Birds, Beetles, Bears and Beliefs


“Birds, Beetles, Bears and Beliefs”
(seeking trails to secular worship?)

One summer we drove to the coast where I saw my first wild alligators, ibis (egret-like sea birds) and river dolphins. As a lifelong West-coaster, I know thick green moss—but nothing like the long-draping spanish moss of those old live-oaks.

Fresh experiences in the natural world can generate new thoughts, new ideas. Our endlessly fascinating world becomes more wonderful, intriguing, enticing. What do I know? What do I not know?

Those who have taken my classes, read my books, heard my public talks or read my columns know that I talk a lot about Nature. In certain contexts I may describe Nature as a sacred space or even as divinity; Nature is the God I worship. But wait a minute. As a secular person, it’s critical to be clear. I’m using these words because I know that most people already hang some heavy images on their hooks. What these words mean to me are no doubt quite different than what they usually mean. In fact, I really don’t even use these words much anymore, except to have a conversation. So, let’s have one.

You don’t have to be a drum-beating Native American or earth-worshipping Pagan to feel deep connections to the natural environment where you have “spiritual experiences.” It seems that many secular people are having more “spiritual experiences” and many people of faith are having more secular experiences. This gets pretty confusing until you have an “Aha!” moment:

Maybe we’re all having amazing, interesting, stunningly beautiful experiences in Nature and simply using the only words passed down to us that seem to describe the indescribable or explain the unexplainable.

Nicholas Kristof wrote a piece where he describes his family vacation hiking the Pacific Crest Trail in California (“Fleeing to the Mountains,” New York Times, August 12, 2017). He says getting out and going up to the simple life in the “awe-inspiring wild places” and “magnificent splendor” is good for building “family solidarity.” Escaping emails and cellphones and the stresses of the city is a big relief. Then Kristof writes,

“This is also a spiritual experience. It’s a chance to share a reverence for the ethereal scenery of America’s wild places. The wilderness is nature’s cathedral, and it’s a thrill to worship here.”

He ends the column with a plea to preserve and protect these lands—a kind of John Muir-style call of the wild to defend the wild, because it deserves it, and we need it.

“The wilderness nourishes our souls, if we let it.”

There’s another word that can distract us: “soul.” Isn’t this just saying what we all can say, “The wilderness nourishes us”?

Some might say, “Yes, but it’s really about God, the God I believe in, and it’s His/Her voice I come to listen for.”

Others may say, “Yes, of course, God fills all of Nature and I come to connect with His/Her Spirit out here.”

What we might consider is that whatever words we use to describe our feelings, the mountains, trees and rivers, birds, beetles and bears are there—just there—gladly beyond the human need to name them or use them.

So, what if there’s another way to understand this thing we call “Worship”?

When I kissed my wife and she drove off to church one morning, I stayed home to sweep the garage, do some writing and watch a family of wild turkeys strut by the window. I read Kristof and wondered:

What if the “new” worship, the new church (synagogue, mosque, temple) and the new religion, faith and God is something these ancient words just cannot contain? Maybe they never could.

As Solomon said when he built the temple in Jerusalem, “Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!” (First Kings 8:27). Doesn’t this apply to our words as well? And what of our images or creeds, theologies or scriptures? What of Religion itself? Can any contain the Ultimate, the Eternal, Universal Nature?

“Being spiritual,” prayer and meditation, “worshipping”—why shouldn’t these be changing like the seasons or evolving like everything else? Those who desperately hold on to the ancient words, who tell us they (somehow) know what ancient people meant by those words, are like hikers who choose to camp at the trailhead. “This is the only sign we need—the only map—and we know our way around this parking area. We don’t want to go out where our special maps may not help, where we may face dangerous new views, thoughts, experiences!”

I’ve said it many times before and it remains a relevant question: What if our National Parks, our wild places and open spaces are the “Next Gen” of “spiritual community,” keeping in mind that these words, like “spiritual,” are slippery like glacial stones and may no longer be helpful. I wonder if we could use better words to help us all, faith or no faith, share that “reverence” and feel that “thrill to worship [be awestruck]” there.

Could the birds, beetles and bears teach us?

Chris Highland
2017 (revised 2021)

Categories: essaysTags: , , , , , , ,

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