white, weathered chapel with spire located in a wheat field with the text title of article "Nature and Spirituality"
creation care, theology

Nature and Spirituality

Occasionally I am asked what I mean by the term “Creation Care.” Unfortunately, many people whose faith traditions are similar to mine simply see no connection between love and care for the natural world and their “spirituality.” And I find that, no matter which side of the “liberal-conservative” spectrum they identify with, when I begin to talk about caring for God’s world I find that those who would close themselves off do so for reasons which seem, on the surface, so diametrically opposed that it makes me laugh. My conviction either causes them to hear a Bible-thumbing radical that wants to indoctrinate children with rigid ideas about Creation, or else the opposite: some liberal, environmental agenda set at hijacking their “traditional Christian values.”

Indeed (and this is a matter of some importance), neither is the case. Because of this, I have found it very difficult to find “my tribe” in between these two extremes. Richard Louv said it well in Last Child in the Woods when he wrote of the precariousness of speaking of, “…spirituality of – or rather in nature – without tripping on biblical vines of interpretation, semantics and politics.” (291)

Perhaps like him, I have found myself on the outside of many institutions, realizing that they take one of many stances on the sticky combination of ecology, the natural world, and creation care:

  • As aforementioned, many conservative religious institutions view, in Louv’s words, “environmentalism as ersatz religion…a creeping animism” that threatens much of their fundamental doctrine.
  • Or, perhaps they completely stand by ecological and environmental movements of today, but see them as having nothing to do with Biblical teaching, but rather see them only as an ethic apart from the Bible.
  • But, sometimes I find myself in a group of people just as disillusioned as I am, without the language or home to convey the feeling of oneness with a Creator whose imprint they see when surrounded by the natural world. These people would often describe themselves as “spiritual” but more than likely, not often as “religious”

For many years I have struggled to find a place, institution or organization where I might share my passion for teaching children the respect for living things, sacredness of place and awe of the natural world. Sparrow’s Nest Play is my sacred ground, on which I hope to share my love for creation and its care.

Photo by Kyle Bushnell on Unsplash

It’s important to me that we define why the values of Sparrow’s Nest Play (nature play, creation care, and just living) are what they are, and it is important to me that you know it has nothing to do with a soapbox. The truth is, we believe that the problems inherent in the liberal and conservative camps arise from the same misunderstanding: a false dichotomy between nature and spirituality. For a fuller understanding on our beliefs about “spirituality,” see our post Spirituality Means Becoming God-like.)

Our understanding of this is why I am thankful to Richard Louv for his classic work in Last Child in the Woods, which discusses this false dichotomy between nature and spirituality in the next-to-last chapter. He captures the tension by recounting a conversation with a Conservative Christian woman in the following quote.

The Lord created and placed humans in a garden with a mandate to enjoy it, manage it with authority, in subjugation to the Creator,” she says. At the core of the creation story, she believes, is the “truth that humans are made in the image of God, sharing some of the capacities unique to God, such as freedom to choose, creativity, authority over creation.” Without an informed biblical foundation, she believes, concern for the environment falls prey to sentimentalism; idolatry of nature; bioegalitarianism (which ‘elevates animals, devalues humans); and biocentrism (which ‘disregards the biblical notion that where human needs and non-human needs are in conflict, priority goes to meeting the human needs’)”

Last Child in the Woods, 200

I pondered this for a long time after reading, re-reading, and re-reading again before I felt confident that I understood just how different my beliefs and assumptions about what scripture teaches and the beliefs of this woman are. I came to the conclusion that she and I have very differently informed “biblical foundations” when it comes to the Biblical creation account. I’ll need to begin there and then proceed to my account of what I have been led to believe Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection means for our lives here in this world.

Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Genesis, Creation, and Our Role

The account of creation, in Genesis and elsewhere in scripture, tells us of God placing people inside creation, making them in his image. Rather than see this image-bearing as the authority wielding power to subdue and manage, I see God as inviting us to to become caretaker and co-creators of all he had made. The Hebrew wording used for “rule” and “subdue” also indicate a leadership by “going down” and “spreading out among.” There are other verbs for “conquer” or “have dominion,” but the words used here indicate relationship and caretaking

So our faith begins with the story of how God created a beautiful world and then created people to live in it, to name it, and to do the good work of caring for it.  At Sparrow’s Nest Play, we think that means that God’s original idea was for people to see themselves as a part of the world–meaning that even though the world provides our food, God made us to have a responsibility to it and to each other.  

At the end of that story we’re told about sin–we think that at least part of what that means is that people started thinking about the natural world as something that was underneath them–instead of a part of them, that it was there for them to exploit and use up.  They saw themselves as being outside of the world, rather than being a part of it.  We think that’s part of the destructive nature of sin–to exploit and use up the people, animals, and places around us.  Ultimately, we think that when Jesus came, he was establishing God’s kingdom on this earth, and he told us that that meant that God’s will would be done right here. 

Jesus’ Ministry of Reconciliation

Jesus’ ministry was one of restoration, reconciliation and resurrection. As witness to the exploitative nature of humankind, he continually sought to restore and reconcile wrong ideas, actions and practices, which often involved restoring marginalized people and places. Jesus came to bring peace to a broken world. Part of that definition of peace or shalom is “enough for all.” A scarcity mindset and the belief that there aren’t enough resources (food, water, wealth, medicine, energy, etc) are at the root of greed and exploitation.

Scarcity thinking benefits the powerful and the power systems they have created. I believe Jesus’ restored Kingdom undid the powers and the systems they upheld.

Because we think Jesus came to restore us to being caretakers of this earth, at SNP, we want to help children learn why and how to take care of the soil, water, the plants, and the animals around them.  We think that when they do, they’ll also learn that they are taking care of one another and themselves: that this is a way of loving their neighbor as themselves.

Photo by Isaac Quick on Unsplash

Spirituality in Nature

Do I believe one can engage in nature without encountering the “spiritual?” Well, I suppose that depends greatly on how one defines the word spiritual. What I can bear witness to are countless instances of both children and adults finding moments of something bigger than themselves while in the natural world. And in these moments, sometimes they had a name for the eternal and infinite. Some might have called it God, or Allah, while others chose to refer to the vastness as Mother Nature. It was this feeling of smallness among the infinite that led native peoples to create stories, handed down generation to generation, about many aspects of nature from a creation account to animal lore.

When speaking about faith-based environmentalism, Paul Gorman, founder and director of the National Religious Partnership for the Environment, declares, “The extent that we separate our children from creation is the extent to which we separate them from the creator – from God.” (Louv, 299) Conversely, I think it is hard to expose them to nature and not allow them to have questions about how it came about. I enjoy those conversations and being a part of them. I especially enjoy having them with children, whose mind’s eye is still so open and willing to dream and imagine a world with room for shalom.

And in a world with room enough for shalom, I think there will also be room for the neighbor-love that impacts lives large and small in every ecosystem.

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