John Muir Was a Pagan
By Chris Highland
"When we contemplate the whole globe as one great dewdrop, striped and dotted with continents and islands, flying through space with other stars all singing and shining together as one, the whole universe appears as an infinite storm of beauty."
~John Muir, The Story of My Boyhood and Youth (1913)
"Rocks and waters, etc., are words of God and so are men. We all flow from one fountain Soul. All are expressions of one Love. God does not appear, and flow out, only from narrow chinks and round bored wells here and there in favored races and places, but He flows in grand undivided currents, shoreless and boundless over creeds and forms and all kinds of civilizations and peoples and beasts, saturating all and fountainizing all."
~John Muir, "Letter to Catharine Merrill, Yosemite" (1872)
While John Muir (1838-1914) was not necessarily a worshipper of Nature, he did often capitalize that word and seemed most "religious" when immersed in Nature's Beauty. In fact, his journals reflect his deep sentiment that Beauty itself (another word he capitalized) is the "perfect" "synonym for God" (June 26, 1875).
Like all true mystics, Muir had a way of weaving the semantics of a unique spiritual sense with common, even traditional terminology. For instance, in another passage from his journals he writes, "Linnaeus says Nature never leaps, which means that God never shouts or spouts or speaks incoherently. The rocks and sublime canyons, and waters and winds, and all life structures. . .are words of God, and they flow smooth and ripe from his lips" (August 1873).
In The Mountains of California our sauntering man of the wilds describes the "mountain mansions" where "Nature had taken pains to gather her choicest treasures to draw her lovers into close and confiding communion with her" (p. 8, classic mystical language). Later, painting the grand picture of how the mountain ranges were formed, the leaping mountaineer says, "And in the development of these [mountains] Nature chose for a tool not the earthquake or lightning to rend and split asunder. . .but the tender snowflowers. . . . Few, however, of Nature's agents have left monuments so noble and enduring as they" (ibid., pp. 17-18).
This illustrates Muir's high reverence for Nature's creative force, not an archaic faith in some aloof deity in the heavens acting from on high upon the natural world. I would even say that Muir was thoroughly soaked in the river of pantheism (though I personally see no need to label his non-dualistic outlook). He saw absolutely no separation between the natural, the human, and the divine. In other words, Muir was plunging into the cascade of Jesus' most basic life teaching ("the kingdom is within you," Luke 17:21)-- a far cry from any oft-stagnant pool of historic Christianity.
After a storm in the lofty mountain forest, Muir exults in the scene with the words, "The setting sun filled them with amber light, and seemed to say, while they listened, ‘My peace I give unto you'" (Mountains, p. 257, John 14:27). Pretty radical lines for one who knew his Bible so well - to quote the Sun speaking words of the Galilean rabbi. Yet this was the same man who urged children to "walk with Nature" and learn that "All is divine harmony" (A Thousand-Mile Walk to the Gulf, pp. 70-71), who countered the orthodox "expositors of God's intentions" with the argument that "It never seems to occur to these far-seeing teachers that Nature's object in making animals and plants might possibly be first of all the happiness of each one of them" (ibid., pp. 138-139).