Jesus-Deficit Disorder?

The poet John Milton described nature as “a wilderness of sweets.” I like that.

Richard Louv includes the Milton quote in his remarkable book: Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder (Algonquin Books). I somehow missed that book when it was first published in 2005 and then in a revised 2008 edition.

Richard Louv heads the Children & Nature Network and in 2008 was awarded the Audubon Medal. “Nature-deficit disorder” is not a formal medical diagnosis, he says. However it’s certainly a graphic way of spotlighting a big issue.

Here’s Louv’s concern:

“A kid today can likely tell you about the Amazon rain forest—but not about the last time he or she explored the woods in solitude, or lay in the field listening to the wind and watching the clouds move.” Kids today he says “are aware of the global threats to the environment—but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading.”

School kids used to study natural history. Now they study microbiology. But children—and adults as well—need nature in the raw and the rough. “In nature, a child finds freedom, fantasy, and privacy: a place distant from the adult world, a separate peace.”

THREE SURPRISES

Three things surprise me in reading this book.

First, I am surprised how serious nature-deficit disorder really is. Louv writes, “Nature-deficit disorder describes the human costs of alienation from nature, among them: diminished use of the senses, attention difficulties, and higher rates of physical and emotional illnesses. The disorder can be detected in individuals, families, and communities.”

Second, I am surprised how suddenly our society has shifted away from daily contact with nature. From 1997 to 2003, the amount of time U.S. children age 9–12 spent playing outdoors or in unstructured ways dropped by half. There was a huge decline in outdoor activities like hiking, walking, fishing, gardening, or playing at the beach.

“In the space of a century,” Louv notes, “the American experience of nature has gone from direct utilitarianism to romantic attachment to electronic detachment.”

Result: “Today a generation of children is not only being raised indoors, but is being confined to ever smaller spaces.” We are raising “containerized kids.”

Louv notes that nature, unlike TV, “does not steal time; it amplifies it. Nature offers healing for a child living in a destructive family or neighborhood.”

Third, I am surprised at the discipleship implications here.

Louv doesn’t write specifically as a Christian, but he dwells a lot on holistic wellbeing. He points to growing evidence that “direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health” and may actually help children fight depression and “reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD).”

Louv cites studies showing that “joggers who exercise in a natural green setting with trees, foliage, and landscape views feel more restored, and less anxious, angry, and depressed than people who burn the same amount of calories in gyms or other built settings.”

LET’S GET SPIRITUAL

At this point the traditional “spiritual” response might be: We don’t need more nature! We just need more Jesus.

Wrong! That is un-Christian dualism. It is not what Jesus or the Bible teach. Such attitudes are actually part of the problem.

When Jesus said “Consider the lilies of the field,” do you suppose he really meant it? Could he have meant much more than just “Get a spiritual lesson from lilies”? Maybe he really meant consider, think about, ponder, look at, spend time with the lilies of the field.

That would mean spending time not only with the lilies, but also with the field—which means of course birds, animals, butterflies, trees, the sky and clouds—ultimately, the whole complex ecosystem that the Psalms rhapsodize about.

Our greatest human problem, next to our alienation from God and one another, is our alienation from nature—the natural creation around us. This is precisely what nature-deficit disorder is about.

We really need to know and appreciate how God’s world works. If we don’t learn how ecosystems work, we will never learn how the Gospel works. This is in essence what Jesus teaches in his parables of the kingdom, as well as in the Sermon on the Mount.

From a biblical salvation perspective, the issue is not just us, of course. It is the place of the created order—and thus all natural ecosystems—in God’s plan.

So as part of Christian discipleship, we need to learn how ecosystems work. Pollution, over-development, and deforestation all degrade ecosystems. The degrading of an ecosystem may be invisible at first, but irreversible damage may be happening out of sight.

Louv quotes a naturalist friend, the late Elaine Brooks: “Despite what developers will tell you about restoration, once a piece of land is graded, the biologic organisms and understructure of the soil are destroyed.”

WHERE’S THE DISORDER?

Most Christians, I suppose, believe the greatest human problem is “faith-deficit disorder” or “God-deficit disorder” (to play off Richard Louv’s  terms). True, perhaps, but one-sided.

God made us to live in an ongoing, life-giving relationship with him but also with his world. Science is showing that we actually suffer physically and emotionally if we don’t tend to our nature-relationship.

If you don’t do anything else this week, spend two or three hours in a woods, or by a stream, or on a long walk. Attend to what you see and hear and smell. Think about the relationship God has put in place with plants and flowers and “every living creature upon earth” (Gen. 9:15-16).

Your life depends on it. Your children’s and friends’ lives depend on it. The renewal of the church depends on it.

The flourishing of the earth according to God’s plan—and maybe even its survival—depend upon it.

Your sanctity and your sanity depend upon your companionship with the earth. Ultimately, the world depends upon it.

So, go commune with nature. Consider the lilies and the butterflies and the birds and the beetles and the ants.

“Go to the ant, thou sluggard; consider her ways, and be wise” (Prov. 6:6 KJV).

Go enjoy nature; let it bless you. And for God’s sake, leave your earbuds behind!

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International Representative, Manchester Wesley Research Centre in Manchester, England. Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Has taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Dr. Snyder's main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. Works include The Problem of Wineskins, Community of the King, and most recently, Jesus and Pocahontas: Gospel, Mission, and National Myth.

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