Experiencing God in Nature
I recently recommended that a philanthropic institute fund a project exploring how our communing with nature could overcome loneliness. The opportunity reminded me of material I recently included in my book, God Can’t.
God’s Love in Nature
I believe the natural world can be an arena for feeling God’s love. In fact, some outdoor enthusiasts say nature is their church. The idea nature is sacred may be why geological wonders are often called cathedrals, gardens of the gods, heavenly, or angels’ rests.
In her book, Wild, Cheryl Strayed shares her experiences hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Her time in the outdoors, often alone, brought a measure of redemption. In an interview, Oprah Winfrey asked Cheryl to finish this sentence: “I feel the presence of God when …” She immediately answered, “I’m in natural, beautiful, wild places.”
John Muir’s Experience of God
Cheryl learned what America’s most famous naturalist, John Muir, discovered a century earlier. Muir had spiritual struggles, and the view of God he’d been given as a child needed changing. His father taught that God was a strict disciplinarian, but Muir came to believe “God’s love is manifest in the landscape as in a face.”[i]
I feel the presence of God when I’m in natural, beautiful, wild places.
John Muir describes a spiritual experience in Yosemite: “The place seemed holy, where one might hope to see God. So after dark, when camp was at rest, I groped my way back to that altar boulder and passed the night on it — above the water, beneath the leaves and stars – everything still more impressive than by day, the falls seen dimly white, singing Nature’s old love song with solemn enthusiasm, while the stars peering through the leaf roof seemed to join in the white water’s song… Thanks be to God for this immortal gift.”[ii]
My Own Dramatic Experiences
Several years ago, I felt God’s presence while photographing in the Owyhee Mountains of Idaho. A beautiful cloud formed one evening, and the setting sun painted its underbelly an array of colors. As the sky-canvas developed, I ran about positioning my camera and making photos. The beauty prompted me to “get on my Pentecostal.” I repeatedly shouted “Hallelujah!”
In this time of ecstasy, coyotes called to one another in the distance. I yelped in response, “Ow, ow, oweee!” My “Pentecostal” evolved into speaking with the tongues of coyotes. I was St. Francis conversing with creatures and Ansel Adams capturing the light!
Science as a Means for Experiencing God
My scientist friends sometimes speak of sensing God’s love as they explore the natural world. Some study the smallest entities and organisms, marveling at their complexity and design. Others peer into the vast universe and marvel that the Creator cares deeply for us, so tiny in comparison. Some glimpse God when studying humans, who the Bible says are made in God’s image. Science offers experiences of God to those with empathetic ears to hear and intuitive eyes to see.
(For five other ways we can feel God’s love, see chapter 2 of God Can’t: How to Believe in God and Love after Tragedy, Abuse, and Other Evils.)
Some experience God’s love when communing with nature. A walk in the woods may be just what the Good Doctor orders!
[i] John Muir, Cruise the Corwin (Westwinds, 2014), 50.
[ii] John Muir, “My First Summer in the Sierra” in The Wilderness World of John Muir, Edwin Way Teale, ed. (Mariner Books, 2001 ), 114.