Within my Judeo-Christian tradition is a book unlike any I’ve ever read. The Book of Nature is not to be found on paper but rather a book that is read with all one’s senses. In the early Christian tradition it was believed that the Creator was revealed in the beauty and complexity of nature. Tertullian, a prolific writer and Bishop from Africa 155 – 240 AD wrote: “God is known first through nature and then more particularly through doctrine.” Later in the middle ages, 500 – 1500 AD, this focus on divine revelation through the natural world became known as the Book of Nature. This book was to stand alongside the Bible as a source of equal authority.
Am I the only one for whom this is new information? I grew up in the church and went to seminary for three years to be trained to be a pastor and I don’t recall hearing about the Book of Nature. Granted I may have cut a few classes but I don’t think it’s an accident that I missed this piece of news.
One of the disconnects that many have with Christianity is a negative human-centric focus. Augustine in the 4th century emphasized Original Sin which teaches that we need to be saved from our sinful nature. Set aside for a moment that I think this is a limited theology, Augustine and much of Christian tradition since has kept this focus. There is however more to the Christian tradition, the Book of Nature for example.
The Book of Nature is not a physical book but an invitation to experience the presence of the Creator in the beauty and complexity of creation. Theologians refer to this as pan-en-theism, the belief that the Creator is in the midst of creation. This is found in other religious traditions too. Native American spirituality believes that Spirit lives and is revealed in the natural world. Martin Luther the Catholic monk and reformer in the 14th century echoed this pan-en-theistic belief: ‘in the call of a bird, in the whisper of wind in the grass, we hear little words from God’. Nature then becomes a reflection of that mystery we call God a portal into this sacred mystery.
Since childhood I’ve known this to be true. As a child my church was a nearby wetlands. As a boy I collected frog eggs and turtles, flushed grouse from the thicket, watched the sun stream through the trees… I knew I was standing on holy ground. Nature is a sacred place for many of us, whether we use religious language or not. Nature/creation is a powerful teacher which we are invited to approach with humility, to learn from and do our best to protect for generations to come.