Course explores spiritual formation outdoors

03.17.14 | Academics, Science

Course explores spiritual formation outdoors

    Jonathan Stegenga, a SWU junior from Northern Pickens County, jots down some thoughts in his notebook while spending time alone in a wooded area. This past fall, the university offered a new course devoted to the spiritual benefits gained from a temporary retreat from an increasingly connected, urbanized society.

    This past fall, Southern Wesleyan University offered a new course devoted to the spiritual benefits gained from a solitary wilderness experience and a temporary retreat from an increasingly connected, urbanized society.

    Wilderness is a locale used frequently throughout the Bible, two prominent instances being the Israelites’ 40 years of wandering in the desert and Jesus going up to an isolated mountaintop to pray. Monastic orders built monasteries in isolated areas for sacred activities. 

    Dr. Rocky Nation, professor of biology at Southern Wesleyan University, developed “Wilderness Spirituality,” a course where students spend a substantial amount of time outside of the classroom in a natural setting, in solitude. The class used John Lionberger’s “Renewal in the Wilderness – A Spiritual Guide to Connecting with God in the Natural World” as their textbook.

    Nation contends that, as important as it is to protect the environment and preserve wildlife, there is a spiritual element not to be missed in the form of therapeutic values experienced by individuals outdoors, away from the noise of civilization. Finding a quiet, natural setting isn’t difficult since Southern Wesleyan’s campus includes more than a hundred wooded acres crisscrossed by trails. The university is also situated near several parks and pristine mountain wilderness areas.

    “A couple of (students) used a trip to the beach to do a couple of their entries. Some were going up in the mountains. Some were going at night, just looking at the stars,” Nation said. Some students spent the time in their ENO hammock, a hammock lightweight enough to carry in a small carrying bag and easily hung between two trees.

    Nation’s students gained a growing awareness of the natural world through 15 hours spent outdoors over the semester. Students who were enrolled in the course began to look beyond their outdoor time as assignments and write about personal discoveries in a journal. Some wrote about how the experience helped them move through personal struggles into a closer relationship with God.

    “It’s been a crazy week; I’m tired and weary. The birds are singing so beautifully without a care. May my worship to God be the same,” wrote one student in their journal.

    “I love this season, walking in the leaves and seeing my breath. This is freeing, nothing to distract me or take away my attention. It’s so easy to be myself right now,” wrote another student.

    “It is my hope that the spiritual values get a place at the table when we’re talking about conservation and protection of these natural areas,” Nation said.

    Although the course is part of the curriculum for Southern Wesleyan’s new Environmental Studies degree program, Nation says that many students took the course as an elective. In the course, students discuss the historical context of wilderness spirituality from Old Testament through the present, as well as study biographical backgrounds and theological emphases of notable advocates of wilderness spirituality over the years.

    “Because they were having to sit for extended periods out in natural settings, they start to pay attention to things – most notably plants and animals that otherwise would have gone unnoticed, but also the change of the seasons,” Nation said.

    Southern Wesleyan University is a Christ-centered, student-focused learning community devoted to transforming lives by challenging students to be dedicated scholars and servant-leaders who impact the world for Christ. For details about degree programs, go online to