Chris Highland

“I have sometimes thought that, in order to be a good minister, it was necessary to leave the ministry.”

~Ralph Waldo Emerson, Journal, June 2, 1832

Author of over twenty books, Chris Highland was a Protestant minister for 14 years and an Interfaith (collaborative, open-minded, inclusive) chaplain for 25 years. Currently a freethinking Humanist celebrant, he has a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion from Seattle Pacific University and an M.Div. from San Francisco Theological Seminary.  Chris holds a Community College Teaching Credential from the State of California.

In the winter of 2008-2009 and again in 2009-2010 he was the director of the County Emergency Shelter in Marin County, California.  For six years he was the manager of a senior independent living cooperative in Marin.

Chris taught Community Living Skills and served as an ad hoc chaplain in a private school for adults with disabilities for six years.   He has been an adjunct instructor at Dominican University of California, a field education supervisor through the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley and an instructor at Cherry Hill Seminary and the College of Marin. He now teaches courses on the history of Freethought at the Reuter Center (UNCA) in Asheville and, on occasion, Blue Ridge Community College.

As a longtime writer, Chris pens a weekly “Highland Views” column for the Citizen-Times, a USA Today affiliate (collected in the books: Friendly FreethinkerBroken Bridges, A Freethinker’s Gospel and other books). His essays have been published in The Freethought Society e-zine, Patheos, The Humanist, Church and State, The Interfaith Observer, North American Review, State of Formation, Ex-Christian and regularly published on this site.

Most recent essays are collected in Highland Views, Intersections, One Nature Indivisible, Eye to EyeSimply Secular, Nature is Enough,  Birds, Beetles, Bears and Beliefs, Was Jesus a Humanist?, A Secular Gospel and Once Upon a Faith.

He has been interviewed on podcasts in Ohio, Tennessee, Colorado, Washington and England.

Chris is married to The Rev. Carol Hovis, a Presbyterian Minister, Spiritual Director and Enneagram Teacher who served as Executive Director of the Marin Interfaith Council for 12 years. His daughter and son-in-law live in Oregon.

He has served on the Communications Committee of The Clergy Project and the Religion and Philosophy Curriculum Committee for the OLLI program at the UNCA Reuter Center.

A skilled presenter, Chris has given public presentations, taught classes and led retreats for congregations, business groups, high schools, universities, social service workers and youth leaders.  He has taught in buddhist, christian, jewish, pagan, unitarian, secular and other settings.  His educational style is engaging and inspiring, drawing students or audience into an active participation in the subject.

Chris has given presentations at these selected locations:

Congregation Beth Israel (Asheville), Rationalists of East Tennessee, Grace Covenant Presbyterian Church (Asheville), the Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Asheville, the UNCA Reuter Center, Malaprop’s Bookshop, Grateful Steps Foundation, Blue Ridge Community College, Jubilee! Asheville, Grandfather Mountain, Highland Books in Brevard, the Deerfield community, Givens Estates, the Ethical Humanist Society of Asheville, Piedmont Humanists (Greenville, SC), Unitarian-Universalist Congregation of Swannanoa, BDR Sunday Spotlight, University of North Carolina-Asheville, Secular Sanctuary (CA and NC), Sunday Assembly in Berkeley, San Francisco Atheists, First United Lutheran in San Francisco, the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Marin, Community Church in Mill Valley, Christ Presbyterian Church in Terra Linda, Marin Interfaith Council, Westminster Presbyterian Church in Tiburon, St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Belvedere, Lucas Valley Community Church, Chaplaincy Institute in Berkeley, Zephyr Point Conference Center at Lake Tahoe, Wellspring Retreat Center, Christ Episcopal Church in Sausalito, the Interfaith Community Church in Seattle, John Muir Conference (Feather River), John Muir Mountain Days and John Muir Home (Martinez), San Francisco Theological Seminary, Village Books, Bellingham, WA, Cabrillo College near Santa Cruz, UC Davis, The Redwoods in Mill Valley, The Tamalpais in Greenbrae, Muir Woods National Monument, Yosemite National Park, an Interfaith Contemplative service at the Church of Christ Scientist, Green Gulch Zen Center and Ross Valley Rotary.

Chris is available to give presentations, interviews, teach courses or lead retreats in congregations, schools or other settings.  He has long experience creating unique wedding ceremonies as well as memorials and other meaningful moments.

CONTACT CHRIS:  chris.highland@gmail.com


“It is a privilege to be able to give to promote you and your wonderful work!  Thanks for all you do.”

