Nature Reverence and Christianity
Okay, I love this topic, and often find myself wrestling with it personally, as a Unitarian Universalist whose theological orientation leans toward Unitarian Christianity. It’s at once very problematic and very important—both generally, and specifically in my own Unitarian Universalist congregation, where I’m a member of our Worship Committee that has been asked to explore better ways to support theological diversity and faith development.
In one of the most widely used UU affirmations, we “covenant to affirm and promote … respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part”, and profess that “the living tradition we share draws from many sources”, including not only “Jewish and Christian teachings which call us to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors as ourselves”, but also “spiritual teachings of Earth-centered traditions which celebrate the sacred circle of life and instruct us to live in harmony with the rhythms of nature”. (UUs, of course, don’t do “creeds”. These are our “Principles and Purposes”. There’s a difference. Honest. I’ll start another thread to explain the distinction, once I find out what it is.) I first got to thinking about this a few years ago when the pastor of our church (who shared my Christian affinities) delivered a sermon on how to practice nature reverence without ever mentioning the Christian tradition of honoring nature. When I asked her why she mentioned several other traditions but not Christianity, she said it was because she thought Christianity had little to offer.
The basic problem with nature-based spirituality in Christianity is that although Christians may accept that creation is the product of a divine Creator, core Christian values are far more about how we relate to each other and to God than how we relate to the rest of creation. This problem is reinforced and exacerbated by traditional readings of the creation stories of Genesis and the many OT warnings against idolatry.
In Genesis, of course, Adam and Eve were created in harmony with nature but rebelled against God’s instruction to remain so. (That is, unless it was all a deliberate set-up on God’s part—an interpretation that intrigues me.) As punishment, they were banished from their place in Eden (i.e., from a self-sustaining niche in the natural order) and condemned instead to wrest their living from the earth adversarially, by cunning and hard labor. They could succeed in this only because in Genesis 1 mankind was also given “dominion” over the earth and all its creatures, and enjoined to “be fruitful and multiply”—the very first of the 613 mitzvot (divine commandments) of the Torah. Traditionally this “dominion” doctrine has been understood to explain our innate superiority over nature and even our duty to exploit nature for our own ends, and it has become deeply entrenched in the structure of Western culture.
Reinforcing this view for many believers are all the scriptural admonitions against idolatry, most of which were originally directed against the agricultural Canaanites’ fertility cults. Not only are we given the earth, plants, and animals to use any way we please, but at least in ancient Israel, affording them any kind of direct reverence was idol-worship, an abomination. Following this precedent, as Christianity spread, it anathemized and suppressed all the indigenous earth-based religions it encountered. (Indeed, it so happens that a justice at the 1692 Salem witch trials was a member of my very own congregation. He also donated our silver communion chalice, which adds delightfully ironic nuances to our communion services among our members interested in “earth-centered spirituality” today!) The result today is that while Christianity gives us a highly refined sense of interpersonal and social ethics, as well as a personal connection to divinity, it is largely silent as to how to honor our dependence on our environment.
Nevertheless, reverence for nature is not necessarily inconsistent with Christianity generally, even if it may conflict with this traditional scriptural orientation in particular. I view environmental reverence instead as an integral but underdeveloped aspect within the Christian tradition, one that now demands renewed emphasis and development. Condemning fertility rituals as idolatrous may have been perfectly appropriate for a monotheistic tribe competing for its turf, 4,000 years ago, when the total human population was small, its demands upon the land were modest, and hunter-gatherers and primitive agrarian societies were giving way to more sophisticated urban civilizations. Once the agricultural revolution had reliably mastered nature, so that daily survival was no longer in doubt, it made eminent sense that a religion focused mainly on social values might replace ones based mainly on natural forces. Today, though, when the human population strains the earth’s capacity to sustain it, any religion that does not place sufficient value on the health of natural systems is in truth a very real danger to the future of our species.
The least disruptive approach (to conventional Christian sensibilities) to restoring nature reverence in worship is probably to re-interpret the scriptural charge of “dominion”, changing it from a concept of exploitation to one of stewardship. In this model, we see God’s hand in all creation, so our “dominion” requires us to protect and preserve the divine handiwork from prideful human corruption. We revere nature not because it is divine per se, but because as the product of a divine hand it is necessarily superior to anything our own limited and prideful human minds might attempt. This attitude already enjoys a comfortable toehold, as in some of the Psalms celebrating the splendor of creation, or familiar hymns such as All Things Bright and Beautiful, or We Plow the Fields, or For the Beauty of the Earth, or Jean Ritchie’s haunting riff on Genesis 3:8 Now Is the Cool of the Day (which is included, for example, in the new Quaker hymnal “Worship in Song”). Here’s even a sermon I found, "The Christian Challenge of Caring for the Earth", addressing the topic. I find our puniness before the vast majesty of creation expressed especially well in the last few chapters of Job, where God indignantly demands, “Where were you, when I laid the foundations of the earth? Declare, if you have understanding,” and after a further long harangue from God along those lines a chastened Job eventually admits, “I have spoken of great things which I have not understood, things too wonderful for me to know”.
