I just read an article in the prestigious bi-weekly journal “The Christian Century” (June 17, 2020) under the title “New poll finds majority of Americans who believe in God see corona virus as divine message” by authors Elana Schor and Hannah Fingerhut. This does not come as a surprise, similar pieces having appeared in other publications.
With over hundred thousand people having lost their lives to the virus in our country alone, it is no wonder that folks speculate. The piece in the journal I am referring to above is based on a poll by the University Chicago Divinity School and the Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. It suggests that many people wonder whether there is a deeper meaning to the deadly outbreak that has become global.
Why bring God into the conundrum of why this catastrophe? This question is easy enough to answer. It is clear that any genuine believer in the ultimate and literal truth of the Bible cannot help but make the connection between what these days is happening to the global population and a text like for instance Deuteronomy 11:13-17 that teaches that if we accept God’s laws his blessings will flow to us, but if we reject God’s laws and thus disobey him, all kinds of punishments will be dumped upon us like illness, famine, military defeat, etc.
The above Deuteronomy text and other similar ones are found in the Hebrew scriptures, a.k.a. the Old Testament and are addressed to ancient Israel or, as the Jews understand it, to them. The Old Testament’s teachings are, however, also part of the holy scriptures of the Christian Church. There is no reason to think that Jesus the Jew rejected the above cited instruction. Not only does Jesus nowhere question it but everything in Jesus’ life and teaching points to the fact that he accepted it. His healing miracles performed on persons who suffered from various diseases and disabilities are often prefaced by Jesus’ words of forgiveness of these persons’ sins.
No wonder then that modern day genuine believers in God and God-related stories in the Bible, often called fundamentalists, see connections between the present day pandemic of Covid-19 and the biblical theology of punishment responses to human sin by God. Since these folks accept theodicy, i.e., the teaching that God’s judgment is always righteous and just, their response to catastrophe is humility and submission. They bow their heads, acknowledge their sin and pray for God’s forgiveness and healing .
For just a moment I will now focus elsewhere. I agree with what many other contemporary writers have noticed, namely the increased frequency of nature-related catastrophes. While it is true that communication-related technical improvements have shrunk the world, as it were, so that we know much more than our ancestors ever did about what is going on elsewhere on our globe, it is undeniable that vast natural catastrophes have been occurring in our times much more frequently than ever before. Hundreds of thousands have been killed by earthquakes, tsunamis, floods, droughts and fire.
Have all these nature phenomena been divine signs and messages within God’s alleged sin/punishment arrangement, as some fundamentalist Bible believers suggest?
Enter into our discussion Martin Buber with his philosophy of “I and Thou.” Martin Buber (1878 to 1965) was a famous German Jewish philosopher. He is best known for teaching the I-Thou and I-It philosophical concepts. He explored these concepts in his German book, titled Ich und Du or I and Thou. His view was that in order for human beings to relate to each other in a truly humane and constructive way it is necessary they do so on the basis of an I-Thou rather than an I- It relationship.
According to Buber it is these two philosophies of radical difference that rule all human relationships. The I-Thou relationship is the relationship between subject and subject. It is a relationship of reciprocity and mutuality. It is a relationship between equals who respect each other. The I-It relationship, on the other hand, is a relationship between subject and object which involves some form of utilization and control of the other. In this relationship the role of the object is passive.
As I read Buber, he applies this philosophy primarily to human social and political intercourse so as to show how inter-human relationships can be improved. Only as we see and treat each other as equals, both as individuals, as religious and social groups, will hostility and conflict disappear to make room for peace.
It seems that Buber, in his discussion of relationships relegates nature which is a constant vis-a-vis to humanity, into the I-It category. This does not surprise me be cause in doing so, he follows the creation account in the Old Testament in the book of Genesis. In the first biblical account of creation the Hebrew text reads: “And God said, let us make a human, in our image according to our likeness and let them dominate [Hebr. veyirdu] the fish of the sea and the birds of the skies…” (Gen. 1:26). Two verses later, we read, “And God blessed them [Adam and Eve] and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it and dominate (Hebrew: vekhivshuha uredu) the fish and the birds of the skies…(Gen.1:28) This is followed by, “And God said, “Behold, I have placed all the vegetation that produces seed that is on the face of all the earth for you and every tree….(Gen. 1:29)
While this wholesale generosity clearly suggests that God’s created nature is a gift to humanity, it does NOT imply that humans are free to abuse the earth, the flora and fauna that are given to them. The above texts are a command of God to the first male and female to rule over the Garden of Eden in a sensitive and conscientious manner as any good gardener worth the title would understand.
