The mountains are my church.” So said an old parishioner of mine who tended cattle in the Wet Mountains of Colorado. He meant this hackneyed comment (you can still see it on bumper stickers) to explain his infrequent Sunday visits.
I recalled it as I embarked with my family on a long December hike. My grown children were determined to find Aspen Arch, an elusive feature on the mountains east of the Arkansas River that face the towering summit of Mount Yale. We drove for ages through increasingly challenging ruts, snow, and ice, leaving the scattered cattle behind, and finally leaving the truck behind as we began a thousand-foot climb over rocks, through brush, and then into tall pines.
We found the arch, scrambled up, and, gazing at the whole array of the grand Collegiate Peaks to the west, sat at last in the shadow of what indeed bore an uncanny resemblance to a soaring cathedral arch—except that its granite reach was mute, cold, and almost brutally insensate, as if awaiting or having missed some spark of common life. Magnificent in its way, yes, but nothing at all like church.
After working for a decade as a pastor in Colorado, I have come to wonder what the marvelous landscape of the West—Rockies, deserts, empty plains—has to do with Christianity. My considered conclusion: nothing much. There is something spiritually denuded about the West. Religious projections onto its dehumanized forms are unpersuasive, and perhaps finally perverse. The Cathedral of the Mountains shelters no people at prayer. At best, it is a wilderness sanctuary that gathers in order to swallow up. If there is a religion here, it is a numb, misanthropic one.
I didn’t always think this way. Like many, I was (and still am) easily caught up in the powerful allure of the West’s vast terrain and its stirring confections of the sublime. Like many, I could turn (and still do) toward this current of awe and find myself swept into the realm of the transcendent.
Reflection on the spiritual meaning of nature became popular with the seventeenth-century rediscovery of the Greek critic Longinus’s analysis of the sublime. Eighteenth-century British thinkers such as Dennis and Burke, as well as the Enlightenment philosopher Kant, understood the sublime in terms of grandeur, terror, boundlessness, mystery. The sublime conveys the overwhelming, breathtaking experience of “ever greater, ever more.”
Celebration of the sublime in the modern era quickly sparked novel religiosities that aimed at being touched by an overpowering “spirit” and carried beyond the world in its finite particularity. The experience of the sublime sees the world as a surging tide that gathers us up to an otherworldly destiny beyond the mundane.
The late-eighteenth-century writer Anna Barbauld looked to the open skies and saw the soul rising in a cosmic flight toward “the dread confines of eternal night, / To solitudes of vast unpeopled space, / The desarts of creation, wide and wild; / Where embryo systems and unkindled suns / Sleep in the tomb of chaos.” While Barbauld finally shrank back from this hurtling voyage, Schopenhauer embraced the sublime as “nothingness and oneness,” a vision that Americans from Emerson to Whitman have embraced in their own way. This voracious formlessness is regarded as our redemptive home, with the result that domesticity and its paltry forms become increasingly uninteresting and irrelevant.
When Albert Bierstadt began to paint his enormous ten-by-six-foot canvases of the Rocky Mountains in the 1860s, he rendered the West in images he borrowed from his earlier travels in the Alps and the Italian plains. But this did not matter to viewers who thrilled to his canvases. After all, for those in the thrall of the sublime, particular forms were to be discarded as but temporary vehicles of spirit. Mountain peaks, vast skies, swirling clouds and storms, vanishing horizons—these were powerful conveyances, but ultimately dust in comparison to the “ever greater, ever more.” At the time, Bierstadt’s work was criticized as having too many human figures. Sometimes he painted the tiny figures of Indians roaming about the bases of mountains or beside violent cascades. Some critics judged that he had spoiled the “solitary grandeur” of the scene. The sublime should be vacant of humanity. The aesthetic ideal—the spiritual goal—was Barbauld’s “unpeopled space.”
In a world without inhabitants, there is nobody to save, not even me. A world of transcendence without enduring personhood was the final endpoint of the modern romance with the sublime.
Early Americans seemed to understand this a-redemptive trajectory intuitively, but without much anxiety. They embraced the muteness of the Western landscape with both passion and resignation. There was the positive hope that the West might mark a land untarnished by humanity. (When Bierstadt first visited Yosemite, he declared it an “Eden.”) They imagined the West as the basis for an uncorrupted civilization: Europe without a past. Thus the unmediated valleys and cliffs could become “cathedrals” unmade by human hands for a civilization unsullied by human history.
But the Civil War darkened America’s imagination, as did the grudging acknowledgement that the “first peoples” of the land had been sacrificed to all-too-human needs and lusts. The landscape lost its innocence. It lapsed into simple if unyielding brutality and increasingly was cherished because it did not easily give way to us. The vast starkness of the West would not stoop to comfort or succour us. Implacable, it became a voiceless and undeveloped resource for personal development, an impassive instrument of often violent self-discovery.
There was no room for Christianity here. Thomas Moran’s enormous painting of Colorado’s Mountain of the Holy Cross (1875) portrays transverse snow-filled crevasses upon a distant cliff face. But his later work focuses on the Western landscape’s emptiness, dryness, and otherness, underlining the developing American sensibility of the West as a land of alien dislocation. The landscape affects us deeply, yes, but we are left to do with it as we may, with whatever difficulty. Barbauld’s “desarts of creation” are empty, offering no guidance or command, never intruding with a personal voice that knows our name and forces from us a decision “yea” or “nay,” let alone a pleading “help me.”
Seeking the Aspen Arch with my children was exciting. We felt the hard-won tingle of discovery upon reaching a natural wonder few have been able to track down. It was exhilarating to rest upon the rock’s slippery face beneath the arch’s span, with the vast world in view before us. The distance from the emotional burden and unrelenting demand of the human world had the fresh smell of freedom. For my kids, young adults who anxiously sense the clawing of social expectation “down there,” the Arch was a vivifying tonic. For me, it was different. The most wonderful thing about the hike was doing it with them. All the glories of the world laid out before me were transfigured by the fact that we had been joined together in their enjoyment. As in the psalms, where the wonderous mountains of the Lord are set as marvels before Israel and among whom Israel is drawn up as a place of divine grace, the world seemed awesome because God had placed us within it, side by side.
If there is such a thing as the “Christian sublime”—a place, a vision, a quality—it is not something that takes us out of ourselves into the vast unpeopled void, leaving in its wake a trembling shudder. Rather, it is something that draws us from ourselves to God with others, granting us a thrilling stability of common life in the midst of wonder. In this way, the Eucharist, wherein the dazzling Word of God is announced in our midst and comes to share himself among us, is perhaps the most sublime of all. The throne room of the holy God is crowded with his saints.
“The Church is people” is as hackneyed a phrase as “The mountains are my church.” The Church is the body of Christ, the Christ who may well, in Alice Meynell’s words, have “trod the Pleiades.” Yet it is still a body singular. “O, be prepared, my soul!”—Meynell again—“To read the inconceivable, to scan / The myriad forms of God those stars unroll / When, in our turn, we show to them a Man.”
Ephraim Radner is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College.