Thursday, July 01, 2004

Nature, God, Thoreau, Abbey and Idolatry

Michael Gilleland quotes Thoreau, letter to Parker Pillsbury, April 1861:

Blessed are they who never read a newspaper, for they shall see Nature, and, through her, God.


Edward "Cactus Ed" Abbey has been described as the Thoreau of the American Southwest. Had Cactus Ed been Henry David's editor, the quotation would have ended with 'Nature.' For Abbey, a Transcendence seeker, was a God denier and (therefore) a nature idolater. You say you want evidence? Consider this passage from his journal:

Forty-one years of searching. A sickness. A disease. Melancholia -- dread -- the sick sad heartsick yearning for something lost, remote, past, future, forever out of reach. An absolute love for something absolute. Infinitely good and sweet and pure and beautiful -- immutable. Forest -- mountain -- desert -- sea! (Confessions of a Barbarian, pp. 213-214, entry of 11 January 1968, Tucson.


We tend to seek Transcendence where it cannot be found, in a man, in a woman, in nature. All love is at bottom love of the Good, of God, as Plato, Augustine, and Simone Weil understood; but this love, not understanding itself, tries to satisfy itself with some finite object such as nature, but without success. In the above passage one can clearly see how Abbey ascribes to nature attributes (absoluteness, infinite goodness, immutability) that she cannot possibly possess, attributes that only God can possess.

Note that idolatry is a mistake whether or not God exists. If God exists, then the idolater worships the wrong object. But if God does not exist, then nothing is worthy of worship, including nature. To avoid the error of idolatry, the atheist must love the relative and finite with a love that is only relative and finite.