I love Anne Bradstreet, which is bizarre because I loathe most authors like her. Initially I read Bradstreet the way most people do: begrudgingly with sleepy eyes, but last semester my eyes were opened, and I fell in love. She candidly explores many of the same spiritual crevices and canyons I wrestle within, and does so in a beautiful way.
There is something to be said about historical theological writings; they are the mortar boards for theologians today, and profound resources for any doctrinal debate. So, when I read Francis Schaeffer, Rob Bell, Charles Colson, and Udo Middleman’s thoughts on environmentalism, I wondered if their philosophies were in tune with writings of our spiritual mothers and fathers.
I was surprised at what I found: a rich heritage of writing. Countless works, by great theologians and poets dissected various themes about nature. Their work, unlike Schaeffer’s, was not in response to gross abuse of the environment by mankind, rather to the gospel and creation. Such an impressive historical discourse speaks great truth to the Christian solution to pollution.
Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) wrote little specifically about ecology (the word wasn’t coined until 1866) but he often used nature metaphors in his sermons and writing. The most striking example is from his autobiography. He describes his spiritual life like a hilly plain, running to and away from God for several years. Every spiritual high is deeply connected to an experience in nature; his greatest spiritual elation is always found in the silent places of the forest.
This example, from Edwards’ childhood, describes a secret nature sanctuary, “I, with some of my schoolmates joined together, and built a booth in a swamp, in a very secret and retired place, for a place of prayer. And besides, I had particular secret places of my own in the woods, where I used to retire by myself; and used to be from time to time much affected.”
Another example, soon after Edwards’ college graduation, describes a revelation of God’s majesty unveiled to him in nature, “And when the discourse was ended, I walked abroad alone, in a solitary place in my fathers pasture, for contemplation. And as I was walking there, and looked up on the sky and clouds; there came into my mind, a sweet sense of glorious majesty and grace of God, that I know not how to express.” He goes on to describe the scene quite vividly. Edwards writes that the place gives him tastes of God.
Edwards deeply respected nature, not because he saw it as God, but because he loved God so much. Creation instilled within him a deeper love of God. Edwards rhetoric implies that nature, because it is God’s creation, ought be a great source of spiritual revelation for Christians.
Before Edwards preached his first sermon, Anne Bradstreet (1612-1672) was writing poetry. Her poem Contemplations, a personal favorite, is a thirty-three-verse exposition on the intricate beauty and wonder of God’s creation. Like Edwards, her writing heralds sincere reverence for nature. After reading the entire piece, I was struck by how small Bradstreet becomes in her own image of Earth. She understood what it meant to view animals as fellow creatures (more on this later) before Schaeffer ever said so, “Hail Creature, full of sweetness, beauty, and delight!” She contemplates on the wisdom of Oak trees, and the strength of the sun. Truly, Bradstreet is in awe of nature.
Yet, Bradstreet’s high esteem of nature turns her not to pantheism. Instead it centers her on God, as revealed by three lines, “Soul of this world, this Universe’s Eye,/ No wonder some made thee a Deity./ Had I not better known (alas) the same had I,” and her conclusion, “But he whose name is grav’d in the white stone, Shall last and shine when all of these are gone.” Bradstreet foresaw the arguments of New Age religion and admitted that she too would be tempted to worship nature, if it were not for God’s glorious fingerprints throughout creation. Like Edwards, creation points Bradstreet’s worship upward to the Creator, rather than downward to creatures.
Bradstreet grew up in a puritan tradition, and was certainly influenced by the prayers and sermons of prominent puritan leaders. The Valley of Vision, a collection of prayers and devotionals written by puritans, shares Schaeffer’s, Edwards’, and Bradstreet’s environmental sentiments. This is significant, because puritans believed “the soul learns to pray by praying; for prayer is communion with a transcendent and immanent God who on the ground of his nature and attributes call forth all the powers of the redeemed soul in acts of total adoration and dedication.” In other words, people learn through prayer, and assimilate prayers into their beliefs about the character of God.
