Landscapes of Faith

An artist I once knew, who grew up in mountains, remarked scornfully on the flatness of the Indiana landscape.  The cornfields, distant horizon, and huge, changing sky, which I find both beautiful and comforting, to him were featureless and boring.  As I explained to him, Indiana is not really flat; there are hills in the south; and even in the central and northern parts of the state, scraped down by ancient glaciers and sedimented to rich, flat plains in the glaciers’ slow retreat, there are deep valleys and rolling terraces cut by rivers and creeks.  “Oh,” he said, with a flash of insight, “I see.  The hills in the mountains go up, and the hills in Indiana go down.  That’s why they seem so peculiar.”

It’s not hard to understand why Indiana would seem boring to someone used to the dramatic beauty of mountains.  And I do love dramatic scenery – alpine heights in the Rocky Mountains, craggy rocks along the ocean shore, Florida sunsets, Greek islands rising sharply out of the multi-colored sea, incredible green vistas in the Pacific Northwest, deep valleys with hidden waterfalls in the Northeast, mountains and lochs in western Scotland, and all other places where the hand of God seems to have shaped the world to amaze and inspire.  Yet the flat land, where the world seems to go on forever and Eternity covers the world like the network of stars on a winter night, has a beauty that speaks to me directly.

When my former husband and I first moved to northeastern Ohio, to the edges of the Appalachian Plateau where narrow V-shaped valleys cut through the lowest ripples of the eastern mountains, the landscape seemed very hilly and very closed in, the horizon far too near.  Later, when I moved to the Finger Lakes of New York, the steep ridges and long, narrow lakes provided a different kind of strange beauty.  Even from the top of a ridge, the landscape seemed narrow and secret.  The lakes offered a broad vista abruptly shut off by the next ridge.  Some of the greatest beauties of the area were small, closed-in bits of loveliness – waterfalls, wooded streams, green glades in the woods.

Yet when I moved back to central Indiana after over thirty years in other landscapes, there was a rightness to the landscape that I had felt nowhere else. I think the place we grow up in can sometimes form our vision of the world, so that the landscape we knew as children will always feel like home.  That’s why Indiana always felt odd to my artist friend, and why it feels right to me.  There are always exceptions, of course.  My brother, who grew up with me in flat Indiana, loves rugged mountains and wouldn’t live anywhere else.  But I suspect even he feels a twinge of recognition, of homecoming, when he visits Indiana.

I felt a similar kind of homecoming when I first attended my church after thirty-some years of agnosticism. I visited several churches of different denominations, looking for the right place to begin my new search for God.  None felt quite right, until I visited the big stone Presbyterian church that was so like the big stone Presbyterian church that was an important part of my childhood and teenage years.  The services felt familiar:  I remembered the hymns and the responses, and the order of worship was right.  And the governance of the church, with its committees and elected elders, was familiar and comfortable to my academic soul.  So I found a home there.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t love and admire other forms of worship – the ancient beauty of Catholic liturgy, the elegance of an Anglican service, the deep fervor of African-American worship – but Second Presbyterian is home.  Everything else is visiting.

When I was a young adult, believing that I could not believe in God, I was grateful for my Christian upbringing. I felt that it had given me a foundation for understanding the world I lived in – that without it, much of life and literature would be inexplicable.  Especially literature.  And I developed a firm conviction that children should be given a foundation in faith so that they could make an intelligent choice as adults either to believe in God or not to believe.  Only if they knew about faith could they make an intelligent decision to accept it or reject it.

Some of my friends would have said the opposite – that religious education would so indoctrinate a child that he or she could never make an intelligent choice to believe or not believe. They would argue that the only real way to give a child free choice would be to offer no guidance or direction.  The problem with this, of course, is that to offer no direction is in itself a form of direction.  Children do learn from what they see around them, and if what they see looks and feels like indifference, they learn indifference.

When I was in graduate school, in the late sixties, we were convinced that education should be value-free, at least at the college level. We were preparing to teach in colleges and universities – the sort of places where our generation had learned to question authority, to examine the information presented to us as truth, and to reject ideas and claims that we thought were not right and provable.  The Civil Rights movement and the war in Viet Nam had convinced us that people in power lied, and that we had a responsibility to make moral, social, and political decisions for ourselves.  By extension, we believed that we should not try to impose our moral, social, and political views on our future students – that we had an obligation to hide those views from our students and provide them with an atmosphere of impartiality in which to make their own choices.  But even college students are still learning about the world and about life.  They still need information and experience if they are to make intelligent choices.  If we provide value-free education, they will be lacking a big piece of what they need to make mature judgments.

For me, the ideal of value-free education came to a quick end in the events of May 4, 1970, and their aftermath. It was impossible to be a faculty member at Kent State in those days and keep your own values hidden.  I discovered that my students needed to hear my moral, social, and political convictions.  They needed to know the landscape of my mind if they were to find their own mental landscapes.  Nevertheless, I felt very strongly – and I still do feel – that I had an obligation to make sure they understood that mine was not the only way of looking at a given issue.  If I revealed my views, I also had to expose them to other views that might contradict mine.  But I couldn’t keep my views hidden – I had to reveal my mind to them if they were to learn and make their own choices.

So it is with the landscape of faith. No one can choose to love God without some awareness of God.  No one can choose to accept a particular faith without some knowledge of that faith.  For many of us, that means that the faith of our childhood will feel like a familiar landscape, feel like home.  If childhood provides no home landscape of faith, then faith might always feel at least a little like alien territory.  But thanks be to God who works all sorts of miracles in our lives, and who reveals Godself to us in the natural world as well as the spiritual world, even those with no home landscape to welcome them can find a home in God.  Like the mountains that have become a home to my brother, the landscape of God’s grace has room for us all.



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