We had marked an October Saturday as the peak of Fall color in southern Wisconsin, and were not disappointed. We met several friends at the parking area, then set off to hike in a remnant forest under a bluebird sky. The forest was ablaze in color: aspen yellow, sumac orange, maple red, set against the green backdrop of ancient pines that had—miraculously—escaped the lumberjack’s axe of a century ago. I, a forest ecologist, was enchanted.
Ten minutes into our excursion, a walking companion turned to me and asked, “Are we going to see anything on this hike?”
“What?,” I asked.
He repeated, with emphasis, “Are we going to see anything on this hike?”
Dumbfounded, and with a momentary lapse of social grace, I blurted out, “I don’t even know how to respond to that question!”
The Books of Nature and Scripture
I should not have been surprised. As a professor and naturalist, I regularly observe what the academic literature reports: Most people do not see (or hear, taste, feel, or smell) the natural world around them, because their minds and senses are not attuned to do so. Their senses have atrophied from lack of use, a phenomenon known as “sensory blindness.” The consequences of that disconnect are much more weighty than simply missing out on the wonders displayed by the natural world.
Henri Nouwen, the renowned Catholic priest, professor, and writer, once said that the first language of God is nature, and that “…nature discloses itself to those with eyes to see and ears to hear what the Great Spirit of God is saying to us.” These thoughts align with the “two books” perspective of Christianity, first articulated by St. Augustine 1600 years ago. That is, God has revealed himself to humankind through two complementary means: the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture. Psalm 19 is David’s rhapsodic declaration of the power, beauty, and value of those two books.
A proper understanding of the two books of revelation would suggest that Christians should be among the most appalled, the most grieved, the most concerned, the most intentionally proactive of all people with respect to environmental degradation. Why are we not? In large part, I believe, because we are estranged from the Book of Nature and have simplified and dutified the Book of Scripture.
Most teaching toward the development of a Christian environmental ethic (to which I have contributed) emphasizes similar themes drawn from the Book of Scripture: All creation gives praise to God; it exists for him, not for humans; God has charged humans with the responsibility to steward and care for it.
Though true, those elements do not come close to approximating the rich, God-informing and soul-transforming connection with creation available through immersive study of the Book of Nature.
Instead, most Christians’ perspective of creation care is reduced to a short list of dutiful tasks and prohibitions. The parallel to the Pharisees’ commitment to legalistic behavior without heart transformation is not only coincidence.
Which is why I wish recycling did not exist. After many years of discussions and teaching about creation care, I’ve come to expect it: The conversation turns toward human responsibility, and the immediate response is an enthusiastic, “I recycle!” As if creation care incarnate could be reduced to separating cans from Kleenex.
“Fulfill your role in caring for this wondrous creation today?” Check.
A proper understanding of the two books of revelation [Nature and Scripture] would suggest that Christians should be among the most appalled, the most grieved, the most concerned, the most intentionally proactive of all people with respect to environmental degradation. Why are we not?
Reclaiming our Connection to Creation
Environmental scientists, psychologists, and historians have come to understand that a fundamental reason for environmental degradation is that humans live lives disconnected from the natural world. Especially, but not only, for those in urban areas, it is all too easy to live fully unaware of how the natural world provides the basic resources (e.g., food, water, oxygen, energy) for life. The Christian community is not detectably different. By and large, we have bought fully into the secular ideals of individualism, happiness through acquisition, a culture of consumption, and a focus on having and possessing rather than on being. Consider this simple test: Walk through a commercial/retail area. How many companies can you identify by their logo? Then, how many trees can you identify by their leaves?
The result of long-term estrangement from the natural world is known as “nature deficit disorder.” It is associated with attention difficulties, obesity, sensory diminution, and increased rates of physical and emotional illnesses. Though serious at the level of individuals, the consequences of persistent nature disconnection at the level of human society are disastrous, as they lie at the very core of our environmental crises.
Efforts to reduce the degradation of land and water, slow the extinction of species, and mitigate climate change will not succeed if people do not care, and people will not care enough if they are no longer connected to the natural world. Moreover, what the Christian community has largely failed to realize is that in distancing ourselves from nature, we are distancing ourselves from God.
….creation connection is a fundamental and necessary antecedent to creation care.
We instinctively care for the things we love, and we love the things to which we are intimately connected. My point, then, is simply this: creation connection is a fundamental and necessary antecedent to creation care. Wholesale embrace of this simple truth would transform us as individuals and communities, reframe our approach to creation care, and contribute to the healing of the Earth—the benefit of all its inhabitants.
