Science in Christian Perspective
The Spirit of Wilderness and the Religious Community
Repinted from Sierra, May/June (1983), pp. 56-58.
From: JASA 35 September 1983): 180-181.
Nineteenth-century Americans conceived of nature as purity itself-a representation of God's perfect goodness. In literature, the transcendentalists spoke often of the "moral influence" of nature, while in the visual arts, the cosmic aspects of wilderness was "depicted" by Durand, Bingham, Cole and others.
One rainy New Mexico afternoon, in an old adobe library surrounded by cottonwood trees, I came upon a rare find: a complete set of volumes from the Sierra Club's wilderness conferences. Even the dust jackets was intact.
I wandered for hours through the chronicles. It was all here in these "Federalist Papers" of the wilderness movement: What was wilderness9 How should it be preserved? How much could be compromised'.)
One phrase kept catching my eye, not only for how frequently it was expressed by the participants, but for how seldom it is heard today: "the need to preserve wilderness for its spiritual values."
Few speakers troubled to define what these "spiritual values" were. They took it for granted that the audience, having sojourned in desert, mountain and forest, knew firsthand what was meant: the silence and solitude afforded by backcountry; the sense of awe it inspired; the way it could alter a traveler's soul as much as his sinews.
No one accorded them more prominence than author and naturalist Sigurd Olson during the Club's 1961 Wilderness Conference:
I am happy to talk about the spiritual values of wilderness because I feel they are all-important-the real reason for all the practical things we must do to save wilderness. in the last analysis, it is the spiritual values we are really fighting to preserve.
In recent years, however, spiritual values seem to have fallen from the constellation of reasons to protect wilderness. Other traditional rationales-recreational, ecological, economic-have tended to displace the less measurable qualities of wild country with charts, visitor-use graphs and cost-benefit analyses.
"We must not be apologetic about our spiritual motivation,"
warned one participant during the 1953 conference, perhaps foreseeing that intangible values, gossamerthin when compared to board
feet of lumber, would be increasingly slighted in the trend to
Their eclipse is ironic, however, for it is spiritual values that have the capacity to galvanize the largest potential and untapped constituency on wilderness's behalf, one heretofore unmoved by arguments based on conservation or recreation: the religious community.
"They don't solicit us, we don't solicit them," explained one national Sierra Club leader recently, summarizing the role religious institutions have played in wilderness preservation. "They just haven't been involved in any identifiable way."
Such mutual indifference can be overcome, but it seems to me it
will begin by environmentalists taking the first step, bringing to the
attention of religious communities, which seem to have forgotten the
importance of wilderness, the quieter gifts of desert, mountain and
Silence: What draws people back to wild country? "Most of all was the silence and sense of removal," suggested Sigurd Olson during one wilderness conference. "These were spiritual dividends, hard to explain, impossible to evaluate, that brought them back time and again." But this "great primeval hush," which acts as an aesthetic balm, has often served as a theological bridge as well. Within the Judeo-Christian tradition alone-for Old Testament prophets, Desert Fathers and monastic orders-the silence of wilderness has been an invaluable catalyst for prayer and contemplation.
*Solitude: Only by going alone, John Muir counseled, "can one truly get into the heart of wilderness." The isolation and seclusion found in wild country, merely a restorative tonic for some, has long kindled a sense of reverence in others. Wilderness solitude provided the common crucible for Muhammed in a cave on Mt. Hira, for Buddha in the forests of northern India, for Jesus in the Judean desert during those 40 days and in withdrawals to desert and mountain throughout his ministry. It is "the most sublime state a human being can aspire to," proposes English author Malcolm Muggridge, "being in the wilderness alone with God."
These spiritual values make wilderness a theological reservoir, an arena that can be at least as faith-nurturing as any sanctuary built of brick or steel. Perhaps more significant, it is just such qualities as awe, silence and solitude that have drained from the life of many religious institutions preoccupied with meetings, fund raising and administrative work. Wilderness provides one of the rare contemporary wellsprings for a restoration of contemplative values.
During a panel discussion at the Sierra Club's 1967 Wilderness Conference, one of the participants-a Unitarian minister-was asked why the church "doesn't get into this [wilderness preservation] battle all over the land and put its weight behind the whole effort?"
The minister replied that there was no reason why it could not; support could indeed be forthcoming.
But it hasn't happened. Some churches, stung by criticism from historian Lynn White and others who have blamed the JudeoChristian tradition for the "ecologic crisis," have wrestled with their alleged culpability by focusing attention on a variety of environmental problems: pollution, pesticides, overpopulation. But seldom has their concern extended to wilderness.
Particularly from the pulpit, wilderness is evoked primarily as a metaphor, usually to describe a state of disorientation or despair, not as a living, life-restoring reality to protect for future generations. The oversight is not so much a matter of contempt-as though backcountry travel still hinted of dalliance with Pan-as of neglect: Wilderness simply has not been an element in the theological consciousness.
And this is where environmentalists can come in, challenging
those clergy and their congregations unfamiliar with wilderness to
as a reservoir not only for
wildlife, natural cycles and genetic diversity, but for intangible
bounties as well.
The environmentalists' burden, obviously, is not to provide some kind of ecclesiastical gloss: Religious communities have their own rich resources from which to fashion affirmative approaches to wilderness.
But it is not too much to expect those more familiar with backcountry's spiritual values to illuminate for others. In speaking of awe, silence and solitude, environmentalists will not only be speaking a common language with the religious community, but helping to recall the role played by wilderness throughout history in fostering reverence and humility.
This they could do in practical ways by speaking in houses of worship or addressing religious forums. Environmentalists who are also members of religious denominations could craft within their own spiritual traditions a vision of stewardship that includes wilderness.
A recent article in Sierra (September/October, 1982) explored possibilities for building coalitions; the authors pointed out the unlikely array of organizations that have already joined in specific environmental efforts: ranchers, labor unions, medical associations, civil organizations.
The account mentioned only secular groups. But the time has come to enlist others in the effort to preserve the few remaining islands of wild country. Wilderness will remain vulnerable to economic pressures until there evolves a far more broad-based acquaintance with its power to refresh the human spirit. Religious communities have a long-neglected role in helping to keep intact those places where, as David Brower has written, "the hand of God has not been obscured by the industry of man."
Wallace Stegner once sketched the untrammeled regions of desert, mountain and forest as "a part of the geography of hope." What should not be forgotten is that wilderness has always been, as well, a part of the geography of faith.