The experience of Nature is for many people the first memory they have of mystical union. A religious person who’s beliefs are under stress may look at Nature and say ‘Whatever else I believe, I know this is holy.’ In my Marylhurst Cohort, the diverse wonderful bunch of people I am taking classes with, we agree that Nature is holy. It’s a touchstone around which we gather, using its symbols to create unity between us.
However, if we dug a little deeper, if we wanted to discover our disunity instead of celebrating our unity, we might find that we don’t entirely agree about Nature. For some of us Nature may only be God’s handiwork. It is beautiful because God made it and it shows the world of men and women that God is good and great. Nature is holy because it is made by God. For others Nature contains some part of God. If we strip away the noise of impermanent things we will hear, as St Augustine says, "the very Self which in these things we love". I can imagine this as that deepest vibration within the world’s atoms. In this view, God is in nature not just the creator of nature. For some people this God in the world is explanation enough. God is as great as Nature because God is Nature, no more but no less. For others God is both in the world and also exists as some larger animation or principle. St. Augustine believed this and later in his poem asked his readers to imagine going "beyond ourselves to attain a flash of that eternal wisdom which abides above all things".
God’s relationship to Nature has acquired greater interest in the last fifty years with the rise of post-modern science. Post-modern science allows for mysticism in a way that Cartesian science did not. Post-modern physics has some theories about matter that almost require a mystical intuition to truly understand. People who have rejected religion often return to mysticism rather than to God. Sometimes that movement toward mysticism will begin a journey toward God. However, whether the journey toward mysticism moves one toward God it will very often lead back toward those original feelings about Nature.
In my tradition, Unitarian Universalism, we also gather around symbols and language of Nature in the way my Marylhurst cohort does. Nature is a ‘safe’ place for the modern skeptic to begin to reacquaint with the Holy and to rise above sectarian differences. The questions about the connection between Nature, Mysticism and God break out anew as a skeptic attempts to deepen his or her religious practice.
The other reason reason to look at God in Nature is our ecological crisis. Issues around God and Nature attract an energy and urgency they didn’t when our planet was not in mortal danger. The ecological crisis is becoming apocryphal and our duty and relation to the earth is not just an abstruse argument among theologians but is a common ethical discussion between people in their homes, in our new President’s speeches, in church, and on the letters-to-the-editor page.
Sallie McFague, in The Body of God, discusses the theological underpinnings of an ecological theology. She begins with the idea of embodiment. With all caveats in place, she asks us to consider a model of God as a body, and that body is our Universe.
McFague is a Christian and she makes, not such a great leap, and enlarges yet again who belongs inside the circle of ‘reconstituted Israel’. In 80AD Luke wrote a Gospel that enlarged the idea of who qualified for inclusion in God’s covenant with Abraham. The Good Samaritan is one example of what McFague calls "one of the central features of Jesus’ ministry--his destablizing parables that side with the outcast". McFague thinks it is time to enlarge that sense again and bring our suffering planet in "Indeed we might see nature in our time as the new poor of Jesus’ parables".
Although McFague does not mention my favorite parable, the Good Samaritan, it’s not hard to imagine that she would be sympathetic to an argument that compared the beaten man to our poor damaged earth, and the Good Samaritan as anyone moved by pity and love to step in and restore it.
(this is an extract from one of my academic papers. Its one of the good bits, where i got to stretch myself out a little :) ! )