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Essays on this Page:

Eulogy for a Pond

Dirty Glaciers

Natural Spirituality

Lessons from the Top of a Tree

Nature’s Scripture

Nature is God

Natural Economics

Small Voices in Seasons of Change

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Eulogy for a Pond

(written on Whidbey Island, Washington in 2007)

Henry David Thoreau famously wrote about the big puddle he built his shack alongside, where he chose to make a livelihood for two years long ago.  He scrambled the edges and from his scrambles came scribbled notes, dribbled on damp pages.

“Formerly I had come to this pond adventurously, from time to time. . .

But now I had made my home by the shore.”

I know something of pondside, bayside, riverside, oceanside, Soundside living.   I was born and soaked in the salt and the sod of this land, this rich, saturated Northwest soil.  I’m no Thoreau, and this is no Walden.  The puddle that concerns me sits its muddy bottom as I do on this island, on another coast, mirroring that Bostonian newer England.  I write this eulogy for another tree-shaded water; another lakelet leaking life day by day.

“A lake is the landscape’s most beautiful and expressive feature.  It is earth’s eye;

looking into which the beholder measures the depth of [their] own nature.”

I might call this Peat Pond, and I sometimes do, if it needs a name, and it doesn’t.  This small acre of wet, fed by natural artesians, the runoff of seasonal streams―“burns” the Scots would say―is drained to be of use as a peat bog each summer.  The pond becomes a ditch.  It is scraped and dug for saleable soil―at least the decompositions of what life once composed here.  A raft with a pump floats on the dark water, a pipe stretches to shore, jetting a spray of minute creatures in the wash high in the air.  Leaky irrigation, or do the horses drink its draught?  I watch each evening as the water level falls.  On my sunset saunters along the shore I step quietly and alert in the green grasses.  In winter months I took photographs of the frozen brown blades, the play of light and shadows on the layers of ice and snow, slanting sun reaching far out onto the frozen water beyond, where I dare not step.

This spring has attracted a steady stream of Canada geese who trespass as I do.  They wake me each morning with first light and call me to appreciate the sinking sun each evening.  A few weeks ago I stood still as a cedar to observe two proud geese gliding like feathered bookends off shore with six tiny goslings hurrying along between.  Several nights later, three ducklings trailed their parents around the shoreline circumference.

A great blue heron (not as blue as it is great) comes and goes like a dignitary―an ambassador from a near and borderless country gliding in for the banquet.

In a late day’s warm winds, a white-crested eagle circles off the glistening waters.  Passing low over my balding head it banks near enough to these banks to hear a bit of music in the feathers.

A few more cautious, alert steps and my eye is drawn upward to a large sharp-shinned hawk caught in its own skyward whirlpool, only slightly distracted by pursuing swallows, persistent, encircling.

At nightfall, the call of coyotes pierces the dark with their wild yelps.  The rabbits munching, jumping and humping all around my cabin set back in the woods become a munching themselves when the light dissolves.  Pairs of Barred Owls, never barred from their nocturnal hunts, enter the feasting, while rabbits, squirrels, mice, treefrogs and other invisibles climb on the plate to participate in the feast.

The cabiner of Concord, who opened, as I do, his one-room to the room of the woods, guessed that his pond may well have been named for the stony hills surrounding it―thus it became, Walled-in Pond.

I set foot here, disembarked on this isle, to shake off the walls and have fewer of them, to write, to grow a fresh livelihood, to settle a more simplified life.  As the Walden wanderer I too wished to make myself “neighbor to the birds.”  I wonder now if the winged ones are neighbors in need–their life, like mine, threatened with an incessant squeezing, a slow pumping away and selling off of our wild neighborhood.

As I watch the trees fall, cringe at the crack and thump of their wasted weight; as I hear the all-too-familiar whine of the saws and rumble of the dozers that never sleep; and as I watch twilight by twilight the pond fall, walled-in more and more by people building and dogs barking—I cannot help this eulogy for the land, its eye, the reflective sky, and ask:  as my island of peace drains and disappears into marketable peat and timber, ringed by rusted machinery―what of the goslings, ducklings, ascending eagles, herons and hawks?  What of the frogs who sing their Beethoven’s Ninth each night, and of the unseen homesteads beneath my feet?  What of their island, my island, our island?  What of the earth?

I wish to say a blessing, a “rest in peace.”

If I find words to say I find I must say these words,

“I’m sorry.  There is no rest.  This is no peace.”

We are forever walled-in.

I walk away, deeper into a shallower wood, silently turning back but once.

A season is passing.  And so is a pond.

Chris Highland

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Glacier Bay, Alaska
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Dirty Glaciers:  Wild Beauty as a Path toward Grounded Ethics

“Doubling cape after cape, passing uncounted islands, new combinations break on the view in endless variety, sufficient to satisfy the lover of wild beauty through a whole life.”

~John Muir, Travels in Alaska

On a family journey this summer I ventured by car, plane, bus, train, foot and ship to the still wild lands of Alaska.  We saw the rugged and majestic peak of Denali (McKinley if you prefer), observed grizzlies and caribou, mountain sheep and fox, moose and eagles.  Coming back down the Inside Passage on the Marine Highway the jagged mountains, ice-cold whale-blessed waters and emerald islands gathered around us with a deep, dark sense of wonder and mystery.  There is nothing like the wilderness for restoring the feeling of relation, connection (perhaps more meaningful words than “spiritual”).  One can be grateful that a little over 100 years ago Theodore Roosevelt had the vision to preserve over 20 million acres of forested land in Southeastern Alaska (Tongass, Chugach and the Alexander Archipelago).

As we enjoyed the rather leisurely experience I read some of my favorite passages from John Muir in his memoir, Travels in Alaska.  Since I consider Muir one of Nature’s Chaplains I once again delighted in his delight and recalled my decision a few years back to transform super-natural faith into natural delight.

Up in the northland where there is still a palpable feeling of frontier, we learned more of First Nations culture while visiting museums, reading historical pieces and speaking with Native Alaskans (we stopped for lunch in Wasilla, but the only ex-governor sightings were on calendars and coloring books).  The raw emotion of the injustice done to the aboriginal people by our culture and religion was painfully present.  I felt taken back over one hundred years to the time when Muir was exploring this same land.  Stepping off his ship into an old Stickeen village south of Wrangell, Muir thought it strange that the missionaries were so interested in a deserted place.  Before he witnessed the chopping down of the sacred totem poles by the party, he exulted in pure Muirian language:  “Divinity abounded nevertheless; the day was divine and there was plenty of natural religion in the newborn landscapes that were being baptized in sunshine, and sermons in the glacial boulders on the beach where we landed.”  The Scotsman of Yosemite, forced to memorize the scriptures as a child, utilized the old language to express a wider, more inclusive spirituality undistracted by super-naturalism.  Unafraid of immersion in the wild beauty, he was fully disgusted by the actions of those who came to that land to alter it with altars, to tame its wilderness and wild people who called it home.  Thankfully it appears they were not completely successful.  

Our ship sailed deep into Glacier Bay.  Like some living cathedral (only better), it was akin to sailing straight into a sanctuary where the roofless beauty leaves you speechless.  We drew near to the Marjerie Glacier with its 350-foot wall of crystal-blue ice.  Unlike anything I’d ever seen, the dramatic “calving” of huge chunks of ice made for quite a silencing show.  Right next to the Marjerie is the Grand Pacific Glacier that stretches across the border from Canada.  This glacier is the widest in the bay (2 miles).  This naturalist lesson only highlights an observation.  On our visit the entire ship was focused, with eager expectation, on the cracking and crumbling drama of the Marjerie.  This was completely understandable since the Grand Pacific, even though 25 miles long and the widest, is covered in dark rock and dirt.  It is what is referred to as a “dirty glacier.”  It doesn’t draw attention and just isn’t as full of sexy drama as its more spectacular neighbor.

I suppose it’s time to draw the connections, to make my point about spirituality and ethics.  For a number of years I served as an Interfaith Chaplain, first with mentally exceptional adults, then in a county jail and finally on the streets with “residentially challenged” people.  I ventured into many dark, damp and dirty places to practice a presence of compassion.  To sum up the experiences I might simply describe the scene I witnessed:  Commanding the center of attention was the faith community, theology and study of sacred books, ritual, tradition and great talk about something called “community.”  Many stood or sat mesmerized by the drama, expectantly awaiting the next chunk of exhilarating wisdom to come sliding down from the pulpit of pastor or professor.  Off to the side, rather hidden (though in full view if one cared to notice), was the very un-dramatic and ever disturbing, uncomfortable and offensive distraction of the unclean, the dirty ones.  What emerged from all this mucking around in the muck was a Copernican revolution in my thinking and vocation.  My Glacier Bay moment came like a cold arctic wind.  What are we seeing?  What are we not seeing?  It makes all the difference.  Seriously.  We cannot practice any form of ethics without a fresh formation of seeing, of sight, of vision.

The troubling term “wild” is disturbing for a reason.  This is not a place where we immediately feel a belonging, though the expansive beauty attracts and seduces our senses.  But somehow we know that we indeed do belong, it is a part of us and we of it.  The land is us, not merely the U.S., a bordered state or political coloring book.  In seeing the wild we see if not sense our own wildness and the essential need to care for that somehow, some way.

A tourguide on the train directed our attention to the vast green open spaces and said something I thought was a joke but wasn’t:  “Just keep looking out there and you’ll see things that don’t seem to fit–those are the animals.”  I just shook my head in amazement at that level of ignorance.  Who doesn’t fit out there?  Who would die in a very short time in this country?  A local bus driver boasted that he gets an annual oil dividend check along with all Alaskans, using part of it to hunt caribou, moose and bear, and of course catch just about all the salmon he wants.  He was so proud.  We were so shocked.  With shortsightedness the open spaces of wild beauty become what one lumber company executive called “resource inventory systems.”

An environmental ethics is needed that includes all ethical systems because the environment is our teacher, text and tradition.  In other words, there can be no ethics or even spirituality without an immersion in the great classroom and sanctuary that is Nature.  Muir knew it, felt it, lived it.  So did his friends John Burroughs and Teddy Roosevelt.  In one of the most telling passages in his journals he wrote, “No synonym for God is so perfect as Beauty.  Whether as seen carving the lines of the mountains with glaciers, or gathering matter into stars. . .still all is Beauty!” (June 26, 1875).  Did Muir see the dirt?  Clearly he did.  Was he sensitive to the turmoil and tragedy, the disease, death and destruction on the planet?  No doubt.  Yet for spiritual explorers like Muir there is no separation from the dirty glaciers of our existence, no disconnection from the wild beauty of our surrounding, embracing home, except in our minds.   To the extent our religious traditions acknowledge and celebrate the connections they have relevance.  To the extent our spirituality can see and value and participate in the hidden wonders it has meaning.    If we can call God “Beauty” then maybe, just maybe, we can accept the dirt as beautiful and practice an ethic that encompasses all points of the compass, as people of the land, the ground, the dirt, the water, the grinding glaciers still carving our heavenly home.

August 2011

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“The book of nature is like a page written over or printed upon with different-sized characters and in many different languages, interlined and cross-lined, and with a great variety of marginal notes and references.  There is coarse print and fine print; there are obscure signs and hieroglyphics.  We all read the large type more or less appreciatively, but only the students and lovers of nature read the fine lines and the footnotes.”

