Jim Taylor's Columns - 'Soft Edges' and 'Sharp Edges'

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Published on Friday, February 28, 2020

Wisdom from the mountains

How could I resist a book sub-titled, A Tale of Non-Euclidian and Symbolically Authentic Mountaineering Adventures?

            I’ve been a fan of mountain climbing ever since my early years in the foothills of India’s Himalayas. Until you’ve done it, it’s hard to imagine the sheer awe of cresting a ridge and seeing a range of 25,000-foot mountains rising across the sky. 

            But “Non-Euclidian” mountaineering?

            It’s  because author Rene Daumal’s mountain, Mount Analogue, is imaginary. It gives him the opportunity to use mountaineering wisdom to illuminate ordinary life. Some examples:

·      You cannot stay on the summit. You have to come down again. 

·      If you come to a place that is dangerous, remember that the trace you have left might lead other people into trouble. Go back and destroy any traces you may have left. Even without wanting to, we always leave traces. 

·      Never stop on a crumbling slope. 

·      Keep your eyes fixed on the way to the top, but don’t forget to watch your feet. Be certain of your next step, but don’t let this distract you from your highest goal. 


Personifying the inanimate

            But I don’t always agree with Daumal. For example, in one place he says, “The mountain always lies in wait for the chance to trip you up.”

            And that’s simply not true. In another paragraph, Daumal himself acknowledges that mountains have no intentions, good or evil. “The mountain is only rock and ice, with no ears or heart.”

            In 70 years of hiking and backpacking – everything from day hikes to weeks in the wilderness – that may have been my most important learning. Nature is not malevolent.   

            Gravity is not waiting to punish you for falling over a cliff. A forest does not grow so that you can get lost. A blizzard is not waiting for you to venture outdoors. There’s no bullet with your name on it. 

            They simply don’t care if you’re there, or not. Que sera, sera. 

            The other side of the coin – they’re not benevolent either. They won’t collaborate to save you if you do something stupid. 


The consequences of personifying

            The problem is, as soon as we attribute motives to elements of nature, we personify them. And vice versa – the instant we personify inanimate forces, we expect them to act like human beings. 

            So the volcano becomes an angry god, demanding sacrifices. That falling rock must have chosen that moment to fall on the school janitor’s car.  That river in flood --T.S. Eliot called it “a strong brown god” – overrides human concerns about property as it rushes down to the eternal sea.

            We compound our personalized view of natural forces when we give them names. The Sherpas of Nepal call the summit of Mt. Everest “Chomolungma”, Mother of the World. The Incas named their fertility goddess, Pachamama. Ancient Britons invented the Green Man; the Greeks had Pan, from whom comes pantheism, the worship of nature. 

            Feedback amplifies itself. If you perceive nature rewarding or punishing, you cannot help thinking of it as a conscious entity. And as you personify any god – especially if you give it a name – you can’t help expecting it to reward devotees, to punish the unfaithful. 

            The fact is, it doesn’t care. It just is.


Copyright © 2020 by Jim Taylor. Non-profit use in congregations and study groups, and links from other blogs, welcomed; all other rights reserved.

                  To comment on this column, write jimt@quixotic.ca





Last week’s column (at least theoretically about Black History Month) started Isabel Gibson thinking about adapting courses to the students: “It would be a wonderful world in which teachers had time and energy to tailor curriculum for the kids they actually have in their classrooms: by ethnicity, skin colour, national origins, interests, gifts, learning styles, family situations . . .

            “In the absence of that perfect world, providing some balance by (presumed) groupings is better than nothing. From that perspective, I expect that a so-called ‘Black History’ Month presumably provides a useful counterweight in the American school system while doing nothing for a Canadian kid of Ethiopian extraction living in B.C.

            “One grade-school my children attended had a sizeable minority of kids whose parents had emigrated from Pakistan. To counter the ignorance (and reflexive resistance) of the other (mostly white) kids, the principal and teachers worked to add Pakistan to every bit of the curriculum they could. In Geography, our kids learned about the Indian sub-continent. In Music, they listened to sitar music. One Pakistani mother brought in national treats for the kids to try as snacks. And so on. I don't know how all that played out during recess, but at least they tried.”


Cliff Boldt commented, “That is a good reminder about the Bible having its origins in oral history.  I wonder if a connection can be made to the oral history of the indigenous nations in Canada?”


I had suggested that black history was written in music, not academic texts. 

