, and once you put those things together, you have a school. So, I kind of suspect that if the Tongan boys had stayed there like another fifteen months, maybe their memories would not have been so great.

    Susannah: I mean the other, sort of, this kind of ties a little bit back into the technology question. So I used to have this weird worry. Well, one of my weird worries. It was that wearing shoes was kind of making me into, like, a slightly less than fully thriving human being.

    Peter: You wanted to go the barefoot route?

    Susannah: I wanted to go the barefoot route. I thought that it was just better in some way, but then connected to that was that I was worried that … well, I was a super-obsessive reader when I was a kid; I obviously still am. And I was worried that the mere fact of learning to read and spending so much time reading was warping me and making me less of a natural human. And obviously Plato talks about this, Plato talks about the sort of badness of everyone learning to read because then they’re losing their ability to remember … like, written language is kind of a suspect thing.

    And one of the many weird parts of becoming a Christian was, I kind of figured out, that it is actually, again, natural for humans to do this very unnatural thing of communicating in symbols on pages: reading, and by extension school or learning of various kinds. Even though it seems very artificial it’s natural for us to be artificial in a weird way, it’s natural, again, for us to have culture. So, I don’t know, I would go for a balance. I would go for like, reading in a schoolroom in the morning and then getting chased out and running around the woods in the afternoon.

    Peter: In reality, I think that’s probably what Maureen did, because she is now an editor and clearly learned how to read at some point.

    Well, here’s another really interesting one that just came in today online from one of our readers. And this has to do with, rather than the Book of Nature, the Book of Scripture, and specifically: Why does Plough quote from anything but Scripture? It says when Plough quotes from a text that is extrabiblical, it carries the implication of endorsement. “Where in Scripture does it actually say that Jesus came to this world to help God fight Satan?” That must be a reference to one of the things in the issue. I can’t quite remember.

    Susannah: I can’t think of what it is.

    Peter: “Evolutionary theory can easily be manipulated just to hustle someone’s agenda. Just quote Scripture!”

    Susannah: So then we read this, and we have this moment of crisis. Why do we quote anything but Scripture? Why do we write anything?

    Peter: Why does anybody write anything?

    Susannah: Why does anybody write anything?

    Peter: This is actually a question that I suspect the Puritans asked themselves too.

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Peter: Why would you ever read anything, let alone write anything that wasn’t just the Good Book?

    Susannah: And, again, I mean for me there’s a bunch of different answers. I’m sorry to do this, but I have to at least once an episode. C. S. Lewis talked about …

    Peter: I thought you were going to save your C. S. Lewis for later.

    Susannah: No. I have plenty.

    Peter: No, it’s coming out now.

    Susannah: I have several C. S. Lewis chits so I’m cashing in one of them. He struggled with this too. Why read anything? And he’s like, basically, because you’re going to read something, and you better read something good. It’s better to read good books than bad books because no matter what, you’re going to read something.

    Peter: I think that’s what the Puritans probably eventually came to as well. I mean, it’s sort of like Tertullian asking – the early church father, Tertullian – asking, what has Athens to do with Jerusalem? And yet, in his own writings making clear that he’s spent lots of time in the writings of the Latin pagan authors who taught him his wonderful Latin style.

    Susannah: Yeah, and I mean it again comes down to the question of like, you’ll often have Christians say, it’s wrong to do philosophy. Philosophy is deceptive. They’ll quote … I forget, one of the Pastoral Epistles [Colossians 2:8]. And first of all, I think what it comes down to is that it’s impossible not to do philosophy. You either are aware that you’re doing philosophy, or you do philosophy without being aware of it.

    And I guess I actually think that there’s a richer answer than this, and the richer answer is: we write and we quote things other than Scripture because writing is part of the sub-creation that we do. Writing is part of the creation mandate, it’s part of creating culture, which is one of the things that God instructed us to do. Garden, publish magazines …

    Peter: Right. That’s right in there in Genesis.

    Susannah: Yeah!

    Peter: It’s in the invisible ink in my Bible.

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Listener Questions: UFOs, and What Even Is Nature?

    Peter: Do you have the next question, Susannah?

    Susannah: I do. “If UFOs existed, would it impact your faith?” This is getting back to the Douthat episode.

    Peter: People really love UFOs now, don’t they? I feel like we’re almost playing into the military industrial complexes’ desire to use the UFO story to increase the US defense budget, just even by talking about UFOs anymore on this podcast.

    Susannah: Yeah, we are entirely part of the psyop at this point.

    Peter: I think so. I wish we were getting, like, more swag from them though.

    Susannah: I know.

