Earth Idolatry

“They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.” Romans 1:25

When I’m not traveling for work, I like to spend as much time as possible in the mountains at our little cabin in the woods. Quite simply, it recharges me. The work needed to keep the place up, starting the fire in the morning, the slower pace of life, and the natural beauty all bring me a sense of calm and peace that I don’t always possess when I’m “down the hill.” I have always thought of the mountains as home, and so whenever possible, I follow the well know mantra uttered by Jon Muir: “The mountains are calling, and I must go.”

It may not come as a surprise to my readers that I spend more time than I should reading books about the mountains and the people who reside in them. Yesterday, I was making my way through another suggestion from my friend David Rufner, Eric Blehm’s The Last Season. The work is a story about Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Park, a park that Joy and I vacationed in for a few weeks three years ago. But the wilderness of Kings Canyon is a place where few could survive and even fewer have visited. It is an unforgiving backcountry in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. Blehm narrates the real account of the disappearance and search for Randy Morgenson, a National Park Service ranger who went missing after twenty-eight seasons on the job. Morgenson was a ranger who excelled in his duties and was religiously dedicated to keeping the wilderness of Kings Canyon National Park undisturbed by man.

The Last Season is an excellent book, as attested to by multiple awards it has won since its publication. However, I’ve noticed that these types of books go south in two ways: 1) the main characters always end up worshiping the wilderness or nature in general and 2) such worship almost always leads them to practice (in some way) a type of mystical animism. In short, they worship the creation rather than the creator and become earth idolaters (Dave Rufner’s line).

I think that this earth idolatry is often illustrated by their need to worship their god privately in the wild without the intrusion of other less than holy people who don’t understand the true worship of nature. This stark irony is reflected by this quote from the earth warrior, Ed Abby, who is the author of the infamous The Monkey Wrench Gang. In his other work Desert Solitaire, Ed says: “I find that in contemplating the natural world my pleasure is greater if there are not too many others contemplating it with me, at the same time.” To enjoy or properly worship nature as a person means that there better not be any other people around to disrupt the natural liturgy of my appreciation. Ironic. They are the chosen enjoyers, the priests of nature, and we are unwelcome intruders, the unwashed gentiles. I must say that if you spend any amount of time in the mountains, this is an easy sentiment to get sucked in to.

So, I keep getting stalled by this “gospels of the wilderness.” I can’t get over the fact that these authors seem to be mad at people for being alive in “their wilderness.” They fail to realize that people are present––in the mountains, at the sea, and God knows why, visiting the desert–– because they enjoy God’s creation in the same way the authors of these works do. I want to tell them to get the hell over it already. I’m not attracted in the least to your earth idolatry. I’m here for the peace, the quiet, and the beauty of this world bestowed on us by a good God who loves me on account of Christ.

It’s true that the wilderness somehow acts for many––probably even me––as a magnifier, an exposer of our day-to-day operational theologies. We want to be a part of something greater and grander than we. We want romance. We want beauty. We want peace. We want to work with our hands and produce something if only a fire and a meal. We want it to be about our work rather than God’s for us because of Christ.

To some degree, we’ve all lost the Creator-creation distinction just as much as I think we tend to lose the Savior-saved distinction. Again, Dave reminded me of a J. Gresham Machen quote from his classic, Christianity and Liberalism, that I think is helpful here. Machen said that, for the liberal, Jesus is the first Christian and we are supposed to follow in his steps. But for Orthodoxy, Jesus is no Christian at all. He is the Savior. We are the saved.

Is there a way to write about being in the wild without falling into either trap? Is there a way to write a theology of the “wild” or “mountains” without worshiping the creation rather than the Creator? Is there a way to keep one’s eyes on Christ while casting a gaze at a beautiful ridgeline? I’m not sure, but if it could be done, I think it would be helpful to all of us who love God’s creation but hope to avoid the trap of worshiping His creation rather than He, the Creator and the author and perfector of our faith.

Maybe the starting point is to recall the words of Martin Luther in the Small Catechism: “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. What does this mean? Answer. I believe that God has made me and all creatures; that He has given me my body and soul, eyes, ears, and all my limbs, my reason, and all my senses, and still preserves them; in addition thereto, clothing and shoes, meat and drink, house and homestead, wife and children, fields, cattle, and all my goods; that He provides me richly and daily with all that I need to support this body and life, protects me from all danger, and guards me and preserves me from all evil; and all this out of pure, fatherly, divine goodness and mercy, without any merit or worthiness in me; for all which I owe it to Him to thank, praise, serve, and obey Him. This is most certainly true.”

THIS is most certainly true!