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Higher Trails to a Beauty Beyond God

By Chris Highland ~

While studying Philosophy at Seattle Pacific ("free" Methodist) University, a wise old professor suggested I thumb through some Nietzsche. My evangelical mind was already stumbling numb from reading Socrates in Greek, and staggering in and out of Confucius, Walt Whitman and Kierkegaard. On the personal side, I was discovering the joys of (sinful) sex while attending a "house church" led by a Jews for Jesus-type friend and paling around with some Muslim students. But Nietzsche? Wasn't he the "God is Dead" guy? I quickly found he was much, much more, and I've returned to his writings off and on over the long journey out of faith. At this point I read him now and again during my "meditation" times (my wife knows this means while I'm in the bathroom sanctuary). This morning I came upon more delightfully upsetting lines from Mr. N's little book of pithy sayings called, Human, All Too Human (HATH, 1878). He was very good at the delightfully upsetting stuff. In this passage of troubling truthtelling he is discussing a "Substitute for Religion." He says that some want to simply replace Religion with Philosophy, but the move from religious to scientific thinking can be a "dangerous leap" and actually "inadvisable." The leap, that is. But, he reasons, "transitional spheres of thought" are necessary sometimes. His suggestion? Art. To move out of religious ideas that "originate only from errors of reason," a person needs a little help, a bridge, an alternative path that isn't some dramatic leap of un-faith (as opposed to Kierkegaard's famous leap of faith).
 "It is preferable to use art for this transition. . . . Beginning with art, one can more easily move on to a truly liberating philosophical science" (HATH, 27).

That's a taste of Mr. N. And here I make an incredibly wild connection to one of Friedrich's Scottish-American contemporaries who led my final exit from faith. Not a philosopher; not an atheist; not an artist. A Mr. M. . . .Muir. . . .John Muir. A fine freethinking trail guide for the wild journey out of "foggy city thinking" to the great wide open, fresh air artwork of Nature. I'm wrong, though. Muir was indeed an artist--with words. No one could tell a story or use his lips to paint a picture quite like the Mountain Man Muir. His fantastic tales of climbing cliffs and trees, of riding avalanches and facing bears, whispering to flowers and singing with birds, all were shaped into stories to inspire generations of people to get involved, to participate, to care for the Chapel of the Cosmos. As I like to say, we are each, as humans made of humus with a pinch of humor (for fertilizer?), called to be Nature Chaplains--whatever that means. We need to discover what that means.

Whether sleeping in a cemetery in Georgia or sleeping on a blanket in the sierra snow with Teddy Roosevelt, Muir was truly crazy. . .crazy in love with the earth and everything earthly. And his words, his art, changed things. Politicians got agitated. National Parks were created. He didn't distract people to other worlds, to the fancies and fantasies of faith. He, like Thoreau, had no interest in the inventions of heavens, some imagined above, beyond, behind the universe. Nature was heaven enough, religion enough, scripture enough. Muir's was not a super-natural faith. His was an all-natural, organic, crunchy and biodegradable trust that Life itself was super enough.

Here are a few elements of Muir's "faith" as I see it:
  1. A light but serious belief that beliefs are distractions from the simple and most wonderful gifts of life
  2. A full-out belly-flop baptism in the beauty of Nature
  3. A pure, endless delight in the world, the cosmos, all that is and can be explored
  4.  A student's heart to "sit on Nature's knee" and learn from the Greatest Teacher
  5. An evangelical enthusiasm to convert the masses to preserving the only home we share with each other and all other wild life

How did he preach this wild gospel (a kind of anti-gospel)? From the pulpit of the forests and mountains. "I care to live only to entice people to look at Nature's loveliness" (Wilderness Essays). Though he memorized the Bible as a boy, his scripture was written along the ridge-lines and recited in the waterfalls. Was Muir a Pantheist? Maybe. Did he believe in God? Yes, with a radical (literally rooted and grounded) twist. "No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty" (Journals). When we look at the world more closely, more reverently if you will, we "behold a new heaven and new earth and are born again, as if we had gone on a pilgrimage to some far-off holy land" (Journals). This bearded incarnation of Thoreau's "saunterer" felt that every step in the wilderness left a bootprint on sacred ground.

Muir, like Nietzsche (strange to say), gave us hints, pointed the way down the paths to a way, a truth, a life, greater than anything Religion has ever offered. Is there a Creator? Of course there is: Nature. Is there a Paradise? Look around. Heaven is under our feet (and stuck on our shoe!). Is there a cure, a salvation, for our humanity? Only being more human. Is there anything left after faith is left behind? Only countless trails to be discovered, explored, wandered by every wanderer with a pack full of wonder (and the adventure reaches from our body and brain to the farthest point of light in space).

Now, before I head off down another deer trail into the unknown, here's an old, wrinkled map left by the crazy artist Muir:

"Go now and then for fresh life--if most of humanity must go through this town stage of development--just as divers hold their breath and come ever and anon to the surface to breathe. . . . Go whether or not you have faith. . . . Form parties, if you must be social, to go to the snow-flowers in winter, to the sun-flowers in summer. . . . Anyway, go up and away for life; be fleet!" (Journals)

Can you think of a better benediction?

Chris Highland
(former Presbyterian Minister; former Interfaith Chaplain; author of Life After Faith, Jesus and John Muir,
Meditations of John Muir, and other works.