On Meeting God in Nature

How can religious traditions help us to encounter God – or, rather, to recognize that we encounter God – in our lives? A crucifix in Tirol triggered me to reflect on that.

Nature as a magnificent whole

shows traces of your Creator,

but if you want to see Him at His greatest,

you need to stand at a cross

My translation probably needs improvement, but I think it does convey the basic intention of this crucifix (one of many in the Alps surrounding the Lech valley, Tirol).

My initial reaction to this was: “For me, it’s the other way around. If I want to see God, I need to be out, in nature.” The feeling of being immersed in nature allows me to reconnect with the source of life, with what I can only refer to as the very ground of being. Whether I am walking at the beach, with the thundering sound of waves on the background, or through a forest, with the sun beaming through branches and trees, or whether I’m on my way to a cabin in the Alps, surrounded by the grandeur of the mountains, this feeling stirs in me.

Of course, one might argue that this emotion is caused by my cognition, the result of the evolutionary history of my species. I do not agree that this is the whole story, but here I leave that discussion aside. My point here is that my experience of nature is influenced by my faith tradition.

Because I was raised a Christian, I refer to the source of my experience – the ‘otherness’ that I encounter in nature – using Christian terminology. Besides what I mentioned above, namely ‘source of life’, ‘ground of being’, I can talk about meeting Christ, feeling the presence of the Spirit, and feeling enwrapped in God’s love. Moreover, I am convinced that it is because of my familiarity with Christian tradition, that I can recognize the possibility of encountering God – source of life, ground of being – during a walk through nature.

In short, without my being an inhabitant of a Christian cultural niche, I would not be able to articulate my experience of being immersed in nature as I do now. A complex of layers of meaning would perhaps not be part of that experience: the relationality of reality, the grace which envelops – but not negates – suffering, the love that determines reality as it should be, etc. (Similar observations can be made about people inhabiting other cultural niches.)

These layers of meaning are not superficial. They are connected with concrete experiences, and concrete testimonies of experiences throughout human history. This brings me back to the cross. Yes, I can encounter God – however I refer to Him/Her – in nature. But as a Christian, I need to leave the mountains and go to stand under the cross so I can see Him at His greatest.

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