A simple model for developing creation connection is this: information about, coupled with experience in, leads to connection with. As that connection becomes increasingly deep and intimate, people become more wholly committed to creation care. No longer a duty, caring for the Earth becomes an outflow of transformed values. The beauty of this process is that it is self-reinforcing, a positive feedback system.
Some years ago my wife learned about the trails that weave through a small forested area near our home. She began to run and walk those trails, deepened her connection to the woodland, and the experience was transformative. She now knows our resident wildflowers, birds, and trees by name. And her fierce environmental ethic flows naturally out of her enlivened connection with the land around us.
Moreover, what the Christian community has largely failed to realize is that in distancing ourselves from nature, we are distancing ourselves from God.
Liturgy of Land and Mindful Connectedness
For millennia, Christians have practiced engagement with the Book of Scripture through habits of reading, meditation, teaching, and prayer. How might the world change if Christians were also known for their regular practices to engage the Book of Nature? In The City of God, Book XVI, St. Augustine declared:
Some people, in order to discover God, read books. But there is a great book: the very appearance of created things. Look above you! Look below you! Note it. Read it. God, whom you want to discover, never wrote that book with ink. Instead He set before your eyes the things that He had made. Can you ask for a louder voice than that?
This need not be complicated or time-consuming. In her book Liturgy of the Ordinary, Tish Harrison Warren describes how the practices of everyday life, when viewed through a liturgical lens, can shape and form us. They can be sacred moments of experiencing God. In a similar fashion, I suggest we practice “liturgies of land”—regular, mindful connectedness to the Book of Nature and its Author, incorporated into our everyday lives.
Research in neuroscience has shown that our brains are much more “plastic” (moldable) than previously recognized. Want to grow in gratitude? Develop a practice of mindfully holding thoughts of gratitude for 30 seconds, every day. Want to bond more closely with your spouse? Develop a practice of mindfully embracing him/her for 30 seconds, every day. Regular, intentional practices such as these can literally re-wire the neuropathways in our brains for positive outcomes.
They can also deepen and enrich our connection to the natural world. When audiences ask for recommendations about how they can better care for creation, I start by suggesting they focus first on nature connection. Develop a daily practice of beholding (connecting with adoring receptivity) some aspect of the natural world—a leaf, a bird, a landscape, a night sky. Mindfully hold that connection for 30 seconds. Engage with the wonder, awe, and worship it inspires. Over time, immersive, mindful, and reflective engagement with the natural world will deepen our nature connection, transform our minds, and reframe our values. And then, consider how to incorporate these liturgies of land into group activities, such as a sunrise bird walk or evening star watch. An excellent resource on developing nature connection, for children and adults alike, is Scott Sampson’s How to Raise a Wild Child: The Art and Science of Falling in Love with Nature.
Grand daughter holding butterfly. Photo provided by author.
In short, creation care practiced simply out of duty will be uninspired and wholly insufficient to engage the magnitude of environmental problems that confront us. But creation care that issues from a wellspring of creation connection will be animated by love, sustained by hope, modeled for the world, and restorative for all the Earth.
An Alternate Encounter
This time, her kayak trip was in an ancient volcanic caldera. The lake seemed bottomless; luminescent azure, ringed by massive boulders, and beyond, pine-covered mountains. But her gaze was fixed high above, where two ospreys, held effortlessly aloft by alpine thermals, circled and scanned the lake for fish.
Ospreys are raptors. The word “raptor” derives from the Latin “rapere,” meaning “to seize.” Raptors are entirely carnivorous, predatory birds. They are known among indigenous peoples as spiritual messengers. Long ago, they had seized my daughter’s heart.
As she watched, one of the ospreys shed a feather, which, in pirouetting free-fall, landed on the shore nearby. “Let’s go get it,” she urged, and they paddled to the shore. Her husband held the kayak steady while she, five months pregnant, clambered out of the cockpit and scrambled up the rock surface to retrieve the feather.
Back in the kayak, they paused for a moment. She examined the feather, the bold black and white patterning, the asymmetry for aerodynamic lift. She ran it through her fingers and held it to her face to better feel the texture. But mostly, she basked in a moment of awe and wonder, of a divine message delivered through kinship with the more than human world. She absorbed the experience into her whole being. And, I would like to believe, into that of her unborn son.
She lifted her eyes to the sky in a moment of worship and gratitude for this connection with the realms of earth, water, sky, and the Divine. Then, raising her arm— the one with the raptor emblazoned on her wrist—they paddled on.
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