~John Burroughs, Leaf and Tendril, 1908

Natural Spirituality

Spirituality is natural.  A simple concept.  Nature is spiritual.  Another simple idea.  Placed together these two immensely important areas of life combine, intertwine, blur and become indistinguishable.  Can one experience Nature without a spiritual component?  Can one experience Spirituality without a close touching of Nature?  For me, I cannot.  I cannot connect with Spirit (an honorific word for inter-connection or inter-relation) through meditation, prayer or awareness without an appreciation for the natural world within and around me.  I breathe and I gaze up at the trees.  I bow and listen to the cry of a hawk or owl.  I read a scripture passage–Hindu, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Tao–and feel the paper and the leather and come close to not only the material, the matter, in what I hold in my hands, but to the one who wrote the ancient words, wondering, imagining if they wrote in a forest, on a mountain or by the sea.  What did the great spiritual teachers experience of Nature?  They all seem to call upon their near connectedness with the world around them to pass along the images and lessons that have become timeless.  Are the teachings timeless because of Who said them or because there is no time when the human community cannot relate to the natural way, the order and disorder of things.  Therefore it is not any exaggeration to say that the spiritual journey is forever and intrinsically woven and linked with the natural pathways made of earth, water, wind, sand, snow and blood.  We are spiritual creatures in a natural world.  And we are naturally at home in our bodies and in our souls.  “I have said that the soul is not more than the body; And I have said the body is not more than the soul” (Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself” 48)

The propinquity of Nature seems in fact to draw out our propensity for spiritual thought.  Poets know this innately.  Those who practice and not just espouse religious or wisdom traditions know it.  There is something of Spirit in all we see, say and do.   We can become entangled, hung up, on definitions or descriptions of the spirit-image—its name and embodiment for instance—or we can choose to recognize the universality of the experience of Spirit and learn from the uniqueness of life around the globe and the commonality of certain aspects of the experience.  To move beyond parochial or prejudicial understandings of our spiritual life (sometimes to literally move through travel or residence) is the necessary step in fearlessly opening to wider perspectives and deeper understandings.  This is obviously the most desirable and healthy way.  Speaking of Beauty, one of the major universal appreciations transcending religious, cultural, even political divisions, the great apostle of natural spirituality Waldo Emerson said, “To the attentive eye, each moment of the year has its own beauty, and in the same field, it beholds, every hour, a picture which was never seen before, and which shall never be seen again” (Nature, 1836).  That this attentive eye is not closed is central.  To see beauty in every moment, every hour of every season of the year is a genuine practice and a decisive practice of seeing.  Emerson in some sense was handing on the instructions of the Hindu Vedas and Upanishads, as well as the essence of the most neglected of Hebrew and Christian scriptures, namely that what the eye can choose to see reveals the truth, the good and the beautiful—and in actuality, reveals God (Nature, Creative Energy, Source).  And not just the eye.  The senses, the inner senses and the exercise of Reason enter in to the whole enterprise of welcoming the spiritual beauty in and around us at all hours of the year.  Nature is not, as has been and continues to be exploited, the servant of humanity but has its own ministry.  “Nature, in its ministry to [humanity], is not only the material, but is also the process and the result.  All parts incessantly work into each other’s hands for the profit of [humans].  The wind sows the seed; the sun evaporates the sea; the wind blows the vapor to the field; the ice, on the other side of the planet, condenses rain on this; the rain feeds the plant; the plant feeds the animal; and thus the endless circulations of the divine charity nourish [us]” (Nature, 1836).  One could twist this section from Emerson to support the Nature as Resource mentality that has conscripted the earth into slavery to humanity, as a commodity, yet Nature’s “ministry” is sacred not saleable.  The “profit” the writer sees arising from all the parts working together is a spiritual profit along with the food; the nourishment is for the mouth and the heart.  Without this delicate communion of balance, harm is caused to all of Nature including human nature.   For, as John Burroughs preached, “The only alternative [to atheism] is to conceive of God in terms of universal Nature. . .” (Accepting the Universe, 1921).  The divine is too close to see.  The sacred is too far beyond us to control or even name.  The spiritual is nothing other than the physical.  This is our mystery; our dilemma; our science and, though it is no faith, it is our religion.

Lessons from the Top of a Tree

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Chris Highland

{from a recent address delivered to the Unitarian Universalist congregation

Whidbey Island, Washington}

“A new manifestation is at hand, a new hour is come.  We would have every arbitrary barrier thrown down.  We would have every path laid open to Woman as freely as to Man.  Were this done, we believe a divine energy would pervade nature to a degree unknown in the history of former ages.” Margaret Fuller

I grew up in a tradition with many branches, rooted in scriptures and creeds written on libraries full of pages carved from living trees.  It was as if the original leaves or bark were torn from their environment and erased of all their original messages, then etched over with artificial doctrines.

This, my first public talk on Whidbey Island, reflects my new roots, my renewed sense of listening for the teachings offered by the free university of the wild, the living sources of the natural world written for all to see.  

These are now my essential texts.  Forests of libraries are now open to me.  It is here, near to the earth, where I delightfully find a spiritual path that now and again leads straight up a tree. 

Have you ever been to heaven?  I found my way there the other day.  I walked out to Partridge Point along the bluffs.  As John Muir would say, it was glorious.  Blue skies, warm sun glistening off the Sound, birds singing and autumn colors painting their art show finest.  As I was sauntering along the bluff I said to myself—maybe it was a prayer–, “What am I seeing?  And, What am I NOT seeing?”  A few moments later, for some reason, I glanced back up to see some picnickers looking intently out to the waters.  I looked to see what they might be seeing.  A puff of spray rose about a half mile off shore.  Then others.  I’ve seen many blows from gray whales but then I saw the high, black fins:  Orca!  Five, then seven surfaced.  Then others, until I would guess I saw fifteen or more.  A moment of heaven.  I was grateful and thanked the Spirit of Nature for the gift of these incredible creatures of our common waterways.

A great lesson.  What do we see?  What do we Not see?  And the second is like unto the first:  What am I Hearing?  What am I Not hearing?  This lesson slapped me into full consciousness when I put my head to the side and realized I could Hear the blow of the spray from the pod at they moved up the Strait!  A remarkable, heavenly moment.

I found another way into heaven when I was a boy growing up in Lake Forest Park and then Edmonds.  I had a kind of secret love.  It wasn’t whales at that point.  It was a love of climbing trees.  There was a strong boyish thrill in climbing the ladder of branches up to my own perch nested in the upper branches.  From there I could scan over the neighborhood, spying a little on the people next door, and not be seen by anyone.  It was my secret place.  Only the curious birds and squirrels knew of my presence.  If my parents had known that I was so high up they might have called me down and scolded.  Or maybe not.  They knew I loved being outside and would rather be outdoors than indoors, in any season.

Since those younger days I have carried on my private passion for climbing.  I have climbed oaks, bays and firs in the San Francisco bay area, junipers near Lake Tahoe, sequoias in the Sierras, hemlock in the Oregon Cascades, pine in the old Caledonian forest of Scotland.  Some years ago I decided never again to cut a Christmas tree.  I made up my own holiday tradition. Because my birthday is Christmas Day, I chose to give myself a gift every December 25th by finding a tree to climb.  Up there I renew my gratefulness for Life.  I become the ornament!  And, most importantly, I become a student of what the Great Spirit of Nature has to teach.

The other day I carried on my tradition, ascending a scented cedar on a friend’s farm here on the island.  Today, I want to pass along some of what I was reminded of, 60 feet up in that Great Teacher.  Some of the lessons I learn are private and personal, but I think it’s o.k. to let you in on Six of the Top Lessons—the Top lessons, so to speak.

First Lesson from a treetop:  It takes a choosing, an effort, risk, to get a new perspective sometimes.  You may have to sweat and get sappy hands.  You may have to push through obstacles right in your face and get sticks and webs in your hair and beard.  This first lesson is something John Muir and Henry Thoreau reminded us of.  Choose to immerse in Nature and SEE things differently.  This takes work, risk and a desire to Learn more about this wonderful world that we are part of, intimately interrelated with.  Margaret Fuller extolled this first lesson when she wrote describing the meeting of land and water:  “a new creation takes place beneath the eye” (reading 38).  The first lesson, simply put, is that there are lessons to be blessed with—if we but choose to be students, to take the effort to climb, to see.

The Second Lesson is like unto the first:  Up there it isn’t so much about seeing Farther, it’s about seeing what’s right at hand, literally, at and on your hands.  Sure it’s nice to be able to look around the forest, watch the wind blowing in other trees, or see the distant horizon.  Yet, it’s a deeper art really, to catch sight of what is right before us.  With the eyes to see, the ears to hear.  I find tiny bugs, beetles I’ve never seen.  I discover odd growths and twisted branches not seen from down below.  Thoreau once found a blossom high up there and took it into town.  No one could identify the flower though they spent their entire lives walking under those trees.  As a chaplain among homeless people for many years I constantly had to realign my sight—to face the unfaceable faces of those who are rejected by our communities—to see my own face, and a divine face, in each person seeking Home.  It’s not about seeing farther, it’s about seeing deeper—or higher, as the case may be.  Once, high in a fir in Northern California, I realized that I was seeing what no one would EVER see; that 99% of what lives and dies on this planet will NEVER be seen by Anybody!  I learned that lesson among our society’s poor as well.  I find that humbling, don’t you?  A great call and challenge.  Doesn’t it make you want to be an explorer, a climber, at least a Heretic?

The Third Lesson is precarious:  It’s about Balance.  Balance is critically important. When in a tree you have to respect where you are.  It can be dangerous to space out!  I’m not talking about having a tight grip.  I’m talking about holding yourself in a balanced manner where you can even Let Go and be safe.  The third lesson is both Reasonable and Intuitive.  It’s the honest response to all these Natural Disasters the world is facing.  Where do we build our communities and are we building wisely, in balance with Nature’s Way?  It’s not about keeping a tight grip on all the Stuff we value.  It’s about  living with the land and the sea with a clear, common sense.  Living harmoniously with Nature, we see the branches of the issues—but we simultaneously see the Roots.  We learn to respect where we are.  Balance is precarious, but it’s pretty much everything.

Moving along to the Fourth Lesson:  There are lots of trees in the forest, many species of trees, and many forests on the earth to learn lessons in.  Steinbeck once wrote that his sons grew up thinking there was only one river, the one they enjoyed in youth.  But they would one day find out that “there are Other rivers.”  There are Other Trees too.  You can have a favorite.  Just remember:  there are others to choose from and countless lessons to learn from them.  A bit like Religion wouldn’t you say?  Perhaps we have our favorite and we sit comfortably in it.  But what if we climbed through the branches of another tradition for awhile?  Or, more radically, rootedly, let go of all we’ve been handed by history and try our own hand—make our own ascent.  The fourth lesson is the heretical way; yet it is the interfaith way; the interspecies way; the pioneering path of letting go of the exclusive branches we cling to.  This lesson rings true:   There are Other trees, other forests.

The Fifth Lesson has to do with Fear:  This is related to balance, risk.  Yet it’s more.  When you are in the top of a tree (and I mean IN, not on) you can feel the breezes, the winds, changes in temperature, in ways you can’t always feel on the ground.  In fact, you can’t always even See the ground from above.  You have to be fearless, self-reliant, grounded within, while being cautious, alert, aware, awake.  Good spiritual guidelines.  Isn’t this one lesson we need to hear and practice most in our World of Fear today?

