Nature and Nature’s God
As most of you know, I was away for two weeks hiking in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in Montana. My friend, Glenn Remelts from Grand Rapids and I hiked 110 miles averaging 11+ miles per day. We hiked through fields of wildflowers, some of the deepest woods I have ever seen, acres of burned out forests from forest fires and, of course, mountains and mountain ranges. We stayed two nights in a horse camp where we resupplied. There Joe Haas and his two wranglers (and over a dozen pack mules and horses) regaled us with steak, mashed potatoes, corn and quinoa, and a cherry pie, all cooked on a wood fired grill and oven.
"The Bob," as it is called, is the fifth-largest wilderness in the lower 48 states. No roads or permanent structures are allowed upon it except for a few ranger stations. The wilderness ranges in altitudes of 4,000 to more than 9,000 feet. We hiked along a long escarpment known as the Chinese Wall for two days. It averages 1,000 high from its base and extends for 22 miles. With numerous waterfalls, lakes, and dense forests, the wilderness is prime grizzly bear habitat. We carried bear pepper spray and frequently rapped our trekking poles together and shouted “Yo, bear” to warn any creatures of our presence.
People ask me why I go back. First, it is one of the last pristine wilderness areas so designated in the lower 48. It is an amazing ecosystem of different species of flora and fauna and topography. Second, because I have wonderful hiking partners who love to walk the same backcountry routes I do. And third, because I find an encounter with God that I would never otherwise discover. The Reformer John Calvin said there are two books that reveal God to us: the book of scripture and the book of nature.
“The heavens are telling the glory of God,” the Psalmist asserts, “and the firmament proclaims his handiwork. Day to day pours forth speech, and night to night declares knowledge. There is no speech, nor are there words; their voice is not heard; yet their voice goes out through all the earth, and their words to the end of the world.” (Psalm 19:1-4)
This is but one of hundreds of Bible verses about how the creation speaks of the Creator. There’s no speech, nor are there words, and there’s no vocal chorus and yet we see and hear something beyond what our eyes and ears can sense. We tend to appreciate nature more in the summer because we’re outdoors more, but we also hear the cacophony of birds singing, waves roaring, and trees swaying in the breeze. We smell freshly mown grass, taste crisp watermelon, and feel cool water when we plunge into a lake. And, because we’re New Englanders, we get three months a year in the summer when we can glory in creation (unless you like snow sports).
The theologian Karl Barth says that when we believe that God is speaking through nature it sets up a parallel revelation that runs alongside God's self-disclosure in Jesus and makes Christ unnecessary. And if we claim the creation is the voice of God, we can turn nature into an idol and God then comes under our control. I’m not sure if I’d say God doesn’t speak through nature, but I am sure about this: Nature most definitely speaks about God. It sings out God's praises.
Nature tells us a lot about God. Paul put it eloquently when he wrote: “For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities--his eternal power and divine nature--have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that mortals are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20)
We can see the depth of the Creator in the ocean, the vastness of God in a star-studded sky, the majesty of our Maker in alpine peaks, and God’s power in the fury of a hurricane. Of course, we hear the golfer who says, “I can experience more of God on the golf course on Sunday morning than I can in church.” And I’ll bet he calls God’s name when he slices his ball into the woods one more time. But that is not the whole story.
I remember a parishioner once telling me that her dad taught her, “Yes, you can meet God in nature, but unless you go to church, you’ll never learn that God is a God of history and a God of redemption.” I’ve always remembered that. God is not just a cosmic power or creative spirit, but a personal God who cares about and is active in our world and in our lives. Nature can’t tell us that. The Gospel gives us that. “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” (2 Corinthians 4:6)
So yes, let us join the chorus of rocks and roots and radishes, of cows and caterpillars and cardinals singing our “Alleluias!” to God for the joy of being alive and doing what we’re best meant to do. Let us be alive to the presence of God in nature. Let us work overtime to prevent the rapid rate of environmental devastation we are inflicting on God’s good earth. But let us revel most in the knowledge that we are children of God, loved passionately, and hear God most clearly in the words of life that our Lord speaks.