Chapter 7: Case Study: Wilderness and Creation Spirituality

7.1 Wilderness and Creation Spirituality

There are powerful wilderness or creation spirituality themes evident in many religions, and these provide rich ground for further reflection. Gautama Buddha, after all, received enlightenment while sitting under a tree;[1] Moses led the Israelites to freedom through a 40-year wilderness sojourn; [2] Mohammad found inspiration and revelation in a cave; [3] and Jesus began his public ministry only after being tested for 40 days in the wilderness. [4] These and other wilderness-linked traditions of spiritual formation [5] attest to the important role nature plays in shaping the ethos of religious traditions.


A Tibetan Buddhist temple perched on hillside for meditation retreat. Photo Credit: Rongkun Liu

One way to begin this conversation is exemplified in an article I wrote while working as the Land Stewardship Specialist for the National Council of Churches Eco-Justice Program, during a year when that program was focused on “wilderness.” I was tasked with illuminating some of the wilderness themes found in Biblical traditions, and I did so with an eye toward thinking about how themes of wilderness spirituality that are evident in the Bible might be resonant for biblically-influenced Americans today as they seek to ground environmental ethics within their own tradition. In other words, how could themes of wilderness spirituality provided by the Bible help contemporary Americans forge their own deeper bonds with the natural world in a way that strengthens their expression of creation care? That article makes a good starting point and provides the bulk of our current conversation, and can be found here. [6]

Following on this article, which highlights seven evocative biblical wilderness themes (highlighted below), several points deserve additional attention. One obvious point is that there is far more wilderness and outdoor spirituality to be found in the Bible than many Americans would likely guess. Within Christian theology, professor of biblical theology and the New Testament Ulrich W. Mauser argued that Mark’s gospel could not be understood apart from a robust focus on the wilderness, which is to say that the lead-up to Jesus (including the ministry and message of John the Baptist) is hugely evocative of wilderness themes, and the preparation of Jesus for ministry was completed only after Jesus was led into the wilderness by the spirit after his baptism. Furthermore, the whole of Jesus’ ministry, Mauser asserted, remained close to wilderness themes, as Jesus and the disciples repeatedly retreated to wilderness places (or “quiet places”) in the desert or beyond the edge of town to re-center and re-group themselves. Likewise, Jesus is found in the wilderness or on the mountain in prayer the night before most of his major miracles, like walking on water and feeding the 5,000 people. Contemplative and restorative time in the wilderness was an abiding theme of the life and ministry of Jesus as reported in the Bible.

Similarly, the spiritual formation of the Israelites in the Hebrew Bible is closely tied to the land and to the wilderness. In addition to the themes we discussed in chapter two, where the Genesis creation accounts link humans intimately and fundamentally with the earth, [7] the Hebrew Bible says it was during the exodus from Egypt and 40 years in the wilderness that the Israelites were formed as God’s people. The basic starting points of relationship with God were powerfully shaped by or in wilderness places – God’s provision of water and food, of protection, of freedom amid and through the wilderness journey – all were constitutive for Israel. If a later theologian like Reinhold Niebuhr might suggest that the faithful path for humans is to “trust God,” then the wilderness experience was the formative experience where the Israelites learned that they could do so, indeed must do so if they were to flourish. Notably, throughout the biblical history at times when God’s people have gone astray, prophets have tended to return to the wilderness to regain a clear sense of God’s purposes for people; it is often from the wilderness that prophets call people back to God. Over and over, the spiritually formative, primeval power of wilderness is made clear in biblical traditions.

The psalms also underline these themes, and often express praise in response to God and the wonders of God’s creation, as in Psalms 104:24-30, 148:1-12, and 36:5-6: [8]

How many are your works, Lord! In wisdom you made them all; the earth is full of your creatures. There is the sea, vast and spacious, teeming with creatures beyond number — living things both large and small. There the ships go to and fro, and Leviathan, which you formed to frolic there. All creatures look to you to give them their food at the proper time. When you give it to them, they gather it up; when you open your hand, they are satisfied with good things. When you hide your face, they are terrified; when you take away their breath, they die and return to the dust. When you send your Spirit, they are created, and you renew the face of the ground. – Psalm 104:24-30, NIV

Praise the Lord. Praise the Lord from the heavens; praise him in the heights above. Praise him, all his angels; praise him, all his heavenly hosts. Praise him, sun and moon; praise him, all you shining stars. Praise him, you highest heavens and you waters above the skies. Let them praise the name of the Lord, for at his command they were created, and he established them for ever and ever — he issued a decree that will never pass away. Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths, lightning and hail, snow and clouds, stormy winds that do his bidding, you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all cedars, wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds, kings of the earth and all nations, you princes and all rulers on earth, young men and women, old men and children. – Psalm 148:1-12, NIV

Your love, Lord, reaches to the heavens, your faithfulness to the skies. Your righteousness is like the highest mountains, your justice like the great deep. You, Lord, preserve both people and animals. – Psalm 36:5-6, NIV

  2. One source among many is Leal’s Wilderness Theology in the Bible; a review can be found here.
  4. The classic exposition of wilderness themes related to Jesus is Ulrich Mauser’s Christ in the Wilderness; an early review can be found here. A recent post on Christian wilderness experience in Africa is here. A Holmes Rolston commentary on biblical terms for “wilderness” is here.
  5. Think of Australian aboriginal walkabout, or native American vision quest, or any of the rites of passage in indigenous cultures that Baer noted as being relatively absent from American culture in his “Need to Control” article
  6. The rest of this chapter assumes that the reader has read this article: Biblical Wilderness Theology: Spiritual Roots for Environmental Education from the Spring/Summer issue of the journal Taproot.
  7.   I.e., humans from humus
  8. More discussion of ecological witness in the psalms can be found here:


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Religion and Environmental Values in America Copyright © 2019 by Gregory E Hitzhusen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.