Rabbi Marc Gellman writes about religion for Newsday.
The term "Mother Nature" is used a lot. We hear about Mother Nature's fury, Mother Nature's wrath, or Mother Nature "throwing everything at us." Isn't God in control of the weather? Where did Mother Nature come from and why the feminine angle?
-- R., Dix Hills, via email
I'm a bit embarrassed to say that all this talk originated with a margarine ad in the '70s in which an actress dressed up as Mother Nature complained that "It's not nice to fool Mother Nature!" If you want a more sophisticated answer, you have to go back to ancient Greek mythology, where nature (Gaia) was anthropomorphized as a feminine goddess.
In between the Greeks and the margarine ad is a deep and spiritually important ambivalence many of us harbor about the forces of nature. On one hand, nature is nurture, and nurture is traditionally seen as a feminine trait because women give birth, and we relate them with sustaining life in both the animal and human realms. On the other hand is the brutal, random, bloody destruction of life during natural disasters. If Mother Nature gives, Mother Nature also takes away, it seems. This contradiction can't be resolved because both Mothers Nature are valid.
Fortunately, for believers in one of the Abrahamic faiths (Judaism, Christianity and Islam), Mother Nature is an idolatrous diversion. For us, God is the author and autocrat of nature. The Psalms are full of this teaching. Psalm 19 is all about how "The heavens declare the glory of God." Also check out (8:1-8; 78:26; 107:25; 135:7; 148:8). My favorite reference is Isaiah's magisterial, "I form the light, and create darkness: I make peace, and create evil: I the Lord do all these things." (45:7) This belief in one God who makes everything is necessary because any other alternative is ultimately polytheistic, not monotheistic. This is why the devil and Mother Nature and any other divine contenders are just illusions. So we can stop blaming Mother Nature for wreaking havoc in our lives. As Isaiah reminds us, God is still on the hook for everything we both eat and suffer from in nature. "Acts of God" are just as painful as acts of Mother Nature, but there is a higher view. All instances of natural evil (as opposed to moral evil, which follows from our bad decisions) are, in fact, not evil at all. They're just the climatological and tectonic consequences of residing on a living planet. They are the natural acts of a breathing Earth, and we're lucky (for atheists) or blessed (for the religious) to be dwelling here amid the living chaos of a living Earth.
I've wrestled with one question for much of my 70-plus years as my religious affiliations moved from Episcopalian to Presbyterian, Congregational, Unitarian and currently, none. Let's say that an omniscient entity appeared to me and promised an absolutely truthful answer to one simple question, what should that question be? Your columns suggest one can do little better than to trust in love. -- R., North Carolina, via email
For over 40 years, I've asked every one of my students two questions: "What do you love?" and "If you could ask God just one question, what would that question be?" Most of the questions are a version of, "Why do bad things happen to good people?" Occasionally I get, "Why am I here?" Your question about whether you can trust in love is good, but it tells you more about you than about love or God. The answer is that if you trust in love, then your life will reflect that trust, and if you don't, it won't.
Our ultimate questions are about us, not about what is real "out there." Everything is real out there. You must choose, and what you choose will form you.
As for me, my question for God has always been intensely personal. I spend a lot of time doing good deeds, but the problem is that my job as a clergyperson is to do good deeds. I never know if I would do all these good deeds if they were not a part of my job description. I think I would. I hope I would, but I'm not totally certain. So, when I die, I'll ask God, "Was I really a good person?" I would like to know, and in this life I can never know for sure.
Readers: Please send me the one question you'd most like to ask God.
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