Biblical Nature Wisdom
EcoChaplain Roger Wharton
The Judeo-Christian narrative begins in the Garden the Eden, continues through the wilderness to the land of milk and honey, speaks of the Creator’s relationship to the land and its human and creature inhabitants, is transformed on an early Sunday morning in a garden near Gethsemane, and ends biblically in the garden of the New Jerusalem. Interwoven in this narrative is a story and the wisdom of a people who are closely connected to the land and their surrounding natural world. God was often revealed in and through the phenomena of that natural world and especially in miracles where the natural order was dramatically modified for the benefit and/or instruction of the the people. The Lord Creator was present to these men and women in the rain that soaked their fields and gave them life as well as in the plagues that ravished Egypt before the Exodus. Their one god was the God that created the cosmos and continued to order and control the natural world.
The Lord made known the way of life and holy living through natural events – the parting of the sea, manna in the wilderness, the pillar of cloud and fire that inspired Moses, the ravens that fed the prophet Elijah, the leviathan that swallowed Jonah and the worm that devours his shade plant, the nature parables and teachings of Jesus, and the promise of a New Creation where there will be health and wholeness as the trees shout for joy. (Rel 21 & Ps 96:12)
These natural events and God’s revelation through them formed the basis of Hebrew religious history. This, together with the great agriculturally related pilgrimage festivals, gave the Hebrew people at their root a very earth and land centered spirituality. This spirituality found expression also in what I refer to as a nature wisdom tradition which is preserved in biblical scripture Many times this nature wisdom is expressed in poetry, parable, proverb, and story helps to bring the feminine elements of intuition, creativity, and earthiness into religious consciousness.
This nature wisdom spirituality came naturally to a people who lived in a land that invited them to spend much time in the out-of-doors. They were shepherds and farmers especially attuned to natural happenings around them. As they farmed and followed the herds,they had time to reflect on their observations. Even people who were not involved in agriculture spent a great deal of time outside, walking from place to place, fetching water, or just sitting outside their shops.
These people of Israel observed the natural world and marveled at the great creation of the Lord their God. They saw God’s hand at work in the world about them. They remembered and retold the story of the Exodus and the natural miracles through which God made known the way of life and holy living. They experienced the revelation of God in the creation as they joined for the great pilgrim feasts. They knew their dependence on God who provided the necessary rain in their arid land. They observed and learned from the animals, plants, and natural phenomena that surrounded them as demonstrated in the following example of nature wisdom from Proverbs.
Idler, go to the ant;
ponder her ways and grow wise:
no one give her orders,
no overseer, no master,
yet all through the summer she makes sure of her food,
and gathers her supplies at harvest time.
How long do you intend to lie there, idler?
When are you going to rise from your sleep?
Proverbs 6:6-9; The Jerusalem Bible
Nature wisdom was not only the knowledge of the farmers, shepherds, and village folk; but it was also considered part of what made individuals great in the eyes of the people. Solomon who is reputed to be the wisest person in biblical literature is described as a sage of natural wisdom.
The Lord God gave Solomon immense wisdom and understanding, and a heart as vast as the sand on the seashore. This wisdom of Solomon surpassed the wisdom of all the sons of the East, and all the wisdom of Egypt. He was wiser than any other… He composed 3000 proverbs and songs number 1005 and he could talk about plants from the cedars of Lebanon to the hyssop growing on the wall; and he could talk of animals, and birds, and reptiles, and fish. People from all nations came to hear Solomon’s wisdom.
I Kings 5; The Jerusalem Bible
Jesus grew up in the same area that had inspired and sustained this nature wisdom tradition. He spent a great deal of his time in the out-of-doors and was trained as a carpenter who worked with natural materials. With his time in the natural world, living in an agricultural Hebrew society, and training in the Torah; Jesus was influenced by nature wisdom as is evident in his teachings and preachings. Many of the themes, parables, and sayings of Jesus come directly from the natural world. He often spoke using natural metaphors to a people who had a connection to the earth and thus were able to draw insight from his nature related teachings.
The Resurrection of Jesus promised a New Creation where all creatures would live in peace and harmony. This eighth day of Creation was a new beginning dawning on Pentecost and lasting forever marked by the birth of the Church which was to be Christ’s body present and active in the world. As the Church spread out into the world which was becoming more and more urban, the nature wisdom tradition was overshadowed by urban philosophy, internal political intrigue, and church state issues. The nature wisdom that had been the foundation of the faith was replaced by elaborate and complicated theologies. The nature wisdom of others became suspect and even identified as evil, but the Christian nature wisdom tradition continued to live on if only as a marginalized part of the Church. The theologian Matthew Fox has labeled this strand of Christianity as “creation-centered spirituality.” People like St. Francis, Thomas Aquinas, Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhart, and Julian of Norwich represent the on-going thread of nature wisdom within Christianity.
At this time in the human story there is a need to reconnect with nature wisdom especially within the Church. Increasing urbanization of society, less direct experience of the cycles and processes of nature, population growth, unequal distribution of the necessities of life, and global environmental pollution are all religious and church issues which can benefit from a nature wisdom spirituality giving direction to a way of life in Christ of harmony and beauty. Even though the Judeo-Christian nature wisdom is buried deep within Christianity it is possible to tap into this wellspring of life. To do so requires a re-examination of scripture, tradition, liturgy, and theology in light of the current ecological understanding of the nature of the earth as our island home. The Judeo-Christian wisdom tradition, like most other wisdom traditions, understands the inner connectedness of all living and non-living creatures. Some other traditions most notably Native American spirituality, speak more directly of this connection of “all my relations”, but yet this concept is inherent in Judeo-Christian nature wisdom and is expressed theologically and spiritually within the sacrament of Holy Eucharist and the religious concepts of the Cloud of Witnesses, the Communion or Company of the Saints, the redemption of all creation on Calvary, and the New Creation in Christ Jesus.
