Before Nature » Endorsements (Before Nature)

Endorsements for Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality:

“Throughout my review, I have described Santmire’s approach as inviting, and I think that is one of the main strengths of the book. As I read the text, I felt drawn into the narrative that Santmire was putting forward, based on his own experiences. In this way, I agree with his assertion that the book is a “confessional expression of a particular constellation of experiences. It is not a scholarly study of spirituality” (xxiii). Santmire avoids two potential pitfalls that I could see in engaging this topic. First, he does not “universalize” his own experience by arguing what people should do; rather, in a memoir-like narrative, he describes his Christian spirituality of nature centered on his use of the Trinity Prayer, and then describes how that relates to his theology of nature. Second, his tone throughout the book is non-judgmental and yet realistic; he writes of the “travail” of nature without putting forward condemnations.”
Kyle K. Schiefelbein-Guerrero, Pacific Lutheran Seminary (Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 56:4 [Winter 2017], 451-453). For the entire review:

“When theologians teaching at Lutheran colleges, universities and seminaries held a conference in 2012 to assess and discuss ecological theology, they called upon H. Paul Santmire to review the emergence of ecological theology among Lutherans. Lutheran churches made the first public theological statements on ecology in 1970 and 1972. One of their theologians, Joseph Sittler, beginning in 1954, was the pioneer of earth-regarding theology.

Santmire was a young theologian working alongside Sittler for the 1972 ecology statement by the Lutheran Church in America, having completed Brother Earth: Nature, God and Ecology in a Time of Crisis in 1970. By 1985 Santmire published his most important work, The Travail of Nature: The Ambiguous Ecological Promise of Christian Theology. With Nature Reborn: The Ecological and Cosmic Promise of Christian Theology in 2000, and Ritualizing Nature: Renewing Christian Liturgy in a Time of Crisis in 2008, Santmire finished his eco-theological corpus – except for a book that “has the feel of my last”: Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality.

Adapting the Jesus Prayer from Orthodox spirituality, Santmire offers a Trinity Prayer for daily practice that dwells within and upon the connections of Christian faith to the natural world. Santmire offers specific guidance for praying the Trinity Prayer in Chapter Two, Chapter Ten and the Epilogue of Before Nature. The Prologue and Chapter One introduce his personal connections to nature and Christianity, and his purposes for the book. Chapters Three, Four and Five frame the ambiguities and tensions of praying within the human condition, including doubt, a Christian sense of sin, and noetic limitations. The rest of the chapters discuss aspects of Trinitarian theology in relationship to creation and redemption, including interesting summaries of Santmire’s appropriations of Paul Tillich and Gordon Kaufman, his teachers, and other favorite theologians: Elizabeth Johnson, Jurgen Moltmann, Martin Luther and others.

An accomplished preacher and teacher, Santmire fills the entire book with colorful imagery and stories to which almost anyone could relate. Yet in the discursive Chapters Six through Nine his review of significant theological issues could keep a discussion group of pastors or seminarians busy for a season. Theologians may spy unfinished and open issues that ecological theologians – not only Santmire – face. But it is interesting to see how Santmire makes associations between doctrines, biblical texts, liturgy and ethics in order to interpret his overall amazement and appreciation of nature and God.

The book therefore is like a walk or tour with Santmire along which he introduces theological observations and religious associations. For instance, he invites readers to a hand-mown field he loves, stops to tell a story, and shares his sense of how holy is the world. Or, readers ascend with Santmire in a tower above a prolific canopy over a cemetery. From that perch Santmire recommends incarnational theology and spirituality to defy any spiritual ascent toward disembodiment. One of Santmire’s strongest sections is on the incarnational theology of Martin Luther (pp 135-143).

Theologically-informed readers could use Before Nature to approach a string of conversation-starters about Trinitarian analogies; perception of the Trinity in God’s created world; and related theological issues. Others, however, may simply find a kind voice framing Christian imagery and language with respect for the world that science and poetry also describe. Santmire recommends his prayerful Trinitarian spirituality to all spiritual seekers in an environmentally troubled world. Early in the book Santmire makes a warm invitation to any who may be estranged or unfamiliar with organized Christianity. He suggests to church leaders that they could follow his example: to be interested in and engaged with the environmental plight of the world opens common cause with others. Like his previous works, Santmire’s Before Nature honestly identifies neglect and culpability of Christians and Christianity toward the environmentally damaged and socially troubled world, but also details a wealth of Christian belief and practice which exhibits and enhances appreciation for nature and the here-and-now drama of God’s abiding care for the world.”

