Experiencing God in nature is one of the prime targets of those who condescendingly dismiss the spirituality of people who identify as spiritual but not religious. Apparently it’s superficial and narcissistic to find God in in the mountains or in a sunset. Or, it’s not enough to experience such epiphanies without regular visits to orderly and well-kept suburban sanctuaries to hear stories and doctrines about the God we find out in the world. (It’s interesting how “sanctuary” has come to mean a place of escape or refuge rather than a place of sacred encounter.) So it is quite appropriate that Diana Butler Bass devotes the first part of Grounded to finding God in earth, water, and sky.
In many respects, Bass’ reflections on each of these three aspects of the natural world make a similar point: modern science and the industrial revolution have distanced us from our premodern connections to nature, which has had an impact on religion.
Sacred traditions replete with metaphors of God in the elements were replaced by modern theological arguments—about facts and religious texts, correct doctrine, creation versus science, the need to prove God’s existence, how to be saved, and which church offers the right way to heaven. These are the questions of vertical faith, the mechanics of elevator church.
For more and more people, these are not the questions that define their quest for God, so they are “turning away from religious institutions that insist on asking them.” In place of these questions, Bass describes a global and pluralistic convergence of spirituality, science, environmentalism, and social justice that is reconnecting us to nature—and rediscovering ancient understandings of God in the process.
Yes, many people in institutional churches are part of this movement too. Yes, much of the language Bass uses to describe and discuss her sacred encounters in nature are drawn from the traditions she learned through organized religion. But there is something about our sanctuaries—or the fact that most Christians go to sanctuaries to look for God—that separates us from the natural world in which God is no less present. (This is why camping and outdoor ministries are undervalued in mainline Protestantism. It’s also why they are so critical and necessary.)
Most of the time we fill our gatherings in these sanctuaries with words about God. In the process, I think we often miss out on experiencing God. The same can be said of these chapters in Bass’ book—they are literally collections of words about finding God in nature. Many of theses words shape memoirs of her own experiences. They can guide us out into the world to experience these things for ourselves, but they can also remain words on a page describing someone else’s experiences—in which case they are not that different than the words that fill the sanctuaries of religious institutions. The key is to actually go out and experience God in the spaces outside of our sanctuaries.
As I write this, a soft snow is falling outside. I can sit here at my dining room table, Grounded by my side, and contemplate the presence of God in the beauty I see through the window. I can recall scriptural allusions to snow. I could read a poem about snow. But until I venture out into this winter scene for myself, it’s all just ideas in my head. I feel God drawing me out.
One potential criticism of this section of Grounded is that Bass’ accounts of her personal experiences in nature reveal a lot of solitude. Sure, she has a vast assembly of interlocutors and references to draw on, and some of her encounters are shared, but the experiences at the heart of her reflections are often very private. Of this I can imagine those skeptical of SBNR spirituality crying foul. Where is the community?
Fortunately, this is the subject of the second and slightly longer part of Grounded.