The fifth lesson is a timely reminder:  Never be ruled by Fear.

The Sixth Lesson is the last I’ll share with you today:  It is related to the others because these are all interrelated instructions from the curriculum of the cedar.  The sixth tree-text reads like this:  Up high you feel a circular motion as the tree sways from the roots to the tip where you sit; All Things move in a circle because we live on a circle that spins on a circular axis through a circular, elliptical orbit around a fiery solar circle.  Black Elk’s vision of the hoops of the world interconnecting is part of this lesson.  And Emerson’s wonderful essay on “Circles” expresses it well.  Emerson wrote,  “The eye is the first circle; the horizon which it forms is the second; and throughout nature this primary figure is repeated without end.  It is the highest emblem in the cipher of the world. . .Our life is an apprenticeship to the truth that around every circle another can be drawn; that there is no end in nature, but every end is a beginning.”  Thank you Waldo.  I know why Muir called you “a Sequoia.”  The sixth lesson is clear:

We are all, on this spinning planet, included in the one great circle of creation.  We are people of the Circle.

Chris Highland

Nature’s Scripture

Portions of this essay have been incorporated into the book Life After Faith

John Muir

The times I enjoyed were those when we were staying amid the mountains. I feel satisfied, as I thought I should, with reading these bolder lines in the manuscript of nature.”

~Margaret Fuller,

Letter to Richard F. Fuller, August 5, 1842

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“[The missionaries onboard the ship forgot their missions] while the word of God

was being read in these majestic hieroglyphics emblazoned along the sky.  The earnest, childish wonderment with which this glorious page of Nature’s Bible was contemplated

was delightful to see.”

~John Muir,

Travels in Alaska (1915)

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“People talk about Bible miracles because there is no miracle in their lives.

Cease to gnaw that crust. There is ripe fruit over your head.”

~Henry Thoreau,

Journals, (June, 1850)

The Word Writ Large

John Muir’s steamer trip to Alaska in 1879 made him shipmate with a group of Presbyterian missionaries intent on bringing the gospel to the native tribes. (1) The story is delightful, amusing and informative all at once.  The Scottish naturalist was probably the best match for the Calvinists.  Raised in a strict Scots household, Muir was forced to memorize the bible and use it as his only text for education in his early years.  After breaking free from these restrictive roots, he bounded into the free and open wilds of what he came to call “Nature’s Bible.”  For Muir, as for Fuller, Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman and others, the best text for reading the character and message of the Creator (Nature) was the Creation (Nature) itself.  The natural world contains every sacred word we ever need to hear if we will only listen to Nature’s wise and wild teachings.

The image of Muir among the missionaries is classic.  Perhaps the most needed “spiritual teacher” onboard that small steam ship was not seminary trained or church ordained.  Those who were “sent” to minister to the heathen Indians felt they had a clear calling to proclaim the word of God in the wilds of Alaska.  Little did they know that their well-read shipmate was a bit of a prophet himself.  After all, he had sauntered one-thousand miles along the backroads of the south to the gulf of Mexico; he had climbed crumbling castle walls in his native Scotland before climbing in the granite sanctuaries of the Sierras.  This was a man who had not only heard the word, he had stood in it, swam in it, scaled it and sucked it into his lungs, soaking it into every cell in his body. The greatest joy Muir apparently received from his journey to the far north with the “holy men” is watching them fall silent before the majesty of the mountains, the beauty of the Book thrown open for every eye to see and mind to meditate upon.  This was Muir’s temple–the wilderness of his contemplation, and he delighted in observing the missionaries as they came face to face with his bible and heard what he once called “the sermons in stone.”  This was nearly a conversion moment, an hour of decision, but of course they were backsliders.  John Muir was a fairly tolerant person but I am sure he bounded off that boat at the first chance to escape the restrictive cabins and narrow minds of that “ship of faith” to follow his “higher calling” into the wildness.  In this Alaskan gospel perhaps Muir was a close kin of Moses, Buddha, Jesus, Mohammad and others who sought out those naturally spiritual places apart from the human agenda, where one can find the refreshment and refuge of free thinking and breathing in the free and open sanctuaries.

Where Muir differs from the great “spiritual teachers” of history is that he did not emerge from the wilds with a stone tablet, scroll or sacred book in hand.  He considered it a chore even to write books at his Bay Area “scribble desk.”  Muir’s stories are told and honored by many, yet no one made a bible of his stories.  Why?  Because he was always pointing to the great open spaces, to the temple of Nature and Nature’s bible.  “The rocks and sublime canyons, and waters and winds, and all life structures. . .are words of God, and they flow smooth and ripe from his lips.”(2) He did not point to himself but passionately urged, “enticed,” the rest of us to go see and learn for ourselves.  Maybe this was the original intention of Religion’s “founders” before their stories and words became the word of God on the page of books rather than on the pages of the earth, in the chapters of fleshy life.  One wonders.

Heaven Enough

One autumn I listened to a radio segment on the Hindu New Year.  Millions across India (the second most populous nation) and the world celebrate the appearance on earth of Lord Krishna whose story is told in sacred texts, especially in the first century scripture, Bhagavad Gita (Song of the Lord).  On this day, it is believed Krishna bathed in the Yamuna River at the town of Vrindavan.  The city is famous as a kind of Hindu Bethlehem, where God (Krishna) took human form.  The tradition is for pilgrims to follow in the footsteps of Krishna and walk to the river, wash themselves and say prayers of devotion.

The most revered teachers who lead the celebrations and rituals call Vrindavan the “earthly manifestation of heaven.”  One has said, “If you wish to learn how to be a friend of Krishna, come to Vrindavan.”  A reporter described countless temples, pilgrims and holy men everywhere.  He went on to point out that the city is laced with poverty, suffering, garbage and open sewers.  Vrindavan is downriver from Delhi.  One observer described the sacred river as almost black–polluted from cities, villages and temples along the banks for hundreds of miles.  This is, “Heaven on Earth.”

Every religion has its “heaven on earth”:  The Wailing Wall in Jerusalem; the Grand Mosque in Meccah; the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem; Lhasa in Tibet; St. Peter’s in Rome; the Temple of Heaven in Beijing; Lumbini and Vrindavan in India and many others.  People live to make pilgrimage to these sites.  Others are willing to die to protect them.  This “holy real estate” (Holy Land) is like the exclusive listings of property agents–open only to the one with enough spiritual credit, the purist, the most faithful.  At each sacred address one expects to experience an intimate moment with the divine, a healing, a message.  A portal to the heavenly realm is open to the one who is devoted enough–whose eyes and ears are open enough.  If you can squeeze through the doorway.  If you can hold your nose when you wade in.

Recalling my reaction to the story on the Hindu festival, I was appalled.  After a few minutes of listening to this “celebration” on NPR I found myself tense and wondering what would happen if all those millions of “faithful” focused their devotional energy on the purity of the River?  I heard a woman say that the New Year is about cleansing oneself in the (polluted) river; that it is essential to seek to be pure before God.  And she, rightly I suppose, expresses that all religions search for that purity.  For her, and millions of other Hindus (and billions of other devotees of all religions), the aim is to leave the “material body” and become all Soul, meaning, all heavenly–worthy for heaven.

On the same day as the Hindu New Year celebrations that fall a memorial service was held in Detroit for Rosa Parks.  Rosa Parks, the black woman who stirred a revolution in Civil Rights by doing what revolutionary act?  By refusing to get up and give her bus seat to a white person.  This seemingly insignificant action in Birmingham, Alabama, December, 1955—a few days before I was born—raised a nation to its feet; its moral stance.  She sat—a nation rose.  Did religion cause Ms. Parks to do what she did?  It appears not.  She was defiant because she was tired and she was tired of consenting to such injustice.  I don’t know much about her religious beliefs.  From the sound of the eulogies at her memorial she was a person of deep faith.  Yet, perhaps it was her natural impulse, not some religious compulsion, that caused her to make a stand (while sitting!).  What is impressive about this simple moment of defiance is that it was a loud “No!” at a time when everyone was pretty much saying “Yes, Alright” to what was not right in any way.

What must be said now, in the context of religion’s assumed seat in our world is this:  I will not give up my seat to any religious dogma, creed or authority.  I must defiantly say “NO!” to the distraction of the otherworld.  I will sit in the seat of my own conscience, my own sense of truth, my own devotion to Reason.  In the tradition of Martin Luther and the second Martin Luther who was inspired by a simple seamstress named Rosa Parks:  Here I sit!  I can do no other!

I sit, stand, walk, here in my life, fully participating (when I’m aware) in the heaven all around me.  I need no religion, scripture or clergy to tell me anything whatsoever about a paradise closer to the divine, and about the purity essential to enter it.  As far as I am concerned, there is no heaven beyond and we are all pure enough to “enter” what is already available here, now.  The only “heaven” I enjoy is here, present and available to my senses and my sense of Reason now, and I will never be purer to enter than now.  Why?  Because the only entering that must be done is to enter one’s own senses and consciousness.  To imagine a heaven somewhere else is to close the door on the full access to Pure Sacred Beauty right here and right now. Heaven is Earth, the body, the mind.  It is beautiful and it has sickness, pollution, injustice and other natural and unnatural problems.  I can’t waste time imagining what might come later.  I must be conscious and act decisively.  Here is my Alaska moment, and Muir is smiling, ready to get off the ship.

The forest I entered today on my walk was heaven in every sense.  It is not the only holy site for me to make a pilgrimage to.  As Thoreau said, “As doth the pilgrim, whom the night hastes darkly to imprison on the way, think on thy home my soul, and think aright, of what’s yet left thee of life’s wasting day.”(3) My home is here, I think aright (at least I try), and little is left of my life’s wasting day.  Thoreau ends his poetic truth with my own, “Twice it is not given thee to be born.”  With all due respect to the woman in Vrindavan (and to millions of Christians and others who believe in a second birth or an afterlife), I have no desire to leave my “corrupt material body” and join the pure Soul of all things (as William James said, I have more in common with the once born than the twice born).  I am a body, and a mind.  And I brought them, together, into the Greatest Temple this afternoon, where my immersion was not in the black, polluted waters of a holy river where I sent my candle floating down to clog the waterway with thousands of others.  I was bathed in the pure, natural light and water of a rainy afternoon in Nature’s forest home, where there was nothing but sacredness, devotion and purity.  Here no pilgrims crowd; no clergy dare speak; and no heaven looms purer.  And I walked, smiling, breathing deeply in the autumn-scented forest, living into some of my favorite lines from the poet of poverty, Robert Burns:

“Riches denied; Thy boon was purer joys;

What wealth [religion] could never give nor take away.”(4)

Story Collecting

Many tribes (religions) and cultures across the earth tell stories of “heavenly things”—about their divine ones and their great works of faith.  It is “traditional” to move from oral recitation to written dictation as these myths and stories are collected and written to pass on (“tradition”).  Many of the stories are beautiful and dramatic.  The Sufi tales for instance are delightful, humorous and sanguine for any tribe or person in all eras.  Hasidic tales, especially those collected by the philosopher Martin Buber, also have intense beauty, light-hearted wisdom and incisive social comment.  I have found the legendary tales and teachings of the Buddha in various sources instructive, inspiring and even enjoyable (particularly in the Dhammapada, the Pali texts and the popularized paraphrases of Thich Nhat Hanh).  Over many years I have returned time and again to the major Chinese texts finding much to reflect on in the stories of Master Kung (Confucius), Master Lao (Lao Tzu) and Master Chuang (Chuang Tzu).