Member or Supporter:

Americans United for the Separation of Church and State

Humanists International

American Humanist Association

PEN America

The Authors Guild

The Clergy Project (member since 2012)

Religious Naturalist Association

Freedom From Religion Foundation

Secular Students Speakers Bureau


  1. I am with the Tahoe Heritage Foundation and am interested in carrying your Meditations of Muir, Emerson, Thoreau and Whitman books in our Museum shop. Please e-mail me the names of your distributors, or how we can obtain your books wholesale. Thank you, Jane

  2. Rev Hovis gave me a copy of your Muir meditations book. I think it’s great! And part of a series too! I have known about Wilderness Press for years.

    Jeanne Carr recognized Muir’s qualities at university in MN and later in CA. She is an interesting person in her own right. Without her, Muir may never had evolved the way he did. I think Muir should be understood first as a scientist. Muir’s religious allusions can be traced to his childhood and his father’s well known fanaticism (and the reason John left home). The Linnie Marsh Wolfe biography does a disservice by casting Muir in an unearthly light as a messiah. Muir combined science AND religion in utterly unique ways. His effervescent 19th century poetic idiom is full of surprises. It has a musical quality His writing is worth reading for its own sake. Interestingly, John Muir revered German explorer/naturalist Alexander von Humboldt – who was gay! Muir wanted to be another Humboldt, but he did not have Humboldt’s wealth. Instead, he bowed to Jeanne Carr’s wishes, married and became a businessman for about ten years. He was the first person to export grapes to Hawaii, where my mother’s family settled in the early 1890s from New Zealand. Later, he became more of a political activist. I think he may not have liked that much. I remember reading somewhere that William Kent, who gave us Muir Woods, concluded that Muir was fundamentally antisocial. I wonder what he meant by that.

    • Thank you, Norman. I’m glad you like the book and hope you like the series (I’m particularly fond of Muir’s nemesis/friend John Burroughs!). What you say about Jeanne Carr rings true. Muir depended on her in significant ways (Bonnie Gisel’s book draws that out). His religious perspectives are as slippery as a Sierra boulder, aren’t they? My working conclusion is that he cannot be defined, but that any “spirituality” he had was thoroughly infused (incarnated) in the Natural Cosmos. It’s ok not to fit into any supernatural worldview or tradition. I owe him for that “revelation”! I think he was hinting, trailblazing a way forward, perhaps a challenging and dangerous wilderness trail ahead, but how delightfully glorious! Always learning, always searching for Nature’s wondrous lessons.

      I sense you are correct that he abhorred being an activist, yet loved his role as enticer, even “evangelist” for his new “gospel of Nature” in the university of the universe. I see him not as anti-social so much as preferring, for the most part, the company of his beloved mountains.

      I recently enjoyed a pleasant conversation with William Kent’s granddaughter.

      Thanks again for writing.

  3. Just received your ” Meditations of John Muir ” and so enjoying it. I’ve been visiting Dunbar area for 30 years- going tomorrow for 10 days- and only recently begun to appreciate Muir’s writings. I shall visit his birthplace museum ( again ) with a different perspective and enthusiasm. Thank you !

  4. Like all Humanists, your about page is a monument to “self”

  5. A former jail chaplain….so you could relate to my ‘voluntary, mandatory’ post. Thank you so much for the like. It is challenging but the inmates inspire me every time.

    • Good to have you here. Yes I could relate to the “inside story.” And I appreciate the “reverse ministry” viewpoint that is so often neglected by Chaplains, that is, the understanding that the “inspiration” comes at us as much if not more than we give. I wish you well with the challenging, always challenging, work among hidden humans.

  6. Chris,
    Spencer Webster here formerly from Whidbey. I hope you are doing well. I’ve missed conversing with you on many topics. I can see from this page, you’re still a busy guy. Take care.
    v/r Spencer

  7. Hi Chris: I just wanted to let you know that I am grateful for your book of Thoreau Meditations. I carry it with me and find it a wonderful source of both inspiration and guidance. Although I’m in North Carolina, I hope to perhaps hear you speak and meet you sometime. All my best to you. — Mark Denardo

  8. Thanks meant for supplying this type of great written content

  9. What an impressive background. You have made, and continue to make, wonderful contributions. Nice to make your acquaintance. Keep it up!

