On Being with Krista Tippett

Jelle De Boer and Ursula Goodenough

The Morality of Nature

Last Updated

April 7, 2005

Original Air Date

April 7, 2005

We explore the human and religious implications of natural disasters through the eyes of two scientists steeped in the workings of the natural world. We approach the morality of nature from a non-theological angle, tracing how natural disasters have sometimes fueled religious agendas and movements and how strictly scientific perspectives can both challenge and illuminate religious questions.


Image of Jelle de Boer

Jelle de Boer is Harold T. Stearns Professor Emeritus of Earth Science at Wesleyan University and author of Earthquakes in Human History.

Image of Ursula Goodenough

Ursula Goodenough is professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis and author of The Sacred Depths of Nature.


April 7, 2005

KRISTA TIPPETT, HOST: This is Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today, as aftershocks continue in the Indian Ocean, we’ll explore the morality of nature.

MICHELE NORRIS: In Indonesia, aftershocks have been a daily occurrence since December’s deadly earthquake and tsunami. Today was different; today’s quake was huge. It registered a magnitude…

MS. TIPPETT: Theologians refer to catastrophic natural disasters as natural evil. Insurers call them acts of God. In the wake of December’s devastation, even the op-ed page of The New York Times raised the classic theological question: “Where is God when nature destroys human lives and livelihood?” This hour we’ll approach that question from another angle. We won’t look to religion for answers; we’ll look at earth sciences and tectonic plates and see how they might illuminate religious questions. We’ll also trace how earthquakes have often fueled religious agendas and movements throughout history and how they influence religious and secular thinking to this day. Later, we’ll speak with cell biologist Ursula Goodenough of Washington University in St. Louis. She takes her sense of the sacred directly from her knowledge of the natural world.

My first guest, geologist Jelle de Boer, is a leading expert on volcanos and earthquakes. De Boer is Dutch and spent much of his childhood in Indonesia. His wife grew up in Sumatra, one of the region’s most devastated by recent events. At Wesleyan University in Connecticut, de Boer has designed a course on earthquakes and human history. He traces the economic, political and religious aftereffects of earthquakes that are felt for generations. But in the first instance, as a geologist, de Boer understands earthquakes as manifestations of the living earth. The tectonic plates that compose the crust of the earth are always in motion. The fractures that result from that movement sometimes, in the extreme form of earthquakes and volcanos, make the earth hospitable and inhabitable.

JELLE DE BOER: The areas where we have volcanos, like the circum-Pacific Belt, is the most densely populated for a very good reason. Those volcanos bring fresh minerals to the surface, and they provide the elements which are the nutrients for the extensive ecology. So volcanic soil is extremely fertile and volcanos are, for geologists, living things. I mean, every 50, 60, 100 years or so, they erupt, and of course, there again we get this feeling that we’re looking at something which is alive.

MS. TIPPETT: Jelle de Boer visualizes the long-term effects of seismic events as a vibrating string. Pluck a guitar or a violin string and notice that over time, its range of motion and volume grows shallower but its tone grows deeper. And throughout history and in many cultures, he points out, the longest lasting reverberations have often been religious. For example, when Jelle de Boer looks at ancient Palestine, commonly perceived in our time as a politically volatile region, he sees, quote, “a tectonically unstable region of frequent earthquakes, many of them catastrophic.” What we call the Holy Land has experienced around 40 devastating quakes in the last 2500 years.

DR. DE BOER: The Holy Land’s, of course, a very good example of that. Whenever you look at a Bible, you find many, many examples where people that felt that they had sinned in one form or another and then an earthquake hits the region will say, `OK, I’m being punished. We are being punished.’ And so for us, it’s very interesting to find out why that we have those earthquakes in the Holy Land. And they are, of course, associated with a sort of fault that runs from north to south through the Dead Sea and the Sea of Galilee that is very similar to the San Andreas Fault. So it has the same sort of sliding on one plate past the other which causes those stresses and which then result in earthquakes. And people in those days, of course, would invariably say, `OK, there’s something wrong.’

MS. TIPPETT: In sort of Biblical times, uh-huh.

DR. DE BOER: In Biblical times. And say, `Well, we’re punished for some perceived kind of sinning.’ The other interesting thing, of course, is that there has been a sort of evolution in the way in which people looked at earthquakes. As you mentioned before, originally, populations would say, `Oh, there’s this giant animal somewhere in the ground.’ Down, they looked down, really, for the origin. And yeah, earthquakes are occurring, of course, under you rather than above you. But then, of course, in the Holy Land and in that period of the Biblical descriptions, they are now looking upward. And they’re looking at God as the one who brings the good but also the bad.

