When I opened up Firefox one morning a few months ago, one of the articles in the Recommended by Pocket section caught my attention: a Rolling Stone interview with famed Climber Alex Honnold on Filming "Free Solo,", Facing Death and Rejecting Religion.
I have not seen the film, although I would like to. Rock climbing is one of those activities that reveals the magnitude of the Lord's creation and the finitude of man.
During the interview, Joe McGovern (the interviewer) asks Honnold about the absense of God in the film. Honnold replies,
... I’m very anti-religion. I think it’s all just medieval superstition. Religion relies on some desire for a spiritual connection and I do get that from just being out in Yosemite. I get that feeling of grandeur and awe in the world sitting on a cliff at sunset, watching the mountains glow pink, that a lot of people get through religious faith.
That Feeling of Grandeur
Honnold's view of the world and the life in the article is—honestly—bleakly depressing. Despite painting a feeling everyone knows—observing the stunning beauty of nature and being awed by it—he later says, "being on big granite walls is a constant reminder that nature just does not care. You’re just another animal that slipped off something."
Honnold is wrong, and wrong in a way that is just as deadly as slipping on the face of El Capitan. That feeling of grandeur is not what Religion relies on, it's something that points us to Religion. If you're chasing after that feeling, you'll find it, sure—and lose it.
What Christians have is not a momentary elation, a passing moment of awe, a temporary reprieve from the struggle ending in mortality. The Christian looks at the dawning sun illuminating El Capitan and feels joy. Joy, not just a feeling, not just happiness or contentment, joy.
We don't just say, "I enjoy this", but "I was made to enjoy this", "God created this for me to enjoy", and "God created me with the capacity to enjoy the fact that He created this for me to enjoy, and God enjoys my joy in finding His joy!"
El Capitan from the wrong perspective
Alex Honnold sees the majesty, but doesn't comprehend it. Instead of plumbing it's depths for the richness of the Glory of God, seeing the brushstrokes of a loving Creator communicating His good heart, Honnold flattens the grandeur into a two-dimensional, black-and-white charicature: his own skill and boldness facing down the eternal nothing of death.
In doing this, he says "the harder thing is to stare into the abyss and understand that when it’s over, it’s over."
But that sells short, too. It's not over, not by a long shot. Yes, the Christian has the hope of going to be with Christ in comfort when we explode on the rocks at the bottom—but those who reject Christ are not facing an eternity of joy. They face Christ as the Final Judge, and he will send them to conscious, eternal suffering.
I wish Honnold would face that fact, instead of clinging to the idea that "you're just another animal that slipped off something." Yes, we share similarities with animals, but the very fact that he can recognize that not all humanity shares his conviction shows that he knows we are more than simply animals.
No, what Honnold is doing is what Paul warns us of in Romans 1.
Suppressing the Truth in Unrighteousness
From Romans 1:18-23a:
people who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them.
For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, being understood by what has been made, so that they are without excuse.
For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their reasonings, and their senseless hearts were darkened.
Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible mankind
Paul's description here could hardly be any clearer in the interview. Honnold clearly grasps there is something in creation, but just as quickly suppresses that beauty to nothing more than his ability to experience it. He willingly trades down, from what he knows deep inside—there is a Creator—to a foolish, idolatrous, anaemic, and corruptible proclamation that—ultimately—it all revolves around him.
Seeking God—and Finding Itself
... they exchanged the truth of God for falsehood, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever.
– Romans 1:25.
This is the essense of what Ayn Rand envisioned of humanity. I love Ayn Rand's writing, because she is so, so close. I think she is hated as a writer and philosopher because she penned a clarion image of the self-centeredness of man—she worshipped it brazenly, and men are afraid of their secret hearts being so exposed. In her crowning achievment, Atlas Shrugged, she shows this with a mirror so undirtied one wipes it only to realize the dirt is on their own eye.
In The Fountainhead, Rand's archetypical architect Howard Roark hires her embodiment of artistry, Steven Mallory, to sculpt,
The statue of a naked woman... The human spirit. The heroic in man. The aspiration and the fulfillment, both. Uplifted in its quest—and uplifting by its own essence. Seeking God—and finding itself. Showing that there is no higher reach beyond its own form. (p. 288)
And there is Alex Honnold: he focuses on himself, living the moment, thinking "some people turn to faith as a crutch, to avoid thinking about mortality". Live minimally, focus on what you do, keep chasing that feeling, push out the negative. You're a the center, their is no Beyond, just here and now. Then splat.
There is more, much more: Jesus
There will always be more walls to scale, tougher challenges to overcome, sublimer magnificence to be beheld, and greater heights to fall from—if not on the mountain, than in the heart.
That is where Ayn Rand ended up—it seems that she lived as she believed until her bitter end, what seems like a tour de force life of rigid philosophy train-wrecked unceremoniously into death forever.
That is where I hope and pray Alex Honnold does not end up. He's accomplished something that to me is impossible (I really do need to watch the film!). I can't even climb a 10 foot wall.
Clearly he loves life, he wants to live—I want him to live it fully—to find that the true serenity beyond that sunrise isn't defying mortality with stubborn, Godless pride.
No, it is letting go of yourself (not the wall), stepping down off the pedestal and looking up to see that you should never have been on it. There, Jesus the Christ stands as the slaughtered lamb, King seated at the right hand of the Father, the earth His footstool. He is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation... by Him all things were created, in the heavens and on earth, visible and invisible...all things have been created through Him and for Him. He is before all things, and in Him all things hold together." (Colossians 1:15-17).
Alex Honnold, you were created through Jesus and for Jesus and Jesus sustains you moment by moment. You are not some cosmic accident that will "explode on impact" without purpose. You can't fall to your death without His express permission—no squirrel or goat ever did, either.
No, Jesus cares. He cares what you think of this world, what you think of the wall, how it makes you feel—He is the the source of that feeling of grandeur. Don't strip the beauty of it into a little crusty morsel that could fall of into eternity at any time.
Drink deeply of the source of the grandeur, acknowledging God for what He alone has created. Don't stop there. Humble yourself—truly humble yourself at Jesus' feet, give Him the first place in your heart, forsake all others to that end. That, friend is the point: "Man’s chief end is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever." (1693 Baptist Catechism).
You're not here to enjoy His work for your sake—you're here to enjoy His work for His sake, and nothing will make you more joyful than that.