What is it about our stories that we hold so tightly, so dearly to them?  Joseph Campbell was a master at explicating the intention, the meaning of stories in the cultures and religions of the world.  The myths are our lives, he explained, because they are common, universal means of holding our “tribes” together.  Simply put, we hold so tightly to our stories because they hold so tightly to us–they give us communal and individual meaning.  Indeed, our cherished myths are often kept alive in very tangible ways that can literally be grasped, as they are woven, written or hammered into symbols (such as a flag, a book, an icon), composed into songs (hymns, national anthems, popular pieces) or incarnated in people (famous “stars,” religious figures or politicians).   Yet, as Buddhism warns, what we hold tightly to can be our undoing.  It is unhealthy, even destructive to the human person, to grasp, to cling too tightly to things or thoughts–the stuff of possessions or the stuff of ideas.  In other words, what we possess will inevitable grasp ahold of us, choking our life.   This is true with ideologies and belief-systems (creeds) as it is true for the “hardware” that drives those ideas such as socio-cultural rituals (including voting, sports events and concerts) or the “software” of religious practice (such as sacred “story-collections” and clerical paraphernalia).  The most necessary stories might be those that remind us that we bring nothing into the world and take nothing with us as well (5). This of course includes the stories themselves.

There are critical distinctions to be made between the act of reciting stories (in say community poetry recitals or classic preaching) and the act of reading stories (as in merely quoting “sacred source texts”).  Of course, this main distinction gets blurred when the “recitor” is really doing nothing more than reading or speaking from memory (a re-citing of learned or memorized sources).  The kind of reciting I call attention to here is recitation that is more spontaneous or “from the heart”–what in contemporary slang is “being real.”  This real recitation is what I am referring to when pointing to the distinction with reading or quoting in speech.  Here is a clear example.

What if we were handed a book–a story collection–from our ancestors.  We were told two things.  First, we ought to honor this collection because it comes from our foreparents–it is “traditional.”  Second, we are told that this is “sacred,” given by God or at least written by those under the “inspiration” (the holy breath) of the divine spirit.  Yet, upon reading this book and hearing it taught and preached about, we learn that major parts of the story contain wildly fanciful, irrational, even brutal narratives and teachings.  We read that the earth was formed from nothing in six, twenty-four hour days (though no one was there watching the clock) and there are two conflicting creation stories; then we read that this Strict-Father Creator orders the mass murder, genocide, of whole tribes of his creation, those who do not believe in him correctly; furthermore, God is an angry King who is demanding, holds grudges, is vengeful and cruelly plays with human beings (such as Abraham, Pharaoh, Saul, David, Job and Joseph); in a later edition we hear of a young, unmarried woman who is raped by God so that he can have a son whom he can kill in order to forgive the human race (!); God sees to it that his son is executed by the state, actually committing suicide by inciting religious and governmental leaders, walking into a trap and giving no defense at his trial.  Finally, if we are still reading this shocking story, we read that, though this God spends all of history concerned above all with his special people and, though the young woman he rapes is a member of this special tribe and gives birth to a tribal boy–we read that the new and improved Tribe is really the point of the whole, long, tragic Story.  What a Book we have been handed!

The word tradition originates in the word for “handed along.”(6)  Some hands pass something over, into other hands.  What is often overlooked is what else have those hands touched or held, what else is being passed along in those hands of tradition (the side effects of the pill).  I once met a man who lived under a bridge in filthy conditions.  When he introduced himself to me I extended my hand to shake his.  There was no hesitation to touch his hand though I knew he was not as washed and sanitized by antibacterial soaps as I.  I could see the goodness within him, that he was a good person.  I welcomed a little of his humanity, his inner, personal goodness to rub off.  The dirt along the way mattered not the least.  I tell this anecdote only to illustrate my point.  We need to consider, to ask ourselves with whatever is handed to us from the past that we are told is Truth–the Best and Right Story–Is this a reasonable, healthy, meaningful story for today, for me, for my world, or does it pass along germs, a virus, to invade mind and soul?  To state it clearly and bluntly:  Concerning the book called the bible, handed to me from generations past, the answer is an emphatic “No!  This collection of stories as a totality is neither reasonable, healthy or meaningful for me or, I feel, for my world.  We need to use the most effective virus scan, quarantine the infection, heal it, and perhaps with the greatest courage, delete it.

I am no doubt not alone in my dilemma.  On the one hand, the book I was handed early in life, that guided my life for many years, has been the most destructive book in my life.  On the other hand, this book has been greatly inspirational and some of its teachings called and guided me to the central work of my life.  What am I to do with it?  I think of the man who lived under the bridge.  I took his hand because I welcomed the goodness in his eyes and his “soul.”  Now, I choose to no longer take the hand of tradition and the “protectors of tradition” who offer me a very sad and unhealthy book, one that has been handled by “unclean” hands–hands that are often ignorant, manipulative or both.  I am reminded of Margaret Fuller’s remark on the blindness of religious slaveholders who “substitute a creed [or bible] for a faith, a ritual [or bible] for a life.”(7)  The bible has been the manual for many forms of slavery and  I have no wish to be enslaved to a “biblical” theology  any more.  The restoring light of Reason and the quest for livelihood and health now guide me, call me.  I was never called to a Book anyway.  What a sad and sadistic call that is.  “Come and read Our Stories!  They are The Stories of God!  If it is not in this Book, it is not True!  If you do not believe these stories God will punish you!””  I will no longer accept the shackles of that book on my hands or the cell of that mindset to imprison my mind.  I, and the contemporary world, desperately need a more liberating “book of life.”

A Paine-ful Bible

Once again I am drawn back two hundred years to a revolutionary in religious thought.  The faithful patriot Thomas Paine ignited independence in the colonial body as well as mind (in chapter five we will turn to a more in-depth appreciation of Paine).  He fired the will of the people’s spirit.  He took his most un-common Common Sense to the street in order to ignite some sense, to spread the “virus” of liberty, before applying this sense engaged with his Reason to tackle Religion and particularly the bible. Suffice it to say at this point that Paine focused his attack on “revelation,” insisting that what is merely handed along as “The Word of God” cannot be revelation because it is “second hand”–rumor, not revealed.  As I have explained above, this relates to “tradition” which is not in itself revelation.  As for the stories that permeate the biblical narrative, Paine takes pains to show them as simply too shamefully weak to be “God’s Word.”  In what I call his second declaration of independence known as The Age of Reason, he writes, “When we contemplate the immensity of that Being who directs and governs the incomprehensible Whole, of which the utmost [knowledge] of human sight can discover but a part, we ought to feel shame at calling such paltry stories the Word of God.”(8) Here is the remarkable thing about Paine and the rest of us who challenge Religion, Tradition and the “Words of God”–we are accused of being atheists, infidels, heretics and the like. . .yet the opposite is true!  We believe in a Greater Spirit, a Bigger God, if you will, who is so immense that no religion or religious book could possibly contain The Story or The Word of this Being or Presence.  What Paine called the Being or the Deity (using the terminology of his time relating to Deism) I sometimes call the Spirit of Nature, but the intent and meaning is the same.  Those who react so vociferously, even violently toward the reformers who refuse to “believe in the bible (or qur’an)” are aggressive in their fight for one reason:  fear.  They fear that if their precious book is taken away, their faith will crumble—and it very well may.  They have forgotten that no holy book can take the place of the Holy One (I would say Nature) and that no so-called sacred writings can take the place of sacred walkings–that is, living with the sacredness of Life itself.

What was Thomas Paine’s “bible?”  In his own words, “Do we want to know what God is?  Search not the book called the Scripture, which any human hand might make, but the Scripture called the creation.”(9) This is the most powerful weapon of the insurgency of Truth, echoed by the likes of Thoreau, Emerson, Whitman, Fuller and John Muir who told us to forever seek “Nature’s Bible.”

We do not have to go back in American history alone to hear the beat of “other drummers” calling for a leap beyond the bible.  There was also a drummer, the man—The Individual—from Denmark.

Soren Kierkegaard:  Ban the Bible

The Danish “Christian” philosopher Soren Kierkegaard only lived to be forty-two years old, passing away in the year Walt Whitman was publishing Leaves of Grass (1855).  An early influence on my thinking, Kierkegaard (S.K.) became a bridge from my evangelical days to my philosophical awakenings in college and seminary.  Throughout his works S.K. struggled with the tensions presented by the Christianism of his culture (primarily Lutheran).  Ever striving to be a full and complete individual (his epitaph simply stated “That Individual”) S.K. wrestled with the philosophical and personal stressors placed by Christianism on his world, his relationships, his Self.  As the archetypical Existentialist, S.K. presents the individual as primary, set before or against the community–or the “herd” as his German contemporary Nietzsche would say.  Painfully building a pragmatic and meaningful philosophy out of his psychological suffering (primarily centered on a failed relationship) the young man from Copenhagen hammered his pain into a scalpel to open deep incisions into the body of religion–his own religion (another failed relationship).

In his twenties S.K. wrote “There are many people who arrive at the result of their lives like schoolboys; they cheat their teacher by copying the [answers from the textbook], without bothering to do the [work] them-selves.”(10)  Here the Dane begins his incisive cutting into the heart of the Church as he saw and experienced it.  How many, upon asking what they believe, even what they think, say in reply, “The Bible says. . .; the Church says. . .”?  Merely “copying the answers” teaches nothing and shows no street education–no real thinking at all, and certainly no critical use of reason.  In his acerbic commentary on the curious “truth” that God spoke and the words were written down long before the printing press could have made the message quickly and widely distributed, S.K. ends by saying “what a satire on humanity that the more the preaching of the Good Tidings deteriorates, the wider the circulation it receives by means of ever new inventions.”(11) What would he say of religion on television and the internet?

A few years before he died, S.K. wrote perhaps the most damning words toward the Church of his day, and ours.  His announcement rang louder than all the church bells over Copenhagen.  He called for nothing less than “a Reformation for the purpose of abolishing the Bible.” He said this ban would have much more validity even than Luther’s ban on the Pope.  He said the bible has become mere “entertainment” and that no one reads the book as “an individual human being.”  This kind of reading becomes an evasion of real living and distracts people so that they “never get around to” Life.  He ends this passage with probably the most prophetically powerful words directed against the Church’s abuse of Reason (and neglect of compassion) in modern times:  “Christianity has long been in need of a religious hero who, in fear and trembling before God, had the courage to forbid people to read the Bible.”(12)

Now, a crucial point here must not be missed.  Kierkegaard is calling for someone in The Church—a religious hero—to step up and speak out to proclaim this new Reformation.  This is not a call for a tyrant, government or court to ban or burn the books.  S.K. is urging an internal rebellion to overthrow the tyranny of The Book and the mentality of anti-individualism and anti-reason that it has produced.  Yet, one further nuance must also be considered.  Does S.K. trust the Church to give rise to such a person?  Does he believe the institution built up around the scriptures as a protective fortress, that uses the Book to buttress its own cause and existence, will produce, then welcome this heroic reformer?  No, he does not.  Once again he is nailed to a contradiction.  In fact, S.K. ends this diary passage calling for not simply the abolishing of the Bible but the forbidding of its reading, followed by this zinger:  “This is something just as necessary as the necessity of preaching against Christianity” (his italic)!  How could someone within the hallowed halls of the Christian castle preach against that very castle?