MS. TIPPETT: What you demonstrate is how religious passions and insights and debates do tend to follow these kinds of natural events. You tell the story of earthquakes in England. I mean, you tell stories of earthquakes in many places we don’t think of as earthquake territory. And again, in England, in the 14th century and then again in the 17th century, there was kind of a religious interpretation given to the fact that the earthquakes were happening.

DR. DE BOER: Yeah, definitely. In the first place, of course, you shouldn’t think too much about earthquakes in England because most of them that have occurred there have what we call a small magnitude. The magnitude, which is very often so small that it is not even measured on those older seismographs. So they do some shaking here and there, and they have very rarely left any death tolls, especially not like the ones we have in the circum-Pacific zone. But nevertheless, they were seen as very unusual events and they were then used by Shakespeare, for instance, in some of his plays. They were seen as sort of a warning, you know. They had heard, of course, in England, about the Lisbon earthquake, and they had heard about an earthquake that had occurred in the Caribbean area. Oh, when all that news came in, and those were big earthquakes, and they had a few small ones, they said to themselves, `Eh, this may be the warning, and we’d better, again repent. We’d better go to church and try to avert for any big earthquake to occur here at any one time.’

MS. TIPPETT: It was quite interesting to me that the Wesley brothers, Charles and John, who were reformists, that the earthquakes in Britain played a role in the way they understood and described what was happening in their society. I mean, here’s something from your book. John Wesley describes an earthquake that happened 1750.

DR. DE BOER: He was probably was taking about the Lisbon one, 1755.

MS. TIPPETT: Yeah. He said it was about quarter after 12 that the earthquake began, and then a little bit down, “How gently does God deal with this nation!” A month later to the day, another quake struck in the same area. This time the magnitude is thought to have been about 3. Wesley’s journal entry from March 8 reads: “God rent the rocks again.”

DR. DE BOER: But what is even more interesting is what he had subsequently to say when he had heard actually about the earthquake in Lisbon. Basically, “You may buy intelligence where the shock was yesterday but not where it will be tomorrow. It comes, the roof trembles, the beams crack, the ground rocks to and fro, hoarse thunder resounds from the bowels of the earth. And all these are but the beginnings of sorrows. Now, what help, what money can purchase an hour’s reprieve? If anything can help, it must be prayer. But what wilst thou pray to? Not to the God of heaven. You suppose him to have nothing to do with earthquakes. How uncomfortable this supposition.”

MS. TIPPETT: Geologist Jelle de Boer. Even the Easter story mentions earthquakes. At the crucifixion of Jesus, according to the Gospel of Matthew, the earth shook and the rocks split. And as Jelle de Boer has been describing, a number of the Christian hymns of John and Charles Wesley contain explicit earthquake imagery woven into theology. This theology formed Methodist and later Anglican traditions. Here are some lines from the 62nd song of John Wesley’s collected hymns:

READER: “Woe to the men on earth who dwell, nor dread th’ Almighty’s frown; when God doth all his wrath reveal, and shower his judgments down. Lo! from their seats the mountains leap, the mountains are not found, transported far into the deep and in the ocean drowned. Who then shall live and face the throne, and face the judge severe? When heaven and earth are fled and gone, O where shall I appear? Firm in the all-destroying shock may view the final scene; for lo! the everlasting Rock is cleft to take us in.”

MS. TIPPETT: John Wesley interpreted the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 as an especially severe sign of God’s wrath on sinful humanity. But in a more enduring way, perhaps, the Lisbon earthquake challenged many Europeans’ belief in God and certainly the idea of a benevolent God. The Lisbon quake struck in the middle of overflowing church services on All Saints Day, November 1st. An estimated 30,000 people died within six minutes, and the death toll reached 100,000 after an ensuing tsunami and fires that nearly destroyed the city over the next five days. Lisbon’s clergy were ridiculed for salvaging crucifixes and religious icons even as the churches collapsed. Enlightenment philosophers like Kant and Voltaire asked what kind of God would permit such a horrifying event and strike first at innocent devout families?

My guest, Jelle de Boer, has traced how the Lisbon earthquake dramatically weakened the power of the Catholic Church in Portugal and the future influence of Christian dogma.

