If you read yesterday’s sermon, you may have caught some refrains on this theme. The picture I mentioned of the leopard snuggling with a baby antelope might almost pass as a Hallmark card, were it not for the fact that within the hour the antelope will become the leopard’s grisly lunch. But, that picture speaks to the often baffling, jarring interplay of nature and grace in our world, a world in which we can see the beginning outlines of Isaiah’s picture of the lion lying down with the lamb, but only hazy, often erasable ones at best.
The other day my husband sent me another link, this time to a series of images of Yosemite National Park set to music. The natural beauty of creation here is in full adornment: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/04/30/yosemite-time-lapse-video-movie-shawn-reeder_n_1466107.html. I couldn’t help but watch the video with an appreciation for how God’s grace already imbues nature. If Jesus never came to restore our world, I could still look at this video and marvel at the beauty of God’s creation, having been touched by the grace of a benevolent God.
In such cases, it is, I think, dangerously erroneous to suggest that grace negates or overcomes nature- or to describe nature as “evil.” With all respect to my Reformed forebearer, John Calvin, and his interpreters, the concept of “total depravity” is only so helpful. Yes, it provides a helpful framework in which to grapple with how something so horrific within human nature, such as the Shoah, can happen. But it also falls prey to eliding the grace inherent in Nature itself.
Here is where I find the words of contemporary Catholic theologian, Father Robert Barron, especially helpful. (If any of you have seen Terence Malick’s movie, “Tree of Life,” which came out in theaters last fall, I think you’ll especially enjoy Barron’s critique as it relates to issues of good and evil, nature and grace. I myself have not seen the movie, but am looking forward to it now.) What strikes me most, however, is how Barron depicts the relationship between nature and grace as a delicate interplay or God-breathed dance that is itself blessed and affirmed by God, with the implication that the dance itself somehow belongs to God’s greater plan of restoration.
In this framework, what is painful or tragic within Nature, if not redemptive in itself, is still necessary for how it contributes to God’s final summing up of the whole cosmos. If the forces of nature and grace not only underlie the cosmos but play out in human affairs, their encounter- their clash- are strands of a final piece of artwork that God is weaving together, one that in the sum of its parts is even more beautiful.
Here is Barron: “[Nature and grace] are not good and evil. They’re both elements within the universe that come together to produce the roughly beautiful order of God’s creation. God is the wise Provider- the provenant Governor of the universe, who allows what we call evil, or negativity, for the purpose of greater good…God allows…a certain play of nature and grace.” You can hear Barron’s reflections here, thanks to Andrew Sullivan: http://andrewsullivan.thedailybeast.com/2011/10/good-and-evil-nature-and-grace.html.
The other day there was an ugly accident in front of my house: the stretcher, the ambulance, the police cars, the cordoned-off street, the shell-shocked witnesses and then the sometimes annoying, gaping onlookers like myself were all part of the picture. It turns out that a woman ran a stop sign will talking on her cell phone and ran right over a man who was on his first day of a job blowing leaves on the side of the street. (As I later learned, the man’s injuries were serious, but thankfully not life-threatening.)
Maybe much of life is “accidental” like this. There’s a sense in which we human beings- much like a leopard and a baby antelope who in the moment that the leopard was hungry happened to be the most vulnerable in the pack, so vulnerable it could not even recognize danger- are often crashing into one another. That’s the nature of things. “Shit happens,” as the bumper sticker goes. Tragedy weaves in and out of our lives, taking its casualties with it.
But maybe what distinguishes people of faith is their belief that in it all a good and gracious God is taking these strands of tragedy and interweaving them with others, and in turn making something more beautiful and more grace-filled than we can comprehend in the moment when we’re asking, “how could God let this happen?” Maybe, too, what distinguishes people of faith is their willingness to step into that often baffling interplay between nature and grace as those who, in trusting that God is weaving something beautiful, also join God in this mission.
So, maybe in the end Dostoevsky is right. Maybe beauty really will “save the world.” What do you think?