Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality (Fortress Press, 2014)

[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 is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.

James M. Childs

James M. Childs is Joseph A. Sittler Emeritus Professor of Theology and Ethics at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in Columbus Ohio.