  10. Chris…I was so glad to see your column in the Asheville Citizen-Times…my husband and I are not religious…I don’t like labeling people and don’t like it when people label me…I found that referring to us as Freethinkers was comfortable for me…this is not the easiest area to make new friends if you’re not some kind of “Christian”…I was dumped by a couple of “friends” when they found out I was non-religious..I’m originally from the Seattle area and had a very liberal upbringing…not a good fit for Hendersonville…I always wondered why the AC-T didn’t carry other points of view…now, here you are!..Yay! Kathleen Godwin

    • Thanks, Kathleen. Yes, it’s good to find more “nons” in one’s community. I do think that the more we speak up and out, the more the “dominant culture” with its assumptions of belief, will need to engage us. A great educational opportunity!

  11. Would you be willing to speak at the UU congregation in Black Mountain on Easter Sunday?

  12. Hi, Chris! Would love to connect with you about Asheville Interfaith.

  13. I read your article in the AC-T and was a little amused at your dissection of “Established Religion”. I have to agree with you mostly on what you have said and it surprised me to see it in the AC-T. It is exactly that I believe in a higher authority that I was amused at your dissection. I grew up here and it surprised me because most everyone around here are Baptists. Me being a Baha’i with some minor points where we didn’t exactly agree, but I was amused that your take was similar to the writings of Baha’u’llah. Seems that most readers of the Bible are materialists and take everything as literal.. I chose to question what are the preferred miracles in Christianity. Because of that I am of course ostracized in a low key way with my Pentecostal siblings. I am starting to see the emergence of “Spiritual but not Religious”. That to me indicates a turn from man-made dogma and to looking inside our selves for answers. Interesting changes going on. Thanks for that article…….

    🙂 charles

    • Thanks, Charles. Yes, I would imagine a person of the Baha’i faith would feel a bit like a secular person in this region. It does seem the ACT is moving forward though, with my column and inclusion of letters. You might try sending a letter expressing some of this. I appreciate what you say about “looking inside ourselves for answers” and of course we find many questions as well! Be well.

  14. Hi Chris,
    I have to tell you that “Life After Faith” is the most important book I have ever read and it so wonderfully validates much of my own personal experience — YOUR STORY HAS BEEN SO LIBERATING FOR ME.
    Here’s to you, Chris!
    Mark Denardo
    West End, NC
    P.S. I hope to meet you and hear your talk (“One Nature Indivisible”) in Asheville next month

  15. I am so glad you have moved to our area. As a member of FFRF, and someone who has been studying religion for a few years, I look forward to taking one of your classes at OLLI.
    I particularly glad the Citizen-Times is publishing your column every week. Thank you for your weekly insights.

    • Appreciate that, Gail. It seems a very simple thing, to speak out and speak up, offering an alternative viewpoint. FFRF, Americans United and other secular organizations merely seek an equal voice in the public square. I am pleased the AC-T includes my column, and that people seem to be reading and responding. Thanks!

  16. Hi Chris,
    I was just re-reading your “Life After Faith” and was thinking about Emerson’s problem with communion. As much as I personally tried to appreciate and respect the symbolism in communion, I always felt it was meaningless – and, worse, very phony (I probably watched way too much 3 Stooges as a kid). Now my very real and meaningful daily communion is mucking horse stalls. I see our horses munching the beautiful live grasses (the sacrifice) in our green pasture as I scoop their poop and take it to the compost bin (the altar) where Nature cooks it into wonderfully nutritious food which is returned to the pastures to feed new grasses (the resurrection). It’s a chore I now love!
    Thanks for “clearing some paths” for me, Chris!
    Mark Denardo

    • Ha! Great image there, Mark. Not everyone would appreciate the “earthiness,” but what’s the alternative–heavenliness? You may be aware of Walt Whitman’s “This Compost.” Cycles and circles of life.
      What you describe is right up the same trail “after faith.” So much basic, essential, down to earth goodness. Cheers!

      • What an Anti Christ group & leader!

        The name above all names JESUS CHRIST has not been seen at all in any of the articles I forced myself to read. What kind of faith do you have in Him? He is the KING OF KINGS and LORD OF LORDS that we will all acknowledge one day! All these theories your group discusses and gives unproved opinions about are the work of SATAN.

        Hope you can be there!