S.K. faces this dilemma (he was good at poking around dilemmas) later in his journal when he writes a “vignette” (13) on a theologian invited to preach in a church.  This is a theologian who is “so far without a living.”  This is not just any church, it is the “most splendid church in the capital.”  Everyone is there including the Queen and King.  He reads a scripture about Jesus chasing the money-lenders from the temple.  Then, the old theologian looks across the esteemed congregation and announces that his message is the most important word of his life, indeed, what he has been prepared for all his life.  And then he speaks:  “to preach Christianity in surroundings like these is not Christianity. . .  Christianity can be preached only by its being realized in the lives we live.  And hereby I change this house into real life.” The Reformation has begun!  S.K., the storyteller, then comments that this preacher of Truth, attacking the whole “prettified” church, was spat upon “and it was real.”  What a great line!  By changing the “house of God” into real life, the reformer was spat upon with real spit!  And what wonderfully transforming saliva! (14).  As he was being shouted down he thundered “You see, now it is right; now I am preaching Christianity. . . .  Now I stand here, now I am speaking and I make you responsible before God; you must hear me out, for it is the Truth that I am speaking.” In reading this vignette one can almost hear S.K. himself emphasizing each time the preacher says “I.”  This is the literal moment of Truth, when the preacher is no longer the schoolboy cheating by copying and repeating the “correct answers;” this is the greatest sermon of his life because it is the telling of the whole un-prettified Truth.  And, here is the contradiction, the irony, the paradox so maddeningly real to Kierkegaard the individual:  the end of Christianism begins with the preaching of the Truth; the Church becomes the stage for the fall of the Church; the “Christian” preacher (actually an unemployed theologian) preaches against Christianism and it crumbles when Reality/Truth stands incarnate in the pulpit, dripping saliva from the damned.  As S.K. ends this terribly wonderful story of reformation if not revolution, he concludes:  “Now, there you have an awakening!”

Perhaps S.K.’s most famous book is Fear and Trembling, the story of the Knight of Faith (essentially, existentially, Abraham) who courageously pushes through his fear to do what God demands.  It is a complex journey full of contradictions, what S.K. calls in his journals “nailed to suffering.”  Yet it is the suffering that liberates him because it is the living of the true text of Life–doing what one must do in truth and love.  The absurdity, the irrationality, of the biblical story is clear and troubling, but serves a higher purpose, namely to call one out to an adventure, an exploration, with a renewed, honest, fearless faith in one’s Reason “before God.”

What Kierkegaard and Paine knew well was something ignored by the vast herds of “bible-believers.”  The pill is right in the bitter tasting grain:  the bible itself calls for its own destruction, its own end!

The Bible Says. . .

Some years ago I was asked by some county jail inmates to lead a discussion on the bible.  The men entered the concrete room, sat at steel tables bolted to the floor and I sat with them as the heavy lead door was slammed and locked shut.  This was not going to be your typical Sunday School lesson!  These guys in white and blue jail-issue jumpsuits, many holding paperback bibles I had given them the week before, couldn’t wait to hammer me with their questions.  I knew they were ready for me because I knew they had all week, twenty-four-seven, to collect their questions and ideas–and all they could do was wait.  We covered a lot of territory, confined in that mess hall that evening.  I learned a great deal that night, as I usually did among some very intelligent people.  What I tried the most to emphasize throughout that hour and a half or so was this:  When you ask, “What does the bible say about. . . [anything]?” I will invariably answer “The bible says nothing!”  I got all kinds of blank stares, scoffs and laughs from this.  Yet, by the end of our time, and in the weeks and months that followed (this was not a one-time chance to “preach at the poor prisoners” enjoyed by many evangelistic sorts)  many of the guys came to see the wisdom of what took me a long time to learn.  Huge numbers of Christians throughout the centuries, across the world, Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical and others, believe that the bible is “the book they live by.”  They hold it like a friend, a lover; speak to it, about it, as if it is alive–and often as if it is God itself.  I know this because I did this and because I have seen this for at least forty years.  What few seem to understand here is that if you believe in a living God you cannot possibly believe that God spoke thousands of years ago, urged some men to write down those words, then shut his mouth for all these centuries.  Can you?  Actually, I know it’s true, millions believe just that, or at least they certainly talk and act like they do.

Here I call attention to the essential principles concerning the bible that are my working conclusions based on a lifetime of reading, studying, teaching and living the core message of the bible.  The ironies will be explained!

First, as I discussed with the inmates that night long ago, no matter what a person believes about the bible, it is in reality “only a book;” it cannot speak, has no vocal cords or personality.  It is less than honest, even foolish, to say “The bible says” anything at all.  People quote the bible and they say what they think is meant by the ancient words.  Any reasonable discussion about the book has to begin with this caveat, at least in my book!

Second, it is one of many “holy books” revered across the globe and it is not the oldest, or the “best” compilation of spiritual teachings.  In order to have a honest, reasonable conversation about the teachings of the bible, it must be recognized that it is one among many and not entirely unique.

Third, the message of the bible is not simple or simply one message.  It contains many messages, ideas, conveyed in narrative story, poetry, legal form and aphorism.   Therefore, the bible does not “teach” anything in terms of a coherent instruction for life.  Open to argument?  Of course.  It is one of the strengths of biblical debate that “tentative conclusions” can be held alongside “inspiration” to act, to live, more authentically.

Fourth, the bible contains instructions to let go of the bible and listen to the bible of wisdom within, within the light of one’s reason and understanding as well as within the great text of Nature.  The “lost” bible story is this:  the scriptures in ink are not nearly as important as what Muir, Paine and Kierkegaard call us to:  living real life in relation with Nature.

It is this fourth and last understanding that I think deserves the focus of some extended attention.

The Voice of Wild Wisdom

The famous creation passages in the Book of Genesis are instructive here.  As the story goes, the Creative One spoke, and light, earth and humanity came into being (not what I would call “intelligent design” but maybe “poetic madness”!). The word became material, flesh, living reality.  Later in the torah (instruction-story) the message is spelled out as “you can not live from bread only but from every word from the mouth of the Creator.”(15) Living happens in the word (words).  Throughout the Hebrew scriptures the Un-nameable One (probably their comprehension of Nature) speaks directly with people either through those who pass along the “living words” or through the creation itself.  But the point seems consistent:  what you hear is about life and the living.  This is why, in the Psalms, it is said that the Voice of the Creative One is a storm that thunders across the oceans and rivers, blows through the forests and “the voice shakes the wilderness.”(16) This is ancient tribal storytelling.  In the urban setting of Proverbs, the Voice is wisdom crying out “in the streets,”(17) wandering over to tell the reader: You cry out for wisdom, insight, understanding given by the Source of Wisdom (18) who created the earth, sky, clouds and rain by wisdom and understanding.(19) This is the bible of natural wisdom written out for all to see.

What I hear is this:  Wisdom (the Voice of Creation) is the Creative Word, alive in everything including human understanding, insight and reason in the context of our earthy-heaven home. This Word calls to us to call out our own inner wisdom, raise our own voice, to learn from our nature, and Nature itself.  The point of proverbs as well as parables—of all these stories–eventually meets not at quoting but living the Voice.  The “word of God” is an insightful wisdom, not originating in external “authorities” but in the heart and the senses.  It seems true what I once heard, that the best teacher is the one who teaches us to teach ourselves.  That was Muir’s style and seems what the writer of Proverbs had in mind.  Though the biblical writer used a parental approach, as is apparent in much of the bible, it does not diminish the intention of discovering and nurturing insight.   This is best heard in the circular argument of chapter 4:  “The beginning of wisdom is this:  Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight.”

How practical is this wisdom?  Can it put bread on the table or house someone?  Yes.  “By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established; by knowledge the rooms are filled. . . .”(20) How do we learn to build a house?  By reading a holy book?  No.  By listening, learning, studying about the way of material life, then applying our creativity, imagination, insight and wisdom.  This is far from some kind of spiritualized mumbo-jumbo, so heavenly minded that you cannot pound a nail in a board.(21)

More practical but playful teaching comes from the Prophet Isaiah (of that prophetic ilk of outcasts who staked their lives on speaking a very unpopular message).  Beneath all the mess that bible interpreters have made of this wild book, we hear some fairly amazing wisdom, that of course, tells us to go elsewhere for wisdom.  There is a lot of “the Lord says” in Isaiah, but what does the writer mean?  “A voice cries out” and what does the voice cry out?  The voice cries, “Cry out!”  This is great.  God is crying out, the prophet is crying out and we are to cry out along with all creation (for crying out loud).  And what does the crying voice cry out?  All is withering grass, dried by the wind, “but the word of our God will stand forever.”(22) What word is that?  The word that is like rain and snow watering the thirsty earth; the word that gives the seed of grain and bakes the bread for the sower (with the sower’s hands); the word that falls from the mouth of the Creative Force of Nature to “accomplish that which I purpose.”(23)

Many more selections could be drawn out for comment but here I will summarize.  When the bible speaks of “the word” it is not talking about itself!  The “word of God” is not scripture, it is not a scroll, it is not a book of laws or poems or stories at all.  The word is the living world of Nature “speaking” to everyone at all times with a widely diverse message of natural creativity, wonder, beauty, struggle, death, rejuvenation and all (like the robin I hear on her nest near my writing chair, and the wind above in the alders).  It is not a neat and clean message.  It is simply the way things are.  We can live with that, or make up stories to make us feel better, avoiding the truth.  Yet, in the end, in the long run, Nature will not let us deceive ourselves with fanciful tales too long.

“The Word” and Christian Scripture

A great ironic paradox for me is readily apparent.  I have spent many years studying, teaching, discussing and reasoning the meaning of the bible in order to come to the conclusion that I don’t need the bible!  Further, I find that the bible itself taught me that truth.  Just as I told colleagues when I left the Church that “Jesus led me out the door,” so I feel that this book has taught me to leave it behind.  As the parable of Buddha put it, I crossed the river on a very important raft.  Now I journey on, but I leave the raft and don’t carry it along the road!  The bible has been such a raft for me, in my ministry, in my personal spiritual quest.  Once again, this book is in some sense only an explication of that deeply personal journey, letting go and moving on.

It is a truism that any word, phrase, paragraph, chapter or “book” quoted from the bible is taken out of context.  Those of us alive today were never in that context, nor could we be.  Take for example the following “out of context” question:  “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? Spoken in debate with the “bible-believers” of his day, Yeshua of Nazareth challenged not only their knowledge but the intent of the passages they stood upon.  Yet he took the offense further, to the next heretical step.  “God is God not of the dead, but of the living; you are quite wrong.”(24) It matters not that the particular debate recounted by the gospel writer concerned the “laws of Moses” on relationships after death.  What matters in the present discussion is that the argument the rebel rabbi uses in this bible battle is Life, the living, the Living God.  He calls to mind that the God spoken of in those old and dead texts is the “I Am” who lives and breathes anew in the present.  The Breath of Life is not and cannot be contained or confined in old papyrus, vellum, paper, leather, the ink, or the words themselves.

