The following article is an excerpt from the book Wilderness Awakenings – A Photo Journal of Spiritual Awakening.
As I point out in my photography artist statement, my formal education is in the disciplines of philosophy and theology, and in fact, I worked in ministry full time for over a decade. While I’m a man of deep faith and not bashful about it, I’m also not one to cram it down people’s throats in an attempt to convert them to my particular beliefs. As with all my essays and writing on spirituality, I offer my thoughts simply as an intellectual snack to be chewed on.
My advanced study of philosophy and theology, coupled with my lifelong obsession with the great outdoors, have devoutly instilled within me the belief that there is no greater art than that which is found in nature. Faith, scientific reason, and vast personal experience have all taught me that there is no greater artist than the Creator, God Almighty, from which all beauty, and the ability to appreciate it, come forth. All of humanity, without exception, is hard-wired to recognize the captivating allure of creation and the beauty of the planet we live on. After all, it is home to us all.
Natural beauty is something that goes far beyond the intellect. It reaches deep down into the heart and soul. It is divine, transcendent, and powerfully inspirational. We all have a similar reaction when beholding something magnificently beautiful in the natural world: there is a sudden pause and an instant halting of our soul that commands us to treasure what is before us. Our jaw drops, our heart skips a beat, we quickly inhale a breath of fresh air, and our facial muscles relax. Upon witnessing the stunning sight of natural artistry, our pupils dilate in unbridled attraction as we proclaim, “Oh my God! Look at THAT!” It is interesting to note how we naturally speak the name of God at such times, and not in vain! Whether we admit it or not, whether it is conscious or unconscious, I believe that we instinctively know the source of such beauty. How we specifically define that source in such moments, matters not.
Spending time in nature does something very positive, constructive, and healing to us. It is a catalyst for peace and tranquility. As we sit in the predawn darkness and watch the sun come up and the world come alive, something in us comes alive. We experience the hope and glory of a new beginning. As the sun sets in the evening and lights the sky on fire, we can’t help but feel the calming satisfaction of a restful end.
It’s in the wilderness that the lovely tune of songbirds evokes sweetness in our hearts, while an encounter with a dangerous beast fills us with instant respect. The tenderness of a mother with her young reminds us of the universal power of love. The caressing sound of the ocean waves, the trickling of a mountain stream, and the hypnotic trance of the rain lapses our souls into a state of divine calm. Our troubles and fears are gently washed away and our hearts purified. The fascinating mystery of the stars and the antiquity of the moon summons forth an appreciation of the eternal. Admiring the seemingly simple lives of wildlife brings us comfort and escape, as we wish our hectic lives were only so peaceful.
Creation possesses an incarnation of wisdom and offers an invitation for one to learn its ways…though it must be tamed and tempered by virtue and reason. The wilderness is a place of education where we can be challenged, disciplined, and can expand the mind, body, and soul. It serves as a universal university where one learns to embrace, appreciate, and revere the gift and purpose of life…all life, but most especially that of human life, as we are the caretakers of the rest of creation. The lessons learned in nature must not stay in the wild to die alone and be forgotten like the creatures that live there. The transcendent beauty experienced in the gallery of creation must be shared and cherished by others.
The Divine Artist
When we consider the astounding, intricate beauty, the stunning engineering, and the mind-boggling complexity that is present in all of creation, it becomes undeniable (at least to me) that a master artist has been consciously at work, and that such jaw-dropping wonder simply can’t be a random, cosmic mistake. Even when considering purely scientific explanations for creation, such as the theory of evolution, we have to ask if this process in and of itself can be solely responsible for making such incredible magnificence out of gas, dirt, proteins, and enzymes which were just aimlessly floating around out there in space or lying on a beach. If so, those initial materials and those processes would then have to be perfectly designed ones, to begin with. While it’s obvious that living things evolve and adapt according to their environment, the very ability to do so is utterly amazing!
