Like many of you, the Contrarian and I got around to watching the first installment in the new Ken Burns documentary on the National Parks of America. As will all his work, we anticipated that it would be wonderful, and indeed it was and is.
The first episode focused on John Muir, who more than anyone is probably responsible for our national parks system. It was his writings that so impressed a generation and influenced a largely uncaring Congress.
Muir was born to a deeply religious and strict man who became a Presbyterian minister. By methods that would disgust us today, young John learned to recite from memory nearly 3/4 of the Old Testament and all of the New.The rod was not spared in this. Yet somehow, he got away from this fundamentalist upbringing and ultimately saw God in a more holistic manner.
When he first visited Yosemite, he was hooked. He would spend the rest of his life, traveling, usually on foot, through out the mountains and valleys, studying, and writing. He quite plainly, found God in the wilderness and in some sense conceived of these lands as almost pristine in their “edenish” qualities.
Yet, Muir was no literalist clearly. His theology perhaps was more along the lines of Emerson and Thoreau, in other words transcendentalism. God was most clearly met in nature, he was best understood there. Yet Muir viewed the mind, it would seem, as a creation of God as well, and thus saw his senses as a proper barometer of truth.
To this end, he spend some considerable time in proving his theory that the Yosemite valley was the result of eons long departed glaciers. In this, he went up against the prevailing conclusions of geologists who argued that the valley was formed by an earthquake. In the end, Muir was right, and it became accepted by the scientific community that the valley had been created tens of thousands of years in the past.
Many people today also find God most clearly in the wildernesses of our land. Sometimes in our own backyards, sometimes in our vacation spots of beach, mountain, or forest. I can sit on the top of the hill here in the meadow and allow my senses to flood with the sights, sounds, smells and textures of life around me. I can almost taste spring. I can feel apart of all that transpires around me. I know this cannot all be by chance, but is a process running smoothly forward from a point in time when God indeed breathed out his Word.
All else is of course in the details. One can see this wondrous history as the natural play of forces we now have some handle on. Much that we surmised a century or two ago are now born out by sophisticated testing in multiple disciplines. The human genome project, if it had turned out differently would have done everything to upset evolution, but it did not. It confirmed it.
The other way is to see the entire world as designed specifically to mislead humankind and its reasoning machine, the mind. If God created us, directly as some believe, then he created our minds. And those minds respond to sensory input and reach conclusions about the world they inhabit. We can assume God’s system works pretty good, since we recoil from excessive heat, and use hearing to locate danger and food.
If one presumes that most of science is incorrect in its conclusions (except for those instances that it provides the creature comforts, and doesn’t impinge on any personal interpretation of scripture), then we must conclude that after giving humanity this method of discerning truth in day to day affairs, God deliberately created a world that would lead us reasonably to believe the results of our continuing sensory methodology. In other words, reason would work to show us a world quite different from what it actually is.
This theory would have it that all we discern is a lie, designed apparently to separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat in this case are all those who prefer to deny reality in favor of a book which CAN be interpreted to suggest a very different creation. They are saved, the rest, giving into their God given minds, are apparently not. A strange system to be sure.
I always mean to ask, if you believe the first creation story, do you actually believe that the heavens are a beaten metal bowl over setting the disk that is earth? For that is what is described in Genesis. That is the meaning of the actual words. And literally I would assume that must be accepted as true, regardless of our probes, our telescopes, and so forth.
Nature is of course but one way to experience the sacred. I am blessed since I find that another sacred place for me is church. Not just any, but some. I feel the presence of God in ritual, and so the plain type of facility doesn’t work for me. But I have only to walk down the aisle and genuflect to quite suddenly be transported to “God.” And for the next hour I am enveloped with a sense of the divine woven throughout the congregation.
I know people who reach that feeling while knitting or quilting. Other’s no doubt find it supremely present during music, classical and otherwise. I suspect that there are surgeons who feel it in operating theatres. Mother Theresa saw it in every face of every destitute human she reached out to.
Our God is like that, open and available to each of us, as we need or want. It would be nice, I guess, to have a handbook for success, more like a blueprint for a perfectly constructed human being. It would be nice, but hardly authentic. We would miss all the learning and struggling, and soul searching and ego-searing pain that molds us into, we hope, better people. And that doesn’t come from memorizing at the point of a rod the scriptures.
It comes from revering the sacred journey of others, learning from their experiences, building upon their insights, and then going into the world to forge new connections, advancing our own theories, sharing, and then growing. Like the evolution of single celled creatures to the plethora of life we now witness, our faith is organic and evolutionary as well, growing ever closer to the sacred.
The goal, I am sure, is to create that kingdom of God, first inside, and then to expand outward, in community sharing our hopes and aspirations, our dreams, our beliefs, our fears. Creating a world that is God-related, where every life is honored and upheld, as God upholds us. Today is but another step along the way.