We all have heroes of the past that we admire for their exploits, writings and works. Recently, I was talking with a friend about our heroes of the past and how they influenced us. At one point he shook his head and said, "all my best friends are dead!" Of course it was rhetorical hyperbole referring to some of his heroes of the past. It got me thinking about who my dead best friends are. I'd have to say the greatest of them all was John Muir. By anyone's estimation he was special in his time and has become a great inspiration to many and certainly to me; especially for his spiritual view of nature. Here are some of my thoughts about Muir's spiritual views on nature:
Muir was raised by a devout Bible believing father. Young John was trained to work hard on his father's Wisconsin farm, as well as in his Bible lessons. But, John did not swallow the Bible whole, as his father desired for him. Rather, John took the atmosphere of the Bible and left behind its stories and theology. He had a love for God, which he learned about first from the Bible and then through nature. He ferreted out of the Bible what made sense to him about God and he left the rest behind.
He never developed an appreciation for organized religion of any kind. Nature and the mountains were his temple, the place where he went to meet with God. He once wrote, "Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul. " And, "Keep close to Nature's heart...and break clear away, once in awhile, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." And, "Climb the mountains and get their good tidings. Nature's peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you, and the storms their energy, while cares will drop away from you like the leaves of Autumn." The language of his writings remind me of the expressions of a Biblical prophet or an evangelist, evidence that he kept the atmosphere of the Bible. Indeed, Muir was a prophet and an evangelist, but of the wilderness rather than the Bible. Since Muir rejected the theology of the Bible I am more in line with the nature theology of another dead friend, Martin Luther, who said, "God writes the gospel not in the Bible alone, but on trees and flowers and clouds and stars." But, it is not clear to me that Muir ever rejected Christ along with his rejection of religion and the Bible.
There are many who have misunderstood Muir. He was not a pantheist, as nature pantheists prefer to interpret Muir's writings. No, from his writings we can at least see that he believed in a transcendent God who created the world. He believed that natural forces set in place by God created the glaciers, mountains and trees. God was at work in nature and you could see and experience God through what we call, nature.
He wasn't a theologian, nor a philosopher, but a naturalist. We can't go to his writings to get a clear theological treatment of God in nature anymore than we can go to the writings of Mother Theresa to learn about the Trinity.
Muir was a mountain mystic who painted nature with the brush of his words. In his writings he went beyond his naturalism to create word paintings that inspire us to look deeper in to nature than it's mere physical features and function. He illustrates God's work in and through nature, so that we might better partake of God's majesty and power. As a mountain mystic he exhorted us to see nature as he saw it, a sacrament of God. This is the spirit of John Muir.