by Thomas Jay Oord
When I tell people I do “theological photography,” some ask with a smirk, “You take pictures of God?!” Of course, no photo can capture God. While religious icons may direct our thoughts toward God, they are not deities.
I join most theologians in thinking God is a universal spirit without a localized body. Jesus put it simply: “God is spirit” (Jn. 4:24). Because God is a universal spirit, God doesn’t have shape, height, and weight like we and other creatures have.
The writers of Scripture use various words to describe the “stuff” of which God is constituted. Some compare God to breath, a mind, smoke, or the wind. In recent centuries, believers have compared God to ether, gravity, soul, light, or oxygen. When I make photos in nature, I find myself attracted to photos of smoke, mist, wind, and fog as representations of the incorporeal God.
I often think about God when experiencing nature in its wilder forms. I’m an avid hiker and backpacker. And I’m a theologian who thinks God is present and active in all creation.
Sunset from atop Mt. Whitney
I made this photo from the summit of Mount Whitney, the tallest mountain in the contiguous USA. I hiked to Whitney’s summit one afternoon to make photos of both sunset and sunrise from what seemed like the top of the world.
Some theologians think of God’s perspective like the one we get atop a mountain. They talk about God being “high above” us. When I think of God’s perspective, however, I think of God’s omnipresence. The divine perspective feels all creation rather than looking from above.
Standing atop Mount Whitney reminds me that the Ideal Observer has both the minute and macro perspectives. God’s ability to see the big picture and the tiny details is part of what it means for a perfect Being to be worthy of worship.
Pictured here is a famous grove of trees called “Pando.” It’s a single grove of quaking aspen in Utah (USA) with one massive root system.
A grove of trees supported by a common root system symbolically teaches us about the interrelatedness and interconnectedness of life. This way of thinking is characteristic of Toward Ecological Civilization, a group I co-lead that considers how we might make changes or preserve ecosystems to affect the whole positively.
I see a link between what Christians call the “kingdom of God” and the ecology of Pando. One advantage of using “ecology” instead of “kingdom” is that the word better suggests that creatures are interrelated to one another and related to God. What one organism does affects another; what God does affects all organisms; what all organisms do affects God.
When I’m making photos of creation – whether of Pando or of something else – I see the value of thinking the basiliea tou Theou (the Kingdom of God) is an ecology of uncontrolling love!
North of Sun Valley
When I photograph nature, I usually try to capture something unusual or beautiful. But I’ve been pondering the divine presence in what is common and familiar. And I started calling this approach to photography, God, and nature “sparrow theology.”
Two thousand years ago, Jesus asked his listeners, “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” He follows this rhetorical question with these words: “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care” (Mt. 10:29).
Sparrow theology reminds us of God’s activity in the familiar and the usual. Ordinary creatures and places – including those in the city – bear witness to God’s creativity and care. God’s revelation is not just in the immense and dramatic. Nor is it just in the minute and cute. God is present and cares for all.
I made the photo above standing alongside an Idaho stream. I heard this bird chirping nearby, and I positioned my camera within six feet of it to make this close-up photo with my 50m lens. What was common and usual – a sparrow chirping and eating seeds – became uncommon and unusual as I focused my attention – and lens – for a photo of an otherwise nervous bird.
Halverson Lake. Fog and Rock
When doing public presentations of my photos, I’m sometimes asked which is my favorite. I have thousands of photos I consider high quality, so it’s an impossible question to answer well.
I’ve come to answer the question by pointing to a category of photos rather than just one. I made this one late one fall day in a wild area of Idaho (USA).
The features of the photo suggest to me a strong streak of wildness. The landscape exists between order and chaos, between day and night, between growth and decline, life and death.
I think God’s work in the world is wild. God is untamed. I’m reminded of a C.S. Lewis line from The Chronicles of Narnia. The character Peter in the story describes Aslan – the God figure in the book – by saying, “He’s not safe but he is good.”
The famous American naturalist John Muir, is known for saying “In God’s wildness lies the hope of the world.” I agree!
I made this photo while hiking the nearly 100-mile Wonderland Trail around Mt. Rainier in Washington State (USA). Between the fog, the sun, and the trees about me, the juxtaposition of shapes and light calmed my spirit on the trail. The words of the Psalmist came to my mind: “Be still, and know that I am God.” And my spirit responded to the Spirit, “let it be so.”
Thomas Jay Oord is a theologian, philosopher, and scholar of multi-disciplinary studies. Oord is an award-winning author, having written or edited more than twenty books. Oord is also an accomplished photographer and gifted speaker. He is known for contributions to research on love, open and relational theology, science and religion, and the implications of freedom and relationships for transformation.