Nonetheless, it is the human who falls into Buber’s category of subject, while the garden, given to Adam and Eve, is seen by him as the object or the It. It would be foolish to suggest that the authors of this portion of Genesis had the same understanding of ecological responsibility we have today.
Given the above discussion, I raise the question whether Buber’s relegation of nature into the It category makes sense. I venture to say that nature, while not speaking the language of humans, has its own language by which to communicate with us. When our gardening is irresponsible in that we fail to protect the earth from uninvited invaders; when we neglect to properly feed/fertilize the earth, there will be consequences; when we do not see to it that the earth is properly irrigated, the lack of growth and possible death of seed and seedlings will communicate to us where we have failed. It is no accident that the earth’s epithet is Mother Earth. All this to suggest that Buber by seeing nature as an It might just be wrong. I submit that the earth and all of nature deserves to be recognized not as an object to be used but as a subject and that it should be treated as such.
Now to a bit of theology. I believe that those who suggest that the increase of natural disasters, including perhaps Covid-19, might not be all wrong in considering them as messages and warnings. This said, let me, however, hasten to say that by no means do I consider the message and warning coming from some kind of supernatural divinity. It is at this point of our discussion that I call upon the great Jewish philosopher Baruch Spinoza to enlighten us.
Baruch Spinoza, his Latin name Benedictus Spinoza, of Portuguese background, was born in 1632 in Amsterdam. He died in 1677 in The Hague. He was a Dutch Jewish philosopher, a rationalist and a seminal figure, some would go so far as to say, the founder of the Enlightenment.
Spinoza is best know from his Latin statement, deus sive natura, meaning “God or Nature.” The word “or” in this statement does not suggest choice as it often does and therefore has been misunderstood. For Spinoza the “or” meant equality or better, identical-ness. In other words, where in spoken or written discourse the word God is being used, one could just as well use the term nature. Let us keep that in mind.
In Jewish worship we attest to God’s ultimate uniqueness, sacredness, and set-apartness in every area of being by singing kadosh, kadosh, kadosh, adonay tseva’ot; melo kol ha’aretz kevodo, meaning “Holy, Holy, Holy, is the Lord of hosts. The whole earth is filled with his glory,” (Isaiah 6:3) With this statement, in my opinion, we come close to identify the biblical God with all that exists, i.e., nature. Paul Tillich (20th cent. famous German anti-Nazi theologian) held the view that God is the “Ground of all Being.” This view can be understood as being virtually the same as that of Spinoza. Many modern day non-fundamentalist Jewish and Christian theologians make no secret about their understanding of the concept of God as being a metaphor for all that transcends our understanding, of a power beyond us, a kind of elan vital (expression originating with the French Jewish philosopher Henri Bergson) that drives our planet and the whole universe we are a part of.
If then we accept Spinoza’s teaching of deus sive natura, does it not make sense to suggest that the severe catastrophes we have been experiencing might just be nature’s message and warnings that if we do not reform our ways relating to nature, the latter will have no other choice than to visit upon us suffering and destruction This down to earth concept is expressed by our sages in the Talmud (Av.Z. 54b)) in the sentence haolam keminhago noheg or “the world [or nature] pursues its natural way of functioning.”
In other words, it is nature that tells us in its own language that our rape of natural resources will have to stop. Our pollution of earth’s space by our poisonous gas emissions must be halted. Our proliferation of space junk circling the earth must come to an end. Our mindless exploitation of the earth below our feet by destructive methods of mining must be ended. Fracking methods that extract fossil fuel from under the earth by drilling into great depths and replacing the extracted materials with polluted water will have to be stopped. Defilement of our waterways and oceans with debris and all kinds of human discards such as plastics that resist decomposition will have to be cleaned up and banned. Fishing methods will have to be modified so that the heavily impacted global fish population may recover. The list of such needed actions by humanity is very long.
My impression is that the individuals and business groups who are responsible for the irresponsible activities outlined above have no idea of the damage they are doing to our holistically interrelated ecosystems. Driven by greed, the major motivation for their damaging activities, we are drawing ever closer to a point of no return in the process of ruination of our beautiful life sustaining nature on planet earth which, on second thought, is not an It but a Thou to be respected and loved.
Summarizing, let me suggest that it is nature and not some divinity that sends us messages of warning. The time for us has come to carefully listen to the message nature is sending to us, albeit not in the language of humans but in its own language, a language that is accessible to us if we but choose to listen. The message to us is simple enough: change the way you treat me before it is too late.