An excerpt from the prayer God Honoured offers modern Christians insight on the puritan’s reverence for creation:
“This is thy due form all thy creatures, for all thy works display thy attributes and fulfil thy design; The sea, dry land, winter cold, summer heat, morning light, evening shade are full of thee, and thou givest me them richly to enjoy. Thou art king of kings and Lord of Lords;”
The puritans loved creation because it was a gift from God, and they loved the giver. They were not given to a path of destruction like the business tycoons of the industrial revolution, nor to equality with nature like the pantheists. Instead, they gave themselves up wholly to the creator, recognizing Him as the “king of kings and Lord of Lords” over creation.
Nearly 600 years before the puritans landed in the new world St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) was said to give sermons to birds and squirrels. He was one of the greatest Christian radicals after Christ himself. Ironically, pantheist Dr. Lynn White Jr. revered St. Francis of Assisi, calling him the “Patron Saint of Ecologists,” because Assisi often reminded Christians that they were equal as creatures with all creation. White misunderstood the Saint’s writing. Assisi, like Schaeffer, wrote that humans in their finiteness are mere physical creatures in creation when compared to an infinite spiritual God. On the other side of the coin Assisi asserted that humans, unlike their fellow creatures, have spirits, free will and personal relationships with the creator. He worte that humans choose how to exercise their authority over nature, but should not do so in irreverent way. Assisi rebuked abuse of human dominion, because it is in rebellion to God’s created order.
Assisi was not the oldest Saint to contemplate nature. Christians can look to one of the earliest forefathers of the church, St. Augustine. Although he never wrote a piece entirely about man’s role in nature, his lasting work, The Confessions, revealed that he is of the same mind and heart as Edwards, Bradstreet, the Puritans, Assisi, and Schaeffer.
The Confessions is a collections of “books” (similar to what we would call chapters) detailing Augustine’s contemplations on various biblical passages, and theological philosophies. Interestingly, in every book of Confessions Augustine calls himself “thy creature,” not only implying God’s ownership over him, but also emphasizing Augustine’s place as a finite creature in creation–a belief much like Assisi’s. In Book III he contemplates his finite mechanical similarities to other creatures, “these things the beasts and birds discern as well as we.” Augustine admits that he, like all creatures, is given to necessary mechanical needs and behaviors (eating, drinking, sleeping, breathing).
In Book V Augustine writes, like Edwards, about the rest and revelation found in nature. “Thy whole creation ceaseth not, nor is silent in Thy praises; neither the spirit of man with voice directed unto Thee, nor creation animate or inanimate, by the voice of those who meditate thereon: that so our souls may from their weariness arise towards Thee, leaning on those things which Thou hast created, and passing on to Thyself, who madest them wonderfully; and there is refreshment and true strength.” God’s gift of creation refreshes man, and in doing so glorifies God.
In Book II Augustine writes sentiments similar to Bradstreet’s, “wherein the world forgetteth Thee its Creator, and becometh enamoured of Thy creature, instead of Thyself, through the fumes of that invisible wine.” Augustine notes that the the Lord’s signature and fingerprints are evident in the beauty of creation; the beauty deceived man, and he worshiped it instead of God.
Nearly 1700 years before America turned to New Age religion, St. Augustine spoke to the deception of pantheism. Dr. Steven L. Childers wrote “God has created man to be a worshiper, we are always worshiping something.” We as Christ followers must dispel the deceptions of pantheism, and reveal the truth of Jesus Christ.
To do so, we must adopt the attitudes of Edwards, Bradstreet, Assisi, and Augustine. We ought to revere nature as God’s good creation, from which comes revelation, regeneration, and inspiration. Also, we must recognize how the beauty and majesty of nature points only to God the creator.
A few questions to think over:
1. How do you revere nature, and respect your fellow creatures?
2. What parts of creation inspire you, and reveal the Lord’s majesty to you?
3. How is God’s creation a gift, and how have you received it?
4. What can you do to fight on behalf of God’s gift?
Next Time: What does the bible have to say about nature?