01 August 2012 a post by Bruce Stanley

Natural Theology, Signs and Omens – God speaking through Nature.

God speaks primarily through sacred scripture, so I’ve been led to believe by those who’ve shaped my thinking, but I’m hearing the same divine voice speaking elsewhere – standing out against the everyday backdrop of my natural surroundings: the unusual behaviour of a bird, a rare plant growing somewhere unexpected, a vision of beauty that penetrates me with a sense of transcendence I can’t ignore. My instincts tell me the voice is God’s but this is a harder book to read.

sheep with swapped heads

The whole endeavour raises many questions.

  • Does God actually speak through nature?
  • Isn’t it a bit primitive to attach significance to some natural phenomenon just because it is out of the ordinary?
  • What makes you think God is speaking to you?
  • How can you interpret the meaning of something that has none of the rigour of biblical interpretation for example?

Yes, yes, yes – I’ve wrestled with these and many more questions for some time and I haven’t got all the answers but I’m inching forward, more so by journeying with others in the exploration. If you’re listening to the same call, I’d like to encourage you.

Learning from God through nature as well as exploring and describing God through nature come under the heading of natural theology. It’s had various interpretations over the years and has gone in and out of favour accordingly. (A recent book by Alistair McGrath helpfully sets out the issues and questions surrounding the idea.) But it has a key proponent in Jesus who often explored the Kingdom and God through recourse to natural phenomenon rather than pre-existing sacred texts. Perhaps this is all more down to earth and natural than we think.

Hints, Nods and Pointers – Signs, Omens and Augurs.

cotton grass in the sunshine

Communication can happen in two directions. We can initiate it by bringing our creative or scientific focus to something we’ve noticed: this tree, flower, mountain, natural process or phenomenon, is like God because …

What I’m exploring, however, is the idea that the conversation might be initiated the other way – God may send us a sign from nature, like a rainbow or a star, or a spring. Tentatively, these might be hints or pointers towards something vague – or they might be more robustly interpreted as signs and omens.

Reading signs from God in nature was fairly common practice amongst the early Celtic saints. Contrary to the common idea that early Christians plonked their settlements on top of pre-existing sacred sites, many were placed where the saint in question received a sign from God in nature: ravens on a tree, a white sow in a clearing, crickets on a bramble plant and a bear in the woods mark the locations of sites ranging from chapels to cities. And no doubt there were more prosaic occurrences that never made it into legend. 

The reformation and the enlightenment probably account for much of the squashing of this practice and we’re left with this lingering notion that nature is a very secondary, ordinary and messy vehicle for God to speak through. The resulting problem is that we’re very out of practice; reading this second book of God isn’t a simple as it might seem. Biblical scholars invest time and effort into uncovering the original meaning of the language and the society it was given to – so the natural theologian would benefit from learning the language of nature.

(It’s also worth noting that there are some prominent but unhelpful attempts at reading natural signs when earthquakes, or other natural disasters, are read as God’s judgements on one group or another.)

Step one: notice. Step two: work out what it means.

bright sunshine breaking through clouds on to beach

Start off somewhere simple, ask God to give you eyes to see and ears to hear. In other words, be open to messages from nature and ask for divine help when interpreting them.

When I and my wife were looking for somewhere to live, we were looking for a sign and after many months and many miles of looking we found somewhere and noticed four signs that confirmed for us that it was the right place. One was the sound of a stream, the second was a rabbit, the third was flock of starlings and the fourth was a wild herb growing on the land. These gave us confidence that this was the right place and we made an immediate offer.

And it seems to me that something prominent happens more often now that I’m noticing: diamond like dew on the winter twigs of a birch catching the sun with a message about beauty, a large buzzard hovering over the road saying something about being watched over, and most recently a young swallow following me into the house and making a lightening fast circuit and graceful exit telling me something about significance and impermanence.

The challenge is interpretation. Study and knowledge of nature and its language help. Seeing nature with something of Christ’s perspective helps. But in the end it is down to discernment and practice and making space to notice in the first place.

At the very least use something you’ve noticed as a prompt for prayer or meditation and the various communities around this site and its facebook group can be a safe place to explore.

 

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Your comments:

Yesss!!

#1. By Polly on August 01, 2012

What an interesting blog. I’m glad I’m not the only one who notices God speaking through nature. It is easier to be aware of God’s love and presence when I’m out and about in the countryside. The sparkling raindrops on twigs in the misty rain are my favourite jewels that He bestows upon me… all the more precious to me because He has given me the eyes and the mind to perceive them, while others walk by not noticing.

#2. By Dominique on August 01, 2012

This is how the creator speaks to me - nature and all it holds an can teach is a language I’m still learning but it’s a joys and sorrows (for there are both)touch my inner soul.

#3. By Tilly on August 05, 2012

I feel so fortunate to be living in such a peaceful part of England - on the edge of this Georgian Market Town, in a region with links to the story of Robin Hood and his empathy for the Commoner and the Common Land. If he existed - as an individual or an amalgamation of individuals - I’m sure God spoke to him/ them through nature as well as the Scriptures of the times.
This Wettest Drought has allowed the foliage of the shrubbery and trees to become so lush. For me this lushness speaks of the Joy of God, the Vitality of the Word - its Maker - and lights up the spark of Divine within me. I wonder sometimes how it is possible to pass by and not notice God in creation - speaking, illuminating our lives.

#4. By Peter on September 02, 2012

Thanks Peter. I wonder if noticing has something to do with having eyes to see and ears to hear as Jesus put it.

We’re counting the cost of a very wet year that has seen very little germinate – but I’m consoled by how much the 5,000 native trees we planted 18 months ago are liking it.

#5. By Bruce Stanley on September 02, 2012

I too feel that much closer to God when I am out amongst nature so peaceful, you can hear the whispers of the Eternal just telling you to listen harder.

#6. By new_vistas on September 05, 2012

Interesting blog.

Whenever I’m out in the morning sun, I notice that I’m more present—my mind is less focused on the past/future, and more centered in the present moment.

It’s like accessing a different dimension.  With my eyes closed, I hear the sounds of birds and “see” the sunlight pressed against my (closed) eyelids.

I don’t know if I fit in around this blog.

I mean, I’m pro-White.  (And a lot of people consider that a bad thing.)  I’m a White person who loves White people and I’m concerned about political correctness and the general state of the world / environment / everything.

#7. By Richard on September 20, 2012

I believe God does speak to us through nature.
I had an experience once and I know God was
telling me something very good.  It was
so special to me that I haven’t told anyone.
And I don’t think God wants me to share it.
But it definitely involved nature and it
was very unusual. What’s interesting is that
no one was around to see it but me at
the time. Only God could have timed something
so perfectly in a fairly active neighborhood.
Anyway, thanks for your blog.

#8. By Francis Morgan on November 09, 2013











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