They asked me what I thought. An academic and church consortium brought me to lovely Adelaide in southern Australia in March of 2015 to present a paper on ecotheology and spirituality. That I did (the paper will be published in due course). Along the way they also asked each of the conferees to take some quiet time to reflect about his or her own spirituality of nature. Have I thought about anything else the last sixty years? But I did what I was told.
I found the time for my own reflection when all the other conferees were off visiting wineries in that, one of Australia’s richest wine-producing regions. I absented myself from that trip, spoilsport that I was, since, following my simple, if not simple-minded, practice of many years, I had “given up” imbibing any kind of alcohol during Lent. It would have been boring for me, and all the more so for all the others, to go wine-tasting and then not taste wine.
Left behind, that was a good setting for reflection. The elegant hotel which was the conference center had once been the site of a winery. But the land in which all those vines grew in that region told a different story. That land, of course, had once been Aboriginal land, in that region an often repressed truth that the conference planners announced at every opportunity. Beautiful wine country! The fruits of civilization! But the blood of peoples who had lived in Australia for fifty thousand years had been spilled on that land.
The first chapter of my own theological reflections about nature began when I was wrestling with a similar cultural contradiction, in a North American context. In my 1970 book, Brother Earth: Nature, God, and Ecology in a Time of Crisis, I identified a schizophrenia between Nature and Civilization, which pitted one against the other. That pathology is well illustrated by two great American Henrys: Henry Thoreau and Henry Ford. Thoreau thought that Civilization – or “the city” – is dirty, artificial, and corrupt. Hence he fled to what he perceived to be the vital and renewing embrace of Nature. Ford thought that the promise of the human future was located in the midst of the machinations of Civilization. He cared very little whether or not Nature was raped in the process.
In Brother Earth, I argued that a prophetic reading of biblical texts can show us a way to heal that cultural schizophrenia, a way to give all, rich and poor, black and white, male and female, and all earth-creatures, too, the blessings of both Nature and Civilization, without denigrating either.
Behind that theological argument, I had willy nilly been a victim or a perpetrator of that cultural schizophrenia myself. In the years of my youthful innocence (as it were), I lived that schizophrenia. As a boy, I had a passion for Nature. I loved to garden with my parents. Perhaps I was closest to them when we were working with the earth and harvesting its fruits. I also loved our family vacations. In those post-World War II days, we visited many of the nation’s great national parks in the western U.S., Yellowstone, Glacier, and Yosemite, among others. On the other hand, those were the years of the Eisenhower presidency, the era of “Peace, Progress, and Prosperity.” I was much concerned with politics in those years, and I championed Eisenhower’s causes, such as his launching of the great interstate highway system. I was a living exemplar of that very deadening cultural schizophrenia I diagnosed in Brother Earth, loving nature and loving the society that desecrated nature.
Fast forward to 2014, when I published Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality. In that book I narrate my life story, how I have tried to respond to the claims of biblical prophecy: to affirm both the rights of Nature and the rights of Civilization, particularly the rights of the poor of the earth, in a context where the forces of so-called Civilization are desecrating the earth and the poor of the earth, to the point of no return. But I am not sure whether I have truly taken to heart the voice of biblical prophecy that I identified in 1970. I am not sure that I myself have been healed.
I live comfortably with Nature, cultivated and wild, during most of the summer months. I live comfortably with Civilization and all its blessings and all its problems, during most of the winter months. I realize that the blood of Native Americans was once spilled on the land of New England, where I garden and walk in the woods during the summer. I realize that many of the members of the African-American inner-city church where I worship in Boston during the winter months can easily call to mind the days of the lynching tree, which may not be over (I recently took James Cone’s book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, off a shelf in my study, and read it through, cover to cover, a chilling experience). But I do indeed live comfortably. All of which is to say: whether I am in Australia or the U.S., as I approach my 80th birthday, my own spirituality of nature is still very much a work in progress.