    Peter: UFOs. This is where I thought you were saving your C. S. Lewis for, because of course his entire Space Trilogy is one long answer to: if UFOs existed, would they affect our faith, and how does it kind of fit in with traditional Christian ideas of how the universe and creation work?

    Susannah: Yeah. I mean, I think one of the things to think about is that it’s only really recently that we have this idea, that Christians have this idea – or not even Christians, sort of people who are Christian adjacent have this idea – that the way it works is there’s God, and then there’s human beings, and those are the only two kinds of rational creatures. The only two kinds of – or, God is obviously not a creature – those are the only two kinds of persons.

    And traditionally Christianity has had a huge amount of room for lots of different kinds of persons, angels and demons and arguably other sorts of creatures as well who are persons, who have some kind of reason. And, I don’t know, I mean I think as Ross was talking about, I would obviously be freaked out if aliens turned out to be real. It would not challenge the bedrock of my faith.

    I wouldn’t necessarily think … I would not necessarily take it at face value that they were aliens from space, they might be something else that were presenting themselves that way, or that we understood as being aliens from space, whatever that would mean. Yeah, I would have a lot of questions. But it’s not part of the Nicene Creed that only humans are rational creatures.

    Peter: And, okay, this is getting very extra-biblical. But I think there is a sense that springs from the Nicene Creed that God is the Creator of heaven and earth, of all things visible and invisible. And that it seems almost incredible that God would create this vast universe, so infinitely larger than our planet, and that there would only be living creatures in one tiny, microscopic part of it. And that there must be something living out there just seems in line with a God who created so much life here on Earth.

    Susannah: Yeah, and just the sort of sense of plenitude, the sense of fullness and that was, I mean, one of Aquinas’s descriptions of angels was like, It’s fitting that there’ll be lots and lots of ranks of angels in between God and humans because God just fills stuff up. He goes over the top. When there seems to be a spot for there to be a creature, He puts a creature there.

    Peter: Right, so there’s this superabundance of life.

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Peter: And in our issue, we include some wonderful artwork from this Aberdeen bestiary. Did you see this medieval bestiary? It’s called “The Glory of the Creatures”, the piece that includes this artwork. And in that bestiary and the other medieval bestiaries, there’re not only the real animals, but they also populate them with all kinds of imagined animals. Not quite aliens, but they were quite confident that the universe is full of just wonderful and marvelous and strange things. And they did so, I think, out of the sense that God is a creator, creation is wonderful and more marvelous than we can imagine. So, UFOs, fine, no problem.

    We have more questions, and then we need to talk too, Susannah, as we wrap up this podcast. We should do one final question and then we’ll turn to the last section, where we always talk through, sort of, what did we learn? How did we change our minds over the course of these six episodes? Final question though, first.

    Japanese art of a bird and a spiderweb

    Ohara Koson, The Spiderweb

    Susannah: Final question … This is kind of a huge meta question but: what do we mean when we say nature? So, we could talk about a couple of things: you can contrast nature with culture, you can contrast nature with the supernatural, and then you can contrast nature, which is just creation, with God, so it’s just God and then everything else is nature.

    So does it make sense to talk about … this is, I don’t know, the aspect of this question that really interests me is: does it make sense to talk about the supernatural? Is that a category that we find in Scripture? Is that the way that we should think about things like angels? Is that the way that we should think about, I don’t know, like the human soul versus the human body, which is in some sense, natural? And I’m not sure that I know the answer to that.

    Peter: Yeah, I really feel like I’m getting out of my depth, but I will say that I think emphasizing a distinction between the supernatural and the natural is actually super unhelpful to modern Christians.

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Peter: Because with that we’re kind of importing doubt into our faith, and kind of creating a boundary between things that have to do with science and things that have to do with God. The supernatural is where God and all the spooky stuff is, and the natural world is stuff that we really ought to listen to somebody with enough credentials from a science program talking about.

    And so, it seems to me that what’s really important, at least right now, is to think of God and His creation, and that creation including everything that he has made. And then the distinction is not between natural and supernatural but between things that can be measured and be the subject of scientific inquiry and perhaps things that are beyond that, and that is a boundary that is actually pretty porous if you look at history.

    Electricity used to not be something that science could study several centuries ago. Magnetism was a strange, sort of semi-supernatural property, and now we understand it as something that obeys certain physical laws. Even now dark energy and dark matter, which supposedly make up 95 percent of our universe, are dark only because they’re illegible to the modern, scientific apparatus and the tools we have.

    So, to simply draw that line based on what scientists can measure and then there’s everything else, doesn’t even do justice to what scientists themselves tell us about what the universe is like.

    Susannah: Yeah, I mean the other sort of aspect to this is that there are definitely parts of reality that can’t be – this is going to sound strange – but can’t be measured in the way that science wants to look at things, and numbers are one of those things.

