Theology and Beauty: The Natural World

The contention of this series has been that beauty helps us to understand existence. We have seen how the Triune God grounds this assertion in His own being. The ontological nature of beauty is confirmed by the simplicity of the beautiful God.[1] Now we must apply this to the world in which we live and move. How exactly does beauty help us to understand existence? We will utilize three subjects as theological case studies for our thesis: the natural world, the self, and the other.

The Natural World

Contemporary Evangelicals are not noted for their environmentalism. Man’s relation to the world, marred as it is by sin, is often reduced to what the world can give him. So, we are interested in natural resources, and how to exploit such resources for our maximal benefit. The earth is a thing to be used and often, sadly, abused. Or, perhaps our interest in the world is a bit more metaphysical. We look at the world and ask questions about how it came to be, or why it exists, but the sheer fact of its existence – the “that” of existence – has no meaning to us. Beauty urges us to something better, to value the natural world.

Our theology ought to inform our beliefs about the natural world, and for many Christians their ecological theology starts with Genesis 3. So the world is fallen, corrupt, and broken. As such it is simply groaning and waiting for the revealing of the sons of God (Rom. 8:18-25), and there is nothing we can do about this. The world is headed for destruction and our job, as Christians, is merely to fill the lifeboats before the whole ship sinks. Other Christians don’t even have this Biblical concept as the foundation for their relation to nature. There influences are purely Platonic. Nature is bad, the corporeal is a prison. All that matters is the soul of man, the spiritual. But the beauty of the world urges upon us deeper considerations of its ontology. It speaks to us even of its remaining goodness and of meaningfulness.

Our ecological theology, and from that our ecological responsibility, ought to start in Genesis 1 and move forward. For in Genesis 1 we find that the world, as God originally made it, is “very good.” Certainly the fall has marred some of that goodness, and brokenness has entered this sphere of existence. Yet God’s care for creation has not terminated post Genesis 3. His redemption of man is pointing towards the restoration of earth too. Even in the Noahic Covenant we find that God covenants not simply with the man, but with the whole earth. In Genesis 9 we read:

Then God said to Noah and to his sons with him, “Behold, I establish my covenant with you and your offspring after you, 10 and with every living creature that is with you, the birds, the livestock, and every beast of the earth with you, as many as came out of the ark; it is for every beast of the earth. (v. 8-10)

12 And God said, “This is the sign of the covenant that I make between me and you and every living creature that is with you, for all future generations: 13 I have set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth. (v. 12-13)

We note God’s specific language about the creatures and “the earth.” “God is interested in creation,” Francis Schaeffer rightly asserted, “He does not despise it.”[2] In particular the continuing appearance of beauty reminds us of the ontological value of nature.

Beauty begins by telling us that the world is not merely a thing to be used, but a thing to behold. We look at the sunset, a beautiful flower, the majestic waterfall, the twinkling stars, and more and see glories. We see glimpses of God’s original intent still residing in the natural world. This beholding is, itself, significant. For beholding the beauty of the world helps us to make sense of existence. Roger Scruton believes that beholding the world allows us to sense its fittingness and orderliness. The world, of course, is not perfectly ordered and fitting. The fall has made nature “red in tooth and claw.” Yet there is real beauty and when we take the time to see it we are harkened back to a pre-fallen world. We are reminded of the value of existence.

What we often experience is the meaninglessness of life. We experience the betrayal of friends, the absence of loved ones, the emptiness of stomachs. We see children get cancer, spiritual leaders who cheat on their wives, and hurricanes that destroy towns. But the glimpse of real beauty reminds us there is meaning, there is significance to life. Scruton writes:

From the earliest drawings in the Lascaux caves to the landscapes of Cezanne, the poems of Guido Gezelle and the music of Messiaen, art has searched for meaning in the natural world. The experience of natural beauty is not a sense of “how nice!” or “how pleasant!” It contains a reassurance that this world is a right and fitting place to be – a home in which our human powers and prospects find confirmation…When you pause to study the perfect form of a wildflower or the blended feathers of a bird, you experience an enhanced sense of belonging. A world that makes room for such things makes room for you…It is as though the natural world, represented in consciousness, justifies both itself and you. And this experience has a metaphysical resonance.[3]

The beauty of the world helps us to reestablish the true value of existence. We exist because of God’s original intent. We need beauty for this concept.

This means too that beauty drives us to take better care of the world. Beauty drives our ecological responsibility. If the experience of beauty helps to validate our existence then we ought to strive for beauty. We ought even to work towards the temporal healing of the earth, as Schaeffer argued. We know its full healing will only come with the New Earth (Rev. 21:1), but we can work for some “real and evident” healing now.[4] If Paul, in Romans 6 applies the principle of our future redemption to “our present situation” then we can follow him in doing the same for the earth. Beauty compels us to preservation, conservation, and healing.[5]

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[1] Divine simplicity is the term used to assert that God does not possess an attribute, but rather is in His essence these attributes. Adonis Vidu writes, “the being of God is utterly different from any other kind of being. In particular, divine attributes are identical to his being rather than components of it,” in Atonement, Law, and Justice. 240.

[2] Francis Schaeffer, Pollution and the Death of Man. In The Complete Works of Francis Schaeffer. Vol. 5. Westchester: Crossway, 1982. 36.

[3] Scruton, 55.

[4] Schaeffer, 39.

[5] Schaeffer tells a sad story that reveals just how little the Christian church cares for the beauty of the earth. He writes of visiting a hippie commune in California. Schaeffer tells of talking to this pagan man and then looking across the ravine at a Christian school and he writes: Having shown me all this, he looked across to the Christian school and said to me, “look at that; isn’t that ugly?” And it was! I could not deny it. It was an ugly building, without even trees around it. It was then that I realized what a poor situation this was. When I stood on Christian ground and looked at the Bohemian people’s place, it was beautiful. They had even gone to the trouble of running their electricity cables under the level of the trees so that they couldn’t be seen. Then I stood on pagan ground and looked at the Christian community and saw ugliness. Here you have a Christianity that is failing to take into account man’s responsibility and proper relationship to nature. (24)

Comments

  1. Chris Taylor says:

    I enjoyed this blog on Beauty….
    I found myself struggling for years with scriptures like “you know that
    friendship with the world means enmity against God?” Or “Love not the world, neither
    the things that are in the world.”
    I mean why polish the brass on a sinking ship? But the more I studied the word, the more I prayed about this the more I realized how off base I was.
    Loving the things God has made is only an issue when they are put in place of loving God.
    When I sip a beautiful single malt scotch or a cup of coffee I marvel at the fact that not only did God make this, but he made my tongue and senses to receive it. When I hear a good song I say “wow! He made music to sound like this”
    We live in a Genesis 3 world but….there are “Beautiful” reminders all over that it won’t always be this way!
    Great read!

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