Could Contemplating Nature Be The Key To Protecting The Environment?

Photo credit: Robert Gottfried*

I remember the environmental educators at Guanacaste National Park in Costa Rica telling my class that their program for area school children hadn't stemmed the poaching and burning in the Park. They had been teaching them about proper disposal of garbage, recycling, and other environmental topics. So, they switched to teaching them field biology, getting the children to wade in streams and touch frogs. Why? They said people only protect what they love. To love something, you have to know it. But what does "knowing" entail?

We have just finished the trial run of our intensive two-week residency portion of the Center for Religion and Environment's program in Contemplation and Care for Creation. As the participants shared what the experience meant to them, what struck me was how much the time contemplating nature meant to them. While they were very positive about everything we did, to a person they found this guided time in nature the most important aspect of the course.

Thomas Merton, the great twentieth century monastic Christian contemplative, once wrote that one of the biggest challenges facing his novices was their lack of "natural contemplation," the contemplation of nature. I can't help but think that, with the advent of the Internet age, this may be even truer now. Ronald Rollheiser, a well-known theologian and writer on spirituality, believes that over the last several centuries westerners have experienced a declining ability to feel God's presence. I think the objectification of nature that developed during that time and the worldviews that accompany it explain in no small measure today's environmental problems as well as the spiritual malaise so many of us endure. Accordingly, in our program we do four things: form participants in natural contemplation, explore biblical environmental theology, examine implications for society, and provide tools for action.

Right from the start we guide people through simple exercises in natural contemplation based on Christian monastic spirituality. This process continues through next May. We also immediately begin examining basic tenets of Christianity, such as the Incarnation and the events of Easter in light of our experiences outdoors and of solid biblical scholarship. We do this because experience and understanding reinforce one another.

First and foremost, our worldview (our mental map of what the world is and how it works) affects our ability to experience God in creation. If we believe nonhuman creatures are insensate objects made for humanity's benefit, then we likely will fail to experience their sacredness. In other words, if we expect to experience nothing, that's probably what will happen. However, if we believe that all creatures, too, respond to God and that God dwells in them as well as in us, God then far more easily can reveal himself to us through them. Our mindsets all too often limit our perceiving God in the world because we don't believe God is in it.

Second, our experiences of God in nature motivate us to question old ways of thinking. If we start to perceive God in all things and experience her delight in them, we start to ask how God relates to nonhuman creation and how we, therefore, should relate to it. We start to ask why the world is in such a mess and what solutions might be out there. These questions no longer become purely intellectual exercises but matters of deep personal interest.

These experiences and reflections quickly lead us to ask what our fundamental goals for society should be and how we best can achieve them. If our goal becomes helping all creation to prosper and making God's presence easily felt in the works of our hands, then we have to ask how we as humans should choose to interface with the rest of creation. This is a question of design. So, we explore the field of ecological design as a means to put into practice our values and goals. We also explore institutional design - how can we use markets, governments, not-for-profits, and hybrid organizations to enable us to work together to achieve our goals.

Finally, when you love something and see it suffering, we want to act. However, we often don't know how to mobilize others to work with us. So, the program provides some basic approaches to discerning what God would have each of us do and offers some basic organizing principles. Participants then take the rest of the year to apply these lessons to addressing an environmental concern they feel drawn to address.

In essence, what we are doing is learning how to love everything God has made, so that we as humans and individuals remove ourselves from our illusory position at the center of the universe and put God there instead. Because God cares deeply about all he has made, all of creation now matters a lot to us as people who love God. Once we experience an active God who pulses through creation, we start living differently, seeking God's guidance in all we do. God also provides us the energy to keep going despite challenges and setbacks, and inspires us to think creatively. Basically, the world needs a reality check, something to wake it up to the real world and shake up its old ways of doing things. That's what natural contemplation can provide.

*The photo is of a collaborative piece of art entitled "Creation Icon." The overall design is inspired by the rose window at All Saints Chapel in Sewanee. Under the supervision of Janet Strickler, one of the participants, we developed this piece over the two weeks we spent together.

More about this author
Certificate in Contemplation and Creation Care
Center for Religion and Environment at Sewanee: The University of the South