A few lines later, the gospel writer continues the drama with an exchange between the “unlearned” outsider and an actual bible-writer or “scribe.”  It is the famous question “Which commandment is the First?”  In his answer, which itself is a creative quotation from the Torah scriptures, is to Love; to love the Lover of Life, with all you have, including your mind.(25)

Whoever wrote the Letter to the Hebrews in the Christian scriptures had a least a partial understanding of this line of reasoning (in a seminary course I argued with my Jesuit professor that Hebrews was the most anti-Hebrew letter in the bible). After wading through the anti-Reason and anti-Judaism in this anonymous letter, one finds the following.  “The word of God is living and active.”(26)  Of course, the author could not stop with this organic analogy, going on to liken the “word” to a sword that violently pierces and hacks apart the body and the mind!  I only quote this momentary brilliance of the “living word” to connect it with perhaps the most famous line in all of Christianist history:  “The word (logos:  thought, reason, etc.) became flesh and dwelt (set up a tent) among us.”(27) Unlike the (unknown) author of the so-called Letter to the Hebrews, who saw himself superior to the recipients who were so “dull in understanding” that they needed “milk, not solid food”–the writer of John at least begins with a deeply philosophical approach to “getting beyond the books.”  Here were the scriptures living and breathing–alive and active—embodied, enfleshed in this small town kid from Nazareth. The “word” now was readable, visible, tangible and truly debatable.  Now, whether one believes that the Jesus story brings any of the debates to practical conclusions is almost beside the point.  The bible itself, here in this later, and Christianist, segment of the story, puts the words into tattoos on flesh as it were, to see and touch, to question and wrestle—in one mighty swoop the scripture eliminates the need for scriptures of any kind.  Yes, I am aware of the endless quoting that can and will always be done to counter this interpretation.  “Yes, but Jesus said he came not to abolish the law/scripture but to fulfill it.”  Point made.  He is quoted as saying the old texts still had meaning–as lived, as breathed and practiced.  He was, in a powerful sense, simply living and teaching the common sense proclaimed by the pamphleteer Thomas Paine centuries later.  This too was an Age of Reason (logos) and rampant un-Reason when the “bible experts” could no longer honestly debate the truth of what was right before their eyes.  It looks pretty ridiculous to hear people of any period of history challenge a truth-teller with “Hey there! You can only show compassion, love or justice in the way and at the times that ‘the bible says.’ ”  Should a person wait around to get the approval of the “authorities”–who always claim for their authority the adherence to the Law of God–when the moment demands decisive action?

Even that self-proclaimed biblical authority Paul of Tarsus seemed to lean this way when he spoke of obeying “the spirit of the torah” rather than the words and letters.  In fact the prolific apostle with a pen warned “the letter kills, but the Spirit gives life.”(28) Though we can appropriately question his interpretation of that spirit, he at least acknowledged the problem of “prooftexting” since life is the only proof and the only text.  How many followers of Paul’s teaching continue to be “subject” to the Bible, torah or gospel–the letter that kills (the spirit)?

A New Reference Map

These wisdom lessons that I have learned from reason, contemplation, experience in Nature and yes, from the bible and other sacred texts, remind me that all bibles and religions themselves can become the greatest distractions to the original message fully evident in the earth’s many pages.  As the French Jesuit mystic Jean-Pierre De Caussade wrote in the 18th century, “O Mystery of Love!  We imagine that miracles are over, and that all we can do now is to copy your works of old and repeat your ancient words! [Created world], you are my book, my wisdom, my understanding. . .The books the Holy Spirit is writing are living.”(29) De Caussade saw that it was foolish to “run from stream to stream dying of thirst [when] water surrounds me everywhere.  Everything turns to bread to nourish me.”(30) The water, the bread, the ubiquitous and nourishing gifts of Nature are available without cost, without membership or creed, to all who open their eyes and see they are immersed not only in the sacred living scripture but in the Infinite Source itself. The bible is, in one analogy, a stained glass window that draws attention to its own glittering colors, when the original intent was to see out the window at the colors of the dawn, the dusk, the red leaves, the green grasses—all the hues of a “holy” earth (stained-glass windows are rose-colored glasses made into architecture).  This is why I am calling for more than an opening of the window.  We need to do better than color the world the way we would like it to be.  Like Muir, I am urging, enticing, a going out not to simply read, study or recite a new bible, but to live within and create a living relationship with the oldest bible, the word of the breathing spirit of all.  Yes, this is a pantheistic perspective.  Yet, how could we not see the Spirit of Nature alive and active, even communicating, in all things.  Can we not let go of our stories that separate, divide, judge and destroy, no matter how colorful or artfully constructed?  When will we see that we are in the greatest story, Nature’s wonderful, eternal tale of life on earth?

I was discussing my pathmaking work with several people.  One asked if I knew how to use a GPS device (I don’t).  Another asked if I use topographic maps (I don’t).  I admit I’m a little more basic than that.  I feel it’s best to go to a piece of land, walk it, look closely at where the natural contours and animal trails are (to avoid them or follow their lead).  From my observation and presence on the land I can best make a decision where a simple trail could go.  Once I clear the paths, I can sketch out a map and even name each tributary.  What I open up is not a point A to point B kind of thing—not destination oriented.  Of course there is usually a going somewhere approach and I take sight bearings from trees if I can but the intent is to make it possible for another to walk along and get deeper into the Nature close at hand, then branch off if they choose.  Hopefully a map won’t be necessary.  The larger the acreage and thicker the vegetation the more a bit of direction can be helpful.  Yet entering a patch of the natural world is more a meandering for awareness and relaxation than a nose-in-the-map operation.

This is obviously my main concern.  A nose-in-the-map mentality, like sitting in a car, motorhome, motel room or tent to read the “guidebooks,” can be an avoidance that misses the point of drawing near to Nature. In a National or State Park it’s a good idea to know where the established trails are.  It can be dangerous to wander off the paved walkways (and sometimes it’s foolish not to wander off, besides, it seems there is more energy and money put out now for warning signs than any other signage).  Following the signs and the crowds can also feed the herd—that is, the herd mentality to conform and perform in the same manner as everyone else.  This is why I say that new maps are necessary, or no maps at all—since we’re the ones to sketch them ourselves—in a living, radically overgrown world.

“Home with the Lord”

New maps take us deeper into this world, our world, the one we have to share with billions upon trillions of human and non-human lifeforms.  Many of the old maps are pasted on ceilings to intentionally draw us upward and away from our earthly home.

Sadly, this week, another human being “went home to be with the Lord.”  I know it because I read it in the obituaries (L. obitus:  death; from L. obire: to go to meet).  This time it was a retired senator who died not far from my island cabin.  Another local man I read about had traveled the world, came home, went dancing and had a massive heart attack and died.  I guess that wouldn’t be such a bad way to go.  As everyone eventually does, these two men “went” somewhere.  One to meet his Lord and the other. . ., I don’t know, the article didn’t tell me where he was going.  It is sad to hear of another person dying, but what causes the most sadness is that a person and their family feels that “home” is after death, and “the Lord” is waiting someplace else to “meet” them.  These folks once “met the Lord,” that is, got saved, like I did, sometime in their lives.  Moses of course had his “tent of meeting” but he wasn’t dead.  The biblical story is jammed with incidents where people “meet the Lord” or “He” meets them somewhere along life’s path.  I fully understand that many people need the comfort—the soft, warm blanket of faith that envelops and embraces them—assuring them their loved one has “crossed the river” and has “met the Lord” over yonder.  But why is this comforting?

If we live our whole lives “not at home” and God is “not at home” here, what does that say about that God, about us?   Remember what Kierkegaard said about the people “who arrive at the result of their lives like schoolboys”?  If death is seen as “a result of our lives”—a sad thought in itself—why is it that so many become children again when they meet death, that is, when they meet the Lord?  People who were real thinkers and workers throughout their lives, managers, engineers, accountants, politicians—people who “have a good head on their shoulders” as my father used to say—end up falling back on beliefs that are not only childish but tragically evasive of the truth.  If heaven is home, then all life on earth is but a waiting room full of “trials and tribulations”—tests to see how much faith we have—and we can only hope to see the Great Doctor “on the other side”—a doctor who of course couldn’t or wouldn’t heal a loved one or prevent their death.  In fact, this Doctor is seen as the one who made the waiting room (as well as the sickness—after all God made every living thing including bacteria and viruses), put all the people in it to show their faith through as much suffering as possible, and then opens the great exit door and welcomes them home with a hug.  I don’t see how people can find this a comfort at their time of loss.

I have no wish to take a person’s comfortable thought of the afterlife away from them.  It is not my intent to stab into someone’s obvious grief, or their hope.  I can and will say that I find a majority of Church (and biblical) teachings at best unhelpful to a grieving person.  At worst, I hear illusive deception of the cruelest kind.  It is illogical babble that can help no one.  For many years people in loss have asked me where their loved ones have gone.  Is there a heaven?  Are they at home now?  There is little to say.  Most people raised with the Bible and the Church will simply and simplistically quote a passage or two.  But does this really help the “passage” of their loved one, or their own grief?  Very doubtful.  The best words I can muster to say, at a time when silence and presence are most called for, is that grief and loss are survivable and that science and reason show, and I believe that, each of us becomes a part of the earth, the air, the material of which we are made—our lives become all Life.  Why would not a person find this comforting, even healing for their period of grief?  It isn’t warm and fuzzy.  It isn’t the promise of golden cities, sheep lolling around in the pastures nuzzling up to the Good Shepherd, or an everlasting praise service in the presence of the Great King on his comfy throne.  No, it isn’t.  Those teachings were made up by suffering people, hoping people, who desperately needed to explain what death is, what it means, and thereby to understand what life is and the meaning of life.  My hope is that we can outgrow this—though we’ve had thousands of years and we still haven’t outgrown it.  My hope against hope is that we can accept this world, this life, as our home, without denigrating and desecrating the life we have in common by imagining a sweetness beyond, in a fictitious home that is no more our home than Camelot or the shire of the Hobbits.  I like those stories very much.  But they are fiction, my life is not.

What of the “promises” of the past?  Is there another land, another island, another life?  Can the old, moldy maps give us any help for the present or the future?

What If. . .

One interpretation of the life and message of Jesus (as well as a handful of prophets and other activists), who had to push passed his own grief and loss, who faced death on more than one occasion, is that he took what he saw as the “heart” of the old texts and decided to live it the best he could.  What if. . .what if others did the same?  Time and time again through history people have chosen, in the light of reason and maturity, to do what had to be done–what was natural to them, in their day–and not merely what they were told to do, following their own stream, their own Source, rising to the best of their nature, and they made change, even revolutionary change, happen.  Yes, many were driven away or even killed.  But their message could not be silenced or eliminated because their lives could not be thrown out or burned away like a book.  I would argue that the strength of the story of Jesus (as well as Abraham, Sarah, Buddha, and many others) is that it is a story that can be lived by anyone, and that clearly seemed his intention.  No one can be a Jesus (thank Nature!), but it is indisputable:  no one can be you, or me.  As one of my favorite lines from Thoreau says, “My life has been the poem I would have writ; but I could not both live and utter it.”(31) Wisdom not altogether unlike what we used to say in evangelical circles:  “My life is the only bible some will ever read.”  What we meant then is not what I mean now.  This is not a call to “be a bible” so that others will “meet the Lord,” here or in some imagined hereafter.  This is a call to see the bible (qur’an, gita, dhammapada) dissolved into all of our surrounding home; to so practice the essence of the message enlightened people like Jesus tried to restore, a message buried to be sure in parts of the bible story, that one’s life amid Life becomes the truth, love, compassion and yes, Reason, at the center of anything that could be called spiritual.  This transcends any scripture text, any bible, any story and any Moses or Jesus; it is no lone peak, it is the whole range; it is no puddle, pond or lake, it is the whole ocean, the cloud and the rain.  At this crossing, when the raft is left tied at the shore, our story, in our time, in participation with our world, in the most natural way, becomes the most sacred tale to tell and poem to live.

