Wednesday, March 9, 2011

FACE IN THE ROCK – Hard Truths

The Old Man of the Dalles
In the Dalles, the scenic gorge of Minnesota's St. Croix River at Taylor's Falls, the inscrutable Old Man of the Dalles contemplates that stretch of the river as he has for 10,000 years. I wonder who first recognized him peering out of the gray basalt. Was it the Ojibwe or Dakota, for whom the distinction between man and Nature was a fine one? Was it European settlers, who may have craved any sign of humanity in such unfamiliar, unforgiving surroundings? Or might it have been just an enterprising tour boat operator, at the turn of the 20th century, looking for one more highlight to capture tourists' imaginations?

We have searched for our own reflections in Nature since we were little more than just another wild animal (one much lower on the food chain). Perhaps it was among the first indications of our impatience with that position that we could imagine seeing ourselves in rocks, trees and clouds. As human cultures advanced, so did the reach of our imagination—we were then seeing ourselves and our fates traced in the stars, those most unconvincing of connect-the-dots renderings.

Does imagining ourselves or our God reflected in Nature 
somehow bestow immortality on us as the notion of heaven does?

Native Americans and other animist peoples may have gotten it closer to right, believing not just their likenesses, but their spirits, are entwined with Nature (in both living and inanimate things). I find much to be desired in this theology. What could be more reassuring—not to mention convenient—than finding your God reflected in everything you see, all the time? I don't know about you, but to me that beats waiting till Sunday and praying to a book, a statue or a string of beads. I find both comfort and hope in my belief that we, our fellow organisms and everything else—rocks, clouds, fire and water—are all connected, all part of the same magnificent plan.

While this view of what's holy feels right for me, it still raises many questions. Have we always understood how tenuous our hold is on life? Does imagining ourselves or our God reflected in Nature somehow bestow immortality on us as the notion of heaven does? Does how we picture God influence the way we treat our fellow seekers and our natural environment?

Only by God's being unimaginable can I begin 
to understand His power.

All I know is that seeing faces or forms in the clouds is not a profound experience for me. While I respect the importance of these images to my ancient ancestors, I think my spiritual reach is actually limited by such amusements. I guess I find holiness in things that don't look like me. It's precisely because they don't look like me that they so fill me with wonder. And only by God's being unimaginable can I begin to understand His power.


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