Nature vs. Nature

Rebekah Curtis
Wednesday, August 31st 2016
Sep/Oct 2016

Nature is an idol who has never gone out of fashion. In every generation, she is rediscovered and re-deified. She teaches us to decry fakeness in all things: crackers, detergents, personalities. She pressures us to buy organic, to be true to ourselves and our schools. Nature, in her idolatrous capacity, would rather have her devotees be freeloaders or fornicators than phonies.

We understand that appealing to nature is fallacious, but we are less apt to realize when we’ve done that. Nature cannot help appealing to technology’s dependents. Science fiction writer John C. Wright reminds us to “tell the difference between ‘nature’ meaning the essential property of a set of objects, and ‘nature’ meaning the wild and woolly outdoors.” This polysemy creates a ticklish confusion. We think of the latter nature as being that which exists on its own, because we cannot claim to have made it. But the “nature” of that nature—the essential quality of the natural world—is that of having been made or created.

In On the Incarnation, Athanasius addresses a number of heresies that mischaracterize God’s creative work, including the Gnostic understanding of God as Demiurge, a crafter of matter. Demiurge is translated into English as “Artificer,” one who crafts a material into a new form. Athanasius argues that if God is only the Artificer, working from preexistent material, then he is not the Creator.

The Greek father knows as well as Carl Sagan that if one wishes to make an apple pie from scratch, one must first invent a universe. But Athanasius does not discard the term “Artificer.” Instead, he appropriates it as a designation for God at several points throughout his treatise. Sometimes he calls God “the Artificer” appositionally with “Giver” or “Maker” (poieo), and other times he allows the name to stand on its own. In doing so, Athanasius assumes that artifice is no less divine or good than the act of making, and that the two are inextricable.

Any work of the Artificer, then, is inherently “artificial.” Ragú from a jar is, in this sense, as artificial as the sauce a cook makes on his stove from tomatoes he grew in his backyard. H2O possesses the same essential artificiality as either its components hydrogen and oxygen, or its derivative Kool-Aid. Nature—the wild and woolly outdoors—is entirely artificial; human beings are artificial. Should anyone wish to argue that there are degrees of artificiality, by which measurement Ragú could be ruled more artificial than a pot of garden tomatoes, we ourselves come out more artificial, scripturally speaking. In Genesis, we see that most of creation was made by being spoken into existence. But the Artificer took an extra generative step with humanity—Adam is formed out of the premade dust, and Eve is built out of Adam. People are fashioned out of things God had already made.

Athanasius is attached to our understanding of the Artificer as well in the creed that honors his name and theology: “The Father uncreated, the Son uncreated, the Holy Spirit uncreated.” Here the church confesses the difference between the Artificer and the artificial. The Maker is non-made. He is. He is essentially natural; he is that from which all our ideas about what is “natural” proceed. He is able to call things into being because his nature is that of being.

Nevertheless, we prefer real things. We’ll take the sauce you made from your tomatoes over that jar version from the Piggly Wiggly supermarket. We understand what chemical compounds are, and we’d still rather wipe our mirrors with vinegar than Windex. We read our children Pinocchio and The Velveteen Rabbit, knowing that eternity is in their hearts as well as ours. We do believe there are degrees of artificiality, and we have seen that artificiality is not a strictly desirable quality. Most of all, we want to be real ourselves; that is, we want to be essential. We do not want to wither and fade like the grass and the flowers. We want to leap with the springy legs and twitching ears of real rabbits, and we are right to want that. The inescapable fact of our having been brought into being by artifice must somehow be reconcilable with the side of ontology that does not end in our annihilation.

But no one must fear whose Maker’s name is I am. The comfort of the creature is in the fact that her Creator is himself the one who is uncreated and unmade. While the quality of having been made is in one sense inferior to being the maker, being made by one who is able to make (or not) is its own honor. All contingent things exist because of an essential decision that they should. A potter throws a pot because he has determined that a pot would be a good thing to have. The better the potter, the better the pot. To have been made by the God who is himself the highest good is to receive and bear his own essential goodness.

We do not allow our reasoning on degrees of artificiality to be facile or specious. Alloys are “artificial” in a way that raises suspicions among scrupulous champions of the wild and woolly, and compounding may pervert creation rather than enhance it. But an alloy (strictly speaking) is not necessarily an adulterant. Refinement and synthesis are also works of artifice. They are the proof that artifice shares, complements, and completes the divine dignity of making. The woodworker must hew logs into boards before he can build a grandfather clock. The necessity of making is occasioned by the desire to craft something more intricate and ingenious. A categorical aversion to construction and compounds would leave us waterless, airless, and lifeless. If artifice is categorically bad or perverse, so are symphonies, gardens, and crazy quilts.

Realness is a good thing to want as long as we’re clear about what it is. The stories we read our children start us in the right direction. Pinocchio is truly repentant, and the velveteen rabbit is truly loved. Each of these qualities is part of the realness we are promised. There is repentance and love, but the Father is no demiurgic Geppetto and the Son is no sentimental boy. They do not depend on some external enlivening power to effect their desires. The Artificer makes, the Lover gives; that is the nature of each. The Creator makes the created real by breathing into them his own uncreated Spirit. Sweeter than created fruit is Calvary’s harvest, the eternal Root. No wonder he invites us—in a room, at a table, holding a piece of food—to take and eat.

“Keep yourselves from idols, children” (1 John 5:21). “Every founder is confounded by the graven image: for his image is falsehood, and there is no breath in them” (Jer. 10:14). Artifice though we are, we are the children and not the idols. We breathe the preternatural breath. And if we are children, we are also heirs of the divine property: being. Having received it proleptically, we long for it naturally. In the beginning, the storyteller slyly tempts us to believe that the velveteen rabbit was “really splendid.” But this is no truer for the rabbit than it is for us. True splendor is in being real. For the repentant, and for the beloved, being real comes at the end.

Wednesday, August 31st 2016

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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