Richard Tiplady has written a fascinating Grove booklet in the Discipleship series, Following Jesus in the Great Outdoors: Learning about Discipleship from the Mountains. He has a fascinating personal history of involvement in the ‘great outdoors’, but also offers some really interesting theological reflections on the subject. I had the chance to ask him about it.
IP: When did your love of the outdoors develop? You have had some serious ups and downs in your experience of climbing. How have these shaped your thinking?
RT: I grew up in Yorkshire and spent time when young on the North York Moors and later in the Lake District. The Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme expedition taught me to read an OS map and how not to get lost. But then life intervened—work and family responsibilities took over—and a move to the southeast of England took me a long way from any big hills. When we moved to Scotland in 2010, I began to meet regularly with old friends for walks in the Pennines and I also discovered the Scottish Munros. A stress-related chronic pain condition was alleviated by a big day in the hills, but I also began to experience something deeper and more spiritual when I was out there, especially in the more remote areas when I would encounter no other human beings and it was just “me and the mountain”.
Part of the joy of it is that, in remote mountain areas and especially when you’re on your own, you experience risk and adventure in ways that are rare in our safe and cossetted modern lives. Our freedom to live our life doesn’t seem to include the freedom to put it at risk. This isn’t about being careless. But even in Scotland, especially in midwinter or in adverse weather conditions, you are very aware that it wouldn’t take much to get yourself into a whole heap of trouble (a surprising number of people die each year in the Lake District and in the Scottish hills). That awareness of your own vulnerability and limits is exhilarating and sobering at the same time.
I had a serious mountaineering accident in March 2020, just three weeks before the first Covid lockdown. I fell over 200m, broke several bones, and had to be helicoptered to hospital. By August 2020, I was back in the Munros, although I have since done a lot more training and learning in winter conditions to try to reduce the chance that this will ever happen again. But clearly there are no guarantees. Learning to be safe in high-risk environments is a lifelong process.
IP: You mention in your booklet that the response of some to the outdoors is to see ’the essential oneness of all things’. Why does a Christian engagement lead to a different response?
RT: In Mountains of the Mind, Robert Macfarlane says that “we see the mountains not as they are, but as we are”. So we all interpret our experience of being in the hills differently, based in part on our expectations and prior beliefs. Being immersed in a mountain landscape makes you aware of your own insignificance and yet also brokers a connection with that very landscape. In The Living Mountain, Nan Shepherd writes of her wanderings in her beloved Cairngorms and says:
I discover most nearly what it is to be. I have walked out of the body and into the mountain … I believe that I now understand in some small measure why the Buddhist goes on pilgrimage to a mountain. It is a journey into Being; for as I penetrate more deeply into the mountain’s life, I penetrate also into my own.
This connection between Buddhism and the mountains isn’t rare, partly because of the foundational influence of Tibet and the Himalayas on the mountaineering literature, and partly because Buddhism does help to articulate this sense of ‘oneness’ that one feels with the mountain.
But as a Christian, I wanted it to be more than that because, even when going solo, I’m not alone. God is there with me, in and above His creation. So I wanted to explore that theologically, and I found the biblical idea of salvation as reconciliation with God, with others, with ourselves, and with creation to be a fruitful framework for doing so. The ‘oneness’ (or at-one-ment) that God offers us in Jesus Christ includes reconciliation with creation, but there’s so much more to it than that.
IP: You note that ‘we seem to be built for extremes’ and that we can experience that in the outdoors. How does the connection with the demands of discipleship lead to the ‘reconciliation with oneself’ that you commend?
RT: “Take up your cross and follow me” sounds pretty extreme! But denial of self is a well-established Christian practice, and in so doing we are freed from the tyranny of self. Paul tells us that we’re all slaves to something (Rom 6:16-18), so we might as well be slaves to righteousness and to the one who has set us free. He also compared the Christian life to being an athlete or a boxer (1 Cor 9:24-27), something which implies strenuous training, and a mountain wilderness is as good a place as any to learn this.
Belinda Kirk in The Adventure Revolution and Judith Herman in Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence both show how physical extremes can awaken long-dormant positive physiological responses in our bodies and provide a sense of internal control that makes us more resistant to illness and to the ordinary stresses of life. The mountain environment gives you a place to practice habits—travelling light, exercising patience, and encountering adversity—that bring physical and spiritual health to the rest of our lives. In dying to self, we are set free to be the person God intends us to be.
IP: ‘It is possible to have a real encounter with the grace and generosity of God in his creation…but on its own that is insufficient’ (p 16). Why is this, and what does it mean for the place of outdoor activity in Christian discipleship?