MS. TIPPETT: It seems to me that in the story you tell something qualitatively different happened in Lisbon, the great Lisbon earthquake in 1755. It happened on November 1st, which was All Saints Day, and the churches were packed, and many people died or were traumatized when the roofs of churches collapsed. And at that point, it made no sense that this was somehow God’s wrath or God’s judgment.

DR. DE BOER: It didn’t.

MS. TIPPETT: And a moment ago we talked about how you conceptualized the effects of an earthquake, both immediately and in the long term as a string, and you wrote in your book, “Lisbon’s string vibrates to this day.” What are you thinking of when you say that?

DR. DE BOER: Basically, to show that that specific fracture under water, that actually broke through and that caused the sea floor to sort of be offset in a similar way as lately in Sumatra. That fracture has been discovered. And so we now know the extent of that fracture, and we know how significant and emotional one it has been. But also, I often sat there listening. I worked, actually, in Portugal for some time on some Roman villas, and I was listening to the Fado. I don’t know whether you have ever heard that music. It’s a beautiful sort of music, but it indicates emotionally people that are sort of on edge, at least to me. And I love to listen to it, but at the same time, I feel it penetrating almost like a small earthquake.

[music: “Paixoes Diagonais” by Misia]

DR. DE BOER: And I believe that in the whole psyche of the Portuguese people, the tremendous phenomenon that occurred that destroyed not only their capital, but Portugal, at that time, was a world power. It destroyed Portugal as a world power. And it did that overnight, in a few seconds of time and then the year following, aftershocks that I think is still lingering on in many different philosophical ways in Portugal these days.

MS. TIPPETT: Can you say some more about that? Do you have any examples of how that lingers religiously or spiritually?

DR. DE BOER: Well, yes, I know. Let me give you, for instance, one very interesting example that occurred, of course, in this country, December 1811 and January 1812. There were very, very strong earthquakes, probably the strongest that this country have ever experienced.

MS. TIPPETT: Oh, it was in Missouri.

DR. DE BOER: Missouri, in the Mississippi Valley. And it’s so very interesting to read that for instance, suddenly, the churches were overwhelmed with people who wanted to come in and become members. And so it’s said that as many as 15,000 people actually joined the Methodist Church at that time. And then the earthquakes continued for approximately two years. They became weaker and weaker and smaller and smaller in their magnitude. And then many of those people again went home. And so there’s the opposite sort of phenomena there. And the preachers called these earthquake Christians or earthquake sinners. So we have, actually, the knife going two ways, OK? In some cases, it has a very long sort of more or less continuous effect like it had, for instance, in Portugal, especially among the Catholics because of the consequences that the Jesuits were chased out and so on. They were all kind of aftereffects of that time that lingered on over centuries. And here in this young country, of course, within a few years or so, when the memberships went way down, and they lost all their earthquake Christians, they no longer went to church.

MS. TIPPETT: Right. And I didn’t even know that there had been earthquakes in Missouri, and I don’t know that many Americans grow up with that memory. And I think the most astonishing learning that I took away from your book is that we are essentially all living in earthquake zones.

DR. DE BOER: Yeah, that’s absolutely true, although we do have, of course, zones that are much more seismic and which you have more frequently seismicity, like California.

MS. TIPPETT: Uh-huh. You know, I think, I don’t know, maybe a spiritual point about this would be that in fact, we, in this country and maybe in other places as well, I mean, even in San Francisco where it is inevitable that there will be another devastating earthquake, you say, we walk around going through our days and are very surprised when these kind of things happen in our part of the world or in other parts of the world. I mean, I wonder if, as a geologist who studies these things and really has a sense of how they are sort of a common occurrence in history, do you move through the world differently knowing that?

DR. DE BOER: No. And I better not. I always reason, you know, that I have these happy 67 years and that I should enjoy them. And I think that’s what most people have to do. If you think, for instance, a country like Japan, there they were much more forward thinking. There they had ages and ages, millennia of major seismicity, and they learned to live with it. Very often people think, you know, `These Japanese, they lived in these paper houses made out of bamboo, and when there was a fire, half of the city would burn down,’ and so on. And we all have the sense to look down into that. Those were the ones that can withstand the earthquakes.

MS. TIPPETT: The paper houses?

DR. DE BOER: When you have a paper house, a paper house falls on you, you know, there’s no real problem, unless of course you’re preparing your food on a small fireplace or so inside. On the other hand, we see the Californian example, where they’re building higher and higher skyscrapers that are very often built on instable type of land and ground. And then you start wondering, `Why don’t these people live with nature?’ And of course, the answer is overpopulation.

