by Pastor Doug Kings
“I find God in nature” is a sentiment often heard today. Some, including many religious people, dismiss such an idea as shallow and self-serving. And historically, religion’s attitude toward the natural world has often been ambivalent. “Every time I go into nature I withdraw from God,” was the chilly view of the medieval monk, Thomas á Kempis.
Such an attitude, in the view of contemporary theologian, Matthew Fox, likely was a response to the enormous suffering experienced in the waves of plague that swept Europe at that time. Yet this view was not universal. In his recent book about her, Fox quotes the English medieval mystic, Julian of Norwich, as having a very different perspective.
God rejoices in his creation and creation rejoices in God. They are endlessly marvelous to each other. In the act of marveling, we behold our God—our Beloved, our Maker—utterly exalted.
Fast-forward half a millennium to our modern industrial world and we find a very different attitude towards nature. Today it is typically judged for its usefulness: as a source of food, air, water, and minerals, as the setting for our homes and communities, and for providing us pleasure and recreation. The idea that nature has intrinsic value, or let alone that it is itself sacred, is now hardly considered.
Yet redeveloping such an understanding may be essential for our future. The Piney Point toxic spill last month is just the latest in a seemingly endless succession of human caused environmental disasters plaguing the planet. With their number and scale we easily become numb to such events, even as they threaten our livelihood and survival.
Debate about and action to prevent and solve such disasters are essential. Yet the ultimate answer is a transformation in our relationship with the world around us, a new vision of our earthly home.
The creation stories in Genesis are a celebration of the universe God has created, a theme repeated throughout the Bible. Reflecting this viewpoint, Julian of Norwich says, “nature is all good and beautiful in itself.” Nature is a sacrament in which to experience holiness since creation comes from God and is sustained by God. Consequently, Julian says, “The fullness of joy is to behold God in everything.”
Appreciating the sacredness of our natural world, and understanding it as the bearer of God’s grace, is the path to curtailing our abuse of it. And very possibly, it is the only path. As the late priest, scholar, and self-styled “ecologian”, Thomas Berry said, “We will not save what we do not love, [but] it is also true that we will neither love nor save what we do not experience as sacred.”
An important source of wisdom today are the indigenous peoples of the world. They have often maintained a sacred connection with nature more effectively than western influenced peoples. Such a voice in the church is Steven Charleston, a native American elder and retired Episcopal bishop. Recently, in the daily meditation he publishes on Facebook, he said this:
The sacred is everywhere around us. Our reality is permeated with the mysteries and surprises of creation. We truly live in a world of enchantment. Allowing ourselves to recognize that fact is the first step into vision…. Faith lived with vision seems risky and it is. We can always abandon our quest and settle for the conformity of a world without faith in anything greater than ourselves. But with the courage of our convictions we can see the Spirit all around us. And when we do: we can see tomorrow and how to get there.
It is easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless confronting the realities of the climate crisis, pollution, species extinction, and proliferating diseases. But as Charleston says, awareness of the sacredness all around us makes us aware of the world as God intends it to be and gives us the hope and vision to move forward into it.
Blessings in your life and ministry.