By Gilson A. C. Waldkoenig, Seminary Ridge Review, Seminary
Ridge Press at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg, Spring, 2015, Volume 17, Number 2

“With grace and wisdom, Paul Santmire draws the reader into intimate, intriguing conversation culminating in an earthy spirituality of nature grounded in historic Christian traditions and in his lifelong journey of encountering God in Earth’s creatures and elements. Santmire is an artist of words. His accessible lucid prose and delightful imagery guide the reader on a critical and deeply appreciative walk through Christian understandings of God both beyond and within the created world. All is couched in courageous unflinching accounts of his spiritual journey in its fragile beauty and brokenness. His final gift to the reader is an invitation to encounter God in creation by singing the ancient Trinity Prayer as a life-giving spiritual practice. Against the lure of cosmic despair prevalent in the church and broader society, Santmire weaves a vision of cosmic hope; all of creation is destined toward ultimate fulfillment. This will become a classic of earth-honoring spirituality.”
Cynthia Moe-Lobeda: Theology, Seattle University; author, Resisting Structural Evil: Love as Ecological-Economic Vocation

No author in English is more important than Paul Santmire in the field of Christian theology of nature. Beyond Nature is a beautiful culmination of Santmire’s nearly half a century of writings on the topic. While being through and through a theology of nature, this book is at once a moving spiritual autobiography, a creative exploration of the doctrine of the Trinity, and an admirably practical guide to prayer. Beyond Nature presents an embodied “Christian spirituality” that is both conceptually rigorous and poetically imaginative, sustained by the infinite mystery of divine love.
John F. Hoffmeyer, Theology: Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia

“With a pastoral heart and prophetic passion, H. Paul Santmire continues his lifelong conversation about creation centered spirituality. Unapologetically Christian, Santmire weaves a Trinitarian vision into a universal fabric—calling the reader toward an inner/outer journey that integrates prayer and action. With his most personal testimony to date, the author has created a theological legacy rooted in a life time of faithful ministry.”
Susan R. Andrews: General Presbyter, Presbytery of Hudson River; formerly, Moderator of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

“For forty years now, H. Paul Santmire has provided us with graceful retrievals of nearly lost Christian traditions of creation theology. In the process, he has reconfigured contemplative and spiritual ecology. Now, in Before Nature, Santmire continues and extends his life-long work by illuminating nature as a relationship whose center is the Trinity and whose circumference is prayer.”
Steven Chase: Author, Nature as Spiritual Practice and A Field Guide to Nature as Spiritual Practice 

“In the face of the extinctions of our time—indeed, the threat to any human future at all—how are Christians still to pray?  Here in our ‘twilight,’ Santmire invites readers into a practice of contemplative prayer capacious of both personal depth and clear-eyed vision. His Trinity Prayer makes possible a fully ecological immersion in reality, mystery, and hope: a Christian spirituality for life on Earth.”
Lisa E. Dahill: Theology, Liturgy, and Spirituality, Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio

“For several decades, Paul Santmire has produced a series of groundbreaking books on the theology of nature and the environment. They are rich and indispensable reading for anyone working in this area. Now he has added to his corpus this wonderful volume, Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality. In this work, Santmire brings together Christian spirituality, his personal narrative, theology of nature, and mission, in the very best sense of that word. The result is a feast, with all the right ingredients. We will never recover a theology of nature and place without recovering the accompanying practices, and in this work we get a wonderful insight into Santmire’s own practices and how to develop a spirituality for and of such practices. It is hard to stress too strongly how important is such a discussion. Even more important is that we learn from Santmire and incarnate such practices into our daily lives. The results would be truly revolutionary.”
Craig Bartholomew: Theology, Redeemer University College, Hamiliton, Ontario; author, Where Mortals Dwell: A Christian View of Place for Today

“In Before Nature, Paul Santmire weaves together theologies of nature, both ancient and new, which he persuasively employs to re-frame our understanding of humanity’s vital—and humble—role as co-creator and servant. Engaging scientific criticism and illumined by ‘fragile faith,’ Dr. Santmire journeys into the origin of all things in God as Trinity: Giver, Gift, and Giving. In a narrative combining elements of theological reflection, pastoral experience, and memoir, Santmire calls readers to own their role of theologian/creation-partner through prayer and action. An invitation to vulnerability, wonder, and hope , Before Nature is an inspiring and moving challenge to living in God’s present—in an ‘era of twilight.’”
Jonathan Maury: monk and member of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2014
James Childs

[1] For more than three decades Paul Santmire’s many works have provided us with an eloquent theology of creation foundational for an approach to environmental concern that is integral to the very core of Christian faith and practice. Before Nature continues in that vein, developing themes he has previously discussed and drawing us into new insights.

