It is a public holiday, and my family travels down to the Mornington Peninsula. Only an hour’s drive from our home in the suburbs of Melbourne, it’s an easy day trip and a popular spot for city dwellers on holiday. We head first for Flinder’s Blowhole. As newcomers to this country, we’ve taken every opportunity to explore. The unfamiliarity of the land and its creatures pulls us out of our house, and we eagerly seek both the more popular tourist traps and the quieter scenic spots.
The roads through the peninsula follow the rolling hills of the landscape, dipping low only to rise up to an elevation that rewards the traveller in its views of the land to the west and the ocean to the east. The physical movement of cresting the hill gives my soul a sense of the same kind of movement.
When we arrive at our destination, our boys immediately run off down the wooden steps that led down to the shore. Still, I pause. Gloriously green hills fill the horizon, only to drop off into a deep gully just in front of us. Opposite the hills, deep blue ocean meets sharp black rock. Cut off from the coastline by the persistence of the waves, these large formations jut out from the landscape. Spreading out from them are large patches of flat rock, the surface resembling the moon’s craters. These hollows are filled with water from the last high tide, and they promise a rich exploration of coastal flora and fauna. Further along the shore, the waves’ persistent pummelling has left gritty black sand and larger black pebbles.
I take in these sights, and I breathe in deeply the sharp salty air—and yet, I am not satisfied. What I perceive is both enough and not enough. The world seems larger and grander than before, and I am pierced by a keen sense of longing.
The Persuasion of Beauty
In the past, theologians understood that such experiences did not simply offer a person a sublime encounter, a moment of awe over the power and majesty of the world. Instead, they saw beauty as a kind of persuasion, compelling us to consider matters deeper than what lies before us. Dante describes this kind of interaction with nature in his Divine Comedy. Relating his ascent from hell, he writes,
My Guide and I crossed over and began
to mount that little known and lightless road
to ascend into the shining world again.
He first, I second, without thought of rest
we climbed the dark until we reached the point
where a round opening brought in sight the blest
and beauteous shining of the Heavenly cars.
And we walked out once more beneath the stars.
This image of the stars repeats at the end of each major section of Dante’s epic poem, highlighting the role of these heavenly bodies in leading Dante along in his journey. Their brilliance draws the eye upward, provoking not only observation but also contemplation.
Dante follows in Augustine’s footsteps. Beauty compels us; without it, Augustine says, we would not be drawn to the things we love. He asked his friends, “What is it that attracts and wins us to the things we love? for unless there were in them a grace and beauty, they could by no means draw us unto them.” This applies not just to objects or even to other people but also to the divine. Augustine understands the beauty of God, observed through the natural world, to have drawn him to God himself. Writing to God, he says, “Yea also heaven, and earth, and all that therein is, behold, on every side they bid me love Thee; nor cease say so unto all, that they may be without excuse.” Augustine then narrates his conversation with the created world. He asks the earth, “the sea and the deeps,” the “living creeping things,” “the moving air,” and “the heavens, sun, moon, and stars” to tell him something about God. Each answers in turn, “We are not thy God, seek above us.” The creation around Augustine echoes with that powerful call to “seek above us.”
How does creation hold such power? The answer for Augustine lies in the source and nature of creation’s beauty. He names God as “Beauty of all things beautiful.” But this attribute does not remain with God exclusively. Commenting on Genesis 1:2, Augustine describes the waters as “receiving” their “comely” form—it is a gift, given by the one who is Beauty. Similarly, Dante notes while contemplating the stars that it was “Love Divine [that] in the beginning made their beauty move.” The beauty with which God endows creation is his own; all beautiful things share in some way in the beauty of God.
The beauty with which God endows creation is his own; all beautiful things share in some way in the beauty of God.
This attribute of God is declared most perfectly in his Son, whose life and death reveal the shape of divine beauty. Through his incarnation, suffering, and resurrection, Jesus Christ redeemed the whole world—not just the souls of people but also the entire cosmos. Romans 8 describes the “groaning” and “eager longing” of creation as it, too, yearns for the glory to come. But the work of redemption has already begun. As David Bentley Hart says, “The Spirit is eternally turning the face of creation to the Father by conforming it to the Son, and thus creation is beautiful, and a gift restored.”