The processes of creation and forces of nature act quite similar to those of an artist who is painting a masterpiece. It begins with a pallet that is filled with what looks like a complete mess, with globs of paint slopped about and mixed together in ways that are anything but pleasing to the eye. The canvas is at first cluttered with abrasive strokes and only hints of emerging composition, structure, and beauty. Upon completion, we stand back in awe and again proclaim, “Oh, my God! Look at that!”
On a deeper level, when meditating on the subject of creation and the creative processes that are an ongoing part of it, consider the fact that scientists have discovered that the odds of DNA assembling by mere chance are ten thousand to one. Other scientists proclaim that it isn’t so much a matter of “chance,” but that it’s rather a combination of the laws of physics, nuclear force, electromagnetism, and gravity. But, being that laws of any kind are also things that are initially created, who is responsible for making these laws which govern the universe? Who would have known that we needed them? Around and around we go! When it’s all said and done, what are we left with? We are left with a mystery that we will never solve. We are left with the obvious realization that it is simply impossible for everything to come from nothing. That “everything,” in all of its incredible glory, is ultimately the essence of God.
The Elusive Artist
For as long as rational humans have walked the earth, they have searched for ways to better understand, recognize, and grasp this divine essence, which is perceived and experienced as God. Throughout the ages, humankind has desperately tried to prove, or disprove, God’s existence. There have been countless books written and complex intellectual arguments presented on this topic. Philosophers, theologians, and scientists have debated and wrestled over the existence of God for centuries and centuries, right up until this very day. At times, it seems as if the subject of God is an ongoing, societal tug of war game. Some eras bring about a heightened awareness and appreciation for things of a spiritual or theological nature. Others, like our current day, appear to be increasingly swaying to the side of a rather godless, atheistic culture, grossly overlooking the fact that science and religion are not opposed to each other, but rather, they work wonderfully together with the proper application and perspective.
Once again, when all is considered, what is the end result of all the intellectual pugilism over the topic of the Almighty? The same as what we began with, which is a great mystery that will not, and cannot, be solved by the arrogant thinking of mere mortals. There will never be “proof” for the existence of God that will satisfy all…one way or the other. At the same time though, with the eyes of faith and common sense, we can learn much about our Creator, as all of creation tells us something about the one who created it.
As a master tracker can objectively know a great deal about a particular animal he is on the trail of without actually seeing it, we can learn a tremendous amount about God from being aware of, and following the “signs” of creation. In a likewise fashion, we can know much about the interior and external personality of a human being from what he or she she has made and from the ideas that inspired his or her creation. Works of art, whether they are of music, painting, writing, etc., can tell us what psychological, spiritual, emotional, and even physical state the person who created them was in. We can discover an artist’ or craftsman’s intentions, feelings, and thoughts by carefully studying their masterpiece. Art and craftsmanship of any kind makes an intentional, sometimes subtle, sometimes bold, personal statement.
This phenomenon takes place on a much simpler level, as well. Walk into someone’s home and you can tell much about the owner from how their surroundings are organized or decorated. Notice how a particular person prepares their food, cleans up after themselves, or what their work ethic is like and you will discover much about that person. No matter who that individual is, even if he or she is shrouded in a cloud of mystery and we just can’t figure them out or learn what makes them tick, if enough time is spent, if enough careful, detailed observation is implemented, one will eventually discover who and what a person is all about. The same applies to God. We see the basics of who and what God is like from observing and studying the Almighty’s engineering, creation, organization, efficiency, sense of beauty, and even the Creator’s sense of humor. Why is it that the ugliest, creepiest things on earth like a king crab, halibut, black cod, or a big dirty catfish are the tastiest?
Self-Reliance VS God-Reliance
The phenomena of experiencing the Creator through creation is one that indigenous/aboriginal people knew well, as they were a society with a great connection to the earth and all of creation. Thus, they recognized the obvious role and importance that the Creator played. While many of these cultures of peoples were an extremely self-reliant lot, they realized that the “self” could only do so much. More so, they became a “God-reliant” people, as all the raw materials that they needed to live and survive ultimately came from creation, as it still does today. Like the native peoples of our world, when one spends countless hours in creation, relying on creation, observing creation, working with creation, respecting creation, and properly using creation, one comes to know in a very real way the Creator, and enters into a true relationship with God.