The image I carry with me is John Muir arriving in Alaska, standing on the deck of the steamship next to the missionaries clutching their bibles.  I see the smile on his face as they all forget their missions, bibles and preachings for a moment, gazing in wonder at the sacred word so visible, so vast, so open and liberating, in the mountain wilds ahead.  A quick glance at the latest maps, jump to the dock and leap into the great text bound with unbounded Beauty.

Chris Highland

2008

Notes

1.  Travels in Alaska.  Published in 1915, the year after Muir died.

2. John Muir. Journals.  August 1873.

3.  Henry Thoreau.  A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers.

4.  Robert Burns.  “Sonnet:  On Hearing a Thrush Sing in a Morning Walk” (January 27, 1793).

5.  See the First Letter to Timothy 6:7.

6.  Webster’s Eleventh Edition Collegiate:  tradition:  action of handing over.  “Inherited.”  “Handing down.” “ Commonly accepted.” “Cultural continuity.”  Fascinating that the word “treason” is derived from the same root.

7.  Margaret Fuller.  Review of “Life of Frederick Douglass.”

8.  Thomas Paine.  The Age of Reason, Part I, “Examination of the Old Testament.”

9.  The Age of Reason, Part I, “Defining the True Revelation.”

10.  Soren Kierkegaard.  Diary, 1837.

11.  Ibid,  1851.

12.  Ibid, 1848.

13.  Ibid, 1849.

14.  Saliva.  The salty secretion is defined as our natural way of breaking down starches.  For S.K. the spit was the beginning of the essential breakdown.

15.  Deuteronomy (“second giving of the law”) 8:3.

16.  Psalm 29.

17.  Proverbs 1:20.

18.  Proverbs 2:3ff.

19.  Proverbs 3:19-20.

20.  Proverbs 24:3.

21.  See the parallel Ramakrishna parable in Appendix Six.

22.  Isaiah 40:6-8.

23.  Isaiah 55:10-11.

24.  Gospel of Mark 12:24, 27.

25.  Ibid. 12:28-34.

26.  Letter to the Hebrews 4:12.

27.  Gospel of John 1:1.

28.  Second Corinthians 3.  Compare this with his line, “If you are led by the Spirit you are not subject to the law [torah; bible]”–Galatians 5.

29.  Sacrament of the Present Moment, 17. . .

30.  Ibid.

31.  Thoreau.  Walden.

John_Burroughs

Nature is God

Pathclearing with John Burroughs

Chris Highland

Talk given at the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of  Whidbey Island

Freeland, Washington

November 5, 2006

I nearly changed the path of my message last night when I was awakened in the moonlit shadows by scurrying, knocking sounds outside my cabin window.  I stumbled out to find a good size rat hanging from the bird feeder.  Then early this morning I was roused again from my lunar dreams by a very disappointed squirrel traversing all over the front of the cabin, like an expert mountain climber, wondering where I hid the feeder.  I remember rolling over and sighing, “Nature is God.  Ha!”

You can thank those night visitors because they woke me to a better idea.  I took a walk today in the sanctuary of Nature, looking closely at the hanging art of wasp nests, heard the call of a large hawk and stopped to shake my head at a big frog squashed on the road.  The walk made up my mind about this talk with you this afternoon.  I decided to spare you a long history lesson about Burroughs and get right to it (see “brief historical notes” below).

John Burroughs.  Naturalist; bird-lover; squirrel-lover; philosopher; scientist; mystic.  He was another of the 19th century students of the Earth.

He grew a friendship with John Muir; camped with Teddy Roosevelt; hung out with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.  The Queen of England loved his writings, as did a whole generation of schoolchildren.

Between 1867 and 1921 he wrote nearly thirty books.

His first book was on his friend Walt Whitman.

From the little bark cabin he built by the Hudson River, he scribbled down many nature study books with titles like:

Wake-Robin

Field and Study

Last Harvest

Ways of Nature

Breath of Life

Light of Day

Accepting the Universe

He wrote a little about the Northwest too.  He set out on a steamer ship from Seattle in 1899 (sailing right by Whidbey Island) on an expedition to a wild place called Alaska.  By his side was that other bearded adventurer—John Muir.

He enjoyed the simple life in the woods, and wrote of it,

“I am bound to praise the simple life, because I have lived it and found it good. . .I love a small house, plain clothes, simple living. . .

How free one feels, how good the elements taste, how close one gets to them.  To see the fire that warms you, or better yet, to cut the wood that feeds the fire that warms you. . .to see the beams that are the stay of your four walls. . .to be in direct and personal contact with the sources of your material life; to want no extras, no shields; to find the air and the water exhilarating; to be refreshed by a morning walk or an evening saunter; to be thrilled by the stars at night; to be elated over a bird’s nest, or over a wild flower in spring—these are some of the rewards of the simple life.”

The simple life of John Burroughs brought him up close and personal with the wild creatures all around him.  It was from them, from Nature, that he learned his simplest and most profound lessons.  And he began to ask the larger questions about life, the universe, god.

Who or what is God?

His contemporary, Henry Thoreau, whom he never met but admired, said:

“My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in nature.”

Burroughs took this profession to heart.  Yet, for him, it was not simply a matter of seeking some transcendent deity in nature.  Was God IN Nature?  Was Nature IN God?  Not for Burroughs.  The deity, for Burroughs, was Nature herself.

In his book The Breath of Life published in 1915, he writes:

“Our reason demands that the natural order be all-inclusive.  Can our faith in the divinity of matter measure up to this standard?  Not till we free ourselves from the inherited prejudices which have grown up from our everyday struggles with material things.  We must follow the guidance of science till we penetrate this husk and see its real mystical and transcendental character.”

Now listen close to our natural prophet,

“Though the secret of life is under our feet, yet how strange and mysterious it seems!  It draws our attention away from matter. . .

We are so immersed in these realities that we do not see the divinity they embody.  We call that sacred and divine which is far off and unattainable. . .

“until science opened our eyes we did not know that the celestial and the terrestrial are one, and that we are already in the heavens among the stars.  When we emancipate ourselves. . . and see with clear vision our relations to the Cosmos, all our ideas of materialism and spiritualism are made over, and we see how the two are one.”

Hard to hear his Baptist roots here.  Or is it?

To “see with clear vision our relations to the Cosmos.”

Our religion has taught us to look beyond, above, outside, for something, for Someone who watches over it all—a creator, maker, superhuman made in our image.  But a simple closeup view of the earth and her wonders reveals such intricate beauty, such profoundly sacred divinity—why isn’t this enough for us?  Why do we keep looking beyond—beyond ourselves, beyond our world, beyond Nature?

In his book Field and Study (1919), Burroughs wrote,

“My readers sometimes complain that there is too much Nature in my books and not enough God, which seems to me like complaining that there is too much about the sunlight and not enough about the sun. . .

With a human-like God, the maker and ruler of the universe, and existing apart from it, I can do nothing.

When I write about Nature and make much of her beauties and wonders, I am writing about God.  The Nature-lover is the God-lover.”

And here Burroughs gets at the heart of my message this morning:

“I am cautious about using the term ‘God’ because of its theological and other disturbing associations. . .But call it Nature and it is brought immeasurably near.  I see it, touch it, hear it, smell it.  I see the flowers, the birds, and all engaging aspects of field and wood and sky.

I am a part of it.”

And while he has our attention, hear what he says about heaven and earth:

“[Some imagined other world] fades as this world brightens.  Science has made this world so interesting and wonderful, and our minds find such scope in it for the exercise of all their powers, that thoughts of another world are becoming foreign to us.  We shall never exhaust the beauties and the wonders and the possibilities of this.  To feel at home on this planet, and that it is, with all its drawbacks, the best possible world, I look upon as [the supreme happiness] of life.”

Now, take a deep breath and let a little more sink in:

“When we call the power back of all God, it smells of creeds and systems, of superstition, intolerance, persecution; but when we call it Nature, it smells of spring and summer, of green fields and blooming groves, of birds and flowers and sky and stars.  I admit that it smells of tornadoes and earthquakes, of jungles and wilderness, of disease and death, too, but these things make it all the more real to us.”

For me this sets Burroughs apart from most New Age thinking, and raises him above most traditional theology.  He doesn’t sugar coat his philosophy of Nature or make it all a neat system with God in charge, with God on top.  The good smells of Nature mingle with the bad smells and we call it Life.  Live with it.  It is the way things are.

Don’t claim the good for God and blame the bad on dark, devilish evil.

Face the facts, accept the universe as it is, and humbly learn.

So, what does Burroughs leave our religious communities—for our beliefs and families of faith?  Well, that depends on how adventurous we are!

This is pretty radical stuff here.

As I say in the introduction to my book, this is not chicken soup but chili and brew for the soul.  This is not comfort food for the comfortable, but rations and gruel for the spiritual insurgency.

Listen to what Burroughs wrote just shortly after World War One, amazingly, audaciously, he says we can accept the universe, even with its questions, its tragedies, its wars.

“Only a faith founded upon the rock of natural law can weather such a storm as the world passed through in war. . .

Persons who do not read the book of Nature as a whole, who do not try their faith by the records of the rocks and the everlasting stars. . .those who take no account of all these things soon lose their reckoning in times like ours.”

To “read the book of Nature as a whole.”  A powerful line.

Then, J.B. blows open the doors and windows of religion

(I don’t know if we’re ready for this, but I hope so):

“Our ecclesiastical faith must be housed in churches and kept warm by vestments.  The moment we take it out into the open and expose it to unroofed and unwarmed universal nature, it is bound to suffer from the cosmic chill.  For my part. . .it is an open-air faith [nothing, not all the terrible things of life] make me doubt for one moment that the universe is sound and good. . .  I do not mind if you call this view the infidelity (or atheism) of science; science too is divine; all knowledge is knowledge of God.”

Harsh words from our New York woodsman.  Challenging and truthful words clearing a path from the forested shores of the Hudson River.

Yet, aren’t these just the words we need to hear today?  We need J.B.  Our religion, our science, our environmentalism, even our politics, need the naturally balanced and reasonable, universal wisdom of the

Sage of Slabsides.

Here is the kernel of what I appreciate in John Burroughs.

Here is the core of the questions he raises for us.

If we live in heaven, why are we still dreaming of a fantasy world somewhere else?

If we are living in a divine world, we are divine too and there need not be another face out there to name God.

Is this simply the old pantheism?  Yes, in a way.

Is this a new atheism?  Yes, in another way.

It has taken me many years to let go of a personal god, one that sits above, judges, acts like a celestial police officer, or walks beside as a close friend.

I admit:  I miss the close friendship I once felt with that Invisible Buddy in a Robe.

I miss the Gentle Shepherd of Palestine and his guiding, abiding presence.

And sometimes I miss the assuring confidence of a faithful community—the Church—the “House of God”—where everyone seems so sure they are talking to Someone somewhere who cares, for them, for their world, for their rituals.

