Photography and Spirituality with Thomas Jay Oord

Photography and Spirituality with Thomas Jay Oord


welcome to Leeds Church Institute
podcast. LCI is a faith-based organization for life long learning we
work through events publications social media and a not for-profit business Hello I’m Helen Reid, director of the Leeds Church Institute. Today I’m
also here my other role as clergy spouse because we’ve chosen for you to come here to St Chad’s as we thought this was a really good environment for Saturday afternoon
lecture perhaps more so than the Leeds Church Institute. I think it’s best part of
a year since we heard that Tom was going to be in the UK and we’re delighted that he’s made time to come up to Leeds. He’s been to Oxford and lots of other places if you’d like to
know we’ve had him at the University working hard and they’ve had a very
discussion group on a Thursday evening and but this events I felt Leeds Church
Institute we were really excited by the fact that Tom talks about making photos
and about celebrating God’s creation and see photography as theology so some of
you I will have seen the article he wrote that was in our last city
theology magazine and actually encourage people to come I think okay learning
through visual things sometimes we can learn even more half that we always just
stick with words so we’re delighted that Tom’s going to talk today about
photography and spirituality we’ve primed and you might get a few tips
about taking photographs a few tips about hiking and lots about spirituality
and creation Big welcome to Tom and thank you thank
for being here. Thank you Helen and Tom and thanks to all of you for coming out to this
afternoon helen is right I would like for this to be kind of conversational I
can sort of talk myself but I already know what I think and I’d like to hear
what you think it’s more fun for me so my goal today is to walk through
and talk about the way I think about God when I’m in the natural world most of
the photographs you see today will be ones that I took in my state of Idaho
but there are some other photographs from other places and I even put in, just
for you all, a photo I took in Scotland a few years to do good so bring a little
UK to you so basically at the very core of my quest
to spend time in the natural world and to think about what it means to love God
and love creation has kind of morphed into also figuring out what it means to
make art and thinking about visions of of the natural world that I think
describe the kind of views I have about God and what I find is that I bring to
the natural world certain ideas and I see the world based on those ideas and
yet the natural world changes some of those ideas so it’s not entirely what
the world does to me or what I do about seeing the world there’s this kind of
ongoing conversation. I use hiking and photography to think about how God is
revealed in creation. I’m person who believes in God I’m a Christian I’m a
professor I’m also an ordained elder so I think from a Christian kind of
perspective and as I think about what it means to be a Christian and think about
God I often think about sort of the major ways people think we know
something about God and the first at least in my tradition is the Bible but
also we think about God being revealed in our community where two or three are
gathered God is there so the church is a way but less often people think about
the revelation of God in nature and in fact there’s a tradition that talks
about the two books of God’s creation or God’s revelation and that is the book of
Scripture and the book of nature and so the kinds of things I want to talk about
today is God’s revelation in this book of nature all the photographs you see
are ones I have made and I spend a lot of time hiking the outdoors in fact my
wife kind of she jokes about how much time I’m I’m hiking I’m at the place now
where my three daughters are out of the house and my wife is a schoolteacher so
she spends Sunday afternoons after church usually grading and I spend
Sunday afternoons out making photographs but I also spend a lot of my summers
planning big long hikes I think God is revealed through a variety of ways but
especially through these creatures such as this
young owl this is a photograph I made this owl was probably oh this high in a
tree there were two of them and the mother owl was up above me snapping her
her beak at me trying to threaten me and I just I mean you know sometimes it’s
really difficult to make a photograph other times is super easy I just sort
of walked up there and started taking photographs like this and and when I
look at the eyes of creatures like this I begin to think about the ways in which
humans and animals share some similarities and one of the things I
want to do today is talk more about that Paul says what can be known about God
has been revealed in creation in fact he says since the beginning of the world
God’s eternal power and nature have been it’s interesting how he says this in the
book of Romans he says have been clearly seen through that which is made I’m not
sure it’s always clearly seen but he says you look at creation and at least
from the perspective of faith you say it’s clear that this was created in some
way by a loving and powerful God for me the natural world is a place that
cultivates my wonder I don’t think I’ve got life figured out let alone God
figured out so when I spend time in the wilderness in out-of-the-way places and
fortunately where I live my part of the world there’s a lot of those I spend a
lot of time thinking and wondering not only wondering about what life is like
in the world but also wondering what God is like
for me it’s important to talk about making photos rather than taking photos
the word take sounds to me like someone’s got a camera and they’re just
sort of haphazardly you know snapping shots everywhere when I think about
making a photograph like this I’m thinking through my composition that
where I’m gonna put my camera and what’s gonna be in my frame and usually for a
photograph like this I want my horizon about two-thirds of
the way up or about two-thirds of the way down and this particular Lake I
noticed this interesting and this is a bunch of actually kind of a little plant
sticking up some cattle had grazed it down there and I like that little little
mini island out there and so I decided I want this in my foreground and then I
want to show the colors some way coming off the lake so I’m making a photograph
as an artist I’m trying to even pre visualize what the final product might
look like as they think about where I’m gonna put my camera what kind of
exposure I’m going to do and what it might look like at the end my
photographs are I like to say my evidence of my co-creating with God I
think God is a creator but I think God has called us to co-create sometimes we
do that really poorly I’m hoping to do that as well as I possibly can as a
photographer I don’t think I’m the ultimate creator I mean God is that but
