The Common Good
September-October 1998

A Spirituality of Ecology

by Joe Nangle | September-October 1998

Put aside the Holy Scriptures for a while and read God's first
revelation—nature itself. Such was the advice offered some
years ago by a profound, Christian thinker.

Put aside the Holy Scriptures for a while and read God's first revelation—nature itself. Such was the advice offered some years ago by a profound, Christian thinker. We stress "Christian" here because this person of faith intended no offense to God's Word, nor to us who hold that Word sacred. His point was that long before the writing of Genesis, humanity could already read God's self-revelation in the natural world.

A reading of nature also strikes us as a wonderful primer on the most elemental fact about our life in community: Humanity lives within a wondrously complex, interactive ecosystem. We humans receive from this system, impact on it, dwell inside of it, depend upon it; we are not in any sense of the word apart from the natural order, but bound to it for our very survival. This original community, Earth and the cosmos, brings us forth, embraces us, and surrounds us at every moment of our existence. It receives what remains when our spirits go to God.

That greatest of Christian saints, Francis of Assisi, recognized all of this nearly 800 years ago. Without doubt it is Francis' understanding of our community with nature that makes him such a universally beloved figure. He wrote with great intimacy and familiarity about our natural world: "Praised be You, my Lord, with all your creatures, especially Sir Brother Sun....Praised be you, my Lord, through Sister Moon and the Stars....Praised be You, my Lord, through Brother Wind, and through the Air, cloudy and serene, and every kind of weather....Praised be You, My Lord, through Sister Water...through Brother Fire...through our Sister Mother Earth...."

For that kind of intimacy and familiarity with creation hyper-critics called the saint of Assisi a pantheist–one who identifies God with created things. Far from being a pantheist, however, Francis was a contemplative, for he saw the handprint of the Divine in all of nature. One cannot miss Francis' sense of community with the entire natural order: "brother" sun, "sister" moon and stars, "brother" wind, "sister" water, "brother" fire, "sister, mother" earth. It's an amazing vision for a person rooted in the 13th century.

BUILDING ON THOSE original Franciscan insights, contemporary Christians increasingly understand their life in God as truly incarnational–of the earth. We who hold as a cornerstone of our faith that the Creator became part of creation arrive naturally at a spirituality of ecology. Our sacramental symbols come from nature: water, bread, wine, oil, ashes, fire, and the human touch. We see no contradiction between life in the Spirit and in nature. Rather, the Christian view of flesh and blood, of earth and sea and sky, of field and stream holds, as St. Francis did, that these phenomena are manifestations of the Divine.

One very good means of fostering and deepening this spirituality of ecology might be "an ecological reading of the scriptures." Despite the earlier suggestion to forego the scriptures for God's original revelation in nature, the earthy references in God's Word strike us as enormously rich. We turn away from the pages of the Bible to our own detriment.

Take for example the creation story in Genesis and consider it in light of current space probes by the Hubble telescope. What a mind-bending and humbling thought that our Creator God also brought into being those galaxies so many millions of light years away from us.

Or take the Exodus story of God providing manna for the people in their desert wanderings. Our Earth has always yielded what all of its creatures need for life. That's the plan of the Creator.

Recall how many references to the wonders of creation we find in the Psalms. They are praises for a God who continues the creative and sustaining initiative at every moment and in every place.

Think of the Jubilee requirements to give the earth its needed rest, and to offer humans, especially the poor, another chance, a new start upon the land.

And consider how often Jesus used water, soil, the air, the fruitfulness of the earth to call attention to indications of the Reign of God breaking in among us. His examples never cease to celebrate the natural order, and by extension its author.

Jesus, of course, and Christology, take us full circle in any Christian spirituality of ecology. It begins with the incredible fact that the Creator deigned to become a creature in Mary's son. It comes around finally to Paul's inspired insights about the incarnate one and the created order, "...the first-born of all creatures. In [whom] everything in heaven and on earth was created, things visible and invisible...; all were created through him, and for him. He is before all else that is. In him everything continues in being" (Colossians 1:16-17).

Joe Nangle, OFM, was executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C., when this article appeared.

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