CulturePhilosophyTheology & Spirituality

Squirrels and Symbols

There is an inherent order to creation that becomes apparent when we slow down, set aside results-driven frameworks, and simply observe. For instance, a student of mine recently shared that the Iroquois people claimed to have been taught maple syrup extraction “by the squirrel.” While many dismissed this story as useless babble, a 1992 study observed red squirrels systematically tapping maple syrup via “chisel-like grooves.”

It represents a profound failure of imagination that we tend to value the symbolic truth of myths only when they can be “confirmed” by today’s preferred modes of knowing. The truth is that every account of the world is inherently narrative. I have reflected on this quotation elsewhere, but it’s worth sharing again: “Natural science does not simply describe and explain nature; it is part of the interplay between nature and ourselves.”[1] Today’s milquetoast brand of scientism assumes that to be human is to objectively and dispassionately note how the universe functions.[2] This pragmatic approach evacuates wonder from experience and neglects the dialectical character of our interactions with the world.

In a global culture oversaturated with images, cultivating a contemplative reading of the world is a skill in short supply. Many images circulating in the public sphere (the advertising adage “sex sells” come to mind) are designed to catch and entrap us—to bend our gaze toward the thing and away from what it represents. Pornography, a primary and  increasingly grave example of this phenomenon, is the reification of an intangible and ecstatic act … an act that can only be experienced in relation to another. In a similar manner, the modern fixation on empiricism has stripped real encounters with the world of their transitive properties. When we cultivate the mentality of a disinterested observer, we are fabricating a perverse lie—a lie that twists the imaginative and symbolic character of consciousness in upon itself.

Humans do not reside outside the natural order as objective controllers of processes. We are embedded not only within ecosystems, communities, and cultures but also within the very framework through which information is transmitted. Take our sense of sight as an example: everything we see is actually the result of the brain converting electrical impulses from the retinas into images.[3] In a literal sense, the mind mediates the external world through the creation of its own images. It follows that any understanding of creation (when we allow creation to “speak”) is of a piece with imagination. When we consider creation as “divine art,” the overwhelming number of images should push our minds to delight in the excessive power and wisdom of God.

Aristotle’s basic insight is that the universe wants to tell you what it is. Perhaps by retrieving a sense of wonder, we can unlock a view of creation that replaces mastery with harmony.

These reflections are derived from notes recorded at the Sunday Roundtable discussion during the 2018 Patristic, Medieval, and Renaissance Studies Conference at Villanova University. I owe a debt of gratitude to Mary Carruthers, Junius Johnson, Kevin Hughes, and all others who participated in this enlivening forum.

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Benjamin Winter

Benjamin Winter

Ben is currently a doctoral candidate in historical theology at Saint Louis University. His life is enriched daily by his wife Elizabeth and their twin daughters Julian and Lillian. Ben writes from within the Roman Catholic tradition, and specializes in research on Saint Bonaventure, Saint Augustine, philosophical theology, and Christian mysticism.

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