A few days ago I was walking along the woodland trails of the national park near my home with my son Patrick and dog Roland (I think I have that the right way around). When we had set out, the sky was overcast, traces of the morning’s mist were still drifting among the trees, and the gold, scarlet, and stubborn green of the foliage around us was gently glistening from the previous night’s rain.
But by the time we had reached the rise in the trail that lies almost exactly midway along our accustomed path, where a clearing to the left over a steeply descending slope allows us to look down on the lake at the park’s center, the mist was gone; and, as we paused there, sunlight broke from the clouds overhead just as a gust of wind sent hundreds of pale yellow leaves from the poplars on the opposite side of the lake swirling high over the water in a vast dancing spiral. All at once, everything was shining: the lingering droplets of rain shaken down on us from the branches above flashed iridescently in the air; the lead-gray lake was changed to a radiant, silvery blue; Roland’s nose became positively resplendent in its glossiness.
Autumn is the most beautiful and most mysterious of the seasons, at least to me, just as twilight is the most beautiful and mysterious part of the day. There is something so hypnotically uncanny about these liminal times—between summer and winter, between day and night—partly because of the obliging softness of the light, which lends such depth and subtlety to the world’s colors, and partly because of the strange feeling of suspense that pervades them.
Everything seems to hover tremulously in a state of pure transformation, slowly passing from one fixed condition to another—from seething torpor to icy dormancy, from light to darkness. There is a haunting sense that everything has been briefly displaced from any proper order, that almost anything might happen, that strange, lovely, and mighty forms are moving just behind the surface of reality. These are the times when one is most immediately aware of the numinous within nature.
This, at any rate, was what I said to my son—in very different terms—as we stood there looking down over the lake, and he agreed with me heartily. Then he observed that a forest is always a mysterious place, no matter what the season, and I had to concede the point, with a discreet thrill of paternal pride. But then he remarked that this must be why people used to believe there were spirits of the trees and streams, before science discovered that there are no such beings.
I was stunned; his words pierced me to the core. Where on earth, I wondered, had he acquired this dreadful superstition? Who had corrupted his eleven-year-old mind with the abominable nonsense that science had somehow “discovered” the nonexistence of nature spirits, or that modern empirical method could ever possibly be competent to do such a thing? Suppressing my alarm as best I could, I quickly interrogated him, and within a few moments had learned the title of the offending school text.
Then, as we resumed our stroll, I assured him patiently but emphatically that it was all so much sordid twaddle, and that we have absolutely no warrant for assuming that we know any better than our distant ancestors on this score: indeed, they may have been far better attuned to the deeper truths of nature than we now are. He was pleased to be corrected. (Roland merely heaved a longanimous sigh.)
As far as Patrick was concerned, the matter had been settled; but I have to admit that the episode continues to trouble me. It is not that I expect my son never to be exposed to any of the conceptual confusion or magical claptrap of his age; and I trust to his native intelligence to disabuse him of the worst of it. But it is still depressing to think how much conceited gibberish has become simply part of the received wisdom of our time.
It puts me in mind of a particularly annoying witticism that one occasionally encounters in the current popular debates between atheists and theists: the orgulous infidel waves his hand contemptuously and announces that he believes neither that there is a God nor that there are fairies at the bottom of his garden—or (a slight variation on the theme) observes that everyone in the room is an unbeliever when it comes to Thor or Baal, and that the atheist is simply an unbeliever in one god more.
There are two reasons for treating such remarks with indignant disdain: the obvious one and mine. The obvious one, of course, is that only a simpleton could mistake these two orders of conviction for specimens of the same kind of belief.
A person who believes in fairies or in Thor may or may not be mistaken about certain finite objects within the cosmos; a person who believes in God may or may not be mistaken about being, the nature of existence itself, the logical possibility of any world, the moral meaning of the universe, and so on. The former kind of belief concerns facts of experience, the latter truths of reason, and to suggest that they occupy the same conceptual or existential space is either to confess one’s own stupidity or willfully to engage in cheap rhetorical thuggery.
That though, as I say, is obvious. My reason for taking exception to such remarks is perhaps somewhat more precious, but still quite sincere. Simply enough, what if there are fairies at the bottom of one’s garden? Or, more precisely, what the hell is so irrational in believing there are or might be?