MS. TIPPETT: So it’s just an inevitability with population growing that…

DR. DE BOER: That you will get more and more victims, yes, especially since they’re concentrating on the margins of the plates, all around the Pacific, for instance, and of course in the Mediterranean zone of Europe. Who doesn’t want to live on the Riviera, right? So every European sort of, especially from the north, like from Holland and so on, dreams from that and says, `Oh, that’s where I want to retire.’ But at the same time, as you retire there, you have all the beauty of it, but with the beauty comes also the danger of seismic activity.

MS. TIPPETT: Geologist Jelle de Boer. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media.

We’re talking today about the religious implications of natural disasters. My guest, Jelle de Boer, released his latest book, Earthquakes in Human History, just one month after the devastating earthquake and tsunami that affected countries around the Indian Ocean, including Indonesia where he and his wife grew up.

MS. TIPPETT: How is your reaction to that kind of event colored by the fact that you are a geologist and that you know what was happening with the earth? I mean, I think the rest of us, we only see the human devastation, right, or the destroyed towns. And what do you see? Where does your mind go when you first hear that news?

DR. DE BOER: Well, the first thing, you know, is that there is a plate boundary, and so there are big faults. And those faults are caused by two plates colliding with each other. They build up stresses, you know, that sooner or later, and you always hope later, there will be a release of those stresses. There will be motion of pieces of those plates, and if they offset the sea floor, then of course you have tsunamis. And so you look at it with a scientific view, and that’s, in a sense, a little bit cold. And then you look at the devastation itself, how all those very small houses that stood in those small towns were simply wiped away. There was only the concrete foundation that was left. And you see all the bodies and you see all the real tremendous negative impact. But then I have a tendency to also think beyond that. I was very happy to see how the world was willing to bring maybe $1 billion or so to these areas. But there’s also a political sort of aspect to that. And we all know that the money that flows into Jakarta, 80 percent will probably remain there and it will not be used to really reconstruct the infrastructure, the roads and the bridges and so on. That will take a decade. If you think back, for instance, of the earthquake in Iran. If you now look at that area where that earthquake struck, it’s still all ruins. Five years later, it’s still all ruins. And this is, for me, more tragic, because the dead, they died, but their survivors have to live with the psychological impact, and now they have to live with the economic impact, and that will extend, in my opinion, throughout their lifetime. And that, to me, is much more severe a consequence of an earthquake like this than many of the other things.

MS. TIPPETT: Now, you were quoted in The New York Times. It was a piece talking about the long, long-term effects on the earth, of the natural world in those areas where an earthquake has occurred, where a tsunami has occurred. And you’ve also made the point that in the largest possible view of history, there may always be positive effects in places where something like this strikes.

DR. DE BOER: Well, in the geological sense, and I’m talking now about millions of years, OK?

MS. TIPPETT: Millions?

DR. DE BOER: Millions.


DR. DE BOER: In a geological sense, this type of activity is very important and has been very important in the last four and a half billion years of the life of this earth, because it’s through these processes, for instance, that you actually start developing volcanos. And you always think about the volcano as this dirty ash that is flowing out and so on.

But if you look at pictures of volcanos, you will see these big, bellowing white clouds coming out of them in huge volumes, and of course, what we’re talking about there is water, water vapor. And that will condense and it will go back into the oceans. And if you think back about the earth then over billions of years, maybe even, then every drop of water that we now have in the oceans of our blue earth came out of the interior of the earth, and it came through trap doors. Those trap doors are the volcanos. But what would this earth be without that water?

I sometimes tell my students — let me take one step back. I sometimes tell my students that their body is more than 90 percent water, and so I tell them, you know, you’re basically a volcanic product. Maybe it’s a simplified way to look at it. So through these volcanos, over billions of years, this beautiful blue planet has formed, and its watery expanse is what gives life. And so life is directly dependent there on these geological processes. None of the other planets, as far as we know, have this type of plate tectonics. None of them have these extensive oceans. And so, it’s possible, a lot of people hope for it that there is life there, but it’s doubtful. Here, we were lucky, and we were lucky because of these processes, the processes where these plates separate and crack and where they run over each other and crack, and as a consequence of that, magmas form at deep levels in the earth, they are brought to the surface, and they bring not only those nutrients I talked about earlier, but also water. And that is the essence of life.

MS. TIPPETT: So the very plate tectonics that create natural disasters are also essential to life on earth?

DR. DE BOER: They’re beneficial to life on earth. Sorry for using that word, but I truly think that’s the case.