  17. Good Morning Chris,
    Just finished communion/horse stalls and came back up to read “This Compost” which I was not familiar with… SO WONDERFUL – Thank You! And I am reminded that my Very-Down-To-Earth Dad, who helped me build the compost bin years ago, always said to just throw him in there when he died (we didn’t, of course…but I may just sprinkle some of his ashes in the bin!)
    By the way, if your “Ha!” is in any way a reference to Heretics Anonymous, count me in!
    Mark Denardo

  18. Hello Chris,

    I very much enjoyed your thoughtful piece in the Citizen Times about the “Faith Lessons from Olmsted’s LIfe.” A wonderful piece. I am a biographer of Olmsted and a lecturer on the Olmsted legacy. A historian and filmmaker, specializing in historical documentaries for public television. A recent project, which I originated and for which I served as Consulting Producer is the 2014 PBS special Frederick Law Olmsted: Designing America. I note that you liberarly cite Justin Martin’s recent biography. You will see Martin, as well as other biographers and Olmsted experts in our film. I wanted to let you know that I am presenting that film and an extended PowerPoint talk about Olmsted’s life and career, and the regional and national Olmsted legacy on May 11 at the North Carolina Arboretum. The program does not yet show up on the web site. But if you are in Asheville at that time, feel free to join us. If you would like to communicate, I would prefer to do so via regular email.

  19. Chris, I love your column in the AC-T. I find myself ‘in spirit’ with you on most subjects. Today 11/18 you write another winner about use of language, and finding ways to express wonder and spirituality and……

    Ah, yes, I must make one “but” … I cringe everytime you identify yourself as a “nonbeliever” — talk about allowing someone else to define you by their religion/religious words! You believe in MANY MANY things, you just don’t believe what traditional Christians say you “have to” believe. I am still searching for words to express what my beliefs are…. Atheist, non-believer, humanist to negative or exclusive. “Free thinker” comes closer, maybe “free believer” … wonder, mystery, spirit, such rich words,… Again, please don’t allow Theists and traditionalist paint you into a corner.

    you BELIEVE in many many things. I hope you will stop calling yourself a “non believer”

    • Thanks, Carol. “But”. . . I write for a “religion page” and I refer to myself in several ways, mostly as a secular person or freethinker. I also am a “non-believer” in most meanings of the term. Then, I appreciate what you’re trying to say about believing, yet “belief” is not how I see it. I “think” things, “reason” things, but don’t “believe.” I don’t “believe” in love, or science or the sun in the sky. I think we have to be careful not to mix meanings. I understand that you are searching for useful terms for yourself. That’s important. As for me, I’m freely choosing to use a variety of terms in diverse settings, because, as you point out, I’m not allowing others to define me or my terms. Thanks for writing.

  20. Chris, It is nice to know of your talents and interests! I am especially interested in your books on John Muir, and have been doing research and writing on my own that you might like to know about. My great uncle, John S. Apperson, Jr., became a leading figure in New York preservation movement, saving islands and about ten miles of shoreline at Lake George from development, logging and erosion. He was inspired by John Muir and angry at the decision to destroy Hetch Hetchy, and he spent the next fifty years as an activist, lobbyist, and, as some have called him, a one man Sierra Club. I’d love to meet up with you sometime and talk over our shared interests. Thanks. Ellen Apperson Brown http://adirondackactivism.com

    • Good to hear of your interests in Muir, Ellen. It sounds like John Apperson, Jr. was a remarkable person. We could benefit from more “Muirists.” I’ll take a look at that website. If you’re in the A’ville area, we might meet for tea sometime. All the best, Chris

  21. Reading your column gives me hope that it is possible to help people find a more honest way of thinking and living. Have been dwelling on this subject for many decades now. I purchased two domain names a year or so ago, one being “unindoctrinate.com/net/etc. and the other “describeGod.com/net/etc. I retired from Asheville City Schools six months ago and this new year I would like to move forward with something on the web that would help people. I don’t see that you have a lecture at Reuters this spring. Curious if you could recommend a workshop that could move me forward with webpage and/or content.

  22. Chris, Happy New Year to you! How are you? Say, a couple items to mention. I picked up a copy of your nice chapbook about the meditations of John Muir. Glad to add it to my collection. Also I finally took a look at a book I had borrowed from the library and sitting on my shelf for awhile. It is just a tad dated now, but I think you will enjoy it. First off, it is part of a series edited by William Cronon and also introduced by him. One of America’s foremost scholars of environmental history–and a gentleman whom I have had the pleasure to chat with on a few occasions. Title: “Faith in Nature: Environmentalis, as Religious Quest” by Thomas R. Dunlap. Published in 2004 by the University of Washington Press. I think you will enjoy it. All best!

