Saving planet is spiritual practice, explain Bruce Barkhauer and Brad Lyons

The Rev. Bruce Barkhauer and Brad Lyons deliver their Interfaith Lecture on the Week Seven theme of “Nature as Sacred Space” Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy. HG Biggs/Staff Photographer

Sophia Neilsen
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Bruce Barkhauer and Brad Lyons discussed the intersection of spirituality and nature, particularly within the context of national parks.

The two co-authors of America’s Holy Ground and America’s Sacred Sites delivered their lecture at 2 p.m. Tuesday in the Hall of Philosophy for Week Seven of the Interfaith Lecture Series, themed “Nature as Sacred Space.”

They emphasized that nature can inspire spiritual experiences and lead to self-realization. They also shared how encounters with the natural world, particularly in national parks, have brought them closer to a sense of the divine.

“The way that you and the interaction with nature inspire us, whether we are alone, or with our family or on a tour bus, is uniquely individual,” said Barkhauer. “We see beauty in these places — beauty in these events. Sometimes it escapes what we can capture in words; beyond what we see; beyond what we perceive, there is something that touches us deep inside.”

Barkhauer said national parks are not the only places to connect with one’s spirituality or self-realization; spiritual connection can be found anywhere.

“You don’t have to travel far, whether it’s your front porch or the neighborhood green space,” he said. “You can have your senses heightened by the smell of fresh grass, … watching your child take their first steps, or your grandchild enter a new freedom as they take wings on a bicycle devoid of training wheels.”

While spiritual awareness can be explored in every corner of existence, the national parks hold distinct significance and power, and Barkhauer encouraged everyone to utilize those spaces.

“The national parks have the ability to amplify and tune our awareness,” he said. “The holy can be found there if you choose to visit them, but it is by the very act of intentionally choosing to visit them that they provide a disruption to the mundane and otherwise seemingly profane spaces in our lives.”

Barkhauer suggested becoming vulnerable to the mystery of national parks because of their ability to foster self-realization. Being placed in nature is believed to be a pathway to divine revelation, he said, from the 40 days Jesus spent in the wilderness to Native American traditions that illustrate how “stretching and pushing the body is understood to heighten spiritual awareness.”

Time indoors in inherently different than time spent outdoors, Lyons said, discussing the deprivation of nature, lack of outdoor activity, and lack of spiritual connection in people nowadays.

“A 2015 national survey found that more than 60% of adults spend less than five hours each week outdoors,” he said. “When you juxtapose our natural connection to the environment with the nature deprivation we allow our culture to force upon us, you can see why it’s such a treat to work in our garden, or take a walk or sit on the patio doors or dine.”

Lyons explained that because most people don’t live in national parks, visiting one brings a change in routine. Whether it is different eating or sleeping habits, or the general way of spending the day, national parks have a “recipe” not accessible in daily routines. 

“Sometimes we can see something that our brain just simply cannot explain,” he said. “These are all the divine at work, and the human imagination places that.”

The benefits of national parks are many, but Barkhauer said it’s important to acknowledge Native American traditions widely expressed in locations now considered national parks. Stories are at heart of those traditions, with themes of trauma, destiny and chance, he said.

“In the stories, Native Americans told the unique characteristics of the land now within the national parks, often crucial parts of the stories themselves,” he said.

There is a “universal intersecting point” between life’s big, existential questions, Barkhauer said, and the wonder of the natural world. Indigenous stories feature that convergence.

“Native Americans lived here a long, long time before Europeans settled,” he said. “… We all know their deep spiritual connection to the land.”

Barkhauer and Lyons referred to many stories to illustrate this confluence of religion, spirituality and nature, including one from the Blackfeet people in the western Great Plains, the site of present-day Glacier National Park. The story was one of an old man who roamed the countryside, eventually rested on a hillside, and where he laid down, the form of his body is still visible today.

Barkhauer referenced the Biblical story of God walking in the garden as depicted in Genesis, illustrating a connection between the sacred and the natural world. The relationship between humans and the Earth is essential for their well-being, he said, and this connection serves as a pathway to finding God.

“If we want to understand why we’re praying for spiritual experiences in the natural world, there are going to be elements from this story that maybe we should not ignore,” Barkhauer said.

He and Lyons examined the role of Native American spirituality in preserving the Earth, emphasizing the need to respect and incorporate Indigenous perspectives. They also made note of President Joe Biden who, the same day of their talk, designated a new national monument, near the Grand Canyon, in order to prevent uranium mining on land considered sacred by several tribes.

The announcement of the new monument is part of a promising trend, Barkhauer said, as tribes are taking the lead outside the national park system. 

Lyons urged Chautauquans to work toward unity and the common good, and he and Barkhauer explored the role of community and individual actions in shaping society.

“Climate change jeopardizes everything in the national parks and beyond. Whether we want to admit it or not, we are all part of a worldwide, interdependent ecology” said Lyons.

Barkhauer asked the audience to consider: “How will we learn the creative tension between individual freedom and communal responsibility? How can I individualize and inform my community responsibilities?”

Barkhauer said there is a spiritual urgency to preserve the Earth; he said saving the planet is a spiritual practice and urged everyone to help work toward reconciliation, restoration and reparation.

Consider “the common good, what makes for the common good, and is it possible for me to enjoy the life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness and hold those things together,” he said.

Telling the truth about history, the climate, and “what we got wrong,” Barkhauer said, requires spiritual discipline, but we all must remember that “we are borrowing the Earth from our children and grandchildren.” 

“We face this climate change crisis together as human beings,” he said. “And maybe visiting a national park is a way of reminding ourselves, teaching our children, and those who have not had that experience, that climate change is not a hoax, despite what others have said.” 


The author Sophia Neilsen

Sophia Neilsen is a senior at Ohio University studying communications with two minors in psychology and sociology. She studies her minors because she wants a better understanding of society and environments while grasping how different people think and the reasoning behind their behaviors. Sophia is creative and uses her curiosity and persistence in several school organizations, such as Thread Magazine, Variant Magazine, and Kappa Alpha Zeta. She joined these outlets to express herself creatively through academics and art.