God has called me and not just me and not in fact not even just humans animals
can be co-creators with God what birds do with nests is sometimes absolutely
amazing or the beavers that I see the dams they put in the rivers very
interestingly done a lot of co-creating is done in creation God is the Creator
but we can work with God this photograph is one of my favorites because of the
experience I had this particular day this is actually on the Oregon Idaho
border and I was down in a canyon making photographs and actually you know
sometimes it’s not all that fun because the light isn’t right and I was like
working hard to make photograph and it wasn’t working out and I had almost
given up and I was kind of leaving and I came up over and I saw this amazing
cloud developing so I jumped out of my vehicle I was on this poorly this little
dirt back here and I ran up to the this
little rise and I’m trying to think about what’s in my foreground these
plants so I can have this on the top and it was just overwhelming I like to say
in that moment I got my Pentecostal on I was actually saying out loud hallelujah
I was just so pumped with this amazing scene in front of me and I was
repositioning my camera and I just had this this feeling of elation it was it
it was a genuine spiritual experience looking at this development because the
longer I took photographs the more the light changes and the more colors and
the more brilliance was there and just as it was kind of fading and growing
dull off in the distance the coyote arted to yapping at in each other you
know at dusk where I live the coyotes communicate to find out where they are
in relation to one another and in the ecstasy of the moment I just sort of
threw my head back in here I felt like I was I don’t know st. Francis of Assisi
you know preaching to the Coyotes out there but that kind of experience
doesn’t happen often but when it does I mean obviously it’s something out I
don’t ever want to forget and it’s a combination of things that make it
possible part of it is me and my background and
how I see the world obviously part of it is something like this and then in some
wild way the Coyotes make it an amazing evening
I don’t think of nature as somehow proving that God exists which by the way
this is my Scotland photograph I would like to say I know exactly where I made
that photo but I don’t know Scotland well enough I was driving from st.
Andrews to Fort something-or-other I don’t for William yeah and I got out and
made that particular photo when there was a little bit of clearing it was
raining most of that day but I don’t think of these beautiful creation scenes
as somehow proving God’s existence I don’t think of I know in fact I don’t
even think of in terms of proofs I think they give evidence
I think they III from what sometimes is called the theology of nature which is
that nature doesn’t prove there is a God but if you have reasons to think there
is a God you can look at the natural world and find confirmation or find some
kind of evidence for that I sometimes think of nature kind of like a canvas
and the elements and God joining together to make something beautiful and
in that canvas and I see it and from my particular perspective I make some kind
of claims about the beauty I see and the God I believe in this kind of a
photograph makes me think about theology now I should say before I go much
further that some of the things I’m gonna say today you’re probably gonna go
like wow he thinks about God a lot more than I do and I should say I’m a trained
theologian I’ve had that kind of thing in my background so I not only see the
natural world through the lens of believing in God but also through the
lens of person who’s a pastor and a professor and so some of the insights I
want to share today come from that kind of a perspective the world in which we
live as we all know is not beautiful all the time
often it’s fairly mundane but there’s some things that I think are actually
ugly now there’s a certain beauty in this ugliness but this cow that has been
killed and the Coyotes have gotten to it and probably other animals as well in
the midst of a landscape that is odd I especially like the three rocks up in
the background I almost reminds me of three crosses on Calvary but anyway when
I think about creation we sometimes only think about what’s beautiful and amazing
but there’s some harsh realities in the world as well there are things like
fires that make otherwise beautiful places something less than beautiful
creatures die and it’s in these kind of times when I
think about a subject that I’ve actually written a lot about and that’s the
problem of evil we think about evil in the world we sometimes think about what
humans do to each other or maybe what animals do to each other but there’s
also some interesting questions about natural fires like the one that burned
up this particular area or floods hurricanes etc and I think about the
animals and snakes that used to live here this particular photograph was
taken in a spot where the year before I was focusing in a different direction
and there was all kinds of plants there and I heard kind of this thudding north
of the the the plants were moving behind me and I kind of looked back and didn’t
see anything and I went back to my photography I looked back again and it’s
just something weird going on so I took about four steps back and there were two
huge bull snakes breeding them I’ve never seen snakes having sex before this
was the first time and it is really interesting what they do they make a
circle and they entwined each other’s body around and they just kind of move
in this kind of strange gyration and I had my actually had the wrong lens on my
camera at the time but I’m trying to take photographs of these snakes and
they’re just right there you know in ecstasy I suppose and I’m taking my
photographs and thinking it’s these kinds of experiences that are available
to me because I actually went out there I didn’t plan to see two snakes having
sex something I’ve never seen before and I’ve actually rarely anyone that I know
is and most people I know I’ve not seen this but because I had taken some time
to be in a position for something like that to happen I was able to witness
that and make some photographs I should put one in so I could have shown you but
I didn’t sorry I said that I bring to the world my own
particular perspective and my particular perspective makes a difference in how I
see the world this particular photograph I made last summer I did a hundred mile
loop around Mount Rainier which is a large mountain in Washington State in
the United States and this was near the end of the trip I wasn’t on the mountain
anymore about I was coming back down to a lower place and it was a very dark
forest really cool and I as I came down the trail this little section had this
bolt of light coming through and of course this is sort of symbolic
sometimes in our lives sometimes we seem to go through life in the midst of an
