Over the course of my life as a retired geologist, I have spent a lot of time outdoors, both for my profession and for pleasure. In the process, I have encountered a number of people who equally share or exceed my time there. There are different reasons for their interest, rest and recreation being tops on the list, be it in dense forest or open desert. But some of these people are more specific as to why they seek the wilderness: it is a spiritual retreat, a time to seek God's presence away from the hustle and bustle of the world. I share this with them. It is a time when we can indeed enter into the presence of God and feel his majesty and greatness. It is when we can reflect on his creative presence from the tiniest of flowers to the tallest of trees to the endless stars in the sky. Jesus himself set an example for us by going to the wilderness to pray on a regular basis (Luke 5:16). I feel sorry for the people who have lost this link with God's nature as a medium of prayer, praise, refreshment and renewal. I believe it to be part of the increasing degradation of our culture and the world as a whole. It is a true loss.
But my focus is not on such people. Instead I would like to focus on people who have gone the other direction and have allowed the wilderness to become their religion; it has become, often in their own words, "their church." I once met a gray-haired woman, in her sixties, while I was hiking the Appalachian Trail (she referred to herself as a "Magellan who was exploring the world"). It turned out she had spent much of her adult life hiking various long distance trails, to the extent that she had logged over 5000 trail miles! I was awed by her track record and had fun engaging her in conversation as we strode through the woods. But as our conversation strayed increasingly into religious territory and the search for God, her demeanor became colder until she ended up pointedly telling me that, "The forest is my religion and is all the church I will ever need." I wish our conversation could have ended differently.
So, what is our attitude, and how are we to respond to beliefs such as those of Magellan? Do we need more than the wilderness for our spiritual life? For that matter, why do we need the church with all its politics, hypocrisy, phony people and unquenchable thirst for money? Why can't we just live at peace with God and our fellow humans by letting the forest be our church?
Part of the problem with this approach is that, while the wilderness may be a good place to connect with God, we need to ask "Exactly who is this god?" Is this god a pervasive impersonal presence that equally penetrates and indwells everything, even the rocks, as the pantheistic religions believe? Is he more like a mysterious energy similar to "The Force" on Star Wars that can be harnessed for good or evil? Is he a kindly grandfather in the sky who wouldn't hurt a fly and wishes a good time to be had by all? Or is he the God of the Bible who loves good and hates evil, and wants us to live our lives accordingly? Which of these is it? That is the problem with the forest, it does not speak clearly enough to us. A poorly defined god can be anything we want him to be.
Being able to create one's own god in the forest has the advantage of always being able to feel good about oneself. A god who can't speak for himself allows us to speak for him. He won't be against anything we say or do. He will be more than happy to bless our chosen lifestyle, whatever it might be. However, a god who so conveniently serves at our beck and call has to be immediately suspected. If my "god of the forest" is different from your "god of the forest," which one of us is following the correct god? Or are either of us correct? It is for sure that it cannot be both of us. And for the one of us who is wrong, it could have eternal devastating consequences. It is critical that we come to know the real God.
A comparison of religions is certainly justified at this point, but one of the religions that has to be seriously considered is Christianity. Among other things, I believe it to be the only religion that adequately address the existence of pain and evil, but that discussion is for another place and time. For this discussion, Christians speak of another ultimate reality, another world, another life, where things are going to be so wonderful they are beyond description. Or, if that future is rejected, they speak of a life that is so miserable that it is hard to contemplate. And both of these lives last for all eternity. The implications of this are so serious that it calls for an explicit conscious decision — does one believe Jesus' words in the Bible, and if so, why? Or does one disbelieve, and if so, why? Putting off a decision simply places you in ever increasing danger that you will run out of time to make a decision. Life's clock is ticking for each of us.
Atheists and agnostics argue that our existence is a random accident, or at best, that we cannot know the answers to existence. These people generally do so without having examined the historical facts for Jesus, literary evidence containing those facts, psychological evidence concerning his disciples, the integrity and accuracy of Scripture, or the biological complexities of life. Further still, unbelievers lack adequate explanations for our innate sense of right and wrong, cosmology, fine-tuning, consciousness, personhood, intentionality, reason, and desire; all of it the stuff of great science and theology. Is all of our existence simply the result of the random collision of atoms in the trackless void of space? Answers to this beckon serious investigation - but ultimately, they are secondary in nature. Greater still is the fact that Jesus, said, "Ask and it will be given to you, seek and you will find, knock and the door will be opened to you." God will not force Himself upon you. He is unlikely to personally appear to you in the wilderness, or write his name across the sky. This is because he wants you to voluntarily come to him, seeking him, rather than coming out of fear, as a powerful visitation would cause you to do. And if you do come to him, he promises that you will find him, as so many of us have already experienced.
Once you have allowed God to enter your heart, it inevitably leads you to the Bible if you are not there already. If God exists as a personal loving God who takes an active interest in humans; it is more than reasonable that he would have left us some kind of guidelines so that we are not left to our own devices, ever arguing over what is right and what is wrong. That is the purpose of the Bible. And in this Bible, we learn more than what is right and wrong. We learn that God wants us associating in communities of believers where we make close friends, care for each other, learn from each other, and worship together. In part, these communities are to be spiritual hospitals. That is what the church is supposed to be. Unfortunately, some of today's churches have become more of a business than care organizations, yet we cannot give up on them despite their shortcomings. The problem is that these churches are made up of sinful people with all their egos, conceit, pride, fear, and ignorance. And when you and I join them, we bring varying amounts of these same qualities. There is no such thing as a perfect church. The church is not what it should be, and never will be, because it is filled with us imperfect sinful humans. But when you join a church, you will find, perhaps against expectation, some of the wisest, kindest, most loving people you will meet your entire life. There is great power in the church that an outsider often cannot readily see. And with them, you will come to enjoy the ecstasy of shared worship. God asks us to be an integral part of the church, doing our best to keep the ship afloat and sailing towards the eternal far country.
In the end, we must not be lone Magellans, hiking trackless miles over a lifetime, and never finding much more than trees and a nameless nebulous god. Nor are we to be wilderness visitors who hear without hearing and see without seeing, never coming to a true recognition of the true God of the forest. The truth is out there — but it must be sought, and it must be sought not just in the wilderness, but beyond it, with a humble searching heart that truly seeks to know this God.
Steven R. Webb
Nov. 23, 2016