Yet, the House of God has grown so much bigger to me now.  The God I once knew doesn’t even fit anymore, isn’t at home here.  What I miss cannot stand long before the incredible greatness of Nature, the natural universe, the Earth and her scripture lessons, her gospels, her torahs, her qur’ans, her sutras and tao.

The god I have left behind with the religion I left behind was, after all, a very small god—a god of my making, of my mind—passed along to me by generations of well-meaning people who struggled and suffered so much they could never imagine any other kind of god but one great King in a Glorious Kingdom where they would one day go to escape this “veil of tears.”

I understand that.  I respect much of what religions offer.

But J.B. and others have helped me articulate a better, wiser path.

Now I know:  It’s o.k. to let the old broken and tangled paths go.

It’s good and right to move on to wider and wiser paths to wonder and beauty and, who knows where.

You see, I have been converted to the Gospel of Nature.

(do I hear an ‘Amen!’?).

John Muir listened and was converted.

So was Margaret Fuller, Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman

and

John Burroughs.

Are we ready to be converted, born again?

To see with new eyes that Nature is God?  That Nature is better than God?  More wonderful, mysterious, accessible, than a God out there?

Are we ready for heaven?

Ready to walk in the Garden of Eden, here, today–in the forests, along the shorelines and rivers, up the mountains?

Are we ready to be saved?

Saved from our separations, dividing spirit and matter, earth and heaven, human and divine?

Are we prepared to leave one island, the island in our minds, and explore the wilds of other islands, other ideas, new worlds–guided by reason, science, a sense of wonder and delight in beauty?

Burroughs once said that he wasn’t sure the world was ready for a new Religion of Nature—a naturally spiritual way of life.

But, I wonder.  Are we ready now?

In the spirit of John Burroughs I say emphatically, Yes!  Now is the time.

A voice calls once again in the wilderness, where all prophets arise—

yet this time the voice is the wilderness itself.

Now, I hope our little saunter with the simple sage of slabsides, the birdlover of the backwoods, is only the beginning of our explorations into Nature as our home and our god.

Let us find our own paths, clear our own way, carrying with us the words of John Burroughs’s creed, his statement of natural religion calling us to think more expansively, and act more openly, with compassion and truth.

Take his call to heart:

“Amid the decay of creeds, love of nature has high religious value. . .

It has made [Nature-minded people] contented and at home wherever they are in nature—in the house not made with hands.  This house is their church, and the rocks and the hills are the altars, and the creed is written in the leaves of the trees and in the flowers of the field and in the sands of the shore.  A new creed every day and new preachers, and holy days all the week through.  Every walk to the woods is a religious rite, every bath in the stream is a saving [baptism].  Communion service is at all hours, and the bread and wine are from the heart and marrow of Mother Earth.  There are no heretics in Nature’s church; all are believers, all are communicants.  The beauty of natural religion is that you have it all the time. . . .

The crickets chirp it, the birds sing it, the breezes chant it, the thunder proclaims it, the streams murmur it. . . .

Its incense rises from the plowed fields, it is on the morning breeze, it is in the forest breath and in the spray of the wave. . . .

It is not even a faith; it is a love, an enthusiasm,

a consecration to natural truth.”

Enjoy the Path!

Brief Historical Notes

A little background on this interesting man John Burroughs should help us begin to wander down the trail with him.

Let’s start at the end.

Shortly before he died on a train returning from California to his home in New York in 1921, John Burroughs wrote,

“I shall not be imprisoned in that grave where you are to bury my body.  I shall be diffused in great Nature, in the soil, in the air, in the sunshine, in the hearts of those who love me, in all the living and flowing currents of the world-I go back into this vast, wonderful, divine cosmos.”

And so he was.  So he did.  He went back, into the divine cosmos, into the Nature he loved.  John Burroughs is now a part of the natural world. . .as are we all.

John Burroughs.  Naturalist; bird-lover; squirrel-lover; philosopher; scientist; mystic.  Another of the 19th century students of the Earth.

Born in 1837, one year before that wild Scotsman John Muir, this John was raised on the family farm in Roxbury, New York.  That farm was to become, for him and his many sisters and brothers, a playground, a classroom, a sanctuary.

John read more than anyone in his family and went to various schools until he became a teacher in New York, New Jersey and Illinois.  But his real passion was Nature.

He grew a friendship with John Muir; camped with Teddy Roosevelt; hung out with Thomas Edison and Henry Ford.  The Queen of England loved his writings, as did a whole generation of schoolchildren.

For twenty years John worked at the Department of the Treasury in Washington D.C..  A fairly mundane job with some amazing benefits.  He could sit and write nature books.  From his window he often saw President Lincoln walking back-alleyways to the Oval Office.  On a lunch break he bumped into Walt Whitman who became a longtime friend.  Once Burroughs walked out to the edge of town to watch the Civil War, bullets whizzing over his head and the smell of death in the air.

Burroughs built a house by the Hudson River, where he lived with his wife Ursula (who always thought he could do something more productive than write).  Little wonder John built a smaller cabin deeper in the woods that he called the “Bark Study,” where he could write in peace.

By the way, neither his father Chauncey nor his mother Amy ever read any of their son’s books.

Later, when Ursula was even less of a support, he moved further into the forest to build a rustic cabin he named “Slabsides,” for the slabs of bark he slapped on the outside.  Ah, the blessings of married life!

Herein endeth the history lesson.

Natural Economics

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“There are days when the field water and the slender grasses and the wild hawks have it all over the rest of us.” ~Mary Oliver, “Gratitude”

Economy and environment.  These two words are all over our eyes and minds today.  But do we realize just how related they are?  I remember the word oikos from my Greek class in college.  It’s where we get the prefix eco and it originally meant “house” or “household.”  Talk about your house—that’s ecology.  Say something about the whole inhabited world—that’s ecumenical.  Get into a discussion about managing your household, or the household of the community—that’s economy.  Open the doors of the household and you find the environs—the circle that surrounds.  In this sense, everyone—by Nature—is an environmentalist.  But how do we manage the circular household that surrounds us when we don’t even think about the fact that it is a house and this house has an intricate and intimate relationship to all other houses, including the dens and nests, oceans and forests and skies?

The interrelatedness and connectedness of our common dwellings make more sense the deeper we dig into these words and the realities behind them.  What happens on Wall Street doesn’t only affect Main Street but the deertrails and duck paddles and whale migration routes.  The great money games and whatever recessions, depressions and stimulating piles of cash and credit have a vast impact on our lives and the national and global households.  Chickasaw writer Linda Hogan, in her book Dwellings, says “I write out of respect for the natural world, recognizing that humankind is not separate from nature.”  When will we wake up to see that our economy is simply everything we do and everything we do touches everything else?  It is simply too ignorant and even dangerous in today’s world to fight over land and homes and national borders when in reality—in reality—there is only one neighborhood, one home.

This summer I will be teaching two courses at Dominican University in San Rafael, California.  Both are literally economical in scope.  The first class is on “Nature, Human Nature and the Seeds of American Freethought.”  This will be a “freewheeling” exploration of the radical writings of Thomas Paine, Frances Wright and Walt Whitman.  The second course is something I call “The Green God: Paths toward a New Environmental Creed.”  Here we will journey along with two “housekeepers”—John of the Mountains (Muir) and John of the Rivers (Burroughs).  All of these thinkers and writers were earthshaking contributors to a revolutionary form of natural economics.   We are all their students in the great classroom circle of Nature and who knows what might happen, if in the current economic meltdown, more of us turned to the lessons of the household, to better manage the house, to allow the house and its diverse inhabitants to better manage us?  We’re in need of a new ethic, a new creed, a new “god” if you use that language, cleaning the house of our minds and communities, building new innovative models of one great compassionate community.  As a teacher, writer and “earth chaplain” (in a caring relationship with Nature) I do not say these things lightly but pragmatically.   We need a new welcoming, in this ancient home renewing itself along with us everyday.  Please respect the household; take your shoes off.  We’re all related here.  Yes, the bear sleeps on the couch and the hawk splashes in the sink.  It’s their home too.  Doesn’t this sound eco-logical to you?

May 2009

Small Voices in Seasons of Change

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I was invited to teach a class in Berkeley on my past work and present writing.  On that beautiful clear day I could see from the east bay hilltop across the salty water to the glistening golden gate.  Arriving a few minutes early I was waiting in the courtyard under the maples and redwoods.  Above me I heard a sound, a birdcall, and looked up.  The late fall branches were fairly bare so I expected to spot the feathered neighbor quite easily.  For the next ten minutes I was looking up, hearing the playfully cheerful chirp, and scanning all the branches and trunks as the sound curiously moved here and there overhead.  The class was beginning so I picked up my materials and stepped toward the door.  One more glance up.  I never saw the delightful singer though I know she was in plain sight.

The great naturalist John Burroughs wrote, “In a time of noise and hurry and materialism like ours, the gospel of the still small voice is always seasonable” (Under the Apple Trees, 1916).  The mysterious, small voice I heard that bright afternoon was of course no spirit being from above but a tiny, artful and well camouflaged bird and from this invisible encounter  I caught ahold of a clear lesson that I could carry right into the classroom:  some things, some people, some needs, some truths are very close, though we may not see them.  To notice, to be attentive and to be open to Nature’s still small voice is a wise and wonderful step into the greatest classroom and cathedral there is.

When my first book, Meditations of John Muir: Nature’s Temple, was published, I felt the time was right to express my own journey into wisdom in the thoughts of someone who shared my curiosity, who seemed to see (and not see) what I was experiencing in my walks, climbs and quiet moments in the natural world I love and respect.  The world was an immense, beauty-filled classroom for John Muir, as well as his sanctuary.  As seasons changed for me and I jumped over more restrictive, fenced-in ways of thinking, Muir’s religion of the rivers, mosque of the mountains and synagogue of stones presented the only spiritual tradition or community that made sense.

During my three years on the “earthcampus” of Whidbey Island, living simply, clearing paths and writing, this sense of complete access to Nature’s instruction soaked in like the fog of the Sound, stirring my senses as the night cries of the coyotes and day calls of the eagles.  I am now fully enrolled as a student in the university of the wild, taking to heart the challenging words of Confucius (some say Ben Franklin): “Tell me and I forget; teach me and I remember; involve me and I learn.”

For nearly thirty years I served as an interfaith chaplain.  My primary “congregations” were unheard, unnoticed people–those with mental illness, prisoners and homeseeking (“homeless”) persons.  I was not a preacher but a presence, listening and learning from those shoved to the edges of our communities and our consciousness.  I soaked in their wisdom as well.  This was the involvement I needed—“involve me and I learn.”  Those chaplain years blended easily into my writing, teaching and organic “natural spirituality.” This is critically important because it constantly reminds me that to be a freethinker is to be a perpetual student particularly sensitive to the “still small voices” that are completely natural and accessible to everyone.  There is no greater, better, wiser teacher, spiritual source or holy book than the smallest, most overlooked or underappreciated voices nearby.

In these seasons of deep, wide, often fearful change–politically, spiritually, nationally and globally–there is something that gives a grounding and a center though it is constantly in flux and float, though it is as rooted as a redwood and fleeting as a feather in a fir.  Nature’s home is our own and, if we listen and learn well, we may come to practice the wisdom and poetry of Walt Whitman’s words, “We are Nature, long have we been absent, but now we return.”


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