On top of Flattop Mountain, astride the Continental Divide in Rocky Mountain National Park, there is a broad, nearly level expanse of boulder-strewn alpine meadow. The trail up the steep eastern slope of the mountain winds its way through dense stands of fir and ponderosa pine, until just before the summit. At about twelve thousand feet, as you emerge onto the treeless high plateau, immediately your line of sight opens out to seemingly boundless vistas. At this altitude the hypothetical horizon would be in fact about 130 miles away. What you actually see 20 to 30 or so miles distant are surrounding mountain ranges all around; to the west, the Never Summer Mountains and beyond; to the east, the Front Range of the Rockies. What you experience is a disorientation both exhilarating and disconcerting. In an age before GPS the disorientation would be more than psychological. And if the trackless flats were still completely covered beneath several feet of heavy wet snow and a bright snowblind-threatening noonday summer sun blazed in a cloudless sky, the final glorious result would be an uncommon mixture of delight and desperation. Anyway, that’s how my girl friend and I experienced it when we climbed over Flattop one June many years ago. For miles the top of the mountain was a featureless blank white slate and we saw no trail down the western slope. For orientation, I held a USGS map of the park and an engineer’s compass. But there was nothing to orient to, save the horizon-blocking mountains in the distance.
I picked what I thought was a generally correct heading to the west and we started walking. My girl friend first noticed the small heap of rocks over to our left, more southward. Turning that way and looking ahead we saw another heap beyond, then another. Someone—park rangers or earlier hikers—had taken the time to stack cairns along the trail. What we saw as low mounds of stones rising from the snow were the last foot or so of carefully piled pyramids four to six feet tall, left to mark the way when the trail was buried in snow. We were no longer guessing, but by the time we made it across the top of the mountain we had crossed nearly a mile of snowfield, often sinking in up to our waists. The snowfield finally gave out but the cairns continued down off the mountain.
To bring this extended metaphor to its point: Seeking God in life can be like this, and I think a lot like this. I have always preferred journey and quest metaphors to military or athletic ones, which is not to say that we never experience life as a battle or a race. We certainly do. But given a postmodern and post-postmodern milieu I think it is more a quest for meaning, as clichéd as the phrase may be. Clichés become clichés sometimes because they are true. Rome was built in stages over many centuries and only motionless stones become moss-covered. There must be a reason why “the Quest” is one of the most enduring and satisfying plot lines of ancient and modern stories, and I think it is that, somewhere deep down (call it the collective unconscious if you want to) we all know that we have to go out beyond our ordinary lives, in heart if not in space, and seek, often along a path of difficulty and danger, the source of life’s meaning. If we do not, if we do not journey, we only busy ourselves in the twilight until darkness closes over.
But what do we do when the path is covered over? Well, we look for cairns. And I think to the cairns that mark the path toward God-who-is-the-meaning-of-life, we can give names: the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. Plato called these the ultimate Forms and Kant thought of them as Transcendentals. I think that helps, but I don’t think they exist either of themselves or merely as categories in our minds. But God encompasses them and Christ embodies them. How then do we look for the True, the Good, and the Beautiful? I will start by telling another story, a true story. I would not be post-postmodern if I did not.
After we hiked off Flattop Mountain, and spent a few more days camping in the back country, we continued our summer hitchhiking trip headed south, toward New Mexico. Near Ft. Garland, Colorado, beneath the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, we were given a ride by a young man in an old pick-up truck. I remember him as quiet, but not withdrawn. I am sure he asked us congenially about our journey and our circumstances. He had an opened relaxed demeanor that seemed to express trust, born not of naiveté, but strength. He and his wife lived on a nearby ranch, isolated and solitary in the flat open country, in the midst of a landscape of austere yet arresting splendor. They put us up for the night and fed us dinner, and breakfast the next morning. I was surprised at their openness and graciousness. I remember they had at least one young child, and I believe they had two. We sat together with them at the supper table and held hands and the young father said a quiet prayer for grace. Even in my non-Christianness this seemed to me altogether fitting and lovely. That night, we slept quietly in a house at peace. The next morning the young man rose early for chores, and after we all ate breakfast together, he drove us past fences and fields of grass laden with dew, back out to the main road. You may call this all coincidence if you like. I know that I encountered truth, goodness, and beauty; more cairns along the path.
I believe there is biblical sanction for this metaphor, this cairn-guided quest. In his letter to the church at Philippi, the apostle Paul expressed a similar point, though I will admit not exactly the same one I am trying to make, when he wrote
“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” (Phil. 4:8)
Look to those things, he says, which overflow with truth, goodness, and beauty; they will not lead us astray.
Paul was certainly aware of Greek philosophy. The New Testament mentions his encounter in Athens with the Stoics and the Epicureans (Acts 17:16-34). The Stoics believed in a rational order to the universe, the logos; but they were determinists and fatalists. The Epicureans were Materialists—only atoms and the void truly existed, everything else was appearance. Likely, there were also Platonists hanging about, who believed in the ultimate Forms: the True, the Good, and the Beautiful. I would like to think that these were among the philosophers who said, after Paul preached the resurrection of Christ, “We want to hear you again on this subject” and of whom it was written “Some … believed” (Acts 17:32, 34).
Paul also told the Colossians, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Col. 3:2). He was neither teaching nor influenced by Platonic philosophy, nor contemplation of the Forms, but he must have realized how this would resonate with those who were. He was, after all, the apostle to the Gentiles, and the Gentile world was the Hellenistic world. Paul knew that the gospel of Jesus Christ was founded on hard historical reality; the resurrection was not done in some vague gnostic corner but in the crowded, pressing world of human striving and struggle. But he also knew we are at all times surrounded by intimations of an unseen world. God is not far from any of us, “For in him we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:27-28).