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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

What if the great outdoors isn’t the greatest? Religious leaders weigh in on ‘Nature is my church’ notion

Molly Quinn illustration

The Rev. John Sowers has heard it all before.

Many times.

A stranger will learn he is a minister and immediately volunteer that nature, the great outdoors, is his or her “church.”

If that’s supposed to sound like some stinging rebuke of organized religion or rock him back on his heels, it doesn’t.

Sowers, lead pastor at Spokane’s First Presbyterian Church, gets it.

“One of the great blessings of living in the Northwest is the incredible gift of God’s creation and so I totally understand where people are coming from when they say this, but obviously I believe that nature is not the sum of God’s gift of self-revelation to us.”

Sowers isn’t the only one who hears it. Around here, it’s not unusual to be hiking or camping and witness someone behold scenic backcountry beauty and enthusiastically declare, “This is my church.”

Members of clergy say they understand the impulse.

“The experience of being out in nature and feeling connected to God’s creation is absolutely real,” said the Rev. Peg Harvey-Marose, pastor at Grace Evangelical Lutheran Church in Lewiston.

But for Christians, it is not enough, she said. “We were made to be in relationship.”

And by that, she doesn’t mean with bears and eagles.

What nature reveals about God is incomplete, said professor Gerald Sittser, a longtime member of the theology faculty at Whitworth University. “Christians believe that if you want to know God, then you look into the face of Jesus Christ. It is better to read the Gospels than to go backpacking, though backpacking is a wonderful sport.”

Not all perspectives on the divine are Christian, of course. But today is Easter, so perhaps it’s the right occasion to wonder how those believers here in our outdoors loving region embrace their faith.

“I do believe that the sacred or holy is often experienced through an encounter with beauty,” said Pat McCormick, a professor of religious studies at Gonzaga University. “I myself am often transfixed by the sights in Glacier National Park, or by a gorgeous sunset.”

“Church” in that context often refers to an encounter with the transcendent in a place that opens up our hearts and minds to wonder and awe.

“So I definitely understand and sympathize with those who find their ‘church’ in these remote, silent, solitary places,” McCormick wrote in an email. “And yet, I think that these silent places still fall short of ‘church’ in the fullest sense simply because they are solitary and do not involve a gathering of other people. Church is not just a place where I encounter the holy. It is also – and especially – a place where I encounter the holy in my (imperfect, broken, different, disagreeable and difficult) neighbor, and she in me. At the heart of the notion of Church is that it is not enough to love the sacred in the abstract, but that it is essential to learn to love the sacred in the flesh of other people.”

It’s great to seek out quiet, wondrous places in the outdoors, he said. But a full church experience involves finding the sacred in the faces of those gathered together to share their faith.

Pastor Joe Wittwer of Spokane’s Life Center church, described himself in an email as one who loves the outdoors. “I backpack, I walk and pray (I used to jog before my knees gave out), and it’s one of the reasons I love riding my motorcycle. Being in nature revives me.”

But he takes issue with those who suggest communing with nature is a complete worship experience. “You can’t have church by yourself, no matter how beautiful the setting.”

Kevin McCruden, professor of religious studies at Gonzaga, agreed, saying even the notion of “church” as a building misses the point.

“The term always denotes a human assembly of persons committed to living a life marked by covenant faithfulness to both God and neighbor.”

So are we beating a straw man here? You know, dissecting a view nobody actually espouses in the service of trying to guilt nonchurchgoers into attending Sunday service.

Members of clergy and others say no. They would argue the “Nature is my church” mindset is unmistakably prevalent in the Spokane area. It can range from a well-intentioned desire to connect with some sense of spirituality to a self-satisfied repudiation of everything brought to mind by a contemplation of traditional religious practices.

First Presbyterian’s Sowers put it this way.

“Oftentimes when I officiate at a memorial service for someone who loved the outdoors I am asked to read Psalm 121, which begins ‘I lift up my eyes to the hills, from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth.’

“It’s understood to mean that a person looks to nature and there he or she sees God. But what the psalmist is really saying is true help comes from the Lord who made heaven and earth. In other words, the psalmist is calling us to seek our ultimate source of help from the Creator rather than the creation.

“In some ways, though, this psalm (and much of Scripture) is presenting nature and God not as an either/or equation but a both/and. The creation can point us to the Creator, which is what I think is behind that statement that people make, ‘Nature is my church.’ There is a beauty in nature that points beyond itself.”

A nonbeliever might contend natural beauty offers its own secular grace.

But Sowers had another thought.

“What happens when nature isn’t enough? Or what if there is something that is even greater than nature? I’m certainly biased but I believe that when the people of God come together on a regular basis and worship the living God with one another, there is a power to that. And I would say that if there is a beauty in nature, there is an equal if not greater beauty in the community of faith.”