A world in a grain of sand, infinity in the palm of a child’s hand

By Chris J. Boyatzis, Ph.D.

The title of this article, inspired by the famous opening to William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence,” suggests that spiritual insights come in gentle, mundane moments—a young child inspecting a flower’s petals or a child’s powerful insight, taken from the night sky, about the mystery of the cosmos. Whatever their form, many experiences with nature are charged with wonder, awe and a sense of connectedness to something greater than one’s self.

Nature teaches that life is cyclical—birth, death and re-birth—all taking place right outside our door. It is not necessary to take our kids to Yellowstone to experience nature; “nearby nature” is there to teach. Engaging with nature often gives us “ineffable” experiences that are beyond description, that touch and teach us in ways deeper than any words can.

In “Will Our Children Have Faith?”, John Westerhoff wrote that intuitional and experiential consciousness is crucial for children’s spiritual lives. Being in nature is a form of spiritual being. The heart of sacred experience, argued Rudolf Otto in “The Idea of the Holy,” was a numinous consciousness, a complex emotional awareness of divine power. This feeling has two components: the mysterium tremendum, the divine object’s awesome power that can fill us with dread, and mysterium fascinans—the divine object’s fascinating appeal that draws us closer to it. Nature helps children engage and feel this complex duality. Nature is overpowering and can fill us with dread (hurricanes, earthquakes, wild animals that kill). It also draws us to its beauty (wildflowers, seashores, sunsets and sunrises, the song of the whale and the camaraderie of wolves). Both experiences can leave us speechless and more attuned to the world beyond ourselves.

Turning to our Christian tradition, Genesis tells us that God created the natural world, then humankind. “God’s kingdom” started with “the wild kingdom.” Of course, Jesus used the natural world to teach his disciples, and children should know well the New Testament venues of vineyard, desert, mustard seed, field and pasture. The Christian story is intimately yoked with the natural world. Jesus redeemed creation along with its people. Nature is the setting for our redemption. Adults can draw on tradition to cultivate awe and wonder in our children about the natural world, and to help them feel connected to their Christianity.

Yet, I worry about some risks inherent in these approaches. First, nature can be used as a tool to teach priority in “spiritual” lessons that minimize the natural world and its sacred place as God’s creation. Perhaps humans have struggled with this ever since being granted “dominion” over the earth. Second, if we only romanticize nature, we are inclined to wax poetic about children wandering in bucolic pastures, or to envision scenes reminiscent of Mary Cassatt paintings, in which toddlers play on serene beaches. We may overlook the countless children living in squalor or in natural settings poisoned by human activity, along with those who suffer or die in tornados, hurricanes, floods or other forces of nature. A healthy Christian account of children-in-nature is two-fold: striving to use nature as a teaching tool, emphasizing genuine respect for creation and enjoying romantic ideals of children in nature, while also considering the reality of a fallen world and nature’s power.

Take a child outside. The sky is there, always. It changes, but surrounds us through the changing rhythms of the day, the season and the year. Darkness follows the day, yet the sun also rises, again and again. Nature is the living theater in which children learn of their connectedness to what is vast, beautiful and right under their feet. Nature can teach a child about the glorious, eternal transcendence and imminence of God’s love, of what is beautiful and good and always there.

Chris J. Boyatzis, Ph.D., professor of Psychology at Bucknell University, Lewisburg, Pa., is involved in children’s religious education and conducts programs on Christian parenting. This article first appeared in The Christian Citizen, Vol. 1, 2009.

The views expressed are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of the American Baptist Home Mission Societies.

Sources and resources:

  • The Geography of Childhood: Why Children Need Wild Places, Gary Nabhan and Stephen Trimble (Beacon Press, 1994).
  • The Idea of the Holy, Rudolf Otto (Oxford University Press, 1958, originally published in German in 1917).
  • Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv (Algonquin Books, 2005).
  • Will Our Children Have Faith? John Westerhoff (Morehouse, revised ed., 2000).