This divine gift is ongoing. God does not create and then step away, cutting himself off from creation while its existence continues on its own. Through his Son, he redeems and sustains the world moment by moment, giving of himself. Creation is not God, and yet its beauty is contingent on God’s. As Jonathan King writes in his work on theological aesthetics, “Flowing from the fullness of God’s being . . . is the free participation of all created beings in the fullness of God’s beauty, which is the fount of all the beautiful.”
This relationship enables creation to function as a sacrament, as Junius Johnson writes in The Father of Lights. Within his larger argument that every aesthetic experience is a reminder of God, Johnson suggests that when we encounter a beautiful creature, we “experience . . . creation coming alive in its original, intended role as sign or indicator of the divine presence. This is the sacramental character of creation: its ability to mediate the presence of the Creator.” This mediation, he clarifies, brings the mediated reality—in this case, God—closer rather than pushing it away. Creation functions as a sign of both divine presence and divine beauty. Creation’s beauty breaks through our mundane ways of being in the world. It is this sacramentality of creation that both makes it alluring and activates a longing for something beyond itself—namely, God.
The Modern Impoverishment of Meaning
And yet, despite the way culture attests to creation’s allure—landscape photography filling our social media feeds, travel advertisements beckoning us to get away into the wilderness—Augustine’s experience of hearing creation tell him “seek above us” does not seem to ring entirely true. For all the masses of tourists who gather at renowned natural wonders, the average person is not persuaded to turn to God as a result of their encounter with creation. What can we make of this?
One answer comes from Charles Taylor. Taylor describes the shift from premodern to modern understandings of the world, which he defines as moving from enchantment to disenchantment. According to Taylor, this disenchantment effectively puts a ceiling on the world, cutting us off from the divine and from transcendence, making unbelief and doubt more plausible than belief. A key difference between enchanted and disenchanted worlds is their understanding of meaning: in the disenchanted world, Taylor says, “meanings are ‘in the mind,’ in the sense that things only have the meaning they do in that they awaken a certain response in us,” whereas “in the [enchanted] world, meanings are not only in minds, but can reside in things, or in various kinds of extra-human but intra-cosmic subjects. . . . In the enchanted world, the meaning exists already outside of us, prior to contact; it can take us over, we can fall into its field of force. It comes on us from the outside.” In other words, our modern, disenchanted culture sees the world around us as empty: it has no intrinsic meaning or resonance but is given meaning only through our own experiences and emotions in relation to it. This is a radical shift from the premodern view, which assumed that the world was full of meaning and significance in and of itself.
This transformation affects the way we experience nature. In a disenchanted world, we do not expect to be confronted by a power outside ourselves that is revealed to us through creation. Instead, beauty becomes wholly subjective. Grounded no longer in the divine, aesthetic experiences can operate only within the realm of feeling and appearance. Beauty has been severed from truth and goodness. When we look at the world around us, our cultural conditioning deafens us to the voice of creation calling us to “seek above us.”
Beauty has been severed from truth and goodness.
Although the way we experience the world has changed, creation itself has not. Prior to our interaction with it, creation is already full of meaning, as that which exists in and through its relationship to God. It continues to be a place of God’s presence, and because it shares in divine beauty, it still has the power to arrest and allure us. The problem, however, is that our modern way of thinking makes it easier to dismiss this pull toward the transcendent—if we feel it at all. In his book Light When It Comes, writer Chris Anderson says, “We all have moments like this, moments that move us somehow, that seem to mean something we can’t quite put into words, but we are embarrassed by them or we doubt them or in the rush of things that happen to us each day we forget about them. For a moment we believed—in something—a presence, a beauty. But we let the moment pass.”
Where then does this leave us? Although our secular age muffles the transcendent echo within creation, it does not eliminate it. Johnson argues that whatever a person’s distance from God, God is always able to overcome it by providing moments of clarity. Because created beauty shares in something of God himself, “the experience of beauty is a moment of theological anamnesis, even where the most stringent barriers have been erected against the slightest suggestion of a divinity.” Beauty continues to be powerful.