            Tom Watson is a musician himself: “You're absolutely right about jazz being analogous to life. I have marveled at the jazz artists in Greenwich Village in New York and an entirely different style of jazz in Preservation Hall in New Orleans. Both, though, are constantly improvising, constantly reacting to the 16- or 32-bars just played by other instruments. I have played a lot of jazz myself, as a drummer. As a percussionist I'm constantly improvising...just as I have had to do in life itself -- reacting to what I hear being played by other members in the group, or improvising as life lays down a new track and says, ‘Here you go,’ and you have to react to brand new life circumstances.”


Steve Roney challenged the accuracy of the figures about slavery that I quoted from National Geographic.

            Steve also argued, “Jazz is not unique here. If you allow jazz as history, there is a lot of history written from the bottom. This is equally true of all kinds of popular art: folk music, country music, cowboy poetry, blues, gospel, rock, rap, fables, fairy tales, graffiti.

            “I think Rohr’s point here is that the Bible is told as a continuous historical narrative. However, it is set apart less by the fact that it tells history ‘from the bottom’ than by the fact that it tells history. Most cultures were not interested in history beyond king lists. The Hebrews recorded it all because they saw it as an expression of God’s will.

            “But there is a reason why it was ‘top down.’ People on the bottom have no opportunity to influence history; they do not make the decisions. While people on the bottom also show character, this is illustrated better in fables and fairy tales.”




Psalm paraphrase


Psalm 32 comes up every year at the beginning of the season of Lent. It picks us the Lenten theme of clearing the decks, in preparation for Easter – even though we pretend we don’t know about Easter yet. 


1          Happy are those who have nothing to hide;

2          Even happier are those whose slate has been wiped clean. 

3          I used to lie awake worrying about what I had done. 

4          My conscience tormented me. I couldn't concentrate. 
I was terrified of being exposed. 

5          So I went to the Holy Oneness, and confessed. 
I made no excuses for myself; I didn't hide anything. 

6          And it forgave me. 
What a relief it is to share a gnawing secret! 

7          Forgiveness is like a cool drink on a hot day, 
like a warm fire in a blizzard. 
Holy grace renews my strength; 
it gives me a second chance. 


8          I seem to hear words that tell me, 
"I will teach you how to take charge of your behavior. 

9          You are not like horses and camels 
that need bridles and bits to control them. 

10        You have a mind; you can think. 
You can anticipate consequences before you act." 

11        Experience isn't always the best teacher. 
So let the Sacred guide you through life. 



For paraphrases of most of the psalms used by the Revised Common Lectionary, you can order my book Everyday Psalmsfrom Wood Lake Publishing, info@woodlake.com.





If you want to comment on something, send a message directly to me, jimt@quixotic.ca.

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                  I write a second column each Sunday called Sharp Edges, which tends to be somewhat more cutting about social and justice issues. To sign up for Sharp Edges, write to me directly, jimt@quixotic.ca, or send a note to sharpedges-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca

                  And for those of you who like poetry, please check my webpage .https://quixotic.ca/My-Poetry I posted some new poetic works there a few weeks ago.  If you’d like to receive notifications about new poems, write me at jimt@quixotic.ca,  or subscribe yourself to the list by sending a blank email (no message) to poetry-subscribe@lists.quixotic.ca (If it doesn’t work, please let me know.)






To use the links in this section, you’ll have to insert the necessary symbols. Some spam filters have blocked my posts because they’re suspicious of some of the web links.

                  Wayne Irwin's “Churchweb Canada,” an inexpensive service for any congregation wanting to develop a web presence, with free consultation. http://wwwDOTchurchwebcanadaDOTca He’s also relatively inexpensive!

                  I recommend Isabel Gibson’s thoughtful and well-written blog, wwwDOTtraditionaliconoclastDOTcom. She also has lots of beautiful photos. Especially of birds.

                  Tom Watson writes a weekly blog called “The View from Grandpa Tom’s Balcony” -- ruminations on various subjects, and feedback from Tom’s readers. Write him at tomwatsoATgmailDOTcom (NB that’s “watso” not “watson”)



                  I have acquired (don’t ask how) the complete archive of the late Alva Wood’s collection of satiric and sometimes wildly funny columns about a mythical village’s misadventures. I’ve put them on my website: http://quixotic.ca/Alva-Wood-Archive. You’re welcome to browse. No charge. (Although maybe if I charged a fee, more people would find the archive worth visiting.) 


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Author: Jim Taylor

Categories: Soft Edges

Tags: gods, Mountains, Rene Daumal



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