Environmental issues are a regular feature of modern life but our relation to the natural world goes much deeper than the environmental maxim to reduce, reuse and recycle. Even though we have accumulated enough knowledge and power to change the face of the earth, it is not yet clear whether we collectively possess the wisdom to navigate the challenges that we ourselves have created. One such challenge requires civilisation to undergo a significant transition in our way of life if climate change is to be overcome.
In our highly secularized culture, nature has lost its spiritual dimension. But, God does not hide from us for God is the source of the order, interdependence and harmony of nature. When we contemplate the rhythms and cycles of nature, we perceive divine reflections of God’s beauty, truth, goodness, love and wisdom. The beauty and grandeur of nature invite us all to awaken to the spiritual dimensions of our existence. Through nature, God shows us his attributes. Therefore, nature is a kind of language from God that we can understand. Nature is the revelation from God that forms the background to the revelation of God through sacred scripture. Nature and sacred scripture together nurture our faith in God in a deeper way as we journey with God upon the earth.
In the words of Pope Francis: ‘The universe unfolds in God, who fills it completely. Hence, there is a mystical meaning to be found in a leaf, in a mountain trail, in a dewdrop, in a poor person’s face. The ideal is not only to pass from the exterior to the interior to discover the action of God in the soul, but also to discover God in all things’ (Laudato Si, 233).
The Light of the Gospels
Examining the Gospels to discover how the person of Jesus encountered the natural world provides us with important signposts for the modern era. Jesus spent much of his time outdoors, expressed understanding of the natural world and often drew from related images in his parables: seeds, wine, bread, sheep, birds, weeds, fishermen, farmers, a net full of fish etc. The natural world also provided Jesus with places for solitude, places for teaching and places to be close to our heavenly Father. The person of Jesus was intimately connected with the natural world. As we spend time in nature and come to know Jesus, we nurture our relationship with God.
In Jesus, God became incarnate, a bodily manifestation of the invisible God. The way we live in the natural world also encourages us to recognize the ultimate truths embodied in Jesus Christ for the created order itself was brought into existence through the Son of God. Christ sets us on a path towards rediscovering grace by turning us towards God the Father. As we spend time in nature, we can also nurture our relationship with Christ who was present from the beginning and who became flesh for our sakes, the Christ who transforms creation, the Christ of creation.
Jesus Christ makes it possible for us to become reconciled with God. Reconciliation brings renewal and we can see evidence for both reconciliation and renewal in our attempts to heal the earth from the damage that we have caused. For instance, practical solutions to the ecological crisis proposed by scientists involve a considerable focus on sustainable or even regenerative approaches to human activity, such as agriculture. Regenerative agriculture seeks to conserve and rehabilitate farming practices through focusing on enhancing biodiversity, improving the water cycle, strengthening the vitality of the soil and balancing relationships.
To regenerate means to breathe new life into or to renew, which much surely point us towards the work of the Spirit who seeks constantly to renew the face of the earth. Divine revelation confirms that we are linked to all creation by the love that grounds all being. In the words of Pope Francis: ‘Everything is interconnected, and this invites us to develop a spirituality of that global solidarity which flows from the mystery of the Trinity’ (Laudato Si, 240).
Truth and Wisdom Walk Hand in Hand
The embodied nature of knowledge means it cannot be grounded in disembodied abstract rationality. As Christians, we know that our faith guides us towards acquiring a true viewpoint of the nature of things by helping us to grow in ‘wisdom’. Our Catholic faith is something we feel and express with our whole bodies and is not limited to mere language. The Incarnation of God in human form shapes our beliefs through sensory experiences with the world around us that includes nature and sacred scripture and sacramental practice. As Pope Francis writes: ‘The Sacraments are a privileged way in which nature is taken up by God to become a means of mediating supernatural life’ (Laudato Si, 235).
We know that we are on the path to wisdom when our encounters with the world around us are steeped with spiritual concerns. Informed Christian contemplation reveals the divine reality that saturates and sustains the whole of creation. For me, the study of biology ultimately points to the sacred dimension of life. Biology reveals the transformative processes, potential for goodness, reproductive capabilities, evolutionary pathways and vital relationships that have arisen throughout the history of life on our planet.
Our studies of the natural world contribute to our understanding of the sacredness of transformation in the face of struggle and helps us to profoundly contemplate God’s redemptive love. Through studying the history of life on our planet, it is evident that the light of transformation shines brightly amidst the darkness of struggle. As recorded in the Gospels: ‘The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it’ (John 1:5). Just as the light of God’s love has guided the flourishing of life on our planet from the beginning, our faith is a lamp which continues to guide us even to eternity. This is the truth brought to us by Jesus Christ. God delivers life out of death. This is the essence of Christian spirituality.
The Wonder of Creation
Pope Francis reminds us that ‘creation has a broader meaning than nature, for it has to do with God’s loving plan in which every creature has its own value and significance. Nature is usually seen as a system which can be studied, understood and controlled, whereas creation can only be understood as a gift from the outstretched hand of the Father of all, and as a reality illuminated by the love which calls us together into universal communion’ (Laudato Si, 76). When we truly begin to sense the universal communality of all creation, we increase our awareness of God’s presence. This helps us to humbly accept our God-given place amongst the earth community. When we encounter nature, we do so with a sense of affection, understanding and sacredness. The natural world is a sacred gift, a gift from God that is worth caring for. It is a gift that nourishes our bodies and souls.
‘Thus says the Lord: Stand at the crossroads, and look; and ask for the ancient paths, where the good way lies; and walk in it, and find rest for your souls’ (Jeremiah 6:16).