Christian theology regards human beings as creatures standing both within and beyond nature, the material world. Although exceptions as old as Lucretius abound, this belief is also found outside the Christian faith. So far as we can tell, humans are the only creatures who distinguish themselves in this way. Mary Oliver, best known for her Pulitzer-prize-winning poetry collection American Primitive (Atlantic/Little, 1983), believes animals rejoice at being alive in this world but knows they do not question their place in it. Given this difference between us and the rest of the cosmos, it is reasonable to wonder if nature can tell us anything significant about our spiritual selves or lead us to God. Oliver’s poems — anchored by close, attentive descriptions of the natural world — reach beyond the physical to consider the nature of God and human beings, and the possibilities of life after death. Her works detail the beauty, fragility, cruelty, and kindness of the natural world. From it, she gleans hints about human life, attentiveness yielding wonders — both glorious and terrible — that would otherwise pass her by. Forming her to receive the world as a gift, attentiveness draws Oliver ever more deeply into the world’s always deepening depths. She is surprised by revelations, moved by beauty, solaced by a creature’s contentment with itself, instructed by its willing consent to be what it is given to be. If, however, nature were enough, Christ would be superfluous. St. Bonaventure claims, “we are so created that the material universe itself is a ladder by which we may ascend to God.” But he also insists, “we cannot rise above ourselves unless a superior power raise us,” a power he identifies as Christ in whom we have definitive hope for life in the face of death. Because He is truth both incarnate and transcendent, Christ overrules the norms of nature.

This Postmodern Realities episode is a conversation with JOURNAL author Stephen Mitchell about his online-exclusive article, “Christ or Lucretius: Nature and Nature’s God in the poems of Mary Olivere”

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