[2] In the Prologue Santmire takes note of the growing number of “Nones” who have no religious affiliation and people within the churches who may be called “Nones-sympathizers,” who together can be thought of as “spiritual seekers.” It is this group that he wants to engage along with the pastors and theologians who are also trying to reach out to these spiritual seekers. Based on the evidence of interest among the seekers, Santmire believes that a Christian spirituality of nature can provide a common ground for this conversation, one in which the cathedral of the great outdoors engulfs the cathedral of Christian faith and practice.

[3] Before nature, Santmire tells us is where he has always stood both personally and professionally, contemplating its “integrity, its beauties, its terrors, and its mysteries.” This highly personal and self-reflexive narrative finds him still before nature, sharing with us his spirituality and inviting us and all seekers to join him in this spiritual journey in order to find our own way. It is a trip that takes the reader to spiritually significant places that are disparate and yet related in their capacity to evoke the sense of God’s presence: the field behind his Maine home where he has been “scything with God”, the roaring falls of Niagara, the lively and robust congregation in Roxbury Massachusetts, the Charles River, the Hidden Garden that was inspired by his spouse, Laurel, and other venues.

[4] The core of the spirituality that Santmire commends is contained in the Trinity Prayer:

Lord Jesus, have mercy on me.

Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit

Come Holy Spirit, Come and Reign

For Santmire this prayer can be the foundation for one’s prayer life in a secular world of high demands and the sort of frantic activity that erodes our capacity for prayer. Say it and say it often, he encourages, “practice makes possible.”

[5] Santmire knows that simply repeating the prayer is not enough. One must also confront the realities of the world in which we live and engage them theologically. Schooled by Bonhoeffer’s thoughts on the eclipse of God and by his former teacher, Gordon Kauffman’s insistence upon the facts, he recognizes that the question of faith in God cannot ignore the reality of both moral evil wrought by human beings and the evils of cosmic destruction and evolutionary violence inherent in the natural world itself. (Santmire is not a rural romantic oblivious to these realities. Moreover, notwithstanding his love of nature, he is also an urban resident who is no stranger to the struggles, dangers, and injustice that are part of that context.) Facing these “facts” Santmire wants to commend what he calls a “fragile theology of faith,” an “implausible plausibility.” The three petitions of the Trinity Prayer provide the structure for the continuing personal and theological narrative in the journey of the fragile theology of faith.

[6] For the discussion of the first petition of the Trinity Prayer, Mary Magdalene is the one biblical witness he chooses. She is the first to encounter the risen Christ, the first apostle of the new age. It is the particularity of her experience that is emphasized. Jesus calls her by name. Santmire asks us to imagine the enlightenment of heart and mind that comes with Jesus calling us by name. “This is the spirituality of what I am calling a fragile faith,” he says (59). It is a fragile faith in light of the world’s suffering and tragedy. Here then we have a return to the question raised by the reality of terrible evils, historical and natural. Santmire, I believe rightly, refuses to entertain a theodicy. Rather, he counsels that we should admit the intellectual impasse of theodicy question and trust in the Lord, inviting us to share with Mary Magdalene and him the fragile faith that comes with hearing Jesus call your name and know his love.

[7] Praying “Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me” evokes for Santmire blatantly honest disclosures of his own failings and doubts as well as thoughts on his first encounter with death when a young boy. In the face of these “facts” he talks of those experiences in which, like Mary Magdalene, he has felt touched by the risen Christ, experiences that have sustained his fragile faith. He invites us to consider whether we can affirm our own childlike fragile faith. It is a matter of letting the light of Christ penetrate the twilight of our own lives as we make the first petition our own.

[8] The heart of the Trinity Prayer is the doxology that is the second petition. The three chapters that stem from this praise to the Triune God offer some of the richest and most interesting theology in the book. They also get us more explicitly into a theology of nature.

[9] It is important for our theology and spirituality that it be thoroughly Trinitarian. Simply put, God has revealed Godself as triune; this is the biblically grounded witness of Christian tradition. While we must speak of God as “wholly other,” Santmire wants to emphasize that God is relational. God has entered into a personal relationship with us as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier – names that can also be thought of as Giver, Gift, and Giving. Moreover, echoing Jürgen Moltmann, God is relational in God’s very being, in the mutual indwelling of the persons, one with another (perichoresis) in the bonds of love that is the unity of the Trinity.

