caesarea philippi

Can You Find God In Nature?


The Gospel that we hear today is the time that Jesus goes to Caesarea Philippi. He goes up there to this region. I was praying with the Gospel, and one of the things they taught us in the seminary is that if you notice something strange in the Gospel, look it up – research it.  

It occurred to me that I had no idea where Caesarea Philippi was, or what it is.  

Any of you know where it is, or what it is?  

I didn’t know.  So I looked it up, and it turns out its 20 miles north of the Sea of Galilee.  

I’ve been to the Holy Land, I’ve been to Galilee, but I didn’t get to make this travel up 20 miles north.  

The Disciples, Jesus would have taken them on kind of like a walking road trip so that He would have walked a couple day’s journey, on a little pilgrimage 20 miles north. When he got there, this place was a place of Pagan worship.  

It was a beautiful nature preserve, there are waterfalls, and it’s built on the side of this huge rock, on the side of the stone.  And right in the middle of the stone is a cave and there’s a little opening in the cave, and then inside the cave, there’s a well that springs up.

So this well is coming forth, and they believed then, they were worshiping the pagan gods. That well, was the entrance to the netherworld. That through that well, they could communicate with the gods of the netherworld.  

Sometimes they would sacrifice animals, and if the blood went down they believed that the gods of Hades were accepting their sacrifice, and if the blood came out through the river, they weren’t.  

This is where Jesus took them.  Seems kind of strange, doesn’t it?  

So he took them to this place of pagan worship, and there were all these gods carved into the niches of the stone, and the main god that they worshiped there was the god of Pan.  Now it’s interesting because the god of Pan is right in the midst of this beautiful place.  

Listen to what the god of Pan is:  He is the greek god of pastures, flocks, and shepherds.  

Sound like anybody familiar?

Usually represented, and now it where it gets sort of strange, usually represented as having legs, horns, and ears of a goat.  And Pan is often depicted as playing the panpipe.  So that’s where we get Peter Pan from.  

It was also the god of the worship of nature, and it was seen as all gods were equal. Pantheism, which is where the word Pan comes from, means all and everything.  Pan is all, and everything and Theism is god. Everything can be worshiped as god is what Pantheism means.

This is where Jesus takes them. 20 miles north, they go on 3 day’s journey, and he’s in the midst of all these pagan gods, especially this one god who’s the god of shepherding and fields and nature and wildness, and he says to Peter, in the midst of all this, “Who do you say that I am?”  

And Peter says, “You are the Christ, the only son of God.”  

So he gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom of Heaven, and this is where it goes back to – remember that spring coming up?- he says Whatever you bind in Heaven will be bound on Earth and Whatever you loosed on Earth will be loosed in Heaven, and the gates of the netherworld, that spring, shall not prevail against it.  

Jesus did this right in the midst of the pagan worship and idolatry.  

Why am I saying all of this?  

I think what blew me away is, what is different than Pantheism or any other world religion?

I took a world religion class in college when I went away to college.  And some of your kids might be there right now, and it rocked my boat, because I heard all these crazy stories about world religions, and I thought, well which one of these is true?  

Well, Jesus is the only one that actually existed, none of these Pagan gods existed. Nobody believed that they really existed in time and space, that they were actually human beings, but Jesus was real. Not only was he real, but he is the son of God.  He is God on Earth.  

I think it’s so relevant for us today because we’re in a culture and a society that is becoming more and more agnostic or pantheistic.  So, again, pantheism means all or everything is ok, all gods are equal, sound kind of familiar?  

Jesus is just one among many.  We live in a pantheistic culture.  The Burning Man is going on right now.  Anyone ever sees that where they have a huge burning man in the desert, in Nevada?  

They’re worshiping, it’s pretty cool looking, but they’re basically worshiping.  

It’s pantheism. So how does this impact us?

There’s actually a school in Texas right now, I’ll put it on my blog if you want to see it, but they’re trying to be inclusive, so they want to welcome students of all faiths and all generations, and that is what Catholic means – we do that – but they’ve removed all the Catholic status.

They’ve taken all their Catholic statues out of the school and they’ve removed all of Catholicism from their religious education.  

Now their religious education is just teaching the children about all the different religions.  One of the nuns who runs the school actually said “We’re doing this so that the students can find their own way and figure out who God is for them.  So they can find the truth within themselves, who God is.”  

Sounds like pantheism to me, doesn’t it?  

We know who God is. Jesus is God. Jesus is the way, and the truth, and the life.  And when Peter says this, now sometimes Peter is an idiot in the Gospel and he doesn’t always get it, but this time he gets it, and Jesus says “You are Peter.  You are my rock.”  

Remember he’s right there by this huge stone where they’re worshiping all these pagan gods and he says “You are my rock, and upon this rock I will build my Church, and the gates of the netherworld shall not prevail against it.”  

I know being inclusive is huge term right now, and it’s good to be inclusive, but Jesus was inclusive, not to the lack of his identity or who he was.  He went right into the pagan territory – we’re called to do that as Catholics, to go into the pagan territory. But we are not called to lose our identity.  

It was in the midst of the pagan territory that Peter proclaimed that Jesus was Christ, the only son of God. I think it’s so important for all of us to realize this. That’s why the Church has lasted 2,000 years. Because of Peter’s profession of faith and who Jesus really was.  

I just invite you to think about that – who do you say that I am?  

Who do you say that Jesus is?  

Is he just one way among many ways, or is he truly Christ, the Son of God that we profess in our faith every Sunday at Mass?

About the Author Fr. Michael Denk

Fr. Michael was ordained into priesthood in the Diocese of Cleveland on May 12, 2007. He is dedicated to helping others encounter Christ through the celebration of the Eucharist, preaching, the Sacrament of Reconciliation, spiritual direction, and prayer.

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I'm Father Michael J. Denk, a priest of the Catholic Diocese of Cleveland. I am a contributor of content to The Prodigal Father Productions, Inc., a non-profit corporation functioning in accord with the traditions and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. The corporation and I are separate, it doesn't speak for me, the parish, or on behalf of the Diocese of Cleveland, and I do not speak for it.