MS. TIPPETT: I don’t know if you are a religious person. We’ve talked about how there are always religious responses to these kinds of events. I mean, I wonder if you would tell me sort of what are your religious or what are the questions that arise for you that might be of a spiritual nature?

DR. DE BOER: Well, they go much deeper, you know. We have all this geochemical data now and so on that suggests we came through an evolutionary trend from mono-cell and animals, if you want to use that word. The question simply is how did life originate? And this is a question that you may find strange, but virtually all scientists in one form or another struggle with that question. Evolution is one thing, and there’s no doubt in my mind that it occurred, but you cannot find a zero point. And that, of course, is where religion comes in. And so you cannot escape that. Anybody who thinks through everything which has been discovered in the last few decades concerning life forms and so on, you always come back to what was the zero point, what really caused this all to happen? It is the same thing that we as scientists search for, as well as other people.

MS. TIPPETT: Earthquake specialist Jelle de Boer. Here’s a reading from Voltaire’s famous “Poem on the Disaster of Lisbon” of 1756. Voltaire and others took the Lisbon earthquake as a point of departure for ridiculing the very idea of a just creator God.

READER: “Oh wretched man, earth-fated to be cursed; abyss of plagues and miseries the worst! Horrors on horrors, griefs on griefs must show, that man’s the victim of unceasing woe. And lamentations which inspire my strain, prove that philosophy is false and vain. Approach in crowds and meditate awhile yon shattered walls, and view each ruined pile, women and children heaped up mountain high, limbs crushed which under ponderous marble lie, Whilst you these facts replete with horror view, will you maintain death to their crimes was due? And can you then impute a sinful deed to babes who on their mothers’ bosoms bleed? Was then more vice in fallen Lisbon found than Paris, where voluptuous joys abound? Look round this sublunary world, you’ll find that nature to destruction is consigned.”

MS. TIPPETT: So the question that emerged, especially after the Lisbon earthquake, was the theodicy question, and that is, well, if the zero point is a creator, if there’s a God, how could that be a good God worthy of worship? Now, I just wonder again, you as a geologist, with this largest possible perspective you have on what these kinds of disasters, how they come about and what they mean for generations, I mean, does that make you want to reframe the theodicy question at all?

DR. DE BOER: No, I can’t. I can’t reframe it, but I can think about it, and I do think about it. And I think it’s very often the question also when you get older and you have more experience and you have experienced some of these events that you start thinking about this. But because maybe of my scientific background, I don’t have this need to push it off onto somebody else. And so I accept it as it came. This is what I love about the Japanese. The Japanese, of course, have had this real acceptance of these phenomenon without the necessity of saying, `OK, it’s caused to punish us.’ A very simple way in which they explained some of the earthquakes was they said they had this big catfish somewhere there in the bay offshore at Tokyo, the Sugami Bay, and when it moves, it causes these earthquakes. And that’s a beautiful, logical type of explanation where you don’t have to actually push it off to a higher authority. This is just a catfish, after all, and it has to move to be alive. And so the simplicity there, I prefer over the extended sort of stories that you read in the Bible of all the ways in which God punished both the bad ones and the good ones. It is the beauty of Voltaire, of course, and about his book, The Candide, where he wants to say, `Look, how can you think that the God is totally benevolent when you really have all the bodies of burned and totally broken-up children that could have never had been part of any vice?’ And I think Voltaire did more for Western philosophies than a pope and any of the other important philosophers of the time. And I also think that that philosophy of Voltaire is still reverberating through European societies.

MS. TIPPETT: OK, and also Voltaire’s philosophy’s still something that religious traditions are responding to, I suppose?

DR. DE BOER: Yes, they do, because they can see the point. They can see the reality of his reasoning.

MS. TIPPETT: Jelle de Boer is a Harold T. Stearns professor Emeritus of Earth Science at Wesleyan University. In his work, Jelle de Boer quotes a California journalist, David Ulin, who became fascinated with the science of earthquakes, the art of their prediction, and the human dilemma of living on moving tectonic plates. Here’s a reflective passage from his book, The Myth of Solid Ground.

