The Mortal vs. The Divine
Celebration of the natural world by Patty Griffin
Las Vegas vs. The Grand Canyon
Our latest summer vacation had two distinct parts. Part one was a weekend in Las Vegas staying at “Mandalay Bay.” This hotel, like all of the big hotels/ casinos/ theaters/ shopping malls on The Strip – and the city of Las Vegas in general – is an amazing creation. When driving down The Strip and touring a few of the ridiculously huge and lavish buildings, I found myself feeling a mixture of awe and disgust. The Strip is undoubtedly an amazing feat of human engineering. But when you think about the basic function of these buildings and the amount of waste involved in putting on this display, you want to get out of town quickly with some of your bank account intact. The city is a giant money pit, a leech sucking cash away from visitors throughout our country and world.
The second part of the trip was a different story. The unnatural wonders of Vegas were replaced by the natural wonders of Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon. When standing in the presence of these amazing landscapes carved out by the forces of wind, water, tectonic plates, and time, you suddenly feel very small. You are reminded of why people throughout time have stood in awe of spirits, gods, or other supernatural forces. The temptation is to mock a place like Las Vegas, an unnatural city whose huge buildings pale in comparison to the creations of nature. Vegas seems like a combination of the Biblical stories of The Tower of Babel and of Sodom and Gomorrah. The Grand Canyon, however, is more like a temple of God. It’s bigger, better, and holier than anything humankind could ever do.
So if you assume that some sort of divine force(s) designed and created the many wonders of our world and universe, then it is obvious that the divine is infinitely superior to us mere mortals. Many would argue that the universe is direct evidence of a being whose power is unlimited. But if this is so, then I have one simple question: if a being has infinite power and knowledge, can any of that being’s actions be truly impressive? If you can just snap your fingers and create The Grand Canyon, then what’s the big deal? Everything, by definition, is easy for you.
Humans, on the other hand, face severe limitations in terms of knowledge, power, strength, courage, and control. So when you consider all of those weaknesses, some of our achievements are incredibly impressive. Humans built the Stratosphere, Bellagio, and the Venetian. They created electrical power and water distribution networks to light up the desert, cool off the giant buildings, create artificial beaches, and put on a hell of a water fountain show. It’s not the Grand Canyon, but expecting humans to carve that big hole is like waiting for an ant to lift a basketball. God, a cosmic Shaquille O’neal in this analogy, could pick up that basketball, dunk it easily, and then proceed to squash that ant. He would prove his superior power, but it wouldn’t be impressive because it was so easy for him.
It is also important to note that the natural parks as we experience them are no longer completely natural. The only reason that my family and I could visit these places is the creation of infrastructure by those who came long before us. Whenever I have visited amazing landscapes in the United States, I have wondered about the pioneers who first explored these places. What must it have been like to be among the first people to explore Yosemite, Carlsbad Caverns, the Rocky Mountains, or the Grand Canyon? What risks did people have to take to build the roads, trails, and fences that make it possible for people to drive up mountains or to safely stand on the edge of cliffs? When we drove out of Zion National Park, we went through a one-mile tunnel that was cut through rock. I cannot even comprehend how human beings, with all of our limitations, could even conceive of doing something like that. Of course, when you think of the even more impressive ways that humans have, to a certain degree, overcome nature and created amazing infrastructure, you cannot help but pat yourself on the back every once in a while for being part of an innovative, courageous, overachieving species.
So this all leads to one important philosophic question: who is a bigger hero, Batman or Superman? Superman, of course, has powers that make it possible for him to do things that Batman could never accomplish. Batman, after all, is just a talented mortal with lots of cool toys. Batman, however, is more impressive to me because of his mortality. He can get badly injured or die, and the risks he faces make his actions more heroic. If you can do anything and face no threat of injury, are your heroic actions less impressive than those of mere mortals? I will leave you now to ponder this eternal question.