awful lot of darkness and we don’t know what’s going on and then there’s some
kind of ray of light but as I came down the trail I sort of saw that and I used
this word again pre-visualized what kind of photograph I might make to somehow
describe the feeling I had of coming through the darkness and seeing this
light come in I mentioned this because I think as some of you are maybe our
photographers or thinking about going into photography one of the things you
might begin to think about doing is having in your mind’s eye the kind of
photographs that you would like to make sometimes you do that going to a
particular place but other times you’re going to an area where you don’t know
exactly what the terrain is going to be like but you have in your mind what
might occur what kind of landscape might be there and then to sort of think about
what do I want to do given the way the clouds are today given the kind of light
that surround me given the kind of vegetation about three years ago he was
in the middle of winter in Idaho and I had a Sunday afternoon while my wife was
grading and so it’s out doing some hiking but there was a lot of snow and
there was not it wasn’t easy for me to do a long hike so I was doing a lot of
driving looking for interesting things on my photograph
and I came to an area where there was a lot of fog the combination of fresh snow
and fog meant that the you could take photographs that made things appear as
if there’s nothing behind them but white so I was taking pictures of fence posts
and things and barbed wire and trees and trying to get something that I thought
was really cool and then I came around then this road I shouldn’t have been on
because I almost got stuck but I came around the corner and I looked up and
saw these Black Angus cows grazing in a field and all the snow on the front and
all the mist in the back it just looked surreal I probably would not have taken
that photograph even though I was there if I had not gone out that day thinking
okay these are the kinds of photographs that I’m probably going to be able to
make today ones if there’s lots of white because there’s lots of snow and lots of
fog but because I had that in mind when I actually saw this scene like then
could think about what I want to do with my camera I pre-visualized I worked from
a particular perspective I have in the world when I say that I like to do
photography and think about God I occasionally have someone say so you’re
out there with the photo with a camera trying to take pictures of God and of
course I say you know I actually think God is invisible so you can’t actually
take pictures of God. The way I think about God is the way most Christians do
and that is the God is not available to our five senses we might have some sort
of intuitions about God but God is an invisible omnipresent spirit but one of
the things I do try to do is try to make photographs that that visually speak of
the presence of something that you can’t see that makes sense at all in other
words I’m trying to show a picture of something that can’t be photographed
and one way to do that is to try to show something that’s obscure in some way so
this particular photograph on you probably can’t tell but that’s actually
a lake water behind it and I purposely sort of put the the
trees out of focus and made the Sun so that it came through and it was a little
abstract or take this next photo it’s not really clear what that is probably
at first glance but there’s something there that almost gives you a feeling of
there being something more and that’s my intention to try to again you can’t take
a picture of God but is there some way that you can take a picture of the world
that might make you wonder what is that and is there a reality that can’t be
quite captured with a camera what it actually is is a stream with some trees
in the background and a few of these are leaves floating in the stream but most
of them are a reflection of this background but the it almost looks like
it to me I was striving to do something like a MANET Monet painting you know but
obviously not with all the colors that he has that’s an attempt though to talk
about a way in which God is somehow transcendent in theology we sometimes
talk about the imminence of God and the transcendence of God and the
transcendence is how God is different from what we see I also think God is
best understood as a spirit again a spirit you can’t see but there are
certain things in creation like clouds that give us the notion of spirit you
know that that’s why in churches sometimes we have smoke smoke sometimes
gives that in fact the next photograph is photograph I took in the mountains
about a half a mile away there were some people camping and their campfire the
smoke it sort of drifted down through the trees and looking at that I thought
it kind of you know makes me feel like the Holy Spirit the presence of God the
Shekinah glory the the God who is described as
wind or breath or those kinds of notions in the Ruach mind in the Bible that’s
the kind of impression I get so when I’m thinking about the kinds of landscapes
that are before me I’m asking what about this landscape might in some way be
depicted to say something about God last summer I took this photograph only about
15 miles from my house and it’s the landscape isn’t that extraordinary I
mean I guess you might think it’s extraordinary because it’s a huge Valley
but these raw this water was just humbling down these rocks and I thought
to myself is there some way that I can sort of try to capture the the ethereal
notion of a God who can’t be captured and so I I hope you can tell this is
water coming down but I opened up my lens and slowed the shutter down in
other words it was open for a longer period of time which meant that I got
these kind of when they look like spark strikes or something but it’s just the
water that’s falling through the air if God can’t be seen some theologians have
said God purposely hides the latin phrases deus happens i can’t speak today big thank you thank you the word
couldn’t come out of my mouth which basically means the hidden God and
there’s some theologians who spend a lot of energy trying to explain why a God
who is so powerful and loving wouldn’t be just obvious to us all this
particular deer is standing not even laying down in these bushes and I
thought to myself this is a nice way to try to describe the hiddenness obviously
you can see this particular creature I don’t think you can see God it’s my own
personal view that God doesn’t purposely hide that there is something about God
that is necessarily hidden because of God being an invisible spirit of course
when we think about God most people think about God’s immensity or at least
what theologians think called immensity how absolutely big God is God’s not only
here and there but on other planets and all galaxies and the whole universe and
there’s a few ways to try to capture the immensity of God better than trying to
