Q: 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? Curious minds want to know! — R., Dix Hills, NY, via my personal e-mail. (Hey, the guy is president of my synagogue!)
A: I’m a bit embarrassed to say that all this talk originated with a margarine ad in the ’70s in which an actress dressed as Mother Nature complained “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 goddess.
In between the Greeks and the margarine ad is a deep and spiritually important ambivalence we all 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 sustaine life. However, on the other hand is the brutal, random, bloody destruction of life in natural disasters. If Mother Nature gives, she 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 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 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. 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 chaos of a living earth.
Q: I’ve wrestled with one question for much of my 70-plus years as I’ve moved from Episcopalian to Presbyterian, Congregational, Unitarian and currently, none.
Let’s say that an omniscient entity appeared 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.
Whether you answer my question or not, I’ll continue to read your enlightening columns with serious pleasure. Keep writing, please! — R., North Carolina, via firstname.lastname@example.org
A: Great question! For over 40 years, I’ve asked my students two questions: “What do you love?” and “If you could ask God just one question, what would that question be?”
Most 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. What you choose will form you.
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.
Rabbi Marc Gellman answers questions about all religious faiths. Send questions by email to email@example.com