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  • Larry Payne

Go Wild! Spirituality for Ecology

They are so big you feel like a pygmy. The enormous Sequoias of Henry Cowell Park in the Santa Cruz Valley of California stretch the limit of imagination and vision. The tallest are more than 270 feet with a circumference of 50 feet! Some trees were seedlings when Rome fell, the Sui Dynasty united China, and the Mayan’s built Tikal. They have survived with amazing resilience the fires, earthquakes, and human greed across 1500 years.


Man in forest
Larry in Henry Cowell Park

I’ve visited this park several times with my son and his family who live nearby. One year I ran through the towering trees, cooled by their magnificent crowns so far above me. I thought of this one hour of one day of one year of one century—and was awed by the insignificance of my moment flashing by the dark brown bark of these giants.

I’m Larry Payne, host of the Tracks for the Journey, the network dedicated to your well-being through progressive Christian spirituality, positive psychology, healthy relationships, and a just society. Let’s explore ways living in this amazing world can nurture our faith and well-being.

When I move out of my plastic, domesticated world I enter a different place spiritually. Inside the four walls, my faith is often under the influence of the words printed on the pages of the Bible, or the music that sounds in the church sanctuary. Without question, those resources are valuable. But there is a larger, more ancient language that can bring a special dimension to my faith. It is a dimension of Wildness.

Brian McLaren’s book Do I Stay Christian? is deeply honest. Looking at the current state of faith in the modern world, he cautions that the language of the pre-modern era is no longer meaningful now. We don’t live in the same world as the ancients, fearing demonic powers, finding divine messages in comets, or cleansing our conscience with a slaughtered sheep. In his words we may feel “the language of Christianity creates a make-believe world, a rabbit hole, an alternative reality, where angels and demons are real but climate change and evolution are not.”[1] 

He directs our attention to a more ancient language. “Where can we go for a new immersive experience? The answer may be as close as our front doors. if we take our bodies outside into the natural world… we can let our inner beings realign with the original language and architecture of creation.”[2]

Modern theology rightly connects God with this natural world. God is not up-there-and-far-away but in this world of matter. The theological term is “panentheism,” meaning that God is present in all things, and all things are present in God. The Divine is embodied and intertwined with every sub-atomic particle, human being, and supergiant star, creating and evolving throughout the universe.[3] The Apostle Paul quotes approvingly the Greek philosopher Epimenides, “In [God] we live and move and have our being.”[4] This divine presence links you and me with all other things in this universe. When we find awe in the depth of the forest, peace in the stillness of a lake at dawn, or joy in the smell of the flower bed after a rain, we are connecting with holy energy.

Theologian Ilia Delio recalls St. Francis of Assisi, “For Francis, the whole universe became the place to find God… he saw the dazzling presence of God in a rabbit, a bird, a bunch of flowers… We do not go to church to find God; we find God by going into the world… The earth is the one glorious moving mass of interconnected energy fields in space. Religion is the awareness that this incredible planet has infinite purpose and meaning.”[5] 

We can find a vivid example in the life of Jesus. We know from the Gospels that Jesus spent more than a month at the beginning of his ministry in the wilderness of Judea. This echoed the experience of the Hebrew people centuries earlier in their struggle to follow God. Jesus had the same goal of spiritual development. In McLaren’s words, “Jesus… was an indigenous man who prepared for his public ministry with a 40 day vision quest in the wild and he retreated to the wild whenever he could… imagine if part of our daily spiritual practice involved reconnecting with the wild earth each day.”[6]

The modern field of ecopsychology explores this connection between nature and mental well-being. Research has shown many emotional benefits of experiencing the natural world. We can find lower heart rates and muscle tension. We can experience the release of endorphins to elevate mood. We can find stimulus for greater creativity.[7] Living in a plastic world just doesn’t compare to a walk in the wild, or a picnic in the park.

I think it’s time to get wild with our faith! We are invited to make a paradigm shift to embrace the unity of our lives with dynamic world throbbing in a city park or a pounding surf. We are interconnected to a dynamic world. We cannot live without the trillions of microorganisms in our GI tract, nor can we live without the oxygen produced by a septillion trees. God is ready to meet us and nurture us in this wild world. The question is whether we are listening.

Diana Butler Bass says it this way, “Spirituality is not just about sitting in a room encountering a mystical God in meditation or seeing God in a sunset. Awe is the gateway to compassion. It is a deep awareness that we are creators, creators who work with the Creator, in an ongoing project of crafting a world. If we do not like the world or are afraid of it, we have had a hand in that. If we made a mess, we can clean it up and do better. We are what we make.”

Her words push us outward to do our part in planet stewardship. Hundreds of actions can honor our interdependence with the world around us. EarthDay.org is a clearing house for dozens of great ideas we can do as individuals or a family. The website links to many organizations who are active in seeking a green and sustainable future.

The major emphasis for 2024 is to reduce the use of plastics in all areas of our lives. So it’s time to buy a reusable bag for your grocery shopping, get a reusable water bottle, and recycle the bottles. Even a walk around the neighborhood can be a time to pick up the plastic waste to get it out of the open environment. Then join a national organization to create a ground swell of public pressure for green laws and programs. Talks are underway this month with an international effort to reduce plastic pollution. Negotiators from 175 nations, NGO’s, and industry are developing a global treaty for this vital work. The United States is the largest producer of virgin plastic and must take an ambitious role in this work to regulate and reduce this menace to world health.[8]

Going back to the magnificent redwoods of California, we realize that conservation efforts have been challenging over the past century. The park is ironically named for a man who clear cut hundreds of acres of these trees to feed his greed, never thinking of the environment or his legacy for generations to come! That’s a challenge today. What will I do to help or harm this one planet for the curly-haired grandson who has skipped down the trails with me? By taking action now, I will not only care for my environment today, but for generations to come. Even more, I will meet God underneath those monumental trees.

 



[1] Brian McLaren, Do I Stay Christian? A Guide for the Doubters, the Disappointed, and the Disillusioned. St. Martin’s Essentials, 2022. P 178.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michael W. Brierley, “Naming a Quiet Revolution: The Panentheistic Turn in Modern Theology.” In In Whom We Live and Move and Have Our Being. Eerdman’s Publishing, 2004. P 6.

[4] Acts 17:28

[5] Ilia Delio, The Hours of the Universe: Reflections on God, Science, and the Human Journey. Orbis Books, Kindle ed., 2021, Chapter 29.

[6] McLaren, p. 184

[7] Kirsten Weir, “Nurtured by Nature.” American Psychological Association. https://www.apa.org/monitor/2020/04/nurtured-nature

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