READER: “I believe in order, but in an order that eludes me, that exists a little bit beyond my reach. This is what compels me about California, the idea that here even the most basic assumptions contain their own uncertainty. But it is also one of the most powerful solaces that earthquakes offer, a profound and lasting sense of mystery. Of course, in order to enter such a landscape, we need to walk away from many things. We need to walk away from control, from the idea that order is something we can see. We need to walk away from ourselves, from our narrow view of time, of geology. To live with earthquakes is to have one foot in the present and the other in the deepest reaches of the past. It is to find a balance, to understand that everything is always up for grabs. In 100 million years, none of what we see will be here, and I’m not talking only about human life. I mean, the mountains, the oceans, the very continents, the shape and texture of the world. In a very real way, this cannot help but diminish us by reducing our lives to a biological afterthought, an ephemeral sideshow to the geologic drama, the fluid dance of plate tectonics, the interplay of movement along faults. Yet if we open our minds a little and look at it a different way, we may paradoxically find ourselves enlarged.”

MS. TIPPETT: This is Speaking of Faith. After a short break, another kind of perspective on religion and the natural world. Ursula Goodenough is a cell biologist who draws her sense of the sacred directly from nature. On our website at speakingoffaith.org, you’ll find in-depth background on all the ideas in this program and reading recommendations. This week explore a map of the tectonic plates of the world showing where they collide. Also, more examples of Fado, the evocative music of Portugal that Jelle de Boer discusses. There you can also sign up for our weekly e-mail newsletter, which includes exclusive previews and extras and my reflections on each week’s program. That’s speakingoffaith.org. I’m Krista Tippett. Stay with us.


Welcome back to Speaking of Faith, conversation about belief, meaning, ethics and ideas. I’m Krista Tippett. Today we’re talking with two scientists, a geologist and a biologist, about the morality of nature. From ancient Greece onwards, human beings have looked to gods or God in the face of catastrophic events such as the Asian tsunami. And as we’ve been exploring, Christianity in particular has been shaped throughout history by the human response to earthquakes. But is it possible to make moral sense of natural disaster without theology? My next guest, Ursula Goodenough, says it is. She is a cell biologist and the author of a book entitled The Sacred Depths of Nature. She describes herself as a religious naturalist. She draws on the original Latin meaning of the word religion, to bind together, the same linguistic root as the word ligament. Ursula Goodenough finds her personal sense of the sacred and of transcendent connection through her knowledge of the workings of the natural world. Here’s a reading from her book.

READER: “The realization that I needn’t have answers to the big questions, needn’t seek answers to the big questions, has served as an epiphany. I lie on my back under the stars and the unseen galaxies, and I let their enormity wash over me. I assimilate the vastness of the distances, the impermanence, the fact of it all. I go all the way out and then I go all the way down to the fact of photons without mass and gauge bosons that have become massless at high temperatures. I take in the abstractions about forces and symmetries, and they caress me like Gregorian chants, the meaning of the words not mattering because the words are so haunting.”

MS. TIPPETT: In recent decades Ursula Goodenough has found herself in an increasingly large company of religious and nonreligious people who express a shared reverence for the natural world. Concern for the world’s ecology has spurred formation of groups within virtually every religious tradition in this country. There is a new interest in Celtic tradition, and a figure like St. Francis of Assisi, who always espoused a closeness to the natural world as essential to theology. Most recently, the National Association of Evangelicals declared global warming an urgent threat and a Christian issue because the Bible mandates stewardship of God’s creation. Ursula Goodenough’s religious imagination posits the emergence of life on earth rather than the scriptural creation. She says she has no belief in eternal life, but she confesses a credo of continuation, a faith based on her study of the natural world, that life creates and re-creates itself in every generation. I asked whether her convictions come directly from her experiences as a scientist.

URSULA GOODENOUGH: When I’m doing my science, when I’m actually there, being a scientist is a very focused thing. And what mostly goes on in those moments is kind of problem solving, and what’s the next experiment, and why didn’t this experiment work, and how does it fit in with what we saw yesterday, and it’s very nitty-gritty. So I can’t tell you that in the middle of thinking about an experiment, I suddenly have a spiritual transformation or something. It’s more thinking about the whole thing in times of reflection that I enter this more religious mode. And there I’m not just thinking about my data or my lab’s data or data at all really. I’m thinking about the understandings that come to us as a result of the data. So science itself is a method, it’s a practice, it’s a way of doing things, a way of asking questions. And the religious story, the narrative for me is what understandings we have as a result of all of these hundreds of thousands of scientists asking questions. So I feel huge reverence, and I feel enormous gratitude for my life and the fact that all of this happened to show up on our planet. All of life, all of the beauty, all of the complexity, all of that is of deep religious significance to me.

MS. TIPPETT: In your book The Sacred Depths of Nature, you use the term assent. And you say that as a religious and naturalist, your assent to what happens in the world is not `Thy will be done.’ It would be `What is, is,’ with the same bowing of the head, the same bending of the knee.

