Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality – Review
Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality, by H. Paul Santmire, May 2014. Fortress Press, 272 pages, ISBN: 978-145147-300-1. RRP $39
H.Paul Santmire offers a Christian Nature Spirituality
In his last book, a pioneering ecotheologian recommends nature spirituality based on praying a Trinity Prayer.
Santmire started to write about ecotheology already in the 1960s. His two first books, Brother Earth (1970) and Travail of Nature (1985) are internationally acclaimed classics. Nature Reborn (2000) has also been a widely read ecotheological work and the 2008 Ritualizing Nature was a pioneering work in connecting worship life with nature. Now he has reached the last stages of his long career – and ends with the most personal book he has written.
Before Nature: A Christian Spirituality (Fortress Press, 2014) could also be called “The Confessions of an Ecotheologian”, following St. Augustine. Santmire is bravely honest. He lets the reader to know the intimate details of his personal spiritual life. He offers to act as a spiritual guide, but wants to make sure that nobody thinks he is personally perfect. His confessions are touching and moving in their honesty. In his stories, experiences and places integrate with theological notions.
The method is extraordinary for a theological work of this kind. The book includes some heavy systematic theology, although Santmire has endeavored to keep the most difficult discussion in the end notes. However, the main flow of the text is based on stories about “places of knowing” and “roughly hewn analogies”. For example, discussion about God’s presence in the natural world is linked with stories about Santmire’s countyside house with its garden and environs; experience of God as self-sacrificing Savior is described through the example of an anonymous black man who once saved Santmire’s life; and awe before God’s majesty is illustrated by contemplating the Niagara Falls.
This approach brings to the book a strong dimension of theology of places, mostly ordinary ones. The result is in an interesting contrast to most books about nature spirituality, which are usually linked with wilderness areas. To be sure, there is reflection about such places in Santmire’s book, in addition with cosmological reflection, but for better or worse this is a book with urban and semi-urban context. I presume that this will help many readers who themselves live in such settings, even when a wilderness-oriented person might have wished for, to name an example, more discussion about God as “powerful, torrential flow” (the Niagara analogy) in relation to nature’s forces in the wild.
However, the most unique thing in the book is the way in which the content is integrated with Santmire’s version of a Trinity Prayer:
Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy on me.
Praise Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Come, Holy Spirit, Come and Reign.
The chapters of the book are structured roughly in relation to these petitions. Santmire recommends a method where the prayer is said or sung many times a day, resulting in a spirituality of daily life. The book discusses numerous ecotheological themes, such as the travail of nature, the cosmic dimensions of Christ’s work and the role of the Holy Spirit in relation to nature, and in the final chapter links this whole discussion with the Trinity Prayer.
The result is a highly interesting work, which will probably somewhat divide opinions, but it is difficult not to be moved by Santmire’s honesty and effort. For those who have theological background, the end notes offer much extra pondering. For my part, I wish that the book will lead new readers to become acquainted as well with Santmire’s earlier, high-quality work, which includes also more concrete proposals related to conservation and environmental education.
By Panu Pihkala
Rev. Pihkala is finishing his dissertation on ecotheology and is the chairperson of A Rocha Finland.