I often find walking in nature a spiritual experience, for want of a better term. Growing up, I think that I found my testimony in part by tramping through the Wasatch Mountains and watching thunder storms roll across the Great Salt Lake. Today, I am likely to have real moments of reverence and gratitude to the divine while watching mist play across the still waters of the James River in the early morning or enjoying the power of a big Atlantic storm slamming into my bit of the world. I realize that there are some real dangers with identifying God too closely with anything as randomly and — at times — wantonly destructive as weather and nature, but as an aesthetic matter such experiences are an important part of my religious life. Oddly, I have never had a similar reaction to a city.
There is a part of me, of course, that really enjoys cities. I recently visited Chicago for work, and I loved it: the massive landscape of buildings, bridges, and rivers of traffic. The bustle and thrum. I find that I have a certain spiritual reaction to cities, but my reaction is less a reference to the divine than a hymn to human energy and ingenuity. There is something wonderful and awe-inspiring for me in particular with big commercial cities like Chicago, New York, or London. Their beauty for me is the beauty of commerce, contracts, and human cooperation. I don’t have Ayn Rand communions with the human will to power, but my inner Friedrich Hayek and Adam Smith finds something to reverence. Again, I realize the intellectual problems of making too much of such reactions, but as an aesthetic matter they do much to shape my thinking at a deep, pre-cognitive, emotional level.
My contrasting aesthetic reactions to nature and cities, however, create something of a paradox for me. Mormonism teaches that ultimately heaven and salvation consists of a city, Zion. Yet while I can find cities beautiful and even moving, I find that they beauty and meaning that they evoke within my soul is in many ways distant from my concerns for God and his Kingdom. At the same time, while I am often drawn to God in the solitary experience of nature, my theology suggests that salvation does not consist in such subjective submersion in the beauty of creation but rather in the building up of a New Jerusalem. In short, there is an odd sense in which my spiritual aesthetics is at war with my religious beliefs.