Upon reaching the Sierra Nevada in 1869, John Muir, one of the more famous naturalists of the 19th century, was quoted as saying, "No description of Heaven that I have ever heard or read of seems half so fine." This cathartic, Biblical reference of the American wilderness is an important component to the formulation of the construct of what our society deems to be so awe striking to call "The Great Outdoors."
There are many reasons for which people have created and are so faithful to their respective religious beliefs. For the purposes of this post, I am going to use the working definition that religion is a way in which people try to explain natural phenomena. From the oldest historical records, it is clear that early societies attempted to construct logical reasons for heavy rains, long periods of droughts, plentiful harvests and the death of a loved one. Religion, believing that a higher being or set of beings, played a major role in understanding and developing explanations for such events. There are gods and goddesses of the river, of the sun, of maize -- you name it, it probably exists. The New Testament is filled with verses that demonstrate a covenant between G-d and nature, between man and nature. These verses speak to an interrelationship in which all beings depend upon one another and thrive alongside one another with the power of G-d.
"But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you. Which of all of these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and all of mankind." -John 1:3
So it seems pretty obvious then that religion has a direct correlation to the outdoors and vice versa. Well, in the 21st century, that does not seem to be the case. The wilderness and outdoor experience seems to have a somewhat diminished aura to that of Muir and his colleagues (think Henry Thoreau, Theodore Roosevelt, William Woodsworth, insert white male explorer here). Today's naturalists are the conservationists, the cynics, the explorers and the tourists. With such a great variety of people going outside -- albeit this variety of people is limited to an extent by race, socioeconomics and gender -- the earth-shattering divine revelations seem to have taken a backseat within the outdoor experience.
As our society continues to build and progress, to advance and make bigger, our experience with "The Great Outdoors" has taken on a different role. Now a consumer product, the outdoor industry brings in millions of dollars to support both local and national economies around the world. Apps like Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest provide avenues for "outdoor enthusiasts" can proclaim their love for nature -- or can capture that really great view of the sunset on that mountain or lake. Does this still qualify as a religious experience?
Thru-hikers, or people who decide to trek thousands of miles along mountain ranges and through wilderness preserves (e.g. Into the Wild, Wild and A Walk in the Woods for mass-media context), decide to take on their respective journeys for a variety of reasons. Many go to "find themselves," in whatever capacity that may be. Others are there for the physical challenge, the social experience, to prove something. The list goes on and on. However, how many people are going on these three, four, five, six-month adventures to find religion? Does this still qualify as a religious experience?
I am no expert on religion; I'm a Jewish student who loves being outside. As someone who struggles to conceptualize some of the more abstract components of my own religion, I have found more tangible answers in my experiences in "The Great Outdoors," and subsequently all aspects of nature that which I encounter.
I am not sure what the implications of these experiences mean. So, I ask you. Does religion have a place in the outdoors?