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  • Writer's pictureDaniel Vollaro

Churches Everywhere, But I Still Look for God in the Woods

On a recent vacation to the Adirondack Mountains, I drove past a familiar place—the Word of Life Bible Institute in Pottersville, NY. Word of Life is a Christian camp that has long owned and operated facilities in the area of Schroon Lake, where my parents live. In the year since my last visit, a big swathe of trees along the road had been removed in a major renovation of the facility. The entire area is now a big parking lot with several new buildings. They had entirely reshaped this area near the South end of the lake, stripping away most of the trees in the process. The south end of the lake now looks like a thousand other Church properties in the North Atlanta suburbs where I live.

A familiar feeling surged up inside me. I have felt it before, for the first time when, at age five, the meadow behind my house was bulldozed to create a new housing development, but I have felt it many times since then, whenever I see evidence that the purveyors of concrete, pavement, and the “Piedmont” variety of Kentucky Bluegrass have won another battle in the long war to turn America into one vast suburb. It is a little itch of irritation that threatens to blossom into a full-fledged case of hives if I spend too much time thinking about it.

By all rights, I shouldn’t be allowed to say such things. After all, I too live in the suburbs, on a cul-de-sac no less. Who am I to question the right of property owners in the free market system to turn nearly every “undeveloped” plot of land in America into a new strip mall, fast food restaurant, or housing development? Wouldn’t I be a hypocrite to do so? But then I remember the Universal Law of Critique, which says that a person is not necessarily a hypocrite for critiquing the lifestyle they have chosen, especially if they have something interesting to say about it. So whether or not I live on a cul-de-sac is immaterial to anything I am about to say about cul-de-sacs (by the way, there is no Universal Law of Critique, but it is fun for me to imagine that such things exist, and you believed it for a second, didn’t you).

I have been called naïve for speaking of my perfect love for unspoiled meadows and wild places and for always casting the bulldozer as the villain. I can always count on someone to step forward and say: "People need housing. You need bulldozers to build houses. Are you saying we shouldn't live in houses." As logical as this sounds, it is really the sound of the System speaking through a hand puppet. The System does perfectly well on its own without anyone stepping forward to defend it.

I have also been known to speak fondly of naïveté, especially the kind that thrives in children. It was a younger, more naïve version of myself that was first attracted to both the forest and religion. In the beginning, when I was very young, God dwelled in both houses, in the small Catholic Church where my family attended Mass every Sunday and in the woods behind my neighborhood. I could feel His presence humming in everything like a low frequency, but especially in the quieter places. I’ll speak of church first: it was something about the grainy oak of the crucifix behind the altar and the rough aridity of palms fronds held in my hands on the Sunday before Easter and the crown of flowers placed on the statue of Mary in May—a faint but persistent memory of that part of Catholicism that was passed down from people who had worshipped older, more elemental gods in forest shrines long before the arrival of Christianity. The Catholic Church has been skillful at representing the natural world in its architectural and liturgical aspects, and this symbolic language was not lost on me. Sitting in Church as a six-year-old boy, I could almost see the boughs of ancient forests straining to burst through the walls and the floors, filling the building with fragrant, chaotic green shoots of life. Almost, but not quite.

As I grew older, however, it was just easier in the woods to feel the Divine Presence. In the woods, I was free, and there was no price demanded of me for this freedom. I could lounge for hours in the crook of the big old oak tree near the river, and God was right there, in the honeysuckle in the air and the two bass flitting around in the stream below. The cloud of tiny newly hatched flies swirling around the surface of the river was all the justification for faith in a divine creator that I required. This was truly the Garden, unmediated by language or symbolism, fully present and accessible to me. No faith was required to reach it, just a short walk from my house. The Church, however, demanded my obedience as a precondition for everything. It was training me to be a reciter of prayers and creeds who understood perfectly when to sit, stand, and kneel. At the same time, the Church was asking me to ignore the information of my senses and the dictates of my body. All of this sacrifice and renunciation, but with so little emphasis on the experience of God, which was far more real in the rough feel of tree bark on my fingertips than in the smooth polish of those polyurthene-coated pews under the seat of my polyester pants.