show the Milky Way I wonder just four Milky Way shots are hard to make if
you’re anywhere near light even in this particular photo you can see that I’ve
got some light coming in on these clouds and this is from a town about 20 miles
away so my lens is open here I’ve got a really nice lens that I’m using and I’m
opening them up if you’re a photographer my ISO is on 6400 I think it is and this
is about a 12 second exposure but I say all that to say to ask can you guys see
the Milky Way easily here in Leeds like at night yeah I wouldn’t think so I
can’t you think maybe in Scotland or someplace if you got far enough away
from the light pollution yeah I mean can you see I assume you see stars when it’s
not cloudy I was once a with that not I was a youth pastor in Southern
California in a LA area and one one summer I took a bunch of kids from the
city out camping and and I’ll never forget for some reason we were well for
some reason they’re high school kids we were up at 2 that’s why they’re we’re up
at 2 because they’re high school kids but for the first time they saw the
stars because they’d had so much light pollution in the city and they were too
like blown away and I think that’s not even if you’re a Christian but
especially if you’re a Christian to be in a kind of a setting where you can see
those amazing stars that feel like they’re falling right into your lap
you just want to go awesome amazing God is not only making those but God is
present theologians call that God’s immensity but to be honest I actually am
more inspired thinking about God in the smaller places God’s activity at the
quantum level of reality at the chemical and biological level and these kinds of
photos that try to pick out something minut these inspire me to think about
how God cares about even the smallest things in our planet and cares about me
and you which when you look up at the stars
we might seem pretty insignificant but then when you begin to think about God
caring for even these little seeds it’s easier for at least me to believe that
God cares for me and what I’m up to of course in Scripture there’s all kinds of
references to the power of even a small mustard seed the power of those who are
often forgotten the least of these and so when I think about making photographs
and think about those kinds of creatures in the world and how the small things
can make a difference I want to instead of looking at the deep
horizon as I mentioned earlier think about what’s close at hand what kinds of
things are small but contribute to making the world a beautiful place now
when I hike I spend a lot of time in a lot of different places of Idaho but
this terrain is about an hour south of where I live and this is a place that’s
called sucker Creek over here in this kind of valley that you can kind of see
is a little stream and these large cliffs on this side I’m actually
standing on the opposite side of this valley and there are cliffs right below
where I’m standing taking this photo but six years ago I made actually about
eight years ago it was snow all through here and a lot of wind and I was coming
out here to explore and I came up a little crevasse area
that was really difficult hiking and I was just like so cold and I had some hot
water with me and I thought if I can just find a little place in a rock to
get away from the wind and get some water I can warm up and I looked over
and I saw this little cleft over here in the rock and it was I’d never been this
part of the wear of hiking so I thought I’m gonna go check that out and sitting
that cleft and drink well I got there and it was a really cool cave
I call it my cave it’s Tom’s cave I have never seen any other person’s footprints
other than mine in this cave so I can legitimately call it my cave and I
sometimes like to go to this cave and just spend some time in reflection you
know talk about a prayer closet you’re a long way away from me anybody else no
one else I think knows about this cave at least I’ve never seen anybody there
or any footsteps and to spend time in a cave thinking it’s a it’s a very nice
thing it’s uh makes me think about what God’s doing in my life and what I ought
to be doing in response but one particular day because I was thinking
about doing the presentation to you all and to others I thought maybe I should
go to this cave and try to make some photographs to describe the kind of
inner workings or inner life of my time in the cave so I made what I call
spiritual selfies and one of the ways I did it is to try to because the cave was
dark try to take photos that were that didn’t
show my my whole self well because I thought these would somehow depict this
life of the mind this inner kind of meditation and reflection or the the
mind of Christ I’m assuming you can see me in this particular photograph I’m
over on this side but this is an attempt to me to kind of show me and the cave
melding together as I meditate on who God is who I think God might want me to
be perhaps more often to be honest with you
trying to figure out the struggles of my life trying to make sense of the pain
and the confusion and the stuff that I don’t think is right in the world Caves
are an important place and the photography here is trying to depict
that my spirituality however is not just about me in a cave I live in community
with other people and in fact we are all heirs to a legacy and to try to portray
that legacy I thought I would take some photos of abandoned homesteads and this
is actually an abandoned schoolhouse in the middle of Idaho you know America
we’re a young country in terms of European influence but folks came out
into some pretty tough places and eked out a living eked out a community in
fact there’s places in Idaho like this particular photo I’m showing you here
that are so far away the people up and left it and you can go and just see this
place that someone abandoned I don’t know how many years ago only if you know
how to get there and you’re willing to hike a long way and you know do all the
physical exercise but when I think about the folks who have come before in Idaho
to these remote places I think about the folks who have come before in the
Christian tradition and those who have made possible the kinds of ideas and
opportunities that I have not only in terms of my own immediate family but in
terms of a much bigger Christian family and of course not only in terms of the
continent that I’m on North America but around the world in the North America
however long before the Europeans came over we had the native peoples and there
are some really cool whoops there’s some really cool petroglyphs and pictographs
in Idaho this happens to be one of the oldest rocks it’s my favorite rock in
this entire state you can see the detail that the person went through and it’s
actually maybe in about half as much as big and it’s all just
layer upon layers of what people think were shaman trying to peck out designs
to portray their spiritual life I go to parts of the state and try to find these