One may be in error on the matter, naturally—one may just have misread the signs—but one cannot justly be accused of having committed any trespass against logic. Nothing gives us warrant to imagine that, on account of our grasp of various organic processes, we have succeeded in lifting the veil of Isis.
Well, I blame Francis Bacon. I know, I know: one can talk of Christianity’s “desacralization” of creation, or of the Enlightenment having delivered humanity from the terrors of the “demon-haunted world,” but all of that is misleading.
Perhaps Christianity chased the gods and sprites away, or forced them to assume different forms, but it never did so entirely. And, after all, Paul never suggested that the elemental powers or ethereal principalities were illusions; he merely claimed that they had been made subject to Christ. The author of Colossians even seems to say that they have now been reconciled to God. As for the Enlightenment, whatever one imagines that might be, on this issue it marks not an advance from ignorance to understanding, but only a mutation of conceptual paradigms.
And the principal author of that mutation, at least as an explicit and systematic intellectual project, was Bacon. It was he who chose to establish his new model of the sciences by proscribing any consideration of formal and final causes, and to approach all of nature as something analogous to a mindless machine, and to accept as knowledge only the kind of comprehension that gives one the power to control and manipulate that machine. And, for better and worse, it was a remarkably successful project, as every new successful therapy for a previously fatal disease and every new weapon of mass murder reminds us.
In Bacon’s defense, of course, one could argue (charitably, if not quite accurately) that he was principally recommending only a revision of scientific method: by prescinding from formal and final causality, the sciences are able to submit their conjectures to the verdict of empirical data alone. Properly understood, this should mean that the sciences, in order to move upon a very narrow path of experimental progress, must willingly forfeit any right to pronounce upon metaphysical or spiritual questions.
But, unfortunately, the mechanical philosophy soon ceased to be a matter merely of method and became instead a metaphysics in its own right, and so mistook itself for the one thing it can never possibly be: an exhaustive picture of reality. As a consequence, much of our culture has now been reduced to a condition of such savagery that educated persons really adhere to the degrading belief that the cosmos is indeed only a kind of machine.
Ours is what Heidegger called the time of technology, the “age of the world-picture,” in which all of nature has been “en-framed” as a reserve of inert resources awaiting exploitation by the will to power. The name we seem now to have settled on for this philosophy is “naturalism,” which comes in any number of reductionist forms (the most incoherent, absurd, and yet logically inevitable of which is called “eliminativism”).
There are two great problems with naturalism. The first is that it is obviously false, if for no other reason than it is radically incomplete as a philosophy of the whole of things.
The one thing that a naturalist view of reality cannot encompass is being itself, the very existence of nature; nature, by definition, is what already exists, and no investigation of its innate causes can penetrate the mystery of its ontological contingency. Thus naturalism is always surrounded and permeated and exceeded by that which is, quite literally, “super naturam”; and naturalism can be held as a philosophy only to the degree that one fails or scrupulously refuses to notice this surd of the supernatural, this ever deeper mystery behind and beyond all the lesser mysteries of natural order.
The second problem is that naturalism, being a false picture of things, is inevitably destructive of nature, both cosmic and human. I mean not only that the age of technology has, as we all know, given us the power to ruin the world about us with magnificent profligacy. I mean also that it makes it all but impossible for human beings to inhabit the natural world as participants in its gratuity, greatness, and enchantment. And this is rather tragic, because all of civilization—quite literally all of it—springs up in the space between mortals and the mystery of the divine within and beyond the things of earth.
But to find that space—that clearing in the forest—we must first consent to be servants, not simply masters. The works of our hands have to be the way in which we respond to the summons of the ever deeper mystery within things, born out of a primordial human capacity for wonder that never presumes to know more than it can know, and that never tries to determine in advance what may or may not reveal itself. And any deafness to this summons, or any arrogant forgetfulness of this mystery, is the deepest, most barbarous irrationality of all.
Or so I would argue, and with greater precision if this column were not already too long. But I have a journey to make this evening, and we must go for our daily walk in the woods before I leave. With any luck, we may catch a glimpse of a nymph or hamadryad, though I have no expectation that we will. Neither Patrick nor I can recall ever having seen one; and whatever Roland knows he keeps hidden in the fastness of his heart.
David B. Hart is a contributing writer of First Things. His most recent book is Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies (Yale University Press). His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.