“But ask the beasts, and they will teach you; the birds of the heavens, and they will tell you; or the bushes of the earth, and they will teach you; and the fish of the sea will declare to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the LORD has done this? In his hand is the life of every living thing and the breath of all mankind.
I’ve spent my career working at the intersection of development and conservation in parks, recreation, and preserved open spaces. Over the last 30 years I’ve witnessed a deep and growing disconnect between people and nature. This disconnect is accelerating as the digital revolution means more people spend less time outdoors in creation, particularly in developed and urban contexts. I believe this disconnect can negatively affect our individual and corporate spiritual health.
Increasing evidence shows that the loss of regular connection with nature (creation) negatively affects the human psyche and our ability to operate in functional societies. When humans are engaged in nature, our brains work differently. People without regular and routine time in creation behave in fundamentally different ways. Richard Louv’s Last Child in the Woods and Florence William’s The Nature Fix are just two examples of recent books that highlight the science behind these realities.
Christians have been largely silent on this growing disconnect, it seems. I’ve heard little reflection on what spiritual life looks like without regular connections with creation. If Martin Luther’s frequently attributed quote is correct—“God is entirely and personally present in the wilderness, in the garden, in the field”—what happens when man abandons these landscapes? Christians should not take lightly the vital role creation plays in God’s work on our souls. The elimination of close, regular, routine human contact with creation has typified punishment for eons. Now we are doing it voluntarily.
The elimination of close, regular, routine human contact with creation has typified punishment for eons. Now we are doing it voluntarily.
Christians should take time to seriously consider the implications, both individually and corporately.
What We Lose
Creation is an ever-changing, ever-constant reflection of a living, creative God who uses it for his purposes. And it is magnificent in scale. As Thomas Aquinas once said, “All the efforts of man cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly.”
Yet in our post-industrial societies, humans are growing increasingly distant from the wonder and communicative power of creation. Climate is controlled by a thermostat. Our windows rarely open. We need not notice weather, the seasons, and other cycles of creation unless we want to. Our food is delivered without any dirt getting under our fingernails, from places we know not where, in seasons of harvest we know not when. We barely notice when trees bud or creeks rise.
What do we lose in the Christian life without meaningful, intentional immersion in and connection to creation?
We lose a dimension of the grandeur and glory of God. We lose a sense of the sublime that we experience standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon, staring down mortality in a Class V rapid, or intentionally exposing ourselves to the brutality of a winter storm. We lose a sense of wonder when we aren’t planting flowers, harvesting food in our garden, or watching a bird built a nest. We miss opportunities for gratitude and worship when we don’t take time to pause before the simplicity of a tree, taking in its bark, leaves, shape, form—and realizing this little piece of nature is perfectly achieving the purpose God set for it. John Calvin said, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in the world, that is not intended to make us rejoice.” But when we are far from the grass and colors of the world, we miss opportunities to rejoice.
Calvin said, ‘There is not one blade of grass, there is no color in the world that is not intended to make us rejoice.’ But when we are far from the grass and colors of the world, we miss opportunities to rejoice.
We also miss a sense of healthy proportion and orientation. Exposure to creation reveals that we are small and God is big. It humbles us and reminds us of who we are in relation to a holy God. But technologies like smartphones have distorted our sense of proportion by placing us firmly in the center of a universe wholly within our digital grasp. They situate us as consumers who need not bother going outside because the world is infinitely accessible, supposedly, on the device in our pocket. Our digital environments sever us not only from one another, but also from God’s beautiful creation.
What We Can Do
So, Christians, what are we to do? Here are four simple ways we can reconnect to God’s creation in a world that’s creating more and more distance from it.
1. Make time to go outside.
Sit under a tree, walk beside a body of water, or just sit in your backyard. Find sustained periods for quietness and observation, prayer and biblical meditation—moments when creation confronts your mortality and places you properly in relationship to an omnipotent God.
2. Go outside in all types of weather and all times of day.
God provided seasons and weather for a reason. There are aspects of his goodness to be experienced in all conditions. These experiences often quicken our souls. Get wet. Get cold. Get hot. Don’t become oblivious to the drama of air and wind and clouds and precipitation.
3. Attend to your church’s landscape and grounds, particularly in an urban environment.
Given the frequency of times “gardens” are referenced in Scripture, think about your church’s trees, plants, and landscaping likewise as a garden. Are they thriving? Do they point to a beautiful God? Do they honor his creation? Do they communicate to unbelievers something of his goodness and provision? Pick your plants, then care for them thoughtfully and intentionally.
4. Enjoy local parks, national forests, wilderness areas, or other public lands.
While many Americans contributed to this remarkable system, the Christian tradition made them possible. Protection of nature as a common good—and not just something for the nobility or wealthy—is an under-appreciated, uniquely American witness of the Reformed Christian community. Mark Stoll’s Inherit the Holy Mountain: Religion and the Rise of American Environmentalism offers a nice review of our shared heritage.
Creation is not an end in itself, something to be worshiped in place of the Creator. It is rather something that points us—if we are willing to pay attention—to a good, gracious, powerful, extravagant, and loving God. A world that disregards or distances itself from creation is a world that will naturally disregard and distance itself from God.
God does not remove us from creation; he intentionally keeps us in it. We are removing ourselves. Recognizing the spiritual dangers that come with ambivalence toward creation, then, Christians should be leading the way in modeling a healthy appreciation for and connection to the beautiful world around—a world that is, as Gerard Manley Hopkins put it, “charged with the grandeur of God.”