kinds of things and and give evidence of those eight years ago I was at this one
part of the state where literally the closest person who lives to where I was
at was probably 35 miles away I mean not even ranchers or farmers just out in the
middle of absolutely nowhere and I found this collection of petroglyphs and I
took this picture and it was unlike all the other ones I had taken I’ve taken
lots and lots of photographs of these petroglyphs and and there’s a lot of
similarities the theory is that the shaman actually had a few symbols that
they would put wherever they were and they traveled lots of different places
but I’d never seen sort of stick figure and the Sun I’m just like it almost
looked like someone was I don’t know messing around and so I I took this
photo and I went home and and as I was developing and I thought you know I
wonder if this is some kind of a solstice spot if native peoples in the
Americas had some solstice tradition so I determined that the next June on
solstice I would go out and try to find this well that didn’t happen that year
the next year not until last summer did I finally go home to this place and I
start crawling around and looking and I ended up getting my body barely down
into this crevice you can see how far down I’m in there and this was not far
from this little spot and I’m thinking you know this is about the only spot
that I think it could be and i sat there and looked around trying to find it and
it took me five minutes before I found it at my feet were these circles that
have been etched out and you can see on this particular day I was there June
21st the light I didn’t make it quite at the right time but you can see the light
had just come in toward the middle of that so I I don’t
know if I’m the first European descent person to find this or not I registered
it with the local archaeology Society but that’s pretty cool pretty thrilling
to think about people long before anyone looked like me was thinking about
spirituality at least I don’t know how you think about Native American
spirituality but they were also thinking about the landscape and the great
spirits who might be there so three years ago two years ago two years ago
one of my friends who teaches theology in Chicago at Lutheran Theological
Seminary contacted me and she said you know I really care about nature I talk
about God being in the natural world and whenever I do that my students think
about Yosemite Yellowstone you know these amazing national parks
they don’t think about what nature looks like here around them so would you come
for the year and be our and they have a sinner there on science and religion
called zeig on our Zygon scholar for the year and our artist-in-residence and go
around Chicago and show my students there’s actually natural beauty here so
not a bad gig this is Chicago skyline from a sort of a pier this is Lake
Michigan one night and I captured the light coming from the city on the clouds
but there was actually it was amazing to me how much if you really looked at four
it could be found in the city this is only a mile or so from the city center
but it was an abandoned area and these weeds had grown up and I thought boy
that’s kind of cool all of this chaos of these natural plants growing up here so
close to the city in the winter time I spent a lot of time in a place called
Washington Park and began to try to think about what nature looks like in
winter and how I can somehow photograph we describe this in ways that make you
think something about God in nature and I try to take animal our photographs of
birds and animals and whatever I could find I like this one I don’t know what
kind of bird this is we have any big-time birders who know North American
birds Here I am ashamed to say I don’t know what it is but I like the
photograph because it depicts well nature in the city you see the
skyscrapers in the background there but even in Chicago actually this was just
outside the city limits why I think it was technically in the city limits but
even there in a little nature area I saw this whitetail Burt our white-tailed
deer one afternoon wow that’s pretty cool in the midst of all of this what
really got Lea thinking about nature in the city was she was with her
six-year-old son and they would have a son a plate glass window that goes to
their backyard and they looked out one evening and saw this Passa
a possum going across the backyard six-year-old sons like what in the world
is that I’ve never seen that before and he got really excited and she thought
Nana she had grown up on a farm and seen lots of things she said I’ve got to have
some experiences for my son here in the urban area and so that kind of launched
her into doing this photography thing one day I’m in Washington Park and I
look across the way and I see this movement and there’s this possum so I
ran after it and went up the skinny little tree and looked down at me and I
sent her this picture and she said yes a possum in Chicago for my for my project
I suspect something like this could be taken in leads do you have lots of ducks
and leads yeah so you know this is just trying to capture the Sun coming up one
morning and you’ve got so much more fog and mist here than we have where I live
in Idaho good or bad thing I don’t know but I’ll bet something like this if you
were to think about nature here in Leeds could be possible as God is active in
even our urban areas let me go back to talking a little bit about some of the
thoughts I have about God when moving through the natural landscape for many
people the first attribute they think of when you say the word God is power
omnipotence sovereignty it’s no little surprise that when people make movies
about God they call it they call them Bruce Almighty rather than something
else the power of God captures people’s attention and so sometimes I think about
the powerful parts of nature this is actually a waterfall in Yosemite and
there’s obviously some amazing things that you can photograph in nature to try
to portray incredible sense of power and sovereignty and I’ve tried to write
about the power of God in a number of different places and in fact Simon was
instrumental in bringing me here to talk about the problem of evil and a
different view of God’s power that I’ve proposed but I want to be sure to say
the natural world is extremely powerful and of course I think God is extremely
powerful but I have to admit it’s not the power things that inspire me most
it’s God’s love that really inspires me most I mean that’s that’s the main
reason I believe in God just be blunt about it
I spent a short period of my life as an atheist and it was thinking about the
issues of love and trying to make sense of my own intuitions that I ought to be
a loving persons and other people ought to love me that Begin me do wonder if
there is something like a God who is the source of love and so instead of places
like this that are incredibly powerful it’s more photographs like this that try