RT: God’s grace begins with creation, not redemption. The sun shines and the rain falls on the righteous and unrighteous alike (Matt 5:45). The very existence of creation introduces us to God’s deep generosity and care for all things, ourselves included. But as Jürgen Moltmann points out in God In Creation, Israel was only able to speak about God as Creator because of their prior experience of redemption from Egypt and being called into a covenant relationship with him. That helps us to understand why a Christian can look at a mountain landscape and see the hand of the Creator in it, and at the same time someone else can look and see nothing beyond it. God can be encountered in and through his Creation, but how do we have the eyes to see that? Ultimately it’s because our eyes have been opened by Jesus Christ.
Connecting this to your previous question, outdoor adventure activities can help our discipleship because they expose us to the Creator’s handiwork, because they take us out of our comfort zone and into a place of stretch and discovery, and (anticipating your next question), they enable deep bonds of friendship and community to be formed. I have noticed more and more church leaders beginning to use the Scottish outdoors as a place of discipleship and nurture for others, especially but not only for men, for whom the Sunday comfort of our churches is not always sufficient.
IP: Climbing and trekking can appear to be a solitary activity—but you highlight some surprising communal dimensions to these activities. What does that imply about the impact it can have on relationships with others?
RT: Shared adverse experiences can be very bonding. We sometimes find it hard to develop new friendships as we get older. But the ‘Type 2 fun’ of some rain-soaked mountaintops and swamp-like bog crossings has helped me and a few others, all of whom are in ministry in different ways and in different denominations, to grow in trust and mutual support and has formed us over the past two years into a group whose friendship we all value enormously.
I think this is a function of time spent together as well as having an experience in common. How often do we spend a whole day or longer together with a group of others? A wild camp or a hostel or bothy trip gives time for the masks to come off, for us to see one another when we’re tired or wet or hungry (or all three), to provide mutual support and encouragement, and to open up to one another on all manner of topics. Time, seclusion, and shared experience all combine to build friendships that are then sustained and grow further in the ordinary patterns of life. What’s not to like about that?
IP: Are there opportunities for sharing faith and building discipleship through outdoor activity?
RT: My responses to your last two questions pretty much answer that question with a “yes”. The mountains open us up to the reality that there are things out there that are much bigger than we are. They make God possible. They give the time and space for open and honest conversations. We are often more vulnerable and honest as we chat while walking side-by-side than we are when sitting face-to-face. Values, hopes, aspirations and fears get shared. We share our stories, and we build each other up. Faith grows and we disciple each other.
IP: What impact does encountering the natural world through outdoor activity have on the questions at the heart of the current environmental crisis?
RT: In the UK, there is no such thing as a landscape untouched by human hands. Even the wildest and most remote corners of the Scottish Highlands look as they do because people have made them that way. We have cleared the trees; we have cleared out the people and replaced them with sheep and deer and grouse; we burn the heather to increase the grouse population so that we can shoot them; there are stalkers paths and Landrover tracks and hydroelectric schemes and wind farms; even the remote bothies that we shelter in on a wild night were once somebody’s home.
Being out in the mountain wilderness makes you all too aware that it looks like it does because of us. I have found empty plastic water bottles stuffed into summit cairns, discarded orange peel and banana skins scattered around, forgotten tent pegs and a pair of shorts, and even a dog lead (but no dog)! The mountain mantra of “take nothing but photographs; leave nothing but footprints” is a good one. Time in the great outdoors helps us to see the impact we have had on the world and leaves us asking questions about what kind of world we want to leave behind for future generations. Will it be better than the one we inherited, or worse?
Finding flowers and trees growing on remote crags, and even once being visited by a bumble bee as I sat at the summit of a remote Munro on a calm and sunny day, makes you realise that nature isn’t there for us. It has its own integrity; it worships its Creator just by existing, all by itself and for itself without any help from us. It puts us in our place. Finding an appropriate relationship with the rest of Creation is part of what it means to be reconciled to it, just as we find reconciliation with ourselves, with others, and with God through Jesus Christ, and the great outdoors is a unique place to go deeper into what that all means.
Richard Tiplady is a mission theologian and mountaineer. Having been a mission agency director and a theological college principal, and with a PhD in entrepreneurial leadership development, he now directs a context-based ordination programme and teaches on mission, leadership and pioneer ministry at the Scottish Episcopal Institute.
The photograph at the top is Grey Corries in Lochaber in March 2022, with Ben Nevis in the centre in the distance, taken by Richard.
You can buy his Grove booklet Following Jesus in the Great Outdoors here.