Finding God in Creation: Nature & Mysticism in Judaism, Christianity, & Islam
As long as humans have reported religious experiences, we have seen certain themes reoccur. They often come in the altered states of consciousness associated with fasting and deep meditation; or in dreams, when one experiences the unconscious directly. Another of the states most common to religious experience is that of immersion in the natural world. In the first chapter of his letter to the Romans, Paul writes:
For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature.
Romans 1:20, New Living Translation
And this sentiment is not unique to Christianity. Jewish thought connects humanity, divinity, and the natural world through the principal of bal tashchit against waste and destruction. The Quran lists birds, mountains, rivers, and fruits, among the signs for those who believe, referring to:
those who remember Allah while standing or sitting or [lying] on their sides and give thought to the creation of the heavens and the earth, [saying], “Our Lord, You did not create this without purpose …”
Quran Al-i-Imran 3:191
These Abrahamic faiths are by no means alone in seeing a divine order to the universe reflected in creation; though they are particularly interesting due to their shared roots. Each of these traditions are quite different, so the shared role of the natural world within them is worth paying attention to.
One way to explore the role of nature in spirituality is through teachings which center on the natural world. By exploring the role played by the nature in selected Jewish, Christian, and Muslim teachings, we will reveal a shared path that has been walked by many across different times and faiths.
The Kingdom of God in the Fields of Judea
We often have an image of theological teaching being contained in the secluded cloisters or isolated towers which dot medieval landscapes. And while the monastics who inhabit them deserve a great deal of appreciation for the wisdom which they have safeguarded, their teachings did not originate in those ivory towers.
Much of the account of Jesus and His public ministry in the Christian Gospels is dedicated to teachings given to common people. While He was equally capable of discussing intricacies of the Torah with Rabbis in the Temple, in His public ministry Jesus addressed the people in the language they knew; that of an agrarian society in the Classical Age.
Matthew’s Gospel explain’s Jesus’ methods of teaching, referencing Psalm 78:
Jesus always used stories and illustrations like these when speaking to the crowds. In fact, he never spoke to them without using such parables. This fulfilled what God had spoken through the prophet:
“I will speak to you in parables.
I will explain things hidden since the creation of the world.”
Matthew 13:34-35, NLT
The referenced Psalm speaks of lessons hidden in the past, and the importance of tradition; Jesus speaks instead of lessons hidden in creation itself.
Jesus taught in natural settings like the bountiful waters and fertile lands surrounding the Sea of Galilee, where nature was not an abstract concept, but integral to the way of life. Jesus tells how the tiny mustard seed grows into a great tree, or how a fig tree which bears fruit is celebrated, while a barren fig tree is given fertile soil and the chance to bear fruit before it is cut down; each familiar images to an agrarian society, which He could point to directly while teaching.
In one of His most enduring parables, Jesus describes the spiritual life in the Kingdom of God with the image of seed sown on the ground. Seed which falls on the wayside is eaten up by birds; seed which falls on rocky ground cannot take up roots, seed which falls in thorn bushes is strangled by them, and the seed which falls on fertile ground flourishes, creating a great harvest.
By using parables to connect everyday physical reality to a greater spiritual world, Jesus prompts the listener to find their place within the presented pattern.
In one such example, the Saint and Church Father John Chrysostom reflects upon the Parable of the Sower and how we might seek to change ourselves:
Indeed in the material seed and soil of this world… it is impossible that rock should become soil, or that the way should not be the way, or that thorns should not be thorns. But with minds and doctrines… it is possible that the rock be made rich soil, that the way should be no more trodden upon, and that the thorns should be extirpated. That the most part of the seed then perished, came not of him that sowed, but of the soil that received it, that is the mind. For He that sowed put no difference between rich and poor, wise or foolish, but spoke to all alike.
John Chrysostom, Catena Aurea
Chrysostom easily applies the parable to the individual psyche as a call to change ourselves to receive the seed of a more fulfilling life; just as a barren fig tree is fertilized so as not to be cut down. This shows a deep reverence for nature and the truths that it reveals about us; a quality that we will see in Jewish and Muslim traditions as well.
Man is a Tree in the Fields
The oldest of the Abrahamic religions, at the heart of Judaism is an ever-evolving discussion between believers on the intricacies of the faith they share. Because of this, we have access to a series of commentaries dating from the earliest Talmudic sources in Classical Antiquity through the present. Humanity’s relationships with creator and creation are explored through recurring themes; with perhaps no natural symbol more prevalent than the tree.
The Kohelet Rabbah, an early medieval Midrash, or interpretive text, on the Book of Ecclesiastes, describes humanity’s responsibility to nature:
When God created the first man he took him and showed him all the trees of the Garden of Eden and said to him, “See my works, how beautiful and praiseworthy they are. And everything that I created, I created it for you. Be careful not to spoil or destroy my world–for if you do, there will be nobody after you to repair it.”
Kohelet Rabbah 7:13
The environmental message would be noteworthy on its own, but one can take the beauty and praiseworthiness of the tree and apply it to the rest of creation.
Care for creation is written in the Law, such as a passage in Deuteronomy (20:19-20) on wartime conduct, which prescribes that fruit-bearing trees are to be spared, while those that do not bear fruit can be cut down.