to show the tender elements of the world that excite me the most and make me
think of God the most and of course the the mother child the
mother duckling relationship is a pretty amazing one on that trip that I took
hiking the distance of Idaho my three daughters individually hiked small
sections with me and the first day that my middle daughter and I were hiking in
the mountains we crossed this stream and I we got across and she was having a
difficult time because it was it was hard to get across and we turned around
and there was a little bear cub just maybe probably 15 feet down the trail
from us and of course the first thing I think of when I see a cub is okay
where’s mama and so of course I did what any loving father would do I put my
daughter between me and the bear and now we walked out mother bear stood up and I
took this photo and there’s actually two cubs the one we’d seen is a younger one
probably that year’s cub and then this one next to it was probably from the
year before or at least it was far bigger and you don’t want to get between
a mother bear and her cub that’s just not wise that’s the kind of love that’s
fierce that’s the kind of love that says I’m gonna protect its best I can no
matter what and the god I believe in is a God who is a nurturing God a God who
cares for us I spent about two hours one morning hanging out with this moose and
her calf this is in Wyoming she and their calf were there and I’ll let you
in on a little secret um I talked to animals
and I find that when I talk to animals at least from my perspective they seem
to be more open to hanging around they don’t run away and I don’t think they
posed for me but they don’t leave and so as I talk to these guys they just sort
of stood there and I made a bunch of photographs and I thought about the
amazing trust that they had come at least from my perspective they must have
had some trust in me that the the mother didn’t come after me I think God is a
God who is that kind of trust even in us and we as parents
as friends as people can model the kind of love that I think God has for us in
the world I grew up on a farm and on our farm we had two sets of animals one set
of animals were the ones that we’re ours our cows our pigs we had a goat
we had rabbits for a short period of time until they all died we had chickens
and we had horses I loved the horses and there is a whole nother set of animals
and those were the enemies those were the Coyotes the rattlesnakes
the badgers and we thought at and I’m least my mind frame was you tried to
kill all the bad animals because you had your good animals and so when I was
young I shot rabbits I shot coyote I don’t know why she shot rabbits because
they’re not bad but killed a lot of rattlesnakes made a lot of hat bands and
then as I started thinking about what it means to be in the world and my
relationship to animals I begin to think you know I don’t really think I need to
kill so indiscriminately maybe I ought to think differently about the way I
relate to animals and so whenever I would see an animal or bird instead of
well the first thing I tried to do was to say hello friend and have some sort
of positive response and it became such a part of me that it was a habit that
even without thinking about it when I would see some new creature I would say
hello friend this little guy he was really great he posed for a long time
I’ve got a lot of great photos of him I love this is on my screensaver at home
and I turn on my my my computer he looks me right in the eye but he always
reminds me of one of my favorite events you know that rock I showed you earlier
of the pictograph petroglyphs that are picked out of the rock I had this what I
thought was brilliant idea I was gonna go out at
night I was gonna have a real dim light so going on this road pointed toward
this rock and then I would have the stars above and so it’d be you know it
would be really cool you get the stars you’re in this deep Canyon you could be
able to see the petroglyphs and the shadows and I thought this would be
awesome so I hiked out to this place and I’m setting up my tent and I look over
and about Oh 150 yards away there’s a young coyote and he doesn’t seem too
wary of me in so I watched him for a little while and then I forgot about him
and then as things got darker and darker I went over to set up my really cool
photograph which ended up being a total bust because the clouds came in and I
got no stars at all but anyway I’m sitting there and I’m sort of getting
all set up and it’s really getting dusk and all of a sudden I hear noise and I
turn around and that coyote was from me to him he’d walk all the way up so
curious of what I was doing and I didn’t know if he was coming and the first
thing that came out of my mouth as I turned around was hello friend because I
had habituated this sort of way of relating to others in the wilderness
that was the first thing and when I turned around I thought he would scamper
off but he didn’t he sat down on his haunches took his back leg scratched his
ear like this and I thought well maybe you’ll let me photograph you so I took
my camera went like this and then he just sort of walked away and it was too
dark to get a photograph I tell that story because not only to say how I try
to relate to animals in my world but also the power of positive habits and
the way that if over time you begin to do something good and right and develop
a particular way of being in the world it didn’t shake hsihu you are and how
you relate to others and I think perhaps I’m not saying that made possible this
encounter but if I’d have been a person that was always trying to shoot coyotes
I probably would have acted differently earlier in the evening when I saw him in
the first place so I think of animals as friends even
bald eagles I think of bull elk as possibilities to
be friends in my life even Badgers Badgers are hard to photograph because
once they see it coming they just go lickety split or their whole this guy I
saw him before he saw me and Phil when he turned to run toward his hole I ran
right past him and got between him and his hole and he was not happy and when
those things are not happy they make this weird sound and makes the hair in
the back of your neck stand up but it was a great photograph I thought so he
cooperated and then I let him go in his hole I was a friend here’s a picture I
think that you put in your magazine this was actually a photograph I took in
Chicago or made in Chicago I probably took a hundred and fifty photographs of
those knees this was the one that had the joyful I call it the joyful goose
sort of sticking his neck up in the air he’s really just sort of I don’t know
ruffling his feathers or something but it just looks to me like he’s saying
yeah I’m living life well Bighorn Rams running through the terrain and Wyoming
these guys I think there were eight of them or nine how many are in the photo
one two three four there’s seven in the photo I think there’s a couple more oh
