My eldest daughter was four. We were late to pre-school, and I was pushing ten miles over the speed limit when she threw her head back and yelled: what is life?
I looked in the rearview mirror and realized she was breathless and agitated. She kicked the back of my seat with her pink John Deere boots, sourced from the local feed store.
“It’s okay,” I said, trying to soothe her. “No one knows.”
In retrospect, I see how my response unnerved her further. It was a non-answer to a big question, the realization that her mother couldn’t pin down the animating force coursing through her small body—this energy, this evanescent drive to consume and create.
What could I say in that stunned and precious minute, whizzing by the general store on a rural highway? That there is science but no certitude? That no matter what dogma spills from the mouths of ministers and scientists, there will likely always be a shimmering gap between what we think we know about life and what we can’t manage to touch with words and theorems?
“You’ll spend the rest of your life trying to answer this question,” I said, in the way that parents talk to themselves while pretending to talk to their children. It seemed wiser than fumbling through an unsatisfactory explanation of exploding stars, auto-catalytic sets, enzymes, and cellular activity.
I’ve often found Iris DeMent’s song “Let the Mystery Be” reassuring when existential questions press down. The Arkansas-born DeMent sings: “But no one knows for certain and so it’s all the same to me—I think I’ll just let the mystery be.” The youngest of fourteen raised in a Pentecostal household, DeMent had some experience turning the idea of a divine spark over in her head. She seemed to settle on a healthy “I don’t need to know” mindset.
My daughters have little hellfire in their childhoods, largely spent on a farm in southern Vermont. Their spiritual lives are secular—a church of apple trees, rescue dogs, snowstorms, and a slippery barn ramp with a robin’s nest on the underside in spring. They’ve had brushes with organized religion—attending church with relatives, reading a picture book about Noah’s ark, and once, in a period of bewilderment during the Trump presidency, a visit to a Quaker meeting. There, we were asked to go around the room and state our feelings about the holy spirit.The natural world is a concrete part of creation we can all believe in, and it is clearly suffering.
One woman said: “I feel like a walking sack of chemicals, but perhaps there’s more?” She shrugged. I nodded, understanding. I identify with Team Science, but also love a heady mix of mystery and fact: the kind of symphonic, unknowable space only the humanities can reach.
When pressed, as I was that day in the Quaker meeting, I’ve often recited the Frank Lloyd Wright quote, “I believe in God, only I spell it Nature.” Wright gave a speech in the 1950s where he acknowledged that “man is chiefly animal” and warned against the threat of impoverished spirituality that disregards nature. “Until science, religion, and art are more or less one,” he said, “we’re not going to be safe—we want security, don’t we? We’re all insecure.” “Man is a phase of nature,” he went on to say, “and only as he is related to nature does he matter, does he have any account whatever above the dust.” I admire Wright’s ability to integrate nature into a modified belief system, and to hold man in a humble place in the cosmos. A humanist, Wright’s nod to the ecstasy of creation—and the criticality of complementing nature with one’s creation—appeals to me.
Formally, I lost my religion long ago, roughly three years after R.E.M.’s single landed. It happened on Halloween. My boyfriend belonged to the conservative Sunset Baptist Church, and I the more moderate Lakeside Baptist. I agreed to attend an alternative Halloween celebration with him that would place God’s work in front of the Devil’s.
When we arrived at the farm, it seemed normal enough. There was candy, and we climbed into a wagon full of hay bales. Minutes into the hayride, an epic allergy attack struck. My eyes began to swell.
When the hayride ended, I couldn’t breathe well. I stumbled off the itchy blocks of hay. The organizers called us to the living room of an old farmhouse, where we sat on the floor. There, a youth minister who was rumored to wear a toupee began to preach.
“Bow your heads, and let us pray in Jesus’ name,” he said solemnly.
“If you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior, raise your hand,” he said.
I didn’t. I kept my hand in my lap.
I was irritable about the allergy attack and, for one of the first times in my life, not in the mood to hide my doubts or please men. Plus, no one was looking, right? The prayer ended.
“Megan, is it?” the youth minister asked.
I looked up and nodded, suddenly less bold.
“Come here.” He gestured for me to join him on the piano bench in front of the room of teenagers. I died several times within that minute. A friend gave me the eye, as if to say: what did you do?
“The rest of you can go.”
In my memory, the crowd—including the boyfriend I adored—rushed out of the room.
“I don’t know what Brother Lehman has taught you,” he said, grim. “But this is a dark path.” I don’t remember much else of what he said, only the sense I retained of deep anger, humiliation, and fear.
Whatever this man of the Lord hoped to instill in me that day, he only instilled further determination and fury. That anger continued when I moved to South Carolina at 16. I watched religious families disown gay sons, teachers mock evolution, youth ministers plaster the walls of a public high school with an abstinence pledge, and sanctimonious men known as “Promise Keepers” patronize women and attempt to strip them of agency. I carried my fury for a long time, until I accepted that anger is a secondary emotion to hurt.
Secular as I am now, I still think fondly of my childhood minister, Dr. Lehman, a soft-spoken man who loved college basketball and Honda Accords (he drove 13 of them during his lifetime). At the conclusion of each Lakeside Baptist service, he would call the eastern North Carolina congregation to action. “Go forth,” he said as the organ began to play, “and be involved in the world.” Light poured into the stained-glass windows, making colorful fractals on the plush blue carpeting. I recall the creak of the wooden pews, the murmur of the congregation as we rose for a hymn, the sense of belonging as we sang it together.
Like many who grew up in the Southern Baptist tradition—or any conservative tradition—I’m still teasing the last threads of dogma and shame out of my mind and heart. The act of jettisoning religion created what I can only describe as a void: the space where a belief system used to be, a place in my mind that craves reverence and worship and desires to be filled.