The law may seem arbitrary at first glance, but it is the foundation of bal tashchit, a core ethical principle against waste and wanton destruction. The teacher of Rabbinic literature Jeffrey Spitzer expounds upon the principal in a fantastic article linked below.
Every Person is a Tree | My Jewish Learning
The way that we are to treat nature informs how we treat each other; indeed if fruit-bearing trees are not to be cut down during war, how much more should we value human life? Like trees, we humans are also best when we are firmly rooted and grow toward the light. We can also hope, through our words and our actions, to bear fruit. Not only do the mystic Kabbalists revere the Tree of Life symbol, the first major collection of Jewish oral tradition, the Mishnah, views humans in arboreal terms:
One whose deeds are greater than his wisdom, to what is he compared? To a tree with many roots and few branches, which all the storms in the world cannot budge from its place.
Pirkei Avot 3:17
Following bal tashchit by avoiding waste and destruction provides a guide for society; taking responsibility to care for the trees of the field as well as the humans who resemble them. And indeed this principle is still being expounded upon today, by those like David Seidenberg, whose book *Kabbalah and Ecology: God’s Image in the More-Than-Human World* urges not only Jews to honor Creator and Creation in the world.
In an ever-evolving tradition like Judaism, as in our ever-changing world, there will always be more to explore. This look at a living tradition founded in ancient principles shows how our relationship with the natural world informs our relationships with each other.
Seeking A Hidden Treasure
Islam also entrusts humanity with stewardship over the world. The great responsibility to care for creation provides the great opportunity to know its Creator. The Qur’an refers many times to the signs (ayat) within the heavens and the earth that direct one to understand their source. The rising and setting of the sun, birds in the sky, mountains, rivers, and fruits are each found in the Qur’an as invitations to discernment.
Fittingly, the Islamic world has produced a great deal of theological and scientific works which seek transcendent divinity within creation. But perhaps none are as powerfully moving as the works of the great mystic poets.
Known as Sufis, mystics have played a significant role in the development of Islam, noteworthy for their focus on applying the religion to internal spirituality. Prominent Sufis like Ibn Arabi, the Iberian mystic philosopher, scholar, and poet, found inspiration in passages like the Hidden Treasure Hadith:
I was a hidden treasure; I loved to be known. Hence I created the world so that I would be known.
Hidden Treasure Hadith
Ibn Arabi and his fellow Sufis would thereby see the cosmos as a living act of God’s love. All creation, from the smallest pebble to the greatest mountain, reflects love and a desire to be known. To the Sufi, when we love nature, God is loving and knowing Himself. As Ibn Arabi writes in his Meccan Illuminations:
None but God is loved in the existent things. It is He who is manifest within every beloved to the eye of every lover – and there is no existent thing that is not a lover. So, the cosmos is all lover and beloved, and all of it goes back to Him… Poets exhaust their words on all these existing things, but they do not know. The gnostics never hear a verse, a riddle… or a love poem that is not about God, hidden beyond the veil of forms.
Ibn Arabi, The Meccan Illuminations
Sufi poets are masters of language, using imagery of the natural world and human experience to draw the reader closer to the transcendent. Poets like Rumi, the Persian Sufi, are read across the world, well beyond traditional Islamic spheres of influence. Rumi draws so many to his work through imagery that one need not be a Muslim to appreciate, only a human living in the world:
Oh gardener, gardener
autumn has come
how desolate is every branch and leaf.
can you hear the trees’ lament
standing leafless in rows
mourners dressed in black, weeping?
No tears come without reason
no face is pale without an aching heart.
The black raven of sorrow has entered the garden
stamping his feet upon the withered green,
“Where is the rose bed now, where are the lilies,
the sweet jasmine and cypress?
Where are the fruit trees, the green grasses,
the nightingale, and the glorious peacock?
Like Adam, expelled from paradise
all trees are stripped of their robes and crowns
and the garden, frozen in lament, lies waiting
for the Lord’s promise of hope.
But you, blasphemous raven, wait!
To your envy the ice will melt,
the water will flow again in the streams,
and colors and scent will return.
The trumpet of resurrection will restore life to the world
filling the rose garden with laughter
and the nightingale’s song.
Autumn will die and we will dance upon its grave.
Rejoice, for the dawn of Splendor is breaking!
Conclusion: Our Place In Nature
I hope that whether you are religious or not, whether you maybe belong to one of these Abrahamic traditions or not, that we are all ablet o benefit from seeing these harmonies. This reverence for nature is not only something that's a feature of the Abrahamic religions, but I thought that for their similarities and differences following this common thread through them can provide a road map for people to walk side by side, whether you follow one of these traditions or not. To pause for a moment and take time to discern on nature.
The world around us is more than ornamentation. It is more than a nice place to go for leisure, and trees, greenery, and plant life are more than natural machines which convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. They are marvelous, intricate beautiful works of art; works of creation that consist of and participate in patterns. And of course, remember that we humans are still a product of these same patterns and even play a role in the greater one.
I hope that whatever it may look like to you; whether it's sparing a fruit tree, whether it's spending time in nature to learn how to change yourself, or whether it is looking at the world in a poetic sense, that you're able to gain something from this. For me I have a garden on my apartment porch and I like to feed the local birds.
And so returning to Christ's Parable of the Sower that started, I hope that you and I can each make ourselves fertile ground ready to grow whatever seed may be planted.