yeah there’s one head right here here’s number eight these guys a lot of people
say well how in the world do you get so close to these and I was using my 8200
zoom but I didn’t have to use it because I got super close and the only reason I
can explain other than the fact that I was talking with them is that there were
eight of them and there was just one of me and they look like they could sure to
mess me up if they wanted to but they eventually taught it away and I made
this particular photo there are growing scientific accounts not only of the
similarity between humans and other creatures in terms of our
Anatomy our evolutionary history our genetics but also in terms of our social
interactions and even the possibility of some kind of animal morality some kind
of way in which animals have a code of right and wrong even amongst especially
wolf packs for instance or the stuff that guy named Franz Duvall’s doing with
bonobos and chimps down in Atlanta so I think about those kinds of things when
I’m in the wilderness this is the background there’s a teton mountains
outside of Yellowstone I was traveling down the road here and I looked out and
I saw this moose you can’t really tell it from this picture but this is
actually there’s water here but there’s a river here and he was out in the snow
and so I waded through the river and got up on the island with him to take this
photograph and he got up and turned around I made this photo and then I
thought what would be super cool is if I got back in the water and then got a
reflection of him looking at me and I made that phone I didn’t turn out quite
the way I wanted to but it was cold super cold and then he trotted off the
island and instead of going the direction you see in this photograph
which would have been easy for him he decided to cross the river and it was
really strange he couldn’t make it he got it about halfway across and then
came back and then maybe went another 100 yards downstream and then made it
across and so I learned something about moose that day that they actually not
don’t necessarily want to cross the rivers that are too deep even for them
this is a golden eagle I think this golden eagle must have got
into some poison or something other birds were dive-bombing him so I went
over and and started making photographs and he would kind of run away from me
and I thought maybe busted his wing at first because he couldn’t he wouldn’t
fly and that wing light kind of looks weird but after about 15 minutes of me
walking with him and taking photos he kind of got up to a higher level and
then turned back the way we come and then started running and flapped his
wings and just barely got off the ground and made it up
into a tree but boy up close those things are majestic amazing birds
I’m telling animal stories now sorry if I’m I got to tell another one I was in
the Sequoias two years ago at a science and religion event and the friend and I
named Carl Garson decided we were gonna go out and have a walk and he’s a city
guy and he wanted to get out and see what the Sequoia National Park was so we
went out and I looked across the field and I saw this bear turning over rocks
looking for for bugs to eat and I just had my the camera I actually have today
my little Canon point-and-shoot with me but of course I wanted to picture this
bear so I just ran across the valley toward this bear and I got probably 70
yards and he saw me and he started running away from me so I’m trying to
catch up to get this photograph and he goes up this tree and he just sort of
stands her and looks down at me like you know
yeah come up and get me here so I took the photo and whenever I see that I
think of my wife saying I’m not always very smart but I got a good photo out of
it animals can do awesome stuff we call these snow geese it looks like they can
walk on water they have to get a good run to get going and and then once they
get up there really cool I believe that animals have intrinsic
value which means that they’re they have value in and for themselves not just for
what they can do for us now I think we can also benefit from animals son some
ways but we should also respect the value that they happen for for
themselves few more animals photos I think God loves all animals including
rattlesnakes like this particular guy I have a particular fondness for snakes so
I have a lot of snake photos but every once in a while something majestic
happens like this blue heron taking flight off the what’s called the Snake
River as I tried to think about a photograph
that might portray an important value for me an important value theologically
I wanted to find something that would talk about the interrelatedness of
existence I believe God is related to us and we relate to God and that existence
relates to one another and I begin to hear about this particular aspen Glo
Grove in Utah this is apparently actually I’ve got it written down so let
me say it correctly it’s the single Living determined to be a single living
organism by identical genetic markers and assumed to have one massive
underground root system occupying a hundred six acres and the heaviest known
organism in the world the root system of this thing that they call Pando is an
estimated 80 thousand years old and among the oldest living organisms
I think they listed as the oldest until they found some sort of a what are
mushrooms are they focused yeah fungus I think an organ that they think is older
now but it’s still thought to be the heaviest single organism with the same
genetic markers of course I think that’s part of the truth of the idea of
interrelatedness in an interrelated world if we use those relations properly
we can thrive we can blossom we can become more than we could ever become as
individuals and so to try to depict that visually I made this photo just to talk
a little bit about the decision I made in the photo
notice that this particular tree here is out of focus
if I had focused in on this one in the back were there you would probably think
more in terms of a few and then a bunch in the background but I thought if I
focus further back your I would go here and then you would kind of almost feel
like you’re in the middle of them so something to think about
photographically what kind of impression do you want to make with your photo my
my attempt here is to give you the impression
that you could somehow be in the midst of them and the way to do that is to to
focus here instead of here to make that possible I’m sure there’s some other
things you could do as well okay sometimes people will say to me Tom
what’s your favorite photograph and that’s like asking the father what’s
your favorite kid you know you can’t do that
but if there’s a particular type of photograph that I like best it’s this
one here this gets at what I was trying to describe earlier there’s so many
elements here there’s this sense of lack of order and chaos but also the way I’ve
composed it it’s not so chaotic as to make no sense at all
there’s definitely darkness there’s scraggly stuff but there’s also there’s
