Sometimes modern Christians, in our excitement about Jesus, think the incarnation of God first happened two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. Actually, when we Christians get our theology right, we affirm that is when the human incarnation of God happened, in Jesus, but that God has been inhabiting creation since time began.
As Franciscan priest Richard Rohr reminds us, divine incarnation actually happened first about 14.5 billion years ago, when this amazing universe was created, through an action we now call “the Big Bang.” That’s when God materialized and manifested and decided to expose who God is. That was the beginning of a process through which God brought forth light, water, land, sun, moon, stars, plants, trees, and every kind of animal, and called it all good. We monotheists believe that one good God created everything, and that God’s blessing fills everything around us.
A God-infused world should be enough justification for God-followers to treat creation as holy, and realize we walk on sacred ground. But a lot of Christians today ask why they should care for the environment, because they’re not seeing a bunch of Bible passages telling them to honor the earth. I get it; after all, that’s what we’re trained to do as Christians—look to the Bible to guide our behavior. But there are other primary texts we should be reading too: like Jesus did, we should always be reading nature, and reading the signs of the times.
Would we look first to the Bible for guidance if our house was being bulldozed and our family was inside? No. We’d stop the bulldozer, or we’d bring our family to safety. Would we look to the Bible first if someone was pouring gasoline into the drinking water of our children? No. We’d stop the perpetrator and make sure our family has clean water to drink. We need no book—even the Good Book–to urge us to these actions. They are natural.
Our current planetary situation is this grave. Our house is being bulldozed; our water is being poisoned. By us. The earth is the miraculous and abundant house that God gave us to enjoy, and we are destroying it. The Greek term oiko—as in economics and ecology—means home, and our ecosystem, our life systems, are being permanently degraded every day by our own actions personally and by industrial society globally. You might not sense it yet, because your water is still drinkable and your air still smells good and your grocery store still sparkles and your trash disappears and your neighborhood is not submerged under rising sea levels. But millions of other citizens of our earth home—both human and not–are feeling it everyday. And we Christians keep wondering if the Bible exhorts us to do something.
Reading Nature: The Earliest Bible
Authentic disciples have always read the Bible in one glance, and read the big picture in another; they have always read the signs of the times, interpreted Scripture, and moved when the Spirit says move. Take slavery for example. There are several Bible verses condoning slavery; if Christians took only those as a guide, without being guided by a larger sense of love and justice, we would be perpetuating a society that was truly anti-Christ, promoting the very cruelty, inhumanity and oppression that Jesus came to liberate us from.
So please don’t wait until Scripture convinces you to care for God’s precious gift of creation. I’m doing exactly that in this article—provide Scripture-based encouragement for you to adapt your actions—but the time for transition is now. Don’t wait for another Bible study or a worsening headline; God has been calling our culture to earth-honoring repentance for a long time now. And we’re the ones to do it. We just need to remember to pay attention to what is sacred.
Many Christians feel God’s presence in nature, sometimes more often than in church. How about you? Many of us feel unconditional love when touched by a sunrise, and see resurrection hope when plants emerge in Spring. In Romans, Paul speaks to this awareness: God’s nature is plain to see in creation, in the things that have been made (1:20). Richard Rohr names the obvious: the natural world is the first and primary Bible. Creation is our first and final cathedral. As the 16th-century “Doctor of the Church” Thomas Aquinas states so well, creation is the primary and most perfect revelation of the Divine. Sometimes Christians are so focused on being “Bible-based” that they forget something vital: Jesus and his followers had no New Testament. Let me say this again: Jesus and his disciples did not rely on our Bible; they looked to nature, personal experience and their tradition of Judaism to find God’s good way. Think about how many times Jesus uses natural objects to illustrate his teachings: salt, light, mustard bushes, yeast, fish, foxholes, figs, grapes, lilies, sheep, goats, cedars, palm trees, olives, mountains, rivers, sparrows, sand, stone, sea, wheat, watering holes, ditches, donkeys, camels and more. He was educating people about God and Spirit through nature. From what we know of Jesus and his posse, they were a gang of transient foragers and fishers and gleaners, at least as comfortable sleeping and eating outside as they were under the roofs of men. This was not new; he was following in the footsteps of his tradition, a people who always found God revealed in untamed spaces.
Camping as Communion
As a wilderness trip leader, I’ve spent more than a thousand nights outside, and there I have often felt God’s presence. Most of my life, however, I’ve lived indoors, like most modern people in industrial society. Dwelling in our insulated houses with weather-clad windows, we need to remember that the ancient Israelites chose to be a tenting people. They did not have to be; they did so because they knew God was easier to connect with in the wild. It was no accident that Moses found God in a burning bush on the far side of the desert, in uncolonized space.
Since their untamed God was at home in wild lands, you can bet the ancient Israelites took camping seriously. Reading God in nature was at the heart of the Israelite experience of the divine. Tent traveling was how they experienced life and encountered God, not in metaphor but in fact. In truth, tenting was such a pervasive part of daily living and sacred ceremony in Biblical times that the word tent shows up 333 times in Scripture. That’s right: not 3, not 33, but 333 times. They lived in them, slept in them, ate in them, worshiped in them, died in them, gave birth in them. Camping was both covenant and communion. Camp itself was sacred space, holy ground, “for the Lord your God moves about in your camp” (Deuteronomy 23:14). God traveled with his people as they traveled.
God’s vision of ideal society, from ancient times, has been camping communion with his people on Earth. I mean this literally: God is a big fan of tent camping. Civilized society tends to forget this elemental truth, and as we continue to shield ourselves from nature and distance ourselves from living with the land, it becomes harder and harder to see the original meaning of ancient earthy scripture. For example, in most modern translations of Leviticus, God tells the ancient Israelites, “I will put my dwelling place among you” (Leviticus 26:11). Yahweh is making a promise to walk among his people and journey with them as they journey. Dwelling place is rather abstract and displaced, isn’t it? A more literal translation is both more accurate and more intimate: “I will pitch my tent among you.” God wants to camp with His people, on the ground, in the dust. This ancient vision from the earliest days of the Israelites is later invoked at the opposite end of the Bible in the Book of Revelation, when the author paints a future picture of creation redeemed.
The writer is describing a band of God’s people (like the ancient Israelites) who have suffered and journeyed, and, in our civilized English translations, we read that God “will shelter them with his presence.” This is a beautiful image in itself, but an even richer dimension of companionship and caring emerges when we read a more elemental rendering: God will literally “spread his tent over them.” The Lord will be their shepherd, their trip leader. He will care for their needs and bring them to springs of fresh living water (Revelation 7:15-16). Today’s Christians are the spiritual descendents of these wilderness-dwelling people.
But we modern folks, in our race to upgrade our lives, have lost our wild, vital connection to the natural world. Richard Rohr observes that, with the invention of the printing press nearly six centuries ago, people started reading books far more than reading nature itself. We have substituted ideas and words for direct appreciation of and participation in the world immediately around us. In my view, the more we progressed in written literacy, the more we lost in eco-literacy. These days, we rarely know where our food originates, what native species dwell where in our places, what original people once lived there, where our water comes from, or where our waste goes. By becoming so dis-placed and de-natured, we lose our participation within God’s miraculous world and instead turn “nature” into the other, an external commodity to manipulate that is inert, non-enchanted, marketable and far from holy. This, bluntly, is not the way of God’s people. God’s people always pay attention to the wild world around them and seek right relation with creation.
[This article was published under a different title in The Mennonite, May 2015]