The Power and Limits of Natural Beauty
Lately, I’ve had the privilege of standing in the presence of natural beauty. I have had my breath taken away. I’ve heard people around me use the words “awesome” and “amazing.” And I have added several “Amens.”
Why does beauty, especially large displays such as mountain ranges, move us so powerfully? On one level, the answer is easy. We are encountering something so “other” than us. We see things that are larger (huge rocks), more beautiful (sunsets), more powerful (flowing rivers), or so completely different (elephants!), that we can’t help but stand amazed.
The Bible declares that “The heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19:1) and we rightly connect that assertion to the waters, the rocks, the animals, and every other aspect of the created world. But that same Bible is careful to distinguish the creator from the creation. You cannot support pantheism from the Old and New Testament scriptures. Thus, while we would stand side by side with others who marvel at mountains, we would not go so far as the slogan I saw on a T-shirt that said, “I’d rather be out in nature than in church.”
I’m sure I’d rather be out in nature more often than inside a church building. But there’s more to that comparison than what fits on a T-shirt. We should be quick to note that the same Psalm that begins with “The heavens declare the glory of God” shifts to praising the glory of the scriptures in the second half of that hymn of praise. The psalmist stands amazed at the law, the statutes, the precepts, the commands, and the ordinances, saying they are more precious than gold (another physical beauty we tend to admire).
Derek Kidner appropriately titles his commentary on Psalm 19, “The Skies and The Scriptures.” Theologians categorize the truths in this Psalm as support for both general revelation and special revelation. It is good to see God’s handiwork in the stars, rivers, mountains, and sunrises. But we need “the word” to tell us of that same God’s handiwork through the cross.
General revelation (as Romans 1 teaches us) is a good start of a gospel presentation. But it’s not the totality of one. If people look to the mountains and ask “who made all that?” they’re asking the right question and can be told the answer. We can then ask questions about how we fit there. But if they look to the mountains and stop there, saying, “That’s what I worship,” we’ve got more pre-evangelistic work to do.
I’m reminded of what C. S. Lewis wrote in Miracles when he reflected on kinds of gods people like and how they compare to the true God, the maker of heaven and earth.
“An ‘impersonal God’ – well and good. A subjective God of beauty, truth and goodness, inside our own heads – better still. A formless life-force surging through us, a vast power which we can tap – best of all. But God himself, alive, pulling at the other end of the cord, perhaps approaching at an infinite speed, the hunter, King, husband – that is quite another matter.”