In her incredible book on grief, The Light of the World, Elizabeth Alexander nods to her own void after the unexpected death of her husband. “What does it mean to grieve in the absence of religious culture?” she asks. “In the absence of organized religion,” she writes, “faith abounds, in the form of song and art and food and strong arms.” We are, I think, a species that craves meaning and is prone to faith, and never is this feeling so activated as when we are facing loss.
Reverence for nature is the best way I’ve been able to fill my spiritual void: a meditative walk in the woods, repeated daily like a prayer on a rosary. Light filtered through the leaves of a maple tree, glowing like stained glass. A hymn of wingbeats as Snow Geese come in for a landing on a damp Vermont field. Awe as moonlight falls across the glassy Altamaha River on a still night in Georgia, the puff of air as a dolphin nears the boat and rises to breathe.Perhaps the planet’s failing health calls for new belief systems and spiritual practices that promote harmony and balance with the natural world.
I once wept during a Helen Macdonald reading as she described watching a young albatross take flight—how wild it was to see a bird the size of a dog rise in the wind—the sheer miracle of it. I recognized the intense reverence in her literary gaze. In her latest book, Vesper Flights, she writes that “The natural world is not, to me, a fabric of stuff that gleams with revelation of a singular creator god. Those moments in nature that provoke in me a sense of the divine are those in which my attention has unaccountably snagged on something small and transitory—the pattern of hailstones by my feet upon dark earth; a certain cast of light across a hillside through a break in the clouds; the face of a long-eared owl peering out at me from a hawthorn bush…”
When writing a column about the American south and climate change, I interviewed evangelicals about their reticence to join the climate movement. They routinely surprised me with compelling scripture about the stewardship of God’s creation. One man spoke about witnessing an ice sheet with such awe that I recognized his tone and feeling in my body—just not his words. Semantics and doctrines fueled our mutual distrust, but I could sense a distant but reachable place of agreement in our reverence for nature.
“If faith makes people buy an entire package of myths and values without asking too many questions,” primatologist Dr. Frans deWaal writes in his book The Bonobo and the Atheist, “scientists are only slightly better.” Religion does not have the last word on morality, and science is not the only form of wisdom—but our polemical positions make many of us feel that it is so. If there was ever a time to bridge the gulf between science and faith, or to integrate a reverence for nature into one’s belief system, it is now, when suffering and loss are more constant than episodic, and the cost of our species’ greed has become evident.
The natural world is a concrete part of creation we can all believe in, and it is clearly suffering. What if revering and protecting nature became the unifying element in our splintered time, the shared center of our Venn Diagrams, no matter one’s spiritual orientation? It seems to me highly practical to marry the scientific, natural, and spiritual—not just to feed one’s self spiritually and attain a sort of moral high ground, but to survive in an ethical manner.
Perhaps the planet’s failing health calls for new belief systems and spiritual practices that promote harmony and balance with the natural world. Embracing a biocentric worldview, as opposed to an egocentric one, like the one espoused by so-called “prosperity gospel” in contemporary Christianity, challenges human exceptionalism and is grounded in humility, gratitude, and a scientifically-compatible sense of interconnectivity.
Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about the spiritual connection between human and earth in Braiding Sweetgrass. “Action on behalf of life transforms,” she writes. “Because the relationship between self and the world is reciprocal, it is not a question of first getting enlightened or saved and then acting. As we work to heal the earth, the earth heals us.” Indigenous communities—such as those on Hawai’i’s Moloka’i—have long blended sustainability and spirituality in the concept of ‘Aina. Models that connect the physical and spiritual well-being of humans to that of the land—a sacred flow—already exist, if we care to learn from them.
Dr. Stuart Kauffman, an MD and polymathic scientist, studies complexity, the beginnings of life, and the rules it plays by (or doesn’t). In his book Reinventing the Sacred, he makes a case for revering the creativity and sacredness of the universe in the absence of a traditional God figure. Kauffman quotes T. S. Eliot and Donne to honor the “anguish” between faith and reason, and nods to CP Snow’s landmark essay on the divide between science and the humanities. Among other objectives, Kauffman honors the cultural injuries that prevent humanity from a cohesive worldview that unites its fate with that of the natural world. Our fates are intertwined, whether our belief systems acknowledge it or not.
I know, and respect, many who are anchored by their belief systems—to a way of living, to a community, to deep cultural histories essential to their identities. I don’t desire for anyone to lose that structure or meaning, only to consider the grounds for integrating a nature-forward conservation ethos into it. Most of us are fumbling through with our cobbled together theories and inherited beliefs, none provably superior than another. “Few of us have ever met an angel,” Alan Watts wrote, “and probably would not recognize it if we saw one, and our images of an impersonal or suprapersonal God are hopelessly subhuman—Jell-O, featureless light, homogenized space, or a whopping jolt of electricity.” The mystery persists in the margins of our sermons and theories. But we know that the ocean is warming and rising, birds are missing from the sky, pollinators are dwindling, and water is disappearing in places where it was once plentiful. What are those if not cosmic demands for better attention?
“Perhaps religion is like a ship that has carried us across the ocean,” deWaal writes, “having allowed us to develop huge societies with a well-functioning morality. Now that we are spotting land, some of us are ready to disembark.” What does it mean to disembark, ethically? Or to adjust? For me, the practice of ahimsa—of reducing the suffering of other living things, including animals, plants, and fellow humans—resonates most. I find I can apply it everywhere—in the words I choose; the food I eat; a walk through the field, mindful of what is underfoot.