It is a challenge to see the world as ancient people saw it. It’s been a windy weekend in southern California. I was out watching the trees being blown by the wind when it dawned on me how differently I see this scene than someone must have seen it thousands of years ago.
I know what pushing the trees besides wind. It’s air – 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen, 1% argon, 0.04% carbon dioxide, some water vapor, with small amounts of many other molecules dissolved in the more plentiful gases. I don’t visualize little balls of gas knocking tree limbs aside, but I realize I know they are the culprit as I watch that limb, not anything mysterious. I can visualize the little balls if I need to focus more on them, but even without that, I know that’s what air is, and it’s nothing mysterious. It’s just too thin to be visible. It’s the same air I learned about in science classes. Some of it moves in convection currents. Some gets caught up in huge circular movements related to storms. I was never much of a meteorologist to explain every kind of wind, but I remember those maps of winds over the globe, different at different altitudes, with the prevailing winds over North America such that it’s quicker to fly from LA to New York than the other way around. For the same reason, weather systems in the US move from west to east.
Today the wind here is coming from the east. There’s a high over the Rockies to the north. There’s a storm in Mexico. The winds go counterclockwise around the storm and/or clockwise around the high, so here they are. Actually it’s a little north of due east. At one point on my walk today I realized the trees were being blown directly from the north, but there were hills to the west. I suppose the wind was being deflected.
I suppose some ancient people got out enough to understand how wind is deflected by mountains, but I bet it wasn’t many. Did ancient people see wind as a fluid bouncing off rock to turn into another direction? Did they care? Did it matter that much to them what the wind was doing except right where they were?
Ancient people reported wind. They knew wind from one direction might mean rain, but not a different direction. They didn’t always have maps to correlate that with where the nearest ocean was. They just had their experience. Their ships couldn’t fight the wind the way even sailing ships can fight it now. The wind was just this unseen force from God.
Now it’s not except for those who have a very traditional way of looking at things, who think God does what He wants, and meteorologists just happen to notice God’s unvarying pattern, which just happens to be perfectly explained by physics, even if weather is not completely predictable by knowing the physics that makes it work. Most people who look at the wind moving things now take the simple view that they are seeing something completely physical, as I do.
Simplicity wasn’t always that way. What is wind if you have no idea what air is? People always knew what air was good for. I’m sure every generation had plenty of people who explored holding their breath. People knew breathing air was essential. Water was no substitute for that, not for us. But why?
Why because we need air. There’s something of life in it. Smother us and we die. No one who’s dead needs to breathe. Something called a spirit needs to breathe and leaves us with our last breath. Otherwise the spirit would keep us alive. Even God has a Spirit, a life, something animate. So there is wind, and “The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear the sound of it, but cannot tell where it comes from and where it goes. So is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8) Many plays on words were possible based on the Greek word “pneuma” meaning both “wind” and “spirit”, as did the Hebrew word “ruach”.
I read these words attributed to Jesus by the author of John, and I know they’re wrong. I’m not the best at describing where the wind comes from and where it goes, but some are very good at it and have accurate maps and predictions to prove it. Or am I being too literal?
It is strange. I suspect ancient people were very literal about the connection between spirit, wind, air, and life. They knew there was something beyond understanding in that, mysteries God alone understood. So it was beyond understanding to detail how a person was transformed by being reborn of the Spirit.
But now both wind and biological life are very well understood. The movement of air is much like the movement of water. Life needs oxygen to burn food. God needn’t do anything about that. If I hadn’t thought of how different knowledge is today from ancient times, I wouldn’t have thought of God in the wind at all today. I would think of God as I do everyday, as a nonphysical being that communicates with me, cares for me, and loves me. I do so because there’s been a long tradition of there being such a God, so I looked for Him, found Him, and live in Him to my benefit, maybe for His benefit as well. Yet I don’t see Him in the physical world at all. The physical world has so many mechanisms that can be known in incredible detail, and none of them care if I pray or that I love the God of my understanding.
Ancient people were ignorant of physics. Does that make it more likely or less likely that they were knowledgeable of the real God? Anyone can decide that for oneself. I might believe the latter as strongly as my fellow scientists who are atheists, seeing no reason to consider God as real at all, but God showed up for me when I started praying in my thirties. He was not wind. He was not indisputably in the physical world at all, but He was indisputably in my mind. How did He get there? What a softball question for anyone who wants to deny God or anyone who wants to insist that tradition has it right about God. In contrast to such people, God tells me He filled a need in me. I’ve gone with Him down a string of questions and answers like that. God assures me that He exists beyond me. He is even grateful that I don’t need to see Him in the wind or some other idol in order just to know that He exists. To pin God down to any form like that is to guarantee that you cannot know the full range of God or that it is far less than the idols of omnipotence, omniscience or other perfection that traditions try to force on God.
God is not a bad name for Him, coming from an Indo-European root meaning to invoke, as it does. Those who call on God and mean it do not inherit the wind. Someday all these ancient beliefs that people proudly proclaim will die. It might take 500 years. It might take more. Then it won’t be such an intriguing thing to wonder why people still believe them, why they believe God would punish this place with a hurricane, but not that place, so many problems with tradition like that. People probably won’t walk along in that very different future as I do knowing how there was once so much confusion between God and the wind.
God drives me, but from within, not through an atmospheric disturbance. God enhances my life, but not biologically. I don’t suppose there ever will be maps showing what God is up to. Traditional religion has failed to produce those. God tells me directly that His third greatest priority is that I be happy. The first two may be finished before 500 hundred years. Then maybe happiness will be the priority for everyone. I’m sure even human beings can tell the difference between that and the wind.