    You can’t look at, or do a scientific experiment on, or point to in the material world, the number four. You can point to four separate things, but there’s a sense in which, like, if you’re looking at numbers and if you’re looking at the way that mathematics works at a structural level, you’re not doing something that’s science. You’re not doing something that’s measuring or prodding at things in the material world and yet clearly, we’re talking about an aspect of reality.

    So, again, there are a lot of different things like that, that are basically either immaterial, or not subject to measurement in the way that we sort of think is respectable, and yet they’re part of reality.

    Peter: Well, I think we’re going to sound like amateur versions of Plato if we go on this too much farther except that it’s actually really useful and practical to remind ourselves that nature, creation, reality, whatever you want to call it, just has layers upon layers and that there are, as one of my favorite pop science books tells us, we have no idea about much of it, and any honest scientist will tell you the same.

    Final Reflection: What Have We Learned?

    Well, let’s turn to the second half of this podcast, and it won’t be as long because the listener questions are the funnest part, but I think it is always worth wrapping up and looking back over all the things we’ve discussed. We’ve talked about a wide range of things over the last few podcasts on the Book of Nature. We’ve talked about Natural Law. We talked with Sohrab Ahmari about his new book on tradition. Leah Libresco about dependency and sort of the fragility built into our nature, our creativeness.

    So those are just a few things. We’ve talked about place with Gracy Olmstead, and the meaning of nature in a sort of sense of place in the world, and Ian Marcus Corbin’s beautiful essay, “The Abyss of Beauty,” on the experience of nature as having a meaning, just kind of invading us and taking over. So what of this, Susannah, is kind of made you think differently about nature? When you walk outside are you too going to experience like Václav Havel did?

    Susannah: I’ve certainly … I think your editorial and then Ian’s piece, which were very much a pair in my mind, did make me sort of want to be more attentive and made me sort of … even just excited about the possibility of reading God in the natural world. And there’re a couple of things that I’m looking forward to doing this summer, one of which is going camping out in my family’s place in Connecticut, and that is something that I’ve always enjoyed. And it’s also … There’s a way in which that kind of gets to the sense of the legibility of nature when it’s in the context of a place that you know very well, as we talked about with Gracy.

    There’s another layer of readability there, like when you have family history in a place, it’s not just that the natural world is speaking to you about God, it’s that your own memories and your parents’ memories, your grandparents’ memories are kind of like dug into that soil, are a way that you feel like you’re almost reading your own family history in a place. That’s been my experience, anyway.

    Peter: So as people are increasingly mobile and don’t have that sense of deep rootedness in a place. You’re talking about going back to a place that probably your family’s camped in before, right? What could you recommend to our listeners about ways to kind of cultivate that, when there may not even be a place anywhere on the planet that you have deep family roots in?

    Susannah: Well, I mean, one thing that Gracy did was even though she doesn’t live … this is kind of a cop-out but like, even if you’ve moved away from your family place, try and find out where your family used to live. If you’ve moved away from your town, go back, not necessarily to stay but as a way of honoring the fact of your family’s history in a place.

    There’s a sense in which not everybody needs to stay where they were born, not everybody needs to stay for many generations in the same place. But if you move there is a kind of gravity to that, there’s a sense of like, it took a while for you to build up say five generations in one place and now you’re moving and that is a bit like cutting down an old growth forest or an old tree.

    Peter: It’s a significant thing.

    Susannah: Yeah.

    Peter: It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s significant.

    Susannah: Yeah, it’s momentous. So find your roots, go find out where your family used to live.

    Peter: And of course, Gracy’s book starts with her going through a cemetery, right, and that’s what I’ve been thinking about. My family, in the last few generations, has kind of gone from Germany to England to Paraguay to the US and then wandered around some more. However, there were places where once forebears had been laid to rest.

    And those are places of significance, that kind of can help give a sense that there are places on earth that matter, and that I’m connected to, whether or not I live there. And so, that was a really striking part of Gracy’s book. I had a thing I learned, one was just really straightforward, there was a lot of optimism about regenerative agriculture from the Amish farmer, John Kempf, whom we interviewed a couple episodes back.

    Susannah: Yeah, that was one of the best new pieces of information. I’ve always had it in my mind, this question like, can we feed the world on environmentally responsible, non-destructive agriculture? And he’s like Oh yeah, we definitely can.

    Peter: Well, and I know enough farmers who are just by nature really skeptical about anything that involves not using weed killers that obviously work and not using GMO seeds that obviously grow better. And also I think there’s just a cultural divide between the kinds of farmers who kind of want to do the Ben and Jerry’s Vermont hippie back-to-the-land thing and farmers who just want to get the work done.