DR. GOODENOUGH: If one takes in the story that is the story that frames my life, then there’s certain things over which I have no control. There’s certain things to which I give assent. I have to give assent to the fact that I’m getting older. I have to give assent to the fact that people die. I have to give assent to natural tragedies that have to do with the dynamics of the earth or the dynamics of pathogenic organisms or whatever. And giving assent, therefore, I would say, is the same kind of move as giving assent in a theistic sense where one interprets these events in terms of God allowing them to happen or making them happen or however God is framed in a theist’s mind. For me, the giving assent in this naturalistic context is more abiding because for the theist, it’s almost like you have to go through that process with every downturn, whereas if you just give assent to the whole thing and the way it works, then you have kind of a context for dealing with the occurrence of sorrow and tragedy.

MS. TIPPETT: Mm-hmm. I mean, here’s another sentence from your book. There’s a context for this, but I think it sort of makes sense standing alone. “We all eat or are eaten. That’s the way life works. It’s the greater rhythm. And that’s why science and the understandings it uncovers can be a source of joy.” I think you’re saying that there is this rhythm, and it has all its dimensions, as you’ve been describing, and yet somehow, coming at it as a scientist or even just as someone living in the modern world, and taking advantage of what science helps all of us understand, is actually a help. You know, you’re saying not just a help, but can be a source of joy. And is that even true when we approach something — yeah.

DR. GOODENOUGH: Well, you know, like death, for example, I mean, individual deaths or huge tragedies of death, like the tsunami or 9/11 or whatever, activate a person of my perspective, as I keep saying, just the same as it does everybody else. But it does mean that you don’t have to get all bent up about it as to the why did it happen at all, because you know these things happen. And that means that there are things you can say to yourself in those moments, even as you’re crying.

MS. TIPPETT: And you’ve written that you have a covenant with mystery. And you always give mystery a capital M. What do you mean when you talk about that?

DR. GOODENOUGH: Well, I mean that our scientific understandings of nature, although they deepen all the time and broaden and so on, there are fundamental questions that I think will probably not be answered. And I just feel quite comfortable realizing that there are things that we don’t know. And so that’s where the covenant with Mystery comes from, that I enjoy not knowing, in a way. It’s just fine with me not to have answers to that and just kind of live in that Mystery.

MS. TIPPETT: Cell biologist Ursula Goodenough. I’m Krista Tippett, and this is Speaking of Faith from American Public Media. Today, “The Morality of Nature.” After the recent Asian earthquakes and tsunami, many pondered the age-old question of theodicy. How could a benevolent God create a world in which earthquakes occur? Where is God when nature destroys human lives? My guest, Ursula Goodenough, says she doesn’t pose such questions because she roots her sense of the sacred directly in the workings of the natural world. But still, I wondered how that faith might be challenged by a devastating and deadly natural catastrophe.

DR. GOODENOUGH: I don’t think that to orient oneself in nature is at all to claim. I mean, anybody who claimed that the only thing that nature is about is beautiful sunsets and charismatic mammals, I mean, that, you know, that’s not nature. Nature, you know, most of it is pretty messy and not, even to our eyes, very beautiful. And I’ve actually written a little piece about this where the core idea is from a man named Michael Kalton, and he talks about vertical transcendence and horizontal transcendence, where vertical transcendence is kind of where you say you have a transcendent experience, you have this tendency to sort of put your hands up in the air. You know, you’ve been lifted. And this whole vertical transcendent move maps very much onto theistic frames of mind. But there’s another whole way of experience transcendence. It feels like a contradiction in terms, but horizontal transcendence, where you see yourself as part of the whole and see the beauty just in what it is that’s going on, that that in itself is a transcendence.

MS. TIPPETT: And that you are larger in being in relationship with all of that.

DR. GOODENOUGH: All of a sudden, it’s not just your little life and your little concerns and the bills on the table and all of that, but, you know, you’re part of the whole thing. And some of it is messy and some of it is rotting, and you know, lots of sunsets aren’t very interesting. But there’s always the horizontal excitement of being a part of it at all.

MS. TIPPETT: You know, I wonder if to say to someone who lived in Sumatra right now that nature is sacred, you know, whether that would be an insult. Do you think about that?

