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Blogging my Thoughts on Verlyn Klinkenborg’s “Real Looking”

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Verlyn Klinkenborg does some wonderful Rural Life writing on the New York Times editorial page. Today’s little essay he called “Real Looking.”[1] His observations and his ability to articulate them make reading him a real joy.

Today he challenged himself to really looking. Then I read about an 18th century thinker called Johann Georg Hamann, who had a theological response to his concern. First to Verlyn: he challenges himself: “Have you really looked at….” something? Sometimes familiarity blinds him to really seeing his bees as he gathers their honey. “Keep your eyes peeled!” he tells himself. He found himself really looking at a dragonfly. A little further on he writes, “There is no such thing as really looking.”

“What I want to be seeing,” he claims, “is invisible anyway: the prehistoric depth of time embodied in the form of those dragonflies, the pressure of life itself, the web of relations that binds us all together.” He finds himself trying to witness the moment when the accident of life becomes a continued purpose. [I submit he is trying to see a miracle.] He continues, “But this is a small farm, and, being human, I keep coming up against the limits of what a human eye can see.”

I’ve been working on a book called Creation Via Language, which has lead me to study Johann Georg Hamann (1730-1788), who was a friend and critic of Immanuel Kant. I’m reading about him in Oswald Bayer’s Schoepfung als Anrede, which title could be translated Creation as [the Language] of Address.[2]

Here are some of Hamann’s insights related to Verlyn’s frustration, whom he would feel is trying to uncover the seal covering God’s speaking to us through the miracle of creation. Hamann argues that both nature and history are covered by a seal and a key outside themselves is required to remove it. He finds that key in the incarnation revealed in scriptures: that God wanted to become a human being and be among us.

Let me translate from the Oswald Bayer’s German:

That and how Hamann engages the problem of natural theology – the “difference between natural and revealed religion,” is remarkable. His comparison of the painting and the person looking at it without the trained and perceiving eye, on the one hand, and the seeing and comprehending eye, on the other; says: God reveals Godself through everything worldly, speaks to us through nature and history, and allows Godself to be recognized through the works of God’s creation (cf. Romans 1:19f).[3] It is not the case that there is nothing to see! But the human being does not have the eye for that which is there to see. Not that there is nothing to hear. The world is not mute! “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:2).[4] But the human ear is stopped up. It has to be opened. A healing miracle has to first take place. Only in that way can nature be heard as creation. [And for Verlyn, I add “seen as creation.”] (This excerpt is from page 11.)

Hamann read David Hume, who said it would require a miracle to believe in God. And so it did. Hamann had his conversion experience in London, where he bottomed out. (He had been seduced by his Jesuit tutor when he was fourteen years old.) He found the key to the lock that sealed his life away from him by reading Luther’s account of the knight of Tungdalus in Luther’s Commentary on Matthew.[5] The Knight of Tondalo, as Luther calls him, has to cross a narrow bridge, no wider than the palm of a hand, crossing over a sulfurous moat filled with fire-spewing dragons. He carried a heavy pack on his back and from the other side of the bridge a dragon spewing fire was coming to attack him. Luther states that that is the plight of every Christian.

When Hamann read that he knew he had found the key to his existence. It would take a miracle, which only God could provide to save him. That last sentence is mine, because it is left unsaid by Hamann and Luther. It is the miracle of grace that saves us and via that miracle the seal is removed from nature and history and we hear God speaking to us, addressing us through creation.

Hamann makes it clear that the Book of Nature and History do not have the key that unlocks their understanding in themselves and out of themselves they do not allow themselves to be understood. But through God’s miracle of creation God communicates with us through the nature and history. The separation of the Creator and creation is that of the one who speaks and the one who hears.

Verlyn Klinkenborg is knocking from the human side for what only God can reveal to us from the divine side.


[1] New York Times (September 3, 2010), page A18.

[2] Oswald Bayer,  Schoepfung als Anrede, (Tuebingen: J.C.B. Mohr (Paul Siebick), 1990), page 11.

[3] Romans 1:19f: “For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. Ever since the creation of the world God’s eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things God has made.”

[4] Psalm 19: 1-4: (God’s Glory in Creation) The heavens tell the glory of God and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech nor are there words: their voice is not heard. Yet their voice goes out through all the earth and their words to the end of the world.

[5] Luther’s Works, vol. 21: page 245; Luthers Werke, Weimar Edition vol 32, pages 502-503.

If you are interested in creation via language also see my post on a new approach to science: plug this title into Google. It will come up first:

Jürgen Moltmann: the speech of nature is directed to people


Written by peterkrey

September 4, 2010 at 5:01 am

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