Culture At Large

The (somewhat) sacred outdoors

Erica Schemper

My family lives surrounded by an embarrassment of scenic riches. In less than six hours, we can drive to no less than five national parks. We don’t even have to leave our own county for a rich experience of nature. We have San Francisco Bay to the east, the Pacific Ocean over a mountain ridge to the west and Redwood groves and open space teeming with deer and mountain lions just miles from my house. We are making a family goal this year to go camping once a month with our three children. Instead of feeling guilty about missing church, I tell myself we are striking a good, Calvinist balance: spending one Sunday a month exploring God’s revelation in the natural world, while the other Sundays we get our vision adjusted by the book of Scripture.

Others, it seems, find nature to be enough. A recent sociological study compared the natural amenities of every county in the contiguous United States with a measurement of the rates of religious adherence in each county. The results suggest that there is a correlation between beautiful places and lower rates of religiosity. Perhaps people in these scenic counties have their spiritual needs met by nature, and thus don’t affiliate with established religious groups.

To be entirely honest, there are times when an hour spent on a stunning Northern California beach is much more of a spiritual recharge for me than time in church. Being surrounded by natural beauty restores one’s soul. And the mountains are often much more inspirational companions than the saints and sinners (always, of course, one and the same person) with whom we share a pew.

I have some questions about the study, though. Is this correlation or causation? Are the statistical corrections they used to make up for things like time competition really valid? But I’m content to leave that evaluation to sociologists, and glean what I can from this as a pastor.

Ministry should be working in concert with God’s creation.

Natural beauty is not antithetical to the Gospel. If I truly believe that creation is an incredible gift of God, I have to count my scenic surroundings as an asset to faith formation. As John Calvin wrote in his commentary on Isaiah: “We have been stationed here as in a theater for contemplating the works of God, nor is there any work of God so minute that we should pass over it lightly, but all things ought to be carefully and diligently observed.”

Ministry should be working in concert with God’s creation, then. The beauty of the earth is a frequent topic of conversation in California, even among strangers. Why not ask my neighbors, just returned from a morning of surfing on the coast, what it is about surfing that feeds their souls? It’s a natural inroad to a conversation about spirituality. And what about finding creative ways to invite creation to be a part of our worship? If we can see the mountains from the church patio, should we be spending more time out there on Sunday? Maybe my whole congregation should go camping together once a month … or at least a few times a year!

At the same time, we need Scripture and the Christian community to present special revelation as a corrective to our tendency to distort general revelation for our own purposes. There’s a fine line between worshipping the creation and worshipping the Creator, or using an escape to the natural world as a way to forget about the realities of injustice in our crowded human communities. It’s often easier to care about animals than to love our irascible neighbors or see the God-breathed humanity in those who are hungry or homeless. (How often are people in need regarded as a blight on the scenery?)

We must strike a balancing act between Scripture and nature. If our noses are in the Bible and our bottoms in the pews to the point that we’re missing out on the creation around us - or if we are gazing at the hills but never listening for God’s word in Scripture while surrounded by the saints - we are missing out on a full picture of the majesty of God.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Environment, Theology & The Church, Worship, News & Politics, Social Trends