Category Archives: Reflection

Herzog’s Miserable Nature and God’s Good Creation

Beautiful yet cruel.

An old interview with director Werner Herzog offers some food for thought.  Video embedded below.

A couple of weeks ago I went to an event put on by The Church of the Ascension as part of their four (five?) part series on Faith and Reason.  The presentation for the night was on the question of naturalism and morality:  if we have a purely materialist worldview, what basis is left for morality as we know it?  The speaker, a very capable and articulate philosophy grad student, wanted to push naturalists to own up to a purely Darwinian morality which must necessarily account for its ethics in adaptive terms.  In other words, naturalist morality must be construed in terms of protecting and propagating the gene pool.

The Christian reasoning goes, then, that because humans tend to develop their morality through an ad hoc collection of moral intuitions*–spontaneous reactions to situations and events eliciting cries of either “That’s wrong!” or “That’s right.”–the naturalist must work against some fundamental and innate moral tendencies in order to embrace a purely Darwinian morality.  Most pointedly, I can’t think of good Darwinian reasons against rape, except maybe fear of social reprisal.  It follows, then, that Christians ought to encourage strict naturalists to listen to these moral intuitions, to heed their natural protests against injustice and wrongdoing in hopes that they might at least lose some confidence in their strictly scientific worldviews.

According to the biblical worldview, God made the world good and wrought his wisdom as part of the very essence of creation (Proverbs 8:22-30).  Our innate moral intuitions are hints and reminders of God’s wisdom at work in nature, signposts pointing us beyond our immediate senses and suggesting that deep mysteries are afoot.  The scientific account of reality is often a too-tidy story about the way things are, belying an arrogance or misguidance about the capacity for human reason to gauge such things.  Especially since that account fails to give an adaptive reason why our brains should ever be capable of such a thing (let alone first asking the question).

I thought of all these things while listening to the following reflections on the natural world given some decades ago by the brilliant and idiosyncratic German director Werner Herzog during the making of his Amazon-set film Fitzcarraldo:

Some of my seminary friends and I get a real kick out of Herzog and his seemingly limitless capability for pontificating on nature’s cruel absurdities in that molasses-thick accent.  He’s dead serious in the goofiest way possible, a pretentious-sounding and half-mad European intellectual yet worth listening to.  He offers a powerfully-worded counternarrative to Genesis 1 and 2 with these reflections on the Amazonian jungle:

“It’s a land that God–if he exists–has created in anger… We have to become humble in front of this overwhelming misery and overwhelming fornication, overwhelming growth and overwhelming lack of order.   Even the stars up here in the sky look like a mess.  There is no harmony in the universe.  We have to get acquainted to this idea that there is no harmony as we have conceived it.  But when I say this I say this all full of admiration for the jungle–it is not that I hate it–I love it; I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.”

Herzog today.

Herzog’s films–from Fitzcarraldo to Rescue Dawn; Aguirre, the Wrath of God to Grizzly ManBad Lieutenant to Cave of Forgotten Dreams–fiction and documentary alike, all embrace the strangeness, the bigness, the cruelty and the mystery of the natural world, attempting to tell human stories which take place within it.  What is fascinating about the embedded video is the way Herzog’s dark naturalist lyricism is spoken over vibrant and wonderful images of the rainforest (I especially like the juxtaposition of fornication with the intensely verdant foliage).   He’s challenging us to see the world through the twist of his eyesight, to resist our natural inclination to ascribe beauty to these images and weep at the cruelty of nature’s endless parade of life and death.  Nature TV, in other words, can literally eat its heart out.

It’s Herzog’s conclusion which inspired me to blog about this:  “When I say this I say this all full of admiration for the jungle–it is not that I hate it–I love it; I love it very much. But I love it against my better judgment.”  Fascinating!  He speaks with such eloquence and conviction about the terrible essence of nature, yet he can’t help but love it.  He’s capturing a tension inherent to the biblical story and human experience:  our world is beautiful, and it is very ugly.  Dark, but lovely.

Herzog’s love for the natural world is possible because the God of biblical witness hand-crafted it, binds it together and redeems it for himself (cf. Colossians 1:15-20).  The fall of man and the subsequent disordering of creation has suggested to many over the years that this world is utterly condemned, waiting to be discarded by God when Jesus finally comes back and rescues us from this terrible place.  The total witness of Christian Scripture, however, is more complicated than that.  It depicts a good world which has suffered a terrible curse, groaning for the day when God fully and finally enacts the cure.  It suggests there is God-wrought wisdom and beauty to be found in this place, and that we tiny, mostly stupid humans can come to know and grasp at least some of these things.  Even if it’s in spite of ourselves.

*And not primarily an intentional and systematic account organized by given principles.

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