some amazing clouds at the top there’s some subtle light coming through I’d
like to think of myself as a realist that is I don’t think of the world is
all good I also don’t think of as all evil and maybe that’s part of why I like
this photograph it seems to me there’s positive and negative elements in in
this and I always get a little skeptical if someone says everything’s alright in
the world because I think there’s a lot of crappy things in the world but I’m
also not convinced by people who see the world always is horrible and maybe
that’s part of the reason why I’m attracted to making this kind of a
photograph Idaho has six wild horse herds and if you know where to go and
you’re patient you can get out there and hang out with these horses I think God
is wild and so when I think of wild horses I think about a God who is wild I
think it was the Scot who then became an American John Muir who says in God’s
wildness is the hope of the world I love that line
John Muir the great environmentalist made was so instrumental in setting
aside wilderness areas in the United States especially Yosemite but I also
think when I think of wild horses like this or like these that I photographed I
think of a line from The Chronicles of Narnia
in which you know those of you who seen this you know Aslan is is sort of the
God figure in the story and one of the characters I think it’s Peter says he
says he’s not tamed but he is good I like that
they’re not tame but they are good horses make me think of that these
things are so intelligent it just I was fortunate enough to grow up on a farm
and be around horses and other animals and they’re just amazing what they can
do now in the wild they do some really interesting things I’ve never seen them
do on the farm and one of them is when they’re in a large herd like this
previous thing these guys were just about ready to do this when I come up to
photograph them on I’m usually talking because they’re far enough away I don’t
whisper I’m sort of talking out loud and giving them going slow and they they get
kind of nervous and they’ll turn their body sideways and then they’ll face me
like this and they’ll start trotting toward me like they’re intimidating me
and I assume that what happens if a coyote is in that position they turn and
run but I just sort of stand there and they’ll come you know not super close
but the first time it happened I was like kind of freaking out are they gonna
run me over but they’ll come close and then they’ll the first one will veer off
to the side and the trot away at a distance and then stop and then I’ll
talk to them and walk so they’re curious about me they have certain ways of
trying to test me the wildness comes out in powerful ways of course if you talk
to photographers one of the first thing they would say to you is it’s the light
that matters most and I think that’s true in terms of theology of course that
brings in all kinds of interesting dimensions
Jesus says he’s the light of the world for instance there’s all kinds of
references to light but there’s also references to a kind of world in which
there’s both order and chaos this is a photograph I made in California and the
Mountains anybody ever heard of the John Muir Trail yeah I hiked the John Muir
Trail two summers ago and made this particular photo one evening when folks
talk about God in nature sometimes they’ll talk about extraordinary natural
occurrences and that might be the damage of a hurricane or it might be last
summer’s Eclipse total eclipse in the United States I hiked out to a remote
area to take this particular photo these kinds of strange things make a lot of
people talk about God not always in ways I like but for some reason the oddity of
a natural occurrence as people try to explain it the spiritual and religious
dimensions start to poke their head through more commonly is the idea that
we see God through sort of the what we call the God rays I don’t know if you
ever heard that phrase before but the idea when the sun is shining through the
clouds and you can see those beams this is actually another photo near
Yellowstone those are the Teton Mountains this is a photograph I made
just about a month ago and I put it in this collection to emphasize again this
notion of light that as a photographer you’re looking for contrasts and I
initially started trying to take photographs of these thistle things and
I was doing those for a few minutes until I started noticing these and I
don’t even know what they are but notice in my choice in this particular
photograph I decided to focus in on this one here and make your eye go there
first and then see that in context of the other elements there but it’s
another way of thinking about the particular light and how to make sense
of a photograph through light and of course not just Christianity but many
religious traditions talk about becoming enlightened and I think there’s
something about that because the light in some way reveals things you don’t
always see this is a photograph I made on the
Oregon coast and after I made it I thought I need to go to Iceland because
this seems like the photographs I see other people make in Iceland gotta get
up there sometime enlightened of course doesn’t mean that I understand God fully
again I think I see as if looking through a glass darkly to use the King
James Version of Corinthians but I want to conclude before we go to conclude
this part of the presentation and go to more QA by sort of repeating my my main
theme that I hope I’ve gotten across this afternoon and that is spending time
in nature looking at the natural world can be a way to think about God and
God’s relationship with us in our lives we can ponder God we might say I like to
think that it’s only when I understand the world to be filled with awe that I
can understand it to be awesome or in terms of God if I have a spirit of
wonder it’s more likely that I’ll see the world and God as wonderful the way
that I present myself to the world makes a difference on how I see it and how the
world seems to shape me well let me conclude with just a few thoughts
hopefully something I’ve said today was helpful in some way either helpful in
terms of just the mechanics of how you think about hiking and photography
perhaps inspirational my hope would be that you might want to spend more time
outside enjoying nature and thinking about God perhaps that even taking your
camera and trying some new things maybe you’ve got some ideas that’s what I do I
look at other people’s photographs and try to steal ideas and say oh that’s
great I wonder if I could do something similar
hopefully something about this afternoon has been helpful in some way but I want
to close by just thanking you for spending a little time talking about
things that I care about and apparently you care about too so thanks for coming
out hope you enjoyed this podcast from the least Church Institute if you would
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