    • All is good and icy cold here in the mts, Laurence. Nice to hear from you. I will certainly scan for that book by Dunlap. Sounds familiar. I’m working with a publisher on a new book for a release sometime this year. I’ll let you know. All the best in 2018!

  23. i read your lovely article today in the Asheville Citizens Time. I saved it to read to my husband when he came home from work. We both couldn’t agree with you more about including everyone. There have been times in my life while attending a Catholic Church that i sat in the pew while everyone else filed up for communion. You are, to us, a true Christian. By including the people who are excluded every where else, you are representing what Jesus would have done. I look forward to following you and reading more of your articles. Thank you!

  24. My wife and I both enjoy your column in the Citizen-Times. Are your books available anywhere in the Asheville area?

  25. I usually skip the Religion part off the AC-T, but I was caught by your term “placeholders.” “Spirituality” as “placeholder” especially, but come to think of it, aren’t all our words “placeholders”?
    How liberating and mystifying is that!

  26. Chris, My husband and I enjoy your column in the Asheville paper. We are faithful readers and were very disappointed to have a problem reading your words April 21. Where are the editors when you need them??
    Is it possible to read your intended words from that column elsewhere? We’d like to read your version.
    Thanks for your continuing thoughtfulness.
    Ann and Phil Weinrich
    Robbinsville, NC

  27. Reading this I feel privileged and honoured that you visited andread one of my stories. Thank you once again.

  28. Hi Chris-A couple of questions-How do you define a :free thinker” in your understanding. Secondly, does your faith teach you it is almost impossible to know anything about the transition from life to… the other. I just don’t consider being forced to accept his holiness for a free pass to the next. What is your thought on this? Thanks so much for your insightfulness and mind provoking articles. By the way,I do believe in Christ and his power but I think he gave EVERYONE a free gift for the eternal-and I consider him to be with us every step of the way!

    • Thanks for the questions, Dave. That’s what it’s all about.

      A freethinker is anyone who questions the “right answers” or “correct, traditional opinions” particularly in matters of religious faith. A believer can be a freethinker, but that would mean they don’t necessarily follow the “accepted” path or creeds of a specific faith.

      I don’t have a “faith.” But to respond to your question I would say that, yes, it is impossible to know what, if anything, comes after death, or after life.

      While not a believer in Christ any longer, I understand your more universal view on that meaning for you.

      I appreciate the sharing of your thoughts.

  29. I am flummoxed by the philosophy of some churches who are inclusive of gay people by saying that they love the sinner but hate the sin. Could you comment on that?

    • Good question, Ellen. I share the flummox! In my experience there is a (secret or not so secret) hope in some churches that a person will change (repent) and so they are “loved into change,” or something. It’s sad that “biblical morality” often leaves out simply loving others without special conditions or an attitude of “We’ll really love you, and God will love you more, if and when you abide by our interpretation of the bible.”

      As I’ve seen, individuals and sometimes whole congregations can “repent” of their own judgements when they actually get to know someone who is gay, or discover there are church members or family members who are gay/lesbian/trans.

  30. I was given for Christmas your Meditations books; Muir, Thoreau, Emerson and Whitman and am relishing them. Thank you for these books, I carry the Muir book with me camping. The pairing of a passage of the main author with a short quote by another thinker provides a refreshing aptness and synchronicity. I started out as a philosophy major before switching to art and I appreciate your selections of the Transcendentalists and others, your emphasis and selections give me a fresh perspective on these long read author’s thinking. I especially have a new appreciation for Muir’s radiant nature mysticism from your Meditations.

    Why did you move from the Bay Area to Asheville, NC, and has the land, sky, clouds, plants, light and animals in that area disclosed new or different insights to your heart/mind?

    • Very nice to hear your appreciation for the books, Holly. Your response is right in line with the intent of my writing. In my other books, essays and weekly columns I’m always following new trails of ideas, both reflecting on my life on the West Coast and now here in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I hope you keep reading and responding. All the best in your adventures deeper into the art and heart of nature.

      And, I will say, your art creations are amazing!

  31. I found your essays and columns website and look forward to reading it all!

    Thank you for giving my art website a look and your comment. (Since everyone asks; I carve the frames as well as paint the paintings.)

    Thank you for your insights into the heart of nature and spirituality. The more I’m in nature the more I feel it is my deep spiritual home and appreciate your insights and observations. Methinks John Muir is by your side, always.

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