Unfortunately, when deployed head-to-head against the deeply entrenched exploitative interpretation of “dominion”, the stewardship alternative seems relatively ineffectual—a sweet sentiment, perhaps, but hardly an unassailable moral imperative on the order of “Let my people go” or “Thou shalt not kill” or “Judge not that ye be not judged”. To raise it to such an exalted level, moreover, risks being accused of precisely the same kind of idolatry that Biblical literalists commit when they for different reasons elevate the letter of Scripture over its spirit. Like the Bible, creation is God’s handiwork, but also like the Bible, it is not God Himself.
Or is it? Is God only a transcendent, personal, patriarchal, dictatorial Sovereign somewhere “out there”, or is God also an immanent, impersonal, pervasive, animating, holy Presence inherent in all things? Marcus Borg and process theologians (among others) have popularized a “panentheistic” understanding of God among the present generation of Christians, but the perception is in fact much older. Consider the example of Samuel Longfellow’s beloved 19th-century hymn God of the Earth, the Sky, the Sea, which finds God’s presence in all things. Reaching back even earlier into an ancient but much overlooked core element of Christian faith, what is the divine presence that we seem to find in quiet natural places if not the all-pervasive Holy Spirit itself? After all, Psalm 23 counsels, “He maketh me to lie down in green pastures, he leadeth me beside the still waters, [where] he restoreth my soul,” and Psalm 139 asks,
Whither shall I go from thy Spirit?
Or whither shall I flee from thy presence?
If I ascend to heaven, thou art there!
If I make my bed in Sheol, thou art there!
If I take the wings of the morning
and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea,
even there thy hand shall lead me,
and thy right hand shall hold me.
Thus, to those narrow Christians who would argue from Scripture that nature reverence is idolatrous or non-Biblical, I reply, beware that in your zeal for the narrow and exclusive “Word” you do not unwittingly blaspheme the inclusive, omnipresent Holy Spirit. One of the revelations contained in the Bible for those who choose to see it is that revelation is itself a progressive and accretive process over time. We can see now (for example) that reverence for natural cycles, a practice that seemed profoundly idolatrous to a band of wandering monotheistic shepherds 4,000 years ago when it was projected onto a slew of minor deities by bitter ethnic rivals, may well have been merely another culture’s means of apprehending the same divine qualities that later Bible authors and we ourselves apprehend as a legitimate manifestation of the Holy Spirit. Idolatry is far more contextual than it is absolute.
We therefore need to re-examine our suppositions toward idolatry, and not only because some of us find sacredness in nature that is not evident to others. If we believe (and we do) that our One God’s divine presence is everywhere and eternal, then it follows that rival cultures doubtless also have perceived it and felt drawn to it as we do. That other cultures have given it different names than we do and developed different observances to celebrate it is evidence of a different perspective than our own, certainly, but by no means does it prove that their religious perceptions are 100% false while ours are 100% true. As St. Paul says, none of us sees God clearly, for we all look “through a glass darkly;” but (to extend his metaphor) we all see rays from the same divine Light through varying smudges in the dark glass, and other cultures’ smudges reveal certain truly divine rays that may be obscured in our own Judeo-Christian, Greco-Roman viewpoint. If we who think of ourselves as “progressive” Christians are not closed to the possibility of truth in other religious traditions, then reverence for divinity in nature is surely one such instance where we may look for it.
What then is true idolatry? It is placing false deities (or false core values) above the One God of Abraham, Moses, Elijah, and Jesus, but many other cultures have given their own partial glimpses of the one omnipresent God many other names. It is not idolatry to recognize that other religious traditions may have received insights into what we see to be our own God that were not clearly revealed to the Abrahamic line of prophets or the Christian apostles and saints. It is not even idolatry to borrow practices and rituals from other religions—if (and this is a critical “if”) we recognize that despite the differences in worship vocabulary we are celebrating the same essential divinity that we know in our own traditions.
More subtly and dangerously, idolatry is also taking the name of the Lord in vain—i.e., justifying and venerating our own selfish motivations by attributing them to God, or otherwise believing falsely that they are divine. This is far too easy to do in almost any situation, but especially so if we are deliberately looking for manifestations of God in untraditional places. If we try to strike out on an uncharted path we must be especially careful to do so with integrity, humility, and caution. Yet although temptation to error is always subtle and always present, it is not uniquely concentrated along this or any other path. I would argue that we are not nearly as likely to fall into this sort of idolatry on a spiritual nature quest as are those who (relying upon Genesis, if they are aware of it) enrich themselves excessively by selfishly wresting more than they need from the earth and damaging it in the process.