“Symbol Rock is on the divide between the McKenzie River and Fall Creek…It was used by the Indians for ceremonial vigils.” —from the 1,073 page compendium Oregon Geographic Names
Holy, sacred, numinous, immanent, spiritual, mystical, and transcendent, are words that few atheists use and that most hold in contempt because they are principally used to describe the supernatural. Because atheists deny the existence of the supernatural—or anything else deserving of the word God—they regard such words as only descriptive of human experience, and, by refusing to use them, deny themselves the ability to express that experience, often holding that they are superior to it.
Just as oil and canvas are the vehicles of a Van Gogh painting rather than its essence, the essence of Symbol Rock is beyond physics and chemistry. If I say that it is soaring, magnificent, breath-taking, and awe-inspiring, my words will be too tame, too generic, too low-flying. I prefer numinous, by which I mean that it GLOWS with a presence that rises immeasurably above my own in terms of beauty, grandeur, timelessness, and, sad to say, detachment. Sad, because I want Symbol Rock to care. I want Symbol Rock to need me, or to at least look forward to seeing me each year when the snows melt because then I might feel safe. But what am I to a 40-million year old basaltic intrusion (an intrusion is a subterranean body formed from magma and, where visible, later exposed by uplift or erosion)? Nothing, I should think, but I am comforted by my inability to know.
I recognize that my desire to believe that Symbol Rock cares about me is similar to my desire to have a dog reassure me that I’m loveable and therefore worthy of survival. This is what people often seek from God. They imagine that if they pray enough, or help other people enough, or kill other people enough, God will love them and “…make all things work together for their good…” I too need a deity who cares, but I don’t have one. I do have Symbol Rock and its hundreds, if not thousands, of Cascade Mountain relatives. In most of the American states, any one of them would be a major tourist attraction, but because of Oregon’s abundant beauty and scant population, they are only visited by those few who are drawn to them in the same way that other people are drawn to cathedrals. I say, those few, but I’ve never seen anyone in such places. Once I rise higher than Oregon’s rivers, reservoirs, glacial lakes, volcanic lakes, and waterfalls, I seldom see or hear another person in the back country except on those unusual occasions when I visit the High Cascades. If there is heaven on earth, it exists in Oregon, but few people care enough to see it.
I would call Symbol Rock God, and I want my remains to rest upon it. But why God, why not Symbol Rock? Because only God seems adequate for it and for many other things—probably for all other things if my eyes were open to see it. If I were to think of it in lesser terms, I might as well call it Spot or Tippy. But isn’t my species vastly superior to a mere rock by virtue of its intellect? Intellect is no more superior to Symbol Rock than a fart is to a typhoon. Intellect is but an evolutionary adaptation that’s inferior to many other adaptations, but Symbol Rock exists without fears, ends, or the possibility of loss. It represents Nirvana, a state in which there is no need for adaptation and no direction for evolution.
Even though we humans could use our intellects to grind Symbol Rock into gravel for our logging roads, this proves our deficiency rather than our supremacy. Like Bramha, Vishnu, and Shiva, Symbol Rock represents a universal power that creates, preserves, and destroys worlds. Like Jehovah, it represents the singular, the all-encompassing, the I AM THAT I AM. No less than the stars, it stands for pure being. Through it, I touch wonders beyond wonders, and I see my own fallenness, my own inability to rise above the low estate of being human. It tells me that the only way I can transcend myself is through death because this life is but a spark of temporal insignificance.
I often wonder if the American Indian blood that I inherited from my Granny makes a difference in how I see things. I just know I can be neither a good atheist nor a believer in the supernatural, yet to most people, there exists an obvious line between the two, and a person must stand on one side of that line or the other--or live in eternal doubt as an agnostic. I fit nowhere, but there is that within me which is like the pressure within a volcano, and I can no more deny its expression than I could plug Mt. St. Helens. It points to that which is greater than I, and while I can’t call it the supernatural, I must call it something.