Saturday, August 11, 2012


It is a staple of Bible studies to mention that the Gnostics thought spirit was good and matter bad, and how this common belief in general society created confusion and even heresies in the early church.  I often think we have something similar going in modern times with natural versus artificial.  Natural things are believed to be direct from the hand of God, and therefore good, while artificial things have been messed with by fallen humans, and are therefore always substandard.

I've been up a church camp, so hints of this come up more often.  The beauty of God's creation gets mentioned a lot, and I have certainly heard many over the years sigh that being among the trees, lakes, and mountains helps them get back to God.

The quick answer is lightning, floods, earthquakes, of course.  We don't like Nature so much as our taming of it and our relative safety in the face of powerful forces.  People who are more at the mercy of nature are less rhapsodic about it.  Also, we're on vacation, so wherever we are might look like good world versus evil, tainted work world. There are moral compromises we are no longer making, so it all feels a bit holier.

I don't say that it rises to the level of heresy in all its adherents, but the general term does apply.  It has nothing to do with the gospel and needs to be expunged from our thinking.  It creeps in when we think that some foods or medicines are on a better spiritual track - more in God's plan - because of their more primitive state.  It is certainly true that when we have to pack foods for shipping they lose something, and even that our choices of what varieties travel best influences this.  It is also true that when man can make something cheaply in quantity he tends to overdo it.  Commercial fertilisers come to mind.  But "natural" items are not exempt from this idiocy.  We associate the idea more strongly with things man-made, but they are not restricted to them.

There is also a significant problem, universally ignored, about the definitions we use for natural.  If a plant is cultivated, that is artifice; so too if it is dried, boiled, washed, or frozen anywhere along its journey to you. Vitamins in isolation do not occur in nature - those are thus artificial. Food storage and medicine decoction are labor-intensive, artificial acts, and have been for millennia. The modern idea that God gives us what we need naturally, with no need to go mucking about with humanly-tainted factories, laboratories, and corporate interests, would be rejected immediately by the writer of every book of the Bible.  Yes, even Daniel.

I don't mind at all people preferring whatever foods and medicines they want, nor their methods of growing them and preparing them for table.  Whatever you will.  Yet people seem unable to stop at mere preference.  We are bound, I fear, to regard our preferences as God's preferences almost automatically. I mention here again that the resistance to vaccinations, and the pointless desire to "space them out" for safety, seems related to the secret worship of the natural as God's Better Plan.

In this case, the belief in the spiritual superiority of natural things owes more to German paganism than to Christianity.  I think I will write on that shortly.


james said...

The school taught "Colors of the Wind" in music class. Remember "But I know every rock and tree and creature has a life, has a spirit, has a name"? Disney made it sound so lovely, but in real animist societies that's a matter of terror, not delight.

karrde said...

The last time I sat next to a fire, I mused on why a campfire generates that primitive-and-connected-to-nature feeling.

Fires are natural. And dangerous, if not controlled. (Ask the folks in Chicago in 1871...or SF in 1902...)

Controlled fire is something very human. It may be the oldest human technology.

It is one thing that separates humanity from nature.

However, lighting and tending a wood fire is an old, almost-obsolete skill. Thus, it feels like a connection to the older ways of living.

karrde said...

Anyway, back to the "natural" vs. "artificial" with respect to foods.

I think that most varieties of apples are artificial. In the sense of, apples of those kinds do not grow naturally in the wild. Human intervention was necessary to alter the pollination/seeding process of the apple trees to produce certain varieties.

Thinking of cider was produced for many years by allowing yeast present in the apple juice to ferment it. However, cider makers soon learned the stages of fermentation, and when to move from primary fermentation to secondary fermentation.

Modern juices are often treated to keep fermentation from happening.

Which is more natural, fermented juice or preserved/unfermented juice? Does the human intervention in the fermentation stages turn the natural process into something artificial?

These are really only detail questions to your main question, though.

How do we define "natural"? At what point does human action cause the "natural" food to become "artificial"?

Anonymous said...

Actually, in a pedantic sense, it's entirely true that natural foods are Godly and others are evil. To wit, any unnatural food must necessarily have come about through witchcraft (manna and Jesus' loaves-and-fish miracles are excepted, but those are from a time long past).

I'm joking here, of course, about the tautology that *everything* is natural unless it's supernatural. Arsenic? Natural. Higgs Bosons obtained by colliding particles together at near the speed of light? Natural.

Sunlight is the product of the solar system's biggest nuclear power plant.

Lelia Rose Foreman said...

Hey, I believe in spacing out shots for safety and it will be hard to find someone more pro-vaccination than me.
Everything else you say is spot on. I can't believe how people forget that lice, ticks, fleas, and disease are natural.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Spacing is unnecessary. Those particular viruses aren't particularly virulent, they just act so quickly that the body can't solve the defensive problem in time, and you can get very sick. But your body solves much more complicated problems all the time - just slowly. The reason the vaccinations work, in fact, is that nearly all human bodies do solve the problem of defending against them quite easily.

We vaccinate against speedy things, not complicated things.