On the other side of the coin, when one lives a life far removed from nature, strictly in a “manmade” world, a great disconnectedness with both creation and the Creator comes about. When we live complex lives in a rather artificial world that we have made for ourselves, we create complex problems to which the solutions are often decades away, if solvable at all. In the process of becoming consumers, much of our modern society has grossly failed to embrace their role as producers of the very things that we consume, things that we rely on the natural world of creation for. Thus, the recognition and importance of being responsible caretakers and stewards of our natural, renewable resources have awakened the true need for nature in many. This recognition has also brought about much of the “green movement” of our current time.
This need for nature fills a void within us. It teaches and reminds us of things we often forget or overlook. Nature can heal us and cure the chaos of our hyperactive culture. Beyond the stink of exhaust fumes, and the wretchedness of urban noise pollution, is an oasis of sacred solitude which we all long for. Far removed from the eye-straining abrasion of computer monitors and big screen televisions lies a sanctuary of soothing, natural stimuli that brings healing and tranquility, rather than exploited turmoil and brain-numbing nonsense. Where the ring of cell phones, non-stop commuting, Pavlovian salivation and the pavement ends, a primordial universe still remains and beckons us with an irresistible siren song. Although the “pursuit of happiness” in the age of laptops and smart-phones has transformed many of us into aliens on our own planet, radically unfamiliar with the reality of our natural environment, and truly ignorant in the ways of living in and off the bounty of the earth, we all still long for a deeper reconnection to creation. In doing so, we can (and should,) naturally come to a deeper connection with the Creator.
Caring for Creation
At the heart of this connection between Creator and creation is embedded our divinely given role of environmental stewards. While people of religious faith gain an awareness of this responsibility through divine revelation, Sacred Tradition, and Sacred Scripture, even those who are agnostic or atheist still instinctively recognize this responsibility as well, though in obviously different ways. Indeed, just as all of humanity instinctively recognizes the beauty and goodness of creation, all of humanity instinctively recognizes that we, in turn, should be good to it, and that we should treat the earth with great respect, care, and even devotion. We intuitively recognize the evil of abusing it. By means of spending quality time in nature, we come to automatically know that we are not just mere animals, designed to roam the land, and carelessly, selfishly, gobble up and destroy whatever resources are available for our mere survival, even though many people, unfortunately, do just that.
While common sense, logic, and basic intelligence tell us that we must be responsible stewards of the earth, simply in order to continue to live and thrive on it, expressing great care for creation, and even possessing a love of it, is something that goes much deeper than a mere animalistic survival instinct. Just as recognizing that the incredible beauty of nature brings forth a spiritual response from us, I propose that the desire to care for that beauty is more of a spiritual dynamic, than purely one of the intellect. Religion (of various traditions) teaches that human beings are made in the “image and likeness of God,” and that we are made by a loving God, out of love, for the purpose to love. Along with that, we also share in the creative powers of God. We are able to bring new life into the world, give birth to ideas, as well as creating material things by means of our mind and body. I have no doubt that this love and creativity, which is embedded in the core of our being, is where our desire to love and care for creation flows. However, actualizing that desire is where common sense, logic, and intelligence must then step in.
This divinely charged responsibility to be guardians and caretakers of nature is a particular area where science and religion work beautifully together. Proper stewardship of the earth cannot be attained through emotion-driven, subjective, radically misinformed avenues of “environmental activism,” as is often the case. Nor can it be attained through purely religious, spiritual, or philosophical ideology. Rather, implementing responsible stewardship becomes the objective, diligent work of wildlife biologists, conservationists, natural resource experts and other professionals who are on the front lines. It is their task to create sound, scientifically verifiable applications that will ensure proper management of our natural, renewable resources for generations to come. From the objective data that science gives us about nature and how to care for it properly, all of humanity can then join in and properly carry out their divinely given role as stewards of creation, and do so with great love and devotion. Rest assured, when our work is done properly, humanity as a whole can stand back and proclaim with tremendous awe and wonder, “Oh, my God! Look at that!”