    And I thought that interview with John did such a great job of bridging those gaps and getting at what is good in the back-to-the-land organic movement while taking away maybe that sort of oppositional, possibly even sometimes supercilious and snide attitude toward regular, normal farmers while showing normal farmers a way to actually do a better job, both by their own farms and by the planet and by the people who eat their food.

    Susannah: One of the things that he said that just really stuck with me is just the responsibility, the sense that farmers often have – and he made it sound like very common sense – of, all right, the big thing that I need to do is leave the soil richer than when I found it, leave the soil richer for the next generation. And this is … I think there’s a way to think of that in terms of the work that we do in writing and editing and publishing.

    I think that there’s obviously this deep connection between culture and agriculture, and I wonder whether we can think of taking the heritage of this magazine that started 100 years ago, this publishing house, and in our generation making that heritage even richer to pass it on to the next generation. I’ve been thinking a lot about Christian humanism and what it means to build a good Christian culture, and I think that that comparison, that idea of enriching the soil and leaving it better for the next generation, is going to be something that sticks with me.

    Peter: Right, and it’s built right into that word, culture, right, that we’re trying to do with this magazine. Well in that spirit, I’ve one more final takeaway and this has to do perhaps with the Anabaptist/Anglican divide that we sometimes like to sort of itch away at. In the radical reformation tradition there is a lot of hostility to the idea of natural law, at least in some of the rhetoric, right? And even a lot of your Neo-Anabaptists, as Stanley Hauerwas is known for kind of being not an Aquinas fan.

    Susannah: Tell me about this.

    Peter: Well, I first want to get to the thing I realized. Well, I mean, the bottom line is [that the Anabaptists were thinking] read Scripture; don’t think that you can develop [theology] with worldly philosophies; there’s a hostility to the importing of too much Greek philosophy into Christianity. And the idea that if the original first church in Jerusalem didn’t need big doses of Aristotle to make sense of the world, or to make sense of God, then possibly we don’t either. All right.

    And there’s good ways and bad ways of making this argument, and I think it has some validity. But what I learned through working with Pater Edmund Waldstein on his article, which is just a beautiful summation, I think, of a long tradition of reflecting on natural law as it relates specifically to our relationship to our own bodies as part of nature. It’s called “Lords of Nature” – beautiful article, again, we’ll drop a link –is that all Christians, whether or not they are familiar with Aquinas at all or not, actually live within a tradition that really depends on reading the “Book of Nature.” And it goes back of course to Paul himself, right, of speaking the first letter to the Romans, about how God’s own works testify to his greatness and power.

    And so that piece, and just reflecting on this whole issue, reflecting on this whole tradition of the Book of Nature in the Christian tradition, kind of made me appreciate more and gave me more confidence in our ability to read nature, I guess, and actually draw some conclusions for our lives.

    Susannah: You’ve gotten Aquinas-pilled. I’m so happy.

    Peter: Well, with lots of qualifications, but I think, yeah. I mean, he’s … This sounds like, who am I to evaluate Aquinas? I will just say that he’s not everybody’s friend, and I think he’s … I kind of realized he was onto more than I would have thought before getting into this.

    Susannah: Let me push you a little bit further on that. So we talked about the sort of the seeds of the gospel and the soil that they were sown in and one of my big changes after conversion – (because when I first converted I was in the skeptical-of-Greek-philosophy camp actually, despite the fact that I’ve been a Platonist before, I thought maybe I had to leave all that behind and just read the Bible.

    And then I started thinking about the fact that the New Testament is written in Greek, and that you can’t get away from the meaning of a language. And then I started thinking about the way that the words were used, in particular the word Logos, the way it was used in the beginning of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Logos.

    And then I started thinking about the idea of … like, there’s no possible way that God is going to expect us to not know what we know about the meaning of logos in Greek philosophy. And it seems to be at least highly, highly probable that we can think of Greek philosophy and the Greek language as being something that was soil that God prepared for the seeds of the gospel to be sown in, and it grew up because that was really good soil.

    Peter: So Greek philosophy is also part of the “Book of Nature,” it’s what we’re concluding. Well, that brings us to the end of our podcast.

    Susannah: Thanks for listening. We’ll be back in six weeks with another series of podcasts around the launch of the next issue of Plough, which will be focused on the theme of “Beyond Borders.”

    Peter: See you then.

    Contributed By portrait of Peter Mommsen Peter Mommsen

    Peter Mommsen is editor of Plough magazine. He lives in upstate New York with his wife, Wilma, and their three children.

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    Contributed By portrait of Susannah Black Roberts Susannah Black Roberts

    Susannah Black Roberts is a senior editor of Plough.

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