This week I’ve been catching bits and pieces of Ken Burns’ new series on PBS: The National Parks-America’s Best Idea. I’ve loved everything Burns has produced, especially his documentary on World War II, but the National Parks combines his historic story-telling abilities with some of the most beautiful images of America’s most beautiful places. It’s a fantastic series, and I look forward to watching the entire thing on DVD.What I found most intriguing so far has been the story of John Muir-the man, perhaps more than any other, responsible for pushing the federal government to preserve large sections of wilderness. Muir, raised by a brutal Calvinist father and beaten in to memorizing the entire Bible, escaped the rigid confines of his Christian tradition to discover the beauty and tranquility of God through nature. Muir saw the power of “wilderness” as carrying spiritual significance. It forces people to see and feel their smallness, and it lifts their spirits to transcendent heights. Here are two quotes from Muir that caught my attention:
“These temple destroyers, devotees of ravaging commercialism, seem to have a perfect contempt for Nature, and, instead of lifting their eyes to the God of the mountains, lift them to the Almighty Dollar. Dam Hetch Hetchy! As well dam for water-tanks the people’s cathedrals and churches, for no holier temple has ever been consecrated by the heart.”
“Our crude civilization engenders a multitude of wants, and law-givers are ever at their wit’s end devising. The hall and the theater and the church have been invented, and compulsory education. Why not add compulsory recreation? Our forefathers forged chains of duty and habit, which bind us notwithstanding our boasted freedom, and we ourselves in desperation add link to link, groaning and making medicinal laws for relief. Yet few think of pure rest or of the healing power of Nature.”
What Muir articulates here is congruent with what I wrote in Chapter 2 of The Divine Commodity:
Our culture has confined our imaginations with an uninspiring vision of God. He’s been reduced to a manageable deity of consumable proportions. To break through this trap we need to see beyond our culture; we need to peer through the bars of commodification and alienation and catch a glimpse of a God far larger than our circumstances. Our imaginations can throw off the shackles of consumerism if we start to feel the infinite once again. This requires us to take our gaze off the consumable manifestations of God so prevalent today-the music, t-shirts, jewelry, and yes even books that reduce and confine our perception of the Divine, and replace them with the silent contemplation of what God himself has created. In a culture that insists on making God small we can counteract the trend by focusing our imaginations on what is big. How might our perception of God be changed if we turned off the radio station for a few minutes and walked in a thunderstorm? What if we put down the self-help book and gazed at the ocean for an hour? What might we learn about God and ourselves if our bible study group gathered outside to stare at the stars in silence? Obviously, the created order only reveals a piece of God’s nature and character to us, but that piece is foundational. As the Apostle Paul says, “For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.”It is recognizing God’s eternality that liberates our minds from their consumer inclination to reduce him into a commodity. But this recognition must be more than intellectual; it must also be emotional. As van Gogh, Millet, and Paul knew, a correct understanding of God begins when we feel the infinite.
I’m going to write more in the coming days about Muir, nature, and the link he sees between beauty and God. It’s something I’ve been thinking a lot about as I begin writing my next book. Until then, try to watch of the Burns’ documentary on the National Parks, or better still-get outside and feel the infinite yourself.