DR. GOODENOUGH: Well, the tsunami was a result of two plates shifting along a fault line. And one of the things that’s really interesting — I’ve read this several places, so I think it’s true, although I’ve never heard it from a scientist — but there’s this whole thing that they found thousands and thousands of human corpses but they never found any animal corpses. And the idea is that the animals sensed that something was amiss and ran. And there’s another story that goes with it. There are certain islands where the people did go up into the hills.

MS. TIPPETT: Yes. I read that, where they have these traditions of when you go up to high ground, yeah.

DR. GOODENOUGH: Yeah. And you could say that those people who apparently were much more, quote, unquote, “indigenous” and have more of a sense of nature and spent a whole lot more time looking out to sea, could have looked out and seen that something was coming and responded to the tremors, those islands, at least, that were close enough that there was probably an earthquake, and knew what to do, like the animals did.

MS. TIPPETT: So in a way, to see nature as sacred, whether in a scientific way, with more of a scientific or a naturalist’s perspective, would also mean taking these kinds of dangers more seriously or more reverentially, which might be more safe for human beings.

DR. GOODENOUGH: Yes. I mean, I remember a friend of mine read the book and said, `Well, Ursula, you just have nature being this groovy thing all the time, and I’m going to write a book called “The Dark Depths of Nature.”‘ For me, although I saw what he meant and although I didn’t spend a lot of time in the book dwelling on the wrong stuff — I mean, there is a whole chapter on death, and I do acknowledge that bad things happen from a human perspective — but for me, sacred doesn’t necessarily mean rosy. Something can be sacred that’s also very tragic. One could say that about the crucifixion, you know, that it’s not like the fact that this wonderful man was killed in this horrible way is anything other than horrible, but that the meaning of that and what we have done with that particular event has been to sacralize it. So I think sacred is a word that doesn’t necessarily just mean rosiness.

MS. TIPPETT: Biologist and religious naturalist Ursula Goodenough. Here’s a passage from her book The Sacred Depths of Nature.

READER: “Mystery generates wonder, and wonder generates awe. The gasp can terrify or the gasp can emancipate. As I allow myself to experience cosmic and quantum Mystery, I join the saints and the visionaries in their experience of what they called the Divine, and I pulse with the spirit, if not the words, of my favorite hymn.”

MS. TIPPETT: You’re not a theist. You don’t believe in God, but you go to church. Why do you go to church?

DR. GOODENOUGH: Well, I did go to church for 12 years, and I think it was that experience, going back to your original question why it was that I wrote the book, it was that weekly encounter with what was going on there that helped me frame the book as quickly as I did because I kind of had figured out what was going on there and what people were interested in asking. But the fact is that the reason I did it was because I was singing in the choir. For me the most important part of the traditional religions is their art, and I think that comes through in the book pretty clearly that the art, the music, the liturgy, all of that kind of thing, I think is a very spectacular facet of what humans have come up with that most deeply speaks of our spiritual and moral quest and way stations.

MS. TIPPETT: And that what we add to the whole picture of nature, of the natural realm.

DR. GOODENOUGH: Absolutely. But again, I see all of those things as not non-natural because they come from humans and humans are natural. So what we do, as these language-based, culture-based creating species, do this great stuff, and a lot of it you find if you go into houses of worship or listen to their music or take in their art. Another dualism that goes away in my mind is to see human artifacts as somehow outside of nature. I don’t see that as being the case at all. It’s all part of the same fabric.

MS. TIPPETT: Ursula Goodenough is professor of biology at Washington University in St. Louis. Her books include The Sacred Depths of Nature. Earlier you heard Jelle de Boer of Wesleyan University, the author of Earthquakes in Human History. In conclusion, here’s a reading of a poem by Mary Oliver that Ursula Goodenough cites in her work:

READER: “Wild Geese,” by Mary Oliver. “Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine. Meanwhile, the world goes on. Meanwhile, the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain are moving across the landscapes, over the prairies and the deep trees, the mountains and the rivers. Meanwhile, the wild geese, high in the clean, blue air, are heading home again. Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting, over and over announcing your place in the family of things.” Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese” from her collection “Dream Work.”

MS. TIPPETT: We’d love to hear your thoughts on this program. Please send us an e-mail through our website at speakingoffaith.org. There you’ll find in-depth background information on all the ideas in today’s program. You’ll find a map of the world’s tectonic plates, the text of all the readings and poetry you heard, and information about purchasing a copy of this program. And you can sign up for our e-mail newsletter and get my weekly reflections, special features and a preview of next week’s show. That’s speakingoffaith.org.


I’m Krista Tippett. Next week, issues of life and death in reflection on capital punishment. Please join us.