One of my absolute favorite things to do is to go hiking. And while I do enjoy hiking with others, I relish the solitude of a hike all by myself. There is something so nourishing to the depths of my soul about walking through the woods alone. Feeling my heart pump, pulsing oxygenated blood through my body. Feeling the strain and heat of my thigh muscles working to slowly move my body up a hill. Smelling the moist humus from layers of life, the honeyed fragrance of a pine forest, the vague stench of the skunk cabbage. Being fully present as I move through the world.
I feel God all around me when I hike. I’ve known people who say the same about gardening, or being out on the water, or some other immersive experience outside. In fact I’ve often heard folks express that they feel the presence of God more strongly in the woods than in our churches. Maybe you have too.
When people make that statement – at least to someone who’s studying to become a part of the institutional church - it’s often said with a lilt of apology, or a touch of defensiveness masquerading as defiance. As if hearing that statement will shock or surprise me, or disappoint me somehow.
And that makes me sad, that they feel that they have to defend a sense of natural connectedness with the divine in however they experience it. I think it points to an old metaphorical understanding about God, which is that God is up there – occasionally coming down into specially designed sacred spaces – and we are down here.
When we hear the scripture from today, of our faith tradition’s creation story, we might be hearing it through that lens of that sort of God-up-there-ness and we and the world down-here-ness.
But I wonder if that’s the only lens we could use to listen that story, or indeed the only lens to think about how God shows up in our world.
The feminist eco-theologian Sallie McFague had a different idea about how we might think about God. She thought that the ways a lot of were raised to think about God didn’t reflect what she experienced to be true. Some of those other ways of imagining about God, she said, served the time they emerged from, but no longer serve us today. And, she points out, the language that we use to describe God, the names we use to call God – that’s language that we come up with to try to articulate the feeling or relationship. They are words we grasp at in our effort to point to how we understand how God is, how God feels. And we use human relationships that we know of and have experience with to try to get at that. At their essence, words like King of All, Lord of Lords, or even Father God, are metaphors, or models, that we human beings have created to try to help us navigate and describe who and how God is…and while we know that ultimately NO words or metaphors can fully describe God, we as humans still attempt to do so.
Sallie McFague, in her book, The Body of God, proposes a new model to describe how to talk about God. She asks, “What if, with Christianity, we accepted the claim that the Word is made flesh and dwells with us; with feminism, that the natural world is in some sense sacred; with ecology that the planet is a living organism that is our home and source of nurture? What if we dared to think of our planet and indeed the entire universe as the Body of God?”
What a concept. To imagine the world as expressing God’s very self. How might shifting our metaphor or model of God from God as King over all the Earth to the Earth being the Body of God change how we think about God…how we think about creation?
McFague clarifies, “Remember that we are thinking analogically or metaphorically, that is, extrapolating from our own experience, what is familiar to us, in order to speak of what we cannot experience or know directly. We are not describing God as having a body or being embodied…”
Instead, we are allowing the metaphor, or the model, of God, to allow us access to a new way of thinking about and imagining God. A way in which God is everywhere and a part of everything. To be clear, I am not describing pantheism here. McFague is not proposing for us to imagine that God = the world, ie, God IS the tree, the rock, the wind, the fire. Instead, this model of God proposes PanENtheism: God is IN the world, ie, God is present and part of the earthworm, the Puget Sound, the dahlia in your garden…that God is IN us too.
With this lens on, we can look at the scripture today anew. Instead of God vaguely up there somewhere, commanding the world into existence, God is creating new aspects of God’s self. God is creating the earth, the sky, the fruiting plants as an extension, an expression of themselves. So not only are we made in and therefore reflect God’s image but the entire universe does. “and God said it was Good”.
God’s breath is IN the lifegiving oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange that occurs between the plants and the animals on this earth. That God is IN the way that evaporation surfaces from the ocean and gathers in the clouds and returns to the earth through rain. That God is IN the way that leaves of trees seek out the heat of the sun to feed the growth of the trunk, and when we cut that tree down the heat of the sun is offered back out to our bodies and homes to warm them. God is IN all of those things. Panentheism.
How might our relationship to the earth – our hikes, our gardening, our response to climate change and ecological disaster – change if we allowed ourselves to engage in this sort of thought experiment? Does it feel true to what we know of God? Does it feel at least as true as using the words King, Father, Holy One? Does it feel true to what we feel in nature, in our connection to other creatures, to our sense of groundedness when we place ourselves against a tree?
What if we see ourselves included in that, a part of God’s Body. In several moments, we will be taking communion – we will bless and consecrate a symbol of bread that is made from wheat grown in soil and sun, salt harvested from the sea, and spores that travel invisibly through the air. We will drink a symbol of wine that is made from a ripening fruit that swelled in the heat and then fermented with the help of a living organism. We will eat those elements and in their consumption we join the Body of Christ. Is it such a leap to understand those elements we consume coming from the Body of God?
I don’t know where this exploration of the divine in nature will take us, will take me, will take you. But wouldn’t it be interesting to move through these three months discovering what it feels like to explore a new way of thinking about God, one where God is a part of every thing and every one. What might we discover?
Sallie McFague, “The Body of God: An Ecological Theology” (Fortress Press, Minneapolis: 1993) 19