Letting Creation Step Forward

As Philosophers we step back to take the wide and deep view of things. Or we burrow into details to analyze their inner mechanics.  But is stepping back or taking apart for precise analysis always a good thing? What if these actions alter the landscapes and inner mechanics at issue?

If we step back to examine the Environment, or Nature, or Creation, we destroy something crucial.  We lose immersive contact. If we step back from the edge of the pool we’ll miss a crucial aspect of its width and depth, an aspect we can only get through immersion, immersive contact through diving in, swimming its width and depth. If we erect a large poster on the wall depicting the shape and detail of Nature or Creation, we forego diving into the original – or letting it dive into us, letting Nature or Creation overcome us, sweep us away, enter our being.

Professional philosophy is not written to sweep us away, or to acknowledge our being swept away, by an evening’s sunset. The professional stance, as it’s now understood, guarantees we’ll miss the power and wonder of Nature or Creation – unless from time to time we change our professional writing. Or unless we read more Kierkegaard as well as Kant. And unless we not shy from words stirring us the way Annie Dillard or Coleridge can, and not shy from calling these legitimate philosophical stirrings.

Religious writers sometimes take the backward step. From the second balcony they report God’s Creation over seven days: we’re interested onlookers listening to Regal Declarations: “Let there be light.” But as often religious writers fill us with awe, effect intimate immersions — on a gentle scale, “I lay me down by still waters.”  Or on a more violent and grandiose scale we’re plunged into a Whirlwind, as in the Creation that sings toward the end of the Book of Job in what Tennyson calls the greatest poem in literature.

Moby Dick is a rough and unsettling Creation, a secular-sacred immersion in turbulent waters. It can also turn on a dime toward serenity. Rather than attack, the crew becomes immobilized, immersed in the slow circle of mother whales gently nursing. In Creation we are embraced by both birth and death, coming into being and annihilation, on scales both gentle and catastrophic. But if you’re a professional philosopher, you can’t write of Creation or Nature immersively as Melville does, or sing as the Whirlwind does — until after you get tenure. My advice is: don’t let the impulse die in the waiting. If you have passions here, keep them alive.

I have a friend from Montana, Henry Bugbee, now departed who wrote by still waters and swept us up in whirlwinds. It was all in a little book called The Inward Morning written from the Harvard Philosophy Department as they bid him good bye. He was hired as an Assistant Professor to write about Creation – it was not kosher to immerse readers in Creation’s tang and taste and powers of annihilation. I have a friend from South Dakota, David O’Hara, who’s tenured and immerses his philosophy students in equatorial jungles and Alaska tundra. His informal writing pulls us into particulars, into the tang and taste and life of immersive contacts with Nature-as-Creation. Of course, he can also take backward steps to write up the ecology and economics of the terrain. For him, and for Henry Bugbee, philosophy isn’t only theory. It’s also wise practice and the evocation of worlds.

We are Touched; We are Called

Genesis and Job’s Whirlwind don’t give us two ways to see Creation, two different overviews. Genesis gives us oversight, but the Whirlwind synesthetically gives us sight merged with smell and touch and terror and wind – gives us the feel of these. Even sight has a feel.  What does it feel like to look down a thousand feet over the edge of a cliff?

This makes it hard for straight-laced philosophers to rehabilitate the notion of Creation, or to amend or expand the rather pinched notions of Environment or Re-enchanted Nature.

If we’re professionally straight-laced we take our domain to be detached assessment, impersonal argument, and lawyer-like policy recommendations. A glance at the International Association for Environmental Philosophy Fall program gives us plenty of this. If we like the poetry, drama, and music, the sweet blossoms and smiles that give us the feel of Creation, that’s fine for our off-campus life! But none of that is the business of straight-laced philosophy.

I’d loosen the corsets and stays and let the philosopher’s body relax into wider domains, relax into the feel and bloom of things. I’d plea – or pray – not for philosophical knowledge but for a wisdom that revels and recoils as the tangs and smells and feels of Creation or Nature intrude – as they touch us. My plea is to allow ourselves, as philosophers, to periodically refuse the backward step, to periodically let Creation touch or invade us — leave us its smells, feels, tastes, and tangs.

It is not enough that environmental philosophy restricts its program by holding nature and environment at bay, stepping back for perfectly valid research or policy formulation. That program, by itself, maintains a cramped and incomplete sense of nature and environment. Even when its program is preservation or sustainability, laudatory and necessary aims, to be sure, this will fall far short of asking what would it be like to have nature and environment be ever-unfolding invitations to immersion, to precious moments of the Sublime, the Numinous, the Sacred or the Holy.

My plea is to invite into the fold writers like Thoreau and Annie Dillard, Henry Bugbee and Bruce Wilshire and David O’Hara – and so many others – who can wed analysis and evocation — immersive contact and wise observation.  These thinkers and their kin can be more than suspect transients in the halls of philosophy. Let’s not forget that the canon can radically change. Hegel and Marx, Kierkegaard, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer are no longer unwelcome interlopers. The canon has grown in the last fifty years and can grow further.


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