Visiting Yosemite: Part 2
Spending Time with John Muir
On our recent trip to Yosemite, Becky and I were able to visit a number of locations that the famous naturalist John Muir visited more than 100 years ago. Muir was the Scottish-born naturalist (born in 1838) who eventually ended up in California studying the Sierra Nevada mountains. While in California, I read his book, The Mountains of California. I love the way Muir writes. His passion for the outdoors in infectious. (If you go to Disney World, you may have seen John Muir’s animatronic performance in The American Adventure, next to President Teddy Roosevelt.)
Muir was born in Scotland and made his way to California in 1868, where he remained for the rest of his life. He soon became a resident of Yosemite and sang its praises in a way that the rest of the world came to hear—enough so that it became a national park in 1890.
He was a bit of an enigma when it came to his religious views. Muir was raised in a very strict Protestant home. Perhaps reacting to his stern upbringing, he became a bit of a transcendentalist, following the teachings of Henry David Thoreau, whom he considered to be a philosophical mentor. Muir also spent time briefly with Ralph Waldo Emerson in Yosemite, and admired him. He writes of Emerson being a wonderful guide to the “higher plains of truth.” While this is a strange and troubling statement, it nevertheless helps us better understand where Muir was in his personal worldview.
John Muir was a cross between a geologist, a poet, and a mystic. His use of language was powerful. The verbal imagery Muir used to describe the Sierra Nevada is biblical and ebullient. In his classic work, My First Summer in the Sierra (1911), Muir spoke of “glorious conversion,” “old bondage days,” “newness of life,” and prayed to do “Godful work . . . in so holy a wilderness.” Was this simply a rhetorical means to persuade a Christian audience to the cause of preservation? Or could it be that the faith of his abusive father never quite let go of him? Hard to tell. At times, Muir sounded very much like a pantheist (one who believes that “God” and nature are one and the same); he typically capitalized the word “Nature” in his writings.
John Muir seemed to have one foot in Emerson’s transcendentalism and one foot in what we would now call his father’s Christian fundamentalism. The mixture ends up potent, and at times rationally incoherent.
Here’s the question: do we, as Christians, need John Muir? My answer is: I think we do. While we cannot follow him in regarding Nature itself as divine, his passionate descriptions of the outdoors are important reminders of God’s natural revelation. His reminders of the need to “get away” are important for 21st-century city dwellers. We are addicted to noise. Muir’s thoughts are a necessary corrective to our suburban, mega-church separation from the wild. While Christians are new creatures in Christ, first and foremost we are creatures—in need of our fellow forest creatures and in need of all of God’s creation. That’s what Becky and I rediscovered again in Yosemite. It was very refreshing.
by Jay Childs, Senior Pastor