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Give Me That Old-Time Pareidolia


It’s a staple of Internet journalism and blogging by self-designated "skeptics" and "rationalists": mocking the occasional religious person who thinks he’s discovered the face of Jesus or Mary in a piece of toast or some other food. There’s a name for this, "face pareidolia." And of course there is an evolutionary explanation, which you can probably guess without my telling you. Seeing faces that aren’t there is supposed to be a by-product of the evolutionary need to recognize real faces, distinguishing friends from enemies.

Pareidolia more generally applies to things other than faces, and it’s said to be a species of apophenia, referring to the detection of patterns and connections in random noise. Skeptic Michael Shermer calls it "patternicity."

Smart-alecky atheist types love this, and otherwise sober science journals can get in on the fun too. The journal Cortex, for example, drummed up some snickering attention back in May with an article, "Seeing Jesus in toast: Neural and behavioral correlates of face pareidolia."

Oh, those silly, silly religious people.

Yet go read a fascinating essay by our friend Michael Medved over at Truth Revolt. From the year of its discovery in the aftermath of the Civil War, the remarkable phenomenon of what seemed to be an enormous cross etched in snow on a Colorado mountain peak became a source of national fascination:

In 1868, an ardent abolitionist editor from Massachusetts sought to renew his failing health with a long-exploring expedition to the uncharted territory of the Colorado Rockies. There, Samuel Bowles heard mysterious rumors of an "immense cross" formed from melting snow that appeared every year on the sheer rock face of a towering wilderness peak. Blazing a painstaking trail to a view ledge near the top of Gray’s peak, the Bowles party stared in wonder at a miraculous sight some forty miles away. Across a thickly forested valley, looming above the pristine lake later known as "The Bowl of Tears," they saw the huge, near perfect cross, glistening in the summer sun. Formed by the winter snow lodged within a deep rock gully more than 1,500 feet high, then intersected by a horizontal line of frozen, purest white along a 750 foot shelf, the otherworldly vision produced tears and exaltation from the breathless travelers. In his subsequent book, The Switzerland of America, Samuel Bowles declared: "It is as if God has set His sign, His seal, His promise there — a beacon upon the very center and height of the Continent to all its people and all its generations."

Inspired by reports of this wonder of nature, Civil War veteran Ferdinand Hayden led an expedition for the U.S. Geological Survey in the summer of 1873, accompanied by some-time painter, missionary to the Indians and pioneer photographer William Henry Jackson, in hopes of finding and documenting the elusive "Mountain of the Holy Cross." After several wrong turns and dead ends, the group headed north from Twin Lakes, across the Tennessee Pass and Eagle River and, after two exhausting days of climbing, they finally reached the shoulder of Notch Mountain. Jackson led the way, though he struggled with his heavy, bulky camera equipment to climb out of the enclosing forest. He recalled years later: "I emerged above the timberline, and the clouds, and suddenly, as I clambered over a vast mass of jagged rocks, I discovered the great shining cross, there before me, tilted against the mountainside."

He called to his breathless colleagues and at the very moment that they gazed together at the legendary vision, a glorious rainbow suddenly, miraculously appeared, in a "sublime and sacred moment" that moved even F.V. Hayden, a notorious unbeliever. Jackson’s stunning photographs, completed over the next two days, provided powerful proof of the miraculous arrangement of rock and snow. Formally presented to the House Committee on Appropriations and ultimately to President Ulysses S. Grant himself, the pictures received wide distribution and caused a national sensation.

Among those directly inspired by the images from the Rockies was the lavishly talented landscape painter Thomas Moran, already celebrated for his breathtaking canvasses of the new national park at Yellowstone. He determined to accompany Hayden on his next Colorado trip with the specific purpose of painting the celebrated "Cross of Snow." The gigantic masterpiece that resulted, measuring seven feet by five feet, became a wildly popular attraction at the Philadelphia Centennial International Exposition of 1876, displayed to overwhelming acclaim together with W. H. Jackson’s starkly beautiful black-and-white photographs. The excitement regarding these images related in part to the fateful change in Colorado’s status, with the distant and sparsely settled territory winning admission to the union on August 1st, at the height of the Centennial celebrations. In catalogue material for the world’s fair, Moran encouraged this sense of destiny and baldly declared: "The Mountain of the Holy Cross is in some respects the most remarkable peak on the American continent." A New York reviewer, overwhelmed by the painting’s grandeur, meaning and spiritual power, rapturously concluded: "Beyond a question, in the painting of this picture, Mr. Thomas Moran has made one of those exceptional leaps which bridge the chasm between reputation and immortality."

More than 60 years after its creation, this "immortal" image found its way to a place of honor in the mansion home of one of its countless admirers: the singing cowboy and Hollywood mogul Gene Autry, who later made it part of the permanent collection of his Autry Museum of Western Heritage. By that time, the view of the mountain with the monumental symbol seared upon its side had become so much a feature of popular culture that the beloved poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow invoked it as a title of a moving sonnet, "The Cross of Snow," comparing the shimmering image that reappeared every summer in wild and lonely Colorado with his "changeless" mourning for his long-dead wife.

President Hoover declared the site a National Monument in 1929, but natural damage from slides and erosion ultimately marred the image, interest declined, and by 1950 it had been reincorporated, minus the National Monument status, under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service.

Do I think God inscribed a cross on a mountainside, perhaps to give hope to the nation following the bloodletting of the Civil War? No, I don’t think so. Does Michael Medved? I assume not. He concludes, though:

Moderns may snicker at the 19th-century eagerness to embrace a grand design on a mountainside as indication of still grander designs by which God placed "His sign, His seal, His promise" upon the continent. But dismissal of the old faith in Providence and its protections leads inevitably to guilty conclusions about America’s rise to power and prosperity that count as less rational than traditional assumptions of divine favor. No one can challenge the basic premise of American Exceptionalism: that the United States counts as a unique nation of unprecedented origins and incomparable impact. But it matters a great deal whether the world sees America as exceptionally good or exceptionally awful.

Explorers and artists once marveled at a huge and unmistakable symbol that looked as if nature itself tried to send them a message. Why is it inherently more rational to see this remarkable manifestation as a meaningless coincidence rather than a significant signal?

That’s a good question. Here is the point for me. Compare the stature of the generations of men and women who took such a thing seriously with the stature of the oversized children, our contemporaries, who would mock without mercy (and without intelligence) anyone today who claimed to perceive a pattern of that type, on a mountainside or anywhere else. The history of our country from the 19th century through 1950 is littered with the names of great men. Several of them are mentioned in Michael Medved’s article as endorsing, directly or indirectly, the idea that a great cross on a mountain in Colorado was the result of nature trying to "send them a message."

In 2014, it’s a challenge to think of anyone living who will merit the designation "great," when looked back upon from the perspective of a generation or a century from now. I mean anyone in cultural, intellectual, political, scientific, business, or yes, religious life, you name it.

Reaching down to the bottom of the barrel, how many of our currently operating snarky writers and Internet commentators, our social media geniuses, masters of the snide tweet and the cynical blog post — precisely the folks who jump at the chance to chortle at the clueless yokel who steps forward to say he can distinguish the face of Jesus in a fish stick — would you trade for just one Henry Wadsworth Longfellow?

A thousand? Ten thousand? More?

I’m on Twitter. Find me @d_klinghoffer.

Image: Mount of the Holy Cross/Wikipedia.