These attitudes have carried over into my adulthood. If they are naïve, then so be it (I haven't forgotten that Jesus famously urged his followers to become like little children). Most religion is a practiced dilution of the divine presence that satisfies social dictates rather than spiritual ones. Most of the devout Christians I have met in my life are overly concerned with individual moral rectitude, especially in sexual matters, and very few of them have actual spiritual lives. For them, religion is a kind of panopticon in which communal surveillance determines the quality of one's "faith." Moral perfection. Theological perfection. The former makes my skin crawl. The latter makes my head hurt.

I no longer attend Church services, but occasionally on a Sunday, I will go for a drive or hike, to spend some time alone in spiritual reflection. Recently, I took a Sunday drive through my town, Marietta, Georgia, to see if I might find something new. I deliberately turned down roads I had never driven before. I was determined to uncover some new, undiscovered gem, a new park perhaps or an interesting old building to sketch. I drove for two hours and saw a nearly unbroken landscape of strip malls, gated communities, and chain restaurants. A cultural wasteland dotted with carefully placed trees and decorative shrubbery.

And I saw churches everywhere; there were even churches in strip malls. Most of them were well-financed and well-manicured facilities. Beautiful landscaping. Trees optional of course, and only placed there purposefully for decorative purposes. In their physical footprint upon the land, these churches were identical to the other types of businesses around them, distinguishable only in the architectural details, and the cross of course. Another plot of land. Another victory parade for the bulldozers and graters.

I wonder what Jesus would say about all of this automobile-accessible religion doled out in Zoning Board-approved spaces. Christians are always trying to update Jesus, always trying to imagine what he would be like in the present day, but I like to think of him as a walker. If you read the Gospels, you will see that Jesus walked everywhere, and people who walk are close to the ground. They know the names of plants and animals. They can tell you what the air smells like after a heavy rain or when the monarch butterflies are migrating through on their way South.

Maybe it’s my fault for reading the stories in the Bible carefully as if they had something important to teach me. For example, after reading the first two chapters of Genesis, I imagined that the meadow behind my house was the Garden, or a piece of it anyway, and in every wild place I have ever visited, I have felt the same sense of being surrounded by the perfection of the Creation. And in every lot bulldozed and filled up with human habitation, I have felt a sense of banishment.

I suppose I was disappointed to see so much evidence of what I already know, that most of our churches are not friends of wild places. Churches have been the handmaidens of Western Civilization for centuries, hand in hand with the colonialists, the mercantile class, the museum curators, and the capitalist despoilers of the land. There is nothing more bourgeois and capitalism-friendly than an American church on Sunday morning.

I wouldn't be so upset about church properties if churchgoers were more enraptured with God's creation. But in my lifetime, I have observed that many evangelical Christians---the ones who are most insistent that America belongs to them---are either ambivalent or hostile towards efforts to protect the environment. I have detected a strange kind of Biblical fatalism in their attitude, some believing that recent severe natural disasters are a sign of the biblical end times while others insisting that the environment doesn't matter because they are certain that Jesus will return during their lifetime. Sociologists Philip Schwadel and Erik Johnson cite at least seven major studies suggesting that evangelicals as a group are more callous towards the environment and less likely to practice environmentally conscious behaviors and express concern about climate change.

But many followers of Christ are also fervent lovers of Creation, and some are passionately committed to environmental causes. Poet and environmentalist Wendell Berry has written in "Christianity and the Survival of Creation" defending the Bible as a proto-environmental text. "The Bible leaves no doubt at all about the sanctity of the act of world-making, or of the world that was made, or of creaturely or bodily life in this world," he observes. "We are holy creatures living among other holy creatures in a world that is holy. Some people know this, and some do not."

I have been fortunate to meet Christians who are true spiritual seekers, and most of them are also, unsurprisingly, nature lovers. An authentic spiritual life tends to open a person to the natural world in profound ways. There is nothing inherently anti-environment in Christian tradition or theology, and I would even argue as Berry does that a careful reading of the bible necessitates firm action to protect the natural world.


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