Today, the Grand Canyon of the Colorado is almost universally recognized as a wonder of the world. Tourists converge in northern Arizona from all over the planet to earn their “I Hiked the Canyon” t-shirts, navigate the Colorado River’s renowned whitewater, or simply gaze from the rim across the chasm’s continually-shifting palette.
Given the Canyon’s magnetism, it’s hard to fathom that the gorge was unappreciated and ignored for centuries.
Nothing to See Here
Little is known of what the region’s native inhabitants thought of the Grand Canyon, although the Hopi believed the sipapu, the place their people emerged from the ground in primeval times, was in the eastern reaches of the canyon, and other groups did live within the Canyon’s walls.
Early European explorers of the region were content to relegate the Canyon to terra incognita. The first known encounter of Europeans with the Canyon came in 1540, when members of the Cárdenas party of the Coronado Expedition peered into the chasm from the South Rim. Their visit, however, merited only scant mention in their annals, and they certainly recorded no appreciation for the area’s scenic splendor.
After these Spaniards rode away, it would be more than 230 years before the next known European venture to the area of the Grand Canyon, and well over three centuries before it garnered any serious attention.
No Category for Grand Canyons
Such a prolonged disregard for what is now an icon is unfathomable to our contemporary ears. But hard as it may be for us to understand, early European visitors simply had no way to grapple with what they encountered in the Canyon.
Historian Stephen Pyne, chronicling the evolution of people’s understanding of the Canyon, writes of those explorers: “The Spanish mind was prepared to understand, and Spanish political economy prepared to assimilate, the discovery of Golden Cíbolas, not Grand Canyons.”1 They had no category for comprehending something like this great chasm on the Colorado River. Other matters were on their minds, and “the celebration of natural monuments in and of themselves was alien to them all. Great arroyos held no value, not political, not economic, not intellectual, not aesthetic.”2
Recognizing Our Own Blind Spots
Even if we acknowledge that these early visitors to what is now Arizona had different concerns from our own, it still seems incredible that they could have missed the grandness of the Canyon.
Yet, as we consider their lack of perception, perhaps the more pertinent question for us is, what are we ourselves blind to?
We should be cautioned that we, too, see Grand Canyons—indeed, the world around us—through the values of our own day and age.
Our worldview—which, as Merriam-Webster defines it, is our “comprehensive conception or apprehension of the world especially from a specific standpoint”3—is complex, with many factors influencing its formation. Needless to say, prevailing cultural norms have a massive influence on how we see the world, and we passively imbibe those values as “just the way things are.”
Learning to See from God’s Perspective
Especially as followers of Christ, we don’t want our perception of reality to be informed merely by what the world says, but by God, the Creator of all things. Central to this is understanding what God has revealed in the Bible, and letting that unchanging truth shape our comprehension of our world.
This, too, is tricky! We easily import our own preunderstandings and values into our reading of Scripture. This is why we must be diligent students of the Bible, carefully discerning what it actually says so we don’t uncritically read our own meanings into it. An important aspect of this is learning about the culture within which the biblical writers wrote, so we don’t import 21st-century sensibilities into writings from a world vastly different from our own.
I, for one, heartily agree with the appellation of “Grand” for the Canyon, having experienced its splendor from above and below the rim. It’s hard for me to comprehend how anyone could miss that grand-ness. Yet, even today people still miss it, as witnessed to by one-star reviews of the Canyon on sites like Yelp, where visitors criticize its remoteness and lack of wi-fi, and describe it as everything from “just a pile of dirt and rocks” to “a great place for solitary confinement.”4
However, this reminds me that I, too, have many places where my perspective is limited, skewed by the prevailing cultural mindset, and I desire for the dark crevasses of my own worldview to be ever more illuminated by God’s perspective.
2 Pyne, 9.
4 The Arizona Daily Sun has an amusing and somewhat disheartening collection of these non-glowing reviews at https://azdailysun.com/news/local/one-star-grand-canyon-reviews/collection_0640d4bc-8b91-5540-8d54-c5367da57b04.html#1