I personally have benefited in my spiritual pilgrimage from this nature wisdom tradition. The wilderness and out-of-doors have been the location of many of my religious experiences and life-changing decisions beginning with summer church camp experiences as a child in Ohio. It is to God, as revealed and experienced in creation, that I go when I seek quiet and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. Natural objects, panoramas, and events many times have served as an icon through which I have experienced and understood a part of the great mystery of God and Creation and what it means to walk in the Way of Christ. On a retreat in the Adirondaks of New York state which involved several days of solitude and fasting I heard and answered a call to be an earth healer and priest in the Church. Since that time I have attempted to synthesize materials and help others experience the love of God by exposure to the teaching of Judeo-Christian nature wisdom especially in outdoor and wilderness settings.
It is my hope that the Biblical Nature Wisdom Lectionary will help to unfold some of the nature wisdom teachings of the Church’s tradition and make them more available to Christian educators, ministers, priests, and preachers for the health and wholeness of all people. The very nature of the wisdom teachings is that they often are experiential and thus are more than just theological concepts to be grasped. A growing awareness of the natural world around us often is a gateway for gifts of insight from the Spirit. A nature wisdom spirituality guides and directs pilgrims in their walk in the Way as it shapes their relationship with the natural world, others, and God in Christ. It makes good educational sense to draw on this rich traditional resource that has been handed down to us by our mothers, fathers, and teachers for thousands of years for it speaks to the very essence of our human nature and our connection with all that has breath or exists on this planet of the Incarnation.
As the material of the Biblical Nature Wisdom Lectionary is presented in the yearly cycle I hope that the reader will experience an unfolding of a nature wisdom that teaches that all is connected and interwoven by Spirit within the Christ of a loving Creator God. The Biblical Nature Wisdom Lectionary also is designed to assist the reader to experience scripture, tradition, and liturgy with new awareness and consciousness of the nature wisdom that is present in Christianity and to remind Christian educators that it is their role to pass on this wisdom.
As a way of introduction in the exploration of biblical nature wisdom, we will examine the familiar story of Noah (Genesis 6:5 – 9:17).
The biblical story of Noah speaks to our human responsibility to be careful stewards of God’s Creation. Recall the story with me. “God said to Noah, ‘I have decided that the end has come for all living things, for the earth is full of lawlessness because of human beings.'” (Gen 6:13 NJB) Notice that God’s decision rests on God’s evaluation of human behavior and how it has affected all of creation. Noah then learns that he has found favor with God and is to build an ark so that he will be saved from the floods to come. Noah, however, is to learn more….
No matter how righteous Noah feels in his selection by God, he soon discovers that he is to take his family with him on the ark. In this Noah and humankind should see that there is no salvation or wholeness without community. Next, Noah is instructed to load pairs of all the living animals on board. The lesson here is that there is no salvation without ecological wholeness. This point is made even more clear at the end of story.
When the floods are over and the earth is ready for habitation again, God establishes a covenant, not just with human beings, but with all of creation. “I am now establishing my covenant with you and your descendants to come, and with every living creature that was with you: birds, cattle and every wild animal with you; everything that came out of the ark, every living thing on earth.” (Gen 9: 9 & 10) God goes on to say that the rainbow is set in the sky as a reminder of that covenant between God and every living creature on earth.
It seems that human beings have forgotten the lessons of Noah. Many think that they are complete unto themselves and need to remember that salvation and wholeness is found within our relationship to others in the global human community. The human community, however, is not the total picture. Real wholeness can only be experienced within an ecological wholeness.
As Christians and as global citizens let us work for world understanding and peace between individuals and nations. As God’s stewards of creation let us each become a person who cares deeply for the earth and God’s creatures and work for ecological wholeness. The earth can not much longer take the abuse that we are giving her and sustain human life as we know it. It will be humans that God will hold responsible for the destruction of this gem of creation which was chosen out of all the cosmos to be the home of Jesus Christ and the point of initiation of the New Creation.
The Biblical Nature Wisdom Lectionary will follow the Episcopal Eucharistic Lectionary for selections of scripture to be considered. The propers for each Sunday and holy day will be examined using the following criteria in order to determine if nature wisdom material will be presented for that particular set of readings when:
- the texts include references to natural history which the exegete could use to better understand the scripture.
- the text can be categorized as nature wisdom.
- the text could be used as an introduction to address current ecological issues.
- the traditional observation of that Sunday or holy day includes elements from Jewish, Christian, or other nature wisdom traditions, the observance will be explored for possible learnings or for educational opportunities.
Not all Sundays and holy days will be included in this Biblical Nature Wisdom Lectionary because they will not meet the above criteria. Each presentation will not attempt to exhaust the material presented by the propers but will present a theme or educational idea that could be pursued by the educator. An educational goal and activity will be suggested for each Sunday or holy day included in the Biblical Nature Wisdom Lectionary. The purpose of this section will be to offer an outline for an educational experience that will help the student experience and learn from the natural world. The activities presented will be identified as appropriate for various age groupings.
I hope that the Biblical Nature Wisdom Lectionary will be a learning experience for all of us.