The Formational Power of Nature, Part 2


Children come hardwired for wonder. “Children are born with certain values intact—namely their sense of wonder and their affinity for nature.”[1] One reason is that the abstract difference between ordinary and profound is not a distinction a child can usually make. Therefore all experiences can be loaded with wonder. Rachel Carson noticed this in her walks with her nephew: “Many children delight in the small and inconspicuous.”[2] Nature is loaded with sensory experiences. Through nature God becomes present to touch, smell, sight, sound, and sometimes taste. John Calvin called nature “the theater of God’s glory.” Further, children will respond to wonder with their own bodies. They will jump or scream, run and play.[4] Through nature children are invited into a full body conversation with God.


When adults are giving the opportunity to talk about their childhood experiences they will often recall an instance in which they felt “at one” with the “ebb and flow” that surrounded them.[5] Far from the typical view of children as self focused, these experiences bring children well beyond the boundaries of self and into the relational space of creation and Creator. Rather than leaving the self behind and forcing an either/or choice, nature brings along the self and expands it to a sense of larger belonging.[6] Human beings are beings of place. Rooting in Earth as place helps to widen human focus, to extend beyond themselves.[7] The Genesis account of creation reminds us that human beings are created from earth and will return to earth (Gen. 3:19).


Experiences of nature make the space for mystery.[8] Mystery acknowledges the end of the human range of knowing and is essential. Children find great mystery in the process of birth, growth, and death.[9] Children find all three of these processes fascinating and completely out of range of their power to control or influence. While children have not reached Piaget’s stage of formal operations, they possess the humility necessary to understand their limitations. The great sorrow children often express at the death of a pet is a notion of the unity they feel with the animal, and also an expression of their powerlessness to change the outcome. Children are able to embrace the mystery in death. Humility and endless curiosity enables them to be comfortable pondering the depths of what they do not know. The mystery children find in nature contains both wonder and union, all of which can give them an experience of the Creator who longs to connect with them.

What Now?

These aspects of spiritual formation cannot be directly taught. They must be experienced. However adults can aid by modeling awareness. Asking open ended questions and processing experiences aloud are formative tools; as is making the space and time for children to simply be in creation, communing with the Creator, without adult involvement. For some, these experiences will stand alone as anchors to Someone larger than themselves in whom they can trust, but do not know. In Christian spiritual formation these gifts from nature provide a pool of experiential knowledge that can be drawn upon in later stages of religious education.


Wonder, union and mystery are a part of adult formation as well. If we want to continue to grow into Christlikeness, these three will be a regular part of our lives. In what ways do you engage wonder, union and mystery?


A few resources that informed my thinking. I hope they are helpful for you too.

 [1]. Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow, “Values,” in Ecological Literacy, Kindle Electronic Edition: Introduction to Values, Location 993.

[2]. Rachel Carson and Nick Kelsh, The Sense of Wonder (New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 1998), 52.

 [3]. Brunner, Butler, and Swoboda, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology, 88.

[4]. Rebecca M. Nye, “Convergence with Children’s Theory of the Mind?,” in Being Human: The Case of Religion, Vol. 2. Psychological Studies on Spiritual and Religious Development, ed. K. Helmut Reich, Fritz K. Oser, W. George Scarlett (Lengerich, Germany: Pabst Science Publishers, 1999), 67.

[5]. David Hay and Rebecca Nye, Spirit of the Child. (London: Fount, 2006) Kindle Electronic Edition: Chapter 3, Location 1122.

 [6]. Ibid., Chapter 7, Location 2090.

[7]. David W. Orr, “Place and Pedagogy”, in Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, ed. Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2005) Kindle Electronic Edition: Part 2: Tradition/Place, Location 1724.

[8]. Malcolm Margolin, “Indian Pedagogy: A Look at Traditional California Indian Teaching Techniques”, in Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, ed. Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2005) Kindle Electronic Edition: Part 2: Tradition/Place, Location 1433.

[9]. David Hay and Rebecca Nye, Spirit of the Child. (London: Fount, 2006) Kindle Electronic Edition: Chapter 7, Location 2177.

[10]. Ibid., Chapter 6, Location 1963.

The Formational Power of Nature, Part 1

 I could not have been more than five years old. My family was cutting firewood in the LaSalle Mountains for the coming winter. As the adults were working, I wandered off and into a grove of Aspen trees. The leaves of the trees were golden and they sparkled in the sun. I lay down on my back so I could get a better look. The earth was wet, spongy, and sweet smelling. I fixed my gaze on the glittery leaves, and I knew Someone more than myself was with me. I knew I was safe and would never be alone.

This is a pivotal moment in my life. This one childhood moment has often been an anchor for my faith.  I am not alone in this, when I teach conferences on spiritual formation, I invite adults to use their non-dominant hand to draw their first memory of God. More times than not, they draw a picture that includes some aspect of nature. How does God use nature in the lives of children to invite them into a life with him? 

The Trinity is both intimately within creation and extraordinarily beyond it. The Scripture is loaded with examples. Paul makes the case for the Cosmic Christ who is above all and in all (Col. 1:15-20). In Ezekiel 37:9-14, John 20:22, and Acts 2:2 the Holy Spirit is understood as wind. The Psalmist references the power of nature to form and inform humanity in the ways and grandeur of God throughout one hundred and fifty chapters. God is present in nature, and nature is present with God.

In Isaiah 55 the trees and mountains dance and clap their hands in praise. Nature is the place where the kingdom of God is most available to the senses. Cognitively speaking the Eastern Orthodox Church has given a vocabulary to Christians to understand immanence and transcendence beginning with the Cappadocian Father, Saint Basil the Great. He helped articulate the immanent God who would make himself available through creation and yet paradoxically be exponentially beyond and other.

Transcendence can be a bridge that brings together the concrete nature of experience with the abstract quality of religious training. Nature experiences have a quality of transcendence, meaning that nature experiences go beyond religious tradition or doctrine. These experiences transcend religious language. They often transcend language in any capacity, especially in children who have a limited command of language. Often when children share about their experiences, adults judge them as undefined and vague, however, they wield tremendous power.

Authentic transcendent nature experiences include the body and all its sense-gathering capacity. Authentic experiences produce concrete knowledge. Developmental theory is a linear formational system as opposed to nature experience which is a living system based on interconnected elements. Those interconnected elements include all the parts of the person, including those parts which researchers do not have direct access to, namely the spirit.

Children have not yet learned to hide inside their bodies and as a result they have a natural propensity for awareness. They are able to engage with nature with their whole selves. Children are fully present to their current surroundings. Maturing human beings must learn to shift their awareness to past and future, but this is a learned skill. This may be why children report more spiritual experiences than adults. Nature invites the whole self of the child into an experience with the immanent and transcendent God. The characteristics of these experiences are wonder, union and mystery.


Tomorrow we will explore wonder, union and mystery and how they draw children to God.

How has nature drawn you to God? Do you have a childhood experience in nature?


In addition, here are a few resources that helped form my thinking.

David Hay and Rebecca Nye, Spirit of the Child (London: Fount, 2006).

Fritjiof Capra, “How Nature Sustains the Web of Life”, in Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, ed. Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2005).

 Fritjiof Capra, “Speaking Nature’s Language Principles for Sustainability,” in Ecological Literacy: Educating Our Children for a Sustainable World, ed. Michael K. Stone and Zenobia Barlow (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 2005).

Hay and Nye, Spirit of the Child.

 Daniel L. Brunner, Jennifer L Butler, and A.J. Swoboda, Introducing Evangelical Ecotheology (Grand Rapids, Michigan: 2014).