The poets and the artists among us attest to this. Regardless of their prior assumptions about the nature of the world, their attentiveness to aesthetics allows transcendence to break through. In one poem, Wislawa Szymborska describes two people “in un-love” staring into a mirror where “there’s nothing there / except their sensible reflections.” And yet, despite this belief that matter is all there is, Szymborska ends the poem by observing, “We still don’t see the reason why / a sudden deer bounding across this room / would shatter the entire universe.” As Evelyn Underhill writes, “All who are sensitive to beauty know the almost agonising sense of revelation its sudden impact brings—the abrupt disclosure of the mountain summit, the wild cherry-tree in blossom, the crowning moment of a great concerto, witnessing to another beauty beyond sense.” The moment of witness is a moment of revelation. Scholar Elaine Scarry agrees: beautiful things “carry greetings from other worlds within them,” she writes, and create a longing that cannot be satisfied by them.
Training Ourselves to See Beauty Rightly
I wonder, then, if Christians might think more imaginatively about the possibilities of creation’s beauty in our witness to God. We might take the opportunity to help people deepen the awe they feel through the experience of nature, encouraging them to ask why. Why does this mountain take my breath away? Why am I amazed at the life cycle of a butterfly? Why do I feel calmer and more settled surrounded by my favourite trees? We are culturally conditioned to answer these questions with purely material or psychological answers, and yet, when pressed, we find that these answers are not sufficient. The persistent pull of beauty will not allow us to be satisfied with immanence—we must also have transcendence.
The persistent pull of beauty will not allow us to be satisfied with immanence—we must also have transcendence.
If we are to help others see this, we must first train ourselves to connect creation’s power to the nature of beauty itself—not simply a feeling or appearance but a deep resonance with its divine wellspring. While we can’t return to a premodern era of enchantment, we can practice habits that help us resist a modern rejection of transcendence. Bonaventure, a medieval theologian and philosopher, can be a guide in our learning. Like Augustine, he viewed creation as a ladder that would lead us to God. Yet Bonaventure recognized the way the senses are darkened through sin. He counsels his readers to practice prayer, virtue, and contemplation in order to rightly perceive the world, and so to consider our invisible God.
In prayer, we direct ourselves to God, acknowledging that our perception of the world does not define reality. A life of regular prayer keeps us from living as if God did not exist, as if the world is sustained by its own laws and motion alone. In prayer, we also acknowledge our creatureliness and moral failures. Within our modern context, this will most likely include confession of the way we have perceived and treated creation as a commodity. In repentance, we need to ask God to train our senses so that we can receive the world as it is—a gracious and gratuitous expression of divine beauty.
Along with prayer, Bonaventure exhorts his readers to lead good and holy lives. One of the virtues that he commends is austerity, by which he means “a certain spiritual rigor that restrains all concupiscence and prepares the soul for the love of hardship, poverty, and lowliness.” Austerity resists a thirst for pleasure and other uncontrolled desires, instead enabling us to live a life that is disciplined. With regard to creation, austerity frees us from perceiving nature in a way that sees only our own desires. The beauty of the world does not exist to gratify us but to glorify God, and when we are free from enslavement to our own satisfaction, we see creation in its integrity as an object of God’s delight.
The beauty of the world does not exist to gratify us but to glorify God.
Bonaventure also instructs us in the habit of contemplation, a concentration of “our vision upon the reflections of truth.” This contemplation involves both physical and spiritual senses: attending to what we can perceive, our physical senses lead us to search for the divine source of their existence and delight. These reflections suspend our own desires and needs in order for us to consider what God has bountifully and graciously created. In contemplation, we attend to what God has made, and creation rewards our attention by drawing our minds and hearts to God.
In these habits of prayer, virtue, and contemplation, we ought not to neglect that attitude which belongs particularly to beauty: delight. Here we would do well to take Thomas Traherne, a seventeenth-century poet and Anglican cleric, as our guide. Traherne wrote effusively of the beauty of creation, asking, “Can you take too much joy in your Father’s works? He is Himself in everything.” For him, delight pervades the habit of contemplation, even of that which is “rough and common.” He argues that while pigs eat acorns without considering the sun, heavens, or root that all contributed to the acorns’ existence, we are to “feed upon that acorn spiritually while [knowing] the ends for which it was created, and feast upon all these as upon a World of Joys within it.” For Traherne, this enjoyment of the world is the proper response to what God has made. In seeing the beauty of the world, we delight, and in delight we open ourselves to more beauty.
Christians in the twenty-first century do not swim in different cultural waters than our neighbours. If we have any expectation of helping our neighbours to see the mediated presence of God in creation, our own imaginations must be trained to recognize and delight in the deep significance of created beauty. Perhaps then together we may hear more plainly creation’s voice calling, “Seek above me.”