God in the Backcountry

Post by WildSnow.com blogger | July 25, 2008      

Colorado backcountry skiing.
Korngold’s book in the wilderness.

Oh no, Lou’s gone all preachy on us! Not quite.

I’ve got my own take on spirituality just as many of you do, but preaching Dynafit is my gig, not trying to sort out a bunch of theology.

That said, we do mention the G word here on occasion, and most certainly have deep feelings about the Higher Power. Thus, when we find a book about wilderness spiritual practice, written by a Jewish rabbi who’s a backcountry skier, the WildSnow blog machine lurches back to life from our recent visit to geek hades.

How many times have you heard the term “the mountains are my church?” Indeed, it’s common in mountain culture to feel we enhance our spirituality by getting away from man-made environments — immersing in nature, if you will. But how we do that immersion has a lot do do with how mystic our experiences are, as opposed to being simple (and still wonderful) adventures.

You don’t have to look far to find ancient traditions that speak to how one encounters the wild in ways that enhance the heart and soul. Vision quest, prayer retreat, outdoor meditation, monastic gardening, call it what you will.

But what about those institutions we refer to in polite company as “organized religion?”

In her recent book “God in the Wilderness,” Reform Jewish Rabbi Jamie S. Korngold makes the case that Judaism (and thus Christianity) began outdoors and were much informed by the wild — then moved inside, frequently to their detriment. “God started with sky and earth, not buildings…how did so many of us forget sky and earth?” is the problem she ponders, and seeks to remedy.

The book begins with a short autobio. Korngold spends time with Jewish friends who’ve forgone their heritage because they can’t reconcile Judaism with their powerful wilderness experiences. Inspired by her own studies which showed Judaism being perfectly suitable to modern wilderness values and experiences, Korngold helps her friends reconcile Jewish teachings with modern outdoor recreation. Inspired by her epiphany, Korngold quits her Rabbi job, moves to a mountain town, and starts an outdoor education outfit she calls the Adventure Rabbi Program.

Know that Korngold’s program is pretty much a Jewish deal, but her book has a ton of crossover value for anyone.

Chapter 1 speaks to patience, and how your attitude in the mountains is what reaps results. Korngold uses Moses and the burning bush for her example, with a story of how if Moses lived our modern lifestyle he’d probably miss the famed burning bush (which was God’s effort to communicate), and be speaking on his cell phone. Then, when God attempted to re-contact Moses via email, the big Guy’s message would probably be trashed by a spam blocker. Point taken, and applies to everything from avalanche safety evaluation to yes, more mystical pursuits.

In her second chapter Korngold gets into some heady philosophy with a discussion of miracles, and how we’re expected to take the first step and not just sit around waiting for things to happen (miraculous or otherwise).

Chapter 3 is awesome. This is the one I’d recommend most highly, Jewish or not, religious or not. It’s about awe. And how the emotion of awe opens your soul to wonder and spirituality. What is more, Korngold contends that awe is so important to human experience, and yes, religious practice, that it should be engendered as frequently as possible — and getting out in nature is her number one recommended way to accomplish this.

Another chapter in the book that really hit home is number six, “Hear the Still Small Voice Within.” Here Korngold speaks to the consequences of pushing to far for modern achievement (be it athletic or career), and how destructive such pushing can be to individuals and the people close to them. Really just a biblically supported paean to living in the moment and slowing down, the value of Korngold’s take is that it’s couched in the trappings of our modern mountain lifestyle.

After last winter’s frantic powder chase, her words ring. Some is good, but when a string of backcountry ski days turns into something you count as “how many days did you do this winter?” Then beware. Perhaps you might as well be shopping.

“God in the Wilderness” closes with the obligatory environmental screed. Knowing how legalistic Judaism can get (not to mention Christianity) I’ll have to admit I got a chuckle out of Korngold’s “Twenty Commandments of Conscious Consumption.” At the same time, I’m no stranger to Judaeo Christian concepts of earth stewardship and conservation, so getting the Adventure Rabbi’s theological take on this was valuable. Yes, we’re to take care of the place, and I agree.

I’d highly recommend “God in the Wilderness” to anyone living the outdoor adventure lifestyle. If you’re not religious, you’ll still find an interesting take on where many of our Judaeo Christian concepts of spirituality came from — with an outdoor slant. More, plenty of Korngold’s wisdom can be applied without religious faith if that’s where you’re at. Those with a Jewish heritage should definitely check the book out, and Christians as well since most of Korngold’s theology hearkens back to biblical teachings.

If the mountains and woods are indeed your church, I’m certain you’ll find wisdom in Korngold’s book that will make your place of worship that much more rewarding. And if you have to skip church and stay in town because life is too hectic, her ideas can help with that as well.


Please Enjoy A Few Suggested WildSnow Posts


4 Responses to “God in the Backcountry”

  1. Mike Marolt July 26th, 2008 10:17 am

    Conundrum Chute is still in big time. Steep, hard, rough as can be, perfect. Endless winter continues!

    Thanks Be to God.


  2. Lou July 26th, 2008 10:32 am

    Still skiing? Amen!

  3. sherry bunch July 26th, 2008 3:18 pm

    While living near the Tetons, 1982…I was accused of blasphemy and labeled a non-believer by a man “living the life of Christ” who was running around pennyless in a white bed sheet and depending on the “kindness of strangers (followers)” . When I told him the mountains were MY church and declined to join him on his journey, also in a white bed sheet, the rage in his eyes prompted me to immediately throw him out of my dwelling and lock the doors! Go figure.
    Thanks for the review, Lou. I will definitely check it out.

  4. Lou July 26th, 2008 3:52 pm

    I hope that bedsheet outfit was eVent, otherwise that guy is in trouble!

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