July 15, 2005
Rocky Mountain High
by David A. Zimmerman
I’ve heard of mountaintop experiences for years now, but I think I finally get what people are talking about.
“Mountaintop experiences” in religious jargon refers to the sense of awe that we experience when we’re away from our normal context and being exposed to challenging concepts about God and his call on our lives. Or something like that. Whatever they are, they’re fundamentally different from our ordinary experience.
My most recent mountaintop experience was in Vail, Colorado, at the national gathering of an organization called the Vine. I interacted with lots of really smart, really deep people interested in “building the City of God” or, if that’s too churchy for you, “infusing our contemporary context with Jesus’ vision for community life.” Either way, I found myself breathless after nearly every conversation, and near-delirious after every session of communal worship.
In the interest of intellectual honesty and full disclosure, however, I should mention that I also found myself breathless after climbing a flight of stairs or even simply walking from the coffee bar to the dinner table. And I found myself near-delirious after lifting my suitcase from the floor to the bed.
This is Vail, people—I was uphill from Denver, “the mile-high city.” And while that may sound insignificant to people who live among hills, for me this was more than a mile higher than I’ve been for an extended period of time ever in my life. I’m from Illinois, and before that from Iowa, both of which are known for their flatness. The air in Vail is quite a bit thinner than the air in Chicago, and so I was oxygen-deprived for most of the duration of the conference.
Along with my breathless delirium, I was also quite often shocked by the things I was hearing from the podium or the panel. But more often than that I was shocked by the elevator button or the metal doorframe or even my keycard as I slid it into the lock on my hotel room. The air is so dry in Vail this time of year that it’s effectively ready to zap you at a moment’s notice.
So what’s a person to think when they’re at a religious gathering and constantly breathless, delirious and charged with electricity? I’m reminded of the swoon, an experience associated with the Second Great Awakening of the early 1800s. I wrote a song about it once. People would hear sermons and faint—and this wasn’t the falling-asleep kind of swooning that goes on in our own day. Some liken the phenomenon to the bewildering experiences of early Christians in the biblical book of Acts; some attribute the swoon to some kind of social psychology. I’m willing to imagine it a bit of both and leave it at that.
In any event, I’m cynical and perhaps humble enough to be skeptical of the mountaintop experience, particularly now that I’m safely back in the eastern suburbs of the Great Plains. Breathlessness and delirium and shock certainly have their place in the life of faith, but day in and day out I’m going to have to walk by faith in plain old Illinois, which, even though it’s flat, carries its own charge with it.