[10] Santmire then offers interesting and unique analogies drawn from his own experience and observations, which, however imperfect and roughhewn (his terms), can serve as lenses for contemplating God. They are not efforts to explicate the transcendent reality of the divine life or the formula, “three in one and one in three.” They are ways to think about God’s presence and action as Giver, Gift, and Giving. The analogy of Niagara Falls with its incredibly powerful dynamic is important for providing an analogy in nature that underscores the fact that “the triune God is natural as well as personal.”

[11] Indeed, the relational God is present in all things. Luther’s legacy is a critical element in this vision of God/s presence in all of creation. Santmire wants to maintain the theology and spirituality of Luther’s paradoxical vision of God as totally beyond and yet substantially present everywhere in and through all creatures. Luther’s formula of divine immanence that God is “in, with, and under” all things is a paramount and recurring theme for Santmire’s theology of nature.

[12] In this “in between time,” the problem of evil is confronted with the faith that the cosmic Good Shepherd of God dwells with all creatures and creation in solidarity with their suffering. It follows, then, that the ministry of the Good Shepherd is cosmic in its dimensions, bringing to eschatological fulfillment all of creation. In that ultimate future: “The lamb will lie down with the lion. The snow hare will romp with the coyote. And little children will play in perfect freedom and safety on every corner of the new earth. The vast reaches of outer space – above all ‘dark energy’ – will come alive with all the colors of the rainbow. All the dinosaurs and ichthyosaurs and their kin will have new places to flourish forever, throughout the universe. And every tree that ever existed will grow anew eternally throughout the virtually infinite reaches of the renewed cosmos.” (169)

[13] The Spirit is the life-giving one, renewing all things. The Spirit is the spirit of nature. The Bible speaks of the Spirit in terms from nature: wind, water, fire. The Spirit is working hand in hand with the Son in the cosmic purpose of God to bring all things to the fulfillment of God’s future when God will be all in all.

[14] To call upon the Spirit in the third petition of the prayer is to call upon the power of the future, as Moltmann has taught. To call upon the Spirit is to call upon “the ultimate divine energy that conducts the symphony of all things, calls them to attention, as it were, and enables them to praise God, each creature with its own voice.” (198) The praise of all creatures is what Santmire calls nature’s first voice. The groaning of the whole creation (Rom. 8:18-23) is nature’s second voice. That second voice is answered by the Spirit’s ministry of cosmic hope as the Lifegiving One continually brings forth new life, instilling in Santmire a spirituality of cosmic hope in the expectation of a new heaven and a new earth.

[15] This book offers the prospect of a “Trinitarian spirituality of nature” as the back cover suggests. Before Nature is also a “Christian spiritualty” as the subtitle states. In other words, while Santmire wants to calls us into a deeper relationship with the God who is with us in nature and disabuse us of all traces of dualistic separation of the spiritual from the natural, he wants that spirituality of nature to be thoroughly and integrally a part of the whole of Christian theology and spirituality.

[16] In one remarkable passage Santmire reflects upon viewing the wonders of the vast universe, the big Bang, the billions of galaxies, and the marvelous things that astronomy and related sciences have brought to light. For many these findings of science are a challenge to faith for they seem to dwarf the biblical worldview. But for Santmire viewing and contemplating the immensities of the universe are an aid to faith. In a manner parallel to the words of the psalmist (19: 1-4) the cosmos as we are coming to know it, Santmire proclaims, displays God’s cosmic magnificence and the immensities of God’s creation.

[17] Will this narrative reach the hearts and minds of the spiritual seekers? I have no way of knowing the answer to that. However, one would think that the intimate sharing of his own spiritual journey and theology conveyed through the relating of concrete experiences of nature and life would draw people into its spiritual vortex. The book is a skillful blend of personal witness and the witness of the church’s theology. By virtue of this blend he is able to call upon the theology of the Creed and the thought and devotion of saints that include Irenaeus, Francis of Assisi, Luther, and Bonhoeffer, as well as modern theologians like Tillich and Moltmann in ways that never get us stuck in the abstractions of doctrinal theology. At the end this narrative may well have you praying the Trinity Prayer as it has me.

[18] The writing is highly accessible. The notes, which are helpfully appended at the end of each chapter, are extensive and rich in scholarly resources. This is a fine book that has the potential to draw the reader deeper into his or her own spirituality.

James M. Childs, Jr. Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary, Columbus, Ohio, and Book Review Editor for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics.