Yesterday as I drove off to teach my first class of the semester, I was greeted by a spectacular rainbow. I was about to begin an Introduction to Literature course with a nature theme, so of course I had to weave the sighting into my opening comments.
Throughout the course we will be examining how we as humans look to nature for metaphors that help us negotiate our lives. I therefore talked about how a rainbow shows up in Genesis following the flood. It is the storyteller’s way of dealing with natural disaster. Here’s God:
“I establish my covenant with you: Never again will all life be cut off by the waters of a flood; never again will there be a flood to destroy the earth.” And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant I am making between me and you and every living creature with you, a covenant for all generations to come: I have set my rainbow in the clouds, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and the earth.”
While the physics of optics explains certain dimensions of rainbows, I noted to the class that physics is less effective in exploring the relationship between the earthly and the spiritual (physics simply decrees the spiritual realm as irrelevant) and in explaining the psychology of hope. Narrative provided early storytellers with a way to engage with and find meaning in their natural surroundings.
To further make the point, I quoted what William Blake, reacting to what he saw as the Enlightenment’s overemphasis on science and reason, once said about the sun:
When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea? O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying “Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”
Is Blake’s ecstatic joy at witnessing a sunrise, his pervading sense of the holiness of the world, any the less true that those who describe the sun as a nuclear furnace so hot that it transforms hydrogen into helium?
Or as Wordsworth puts it in “The Tables Turned,”
One impulse from a vernal wood
May teach you more of man,
Of moral evil and of good,
Than all the sages can.
Wordsworth is a little ingenuous here since he himself is a sage. For that matter, scientists are not wrong in how they describe the workings of the sun. In the face of one-dimensional science, however, the poets feel the need to offer a corrective. There is a spiritual dimension to life as well as a material one.
Speaking of Wordsworth, if I’d really been on my game I would have quoted English literature’s most famous rainbow poem. Wordsworth may well have had the Genesis rainbow in mind when he sees God’s hand in the marvel. But he appears to be talking about a different kind of piety than what the Genesis authors had in mind, one where God isn’t so much above the rainbow–sending us signs, as it were–but inextricably intermingled with it:
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
When I gazed upon this morning’s rainbow, I was a child again. Having seen my grandson the day before and having reveled in his immersion in life, I now felt bound to him through our natural piety. Both of us stood awestruck before creation.
As Wordsworth says, let me die if my heart ever fails to leap up.