Good Heavens: Apprehending Nature's Beauty

Minnesotans joke about nature’s two seasons in these parts: winter and road construction. Fair enough; but head off road during repair season and you discover a state rich in natural treasures. Not the least of these is what we affectionately call the “North Shore” of Lake Superior. The beauty of this haunting, ever-changing body of water, with its rugged shoreline and untamed hinterland, is spellbinding.

A recent family trip located me on a secluded balcony high above the waves that lashed the rocky, Superior shoreline below. The evening air was warm and fresh—the kind of air so satisfying you seem to drink it as much as breathe it.

Looking out over the lake just after sunset, darkness shrouded the distinction between water and sky and between water and land. That period of gloom, just before the rising moon and starry hosts illumine the night, veiled the natural wonders before me like a curtain—a dramatic pause anticipating the show that was about to begin.

As I peered into the darkness, a faint point of light began to glow on the horizon to my left. Was it the beacon of a barge on the horizon? Was it the glow of a campfire on the not yet visible shoreline? The light seemed to draw closer, or larger, and brighter. The darkness permitted no ability to calculate distance or land mass, and my mind reeled to make sense of this mysterious light.

Eventually that light shook itself free of the cloud cover that concealed its identity. The rising moon grew increasingly brighter—its craters and contours revealed by the unseen sun. A silver beam of moonlight began to shine like a gleaming highway across the rippling surface of the lake. The waves danced in the eerie shaft of light.

Directly in front of me and overhead, stars began to pierce the night sky. As if holes were being poked through a dark canvas, allowing light to peek through from behind, the stars systematically appeared until they formed a choir of light, further revealing the contours of an exquisite world.

Suddenly, off to my extreme right and many miles across the waters, a lightning storm began to flash its furry on the horizon. The storm was too distant for thunder to be heard or rain to be seen. What had to be an unnerving tempest on location was perceived from my distant perch as a silent fireworks show—lightning bolts flashing their jagged splendor over and over again for my pleasure.

I drank in this spellbinding scene, fully alive. The darkened lake stretched out like a canvas before me as far as the eye could see. The moon gleamed at my far left. Stars glimmered overhead. A grand but silent lightning show flashed away on my far right. I basked in the splendor of mesmerizing beauty.

What I find incredible is the notion that this magnificent display was the fortuitous result of a random string of meaningless, cosmological events—that time and chance mindlessly shaped matter into this exquisite display of choreographed beauty. Not only is it beyond belief to imagine chaos produced such stunning beauty, how is it possible that I—a product of supposedly impersonal, random, chemical reactions—find myself capable of apprehending this beauty as a distinctly personal experience? A rock is impervious to such beauty. Squirrels scurry about, doing their thing, not staring in awed appreciation of nature’s wonders.

The fact that I apprehend the beauty of nature as a personal experience undermines the notion that I owe my existence to impersonal forces operating by chance through time. Rather, my unique, existential appreciation of natural beauty indicates I have been uniquely fitted to relate to a personal Creator in whose image I am made.

As theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer observed, there are only two alternatives to belief in a personal, Creator God. You can embrace materialism (matter is all); or you can embrace mysticism (spirit is all). Mysticism fails to account for the earthiness of nature—for its tangible beauty as an end in itself. Materialism, on the other hand, fails to account for the personal apprehension of beauty in nature—apprehension that results in joyful celebration.

The atheistic materialist and the Eastern mystic alike seek to write the personal, Creator God out of the script of history. But this is not unlike the attempt of the lunatic who seeks to extinguish the sun by scrawling the word “darkness” on the walls of his cell (to paraphrase C. S. Lewis). As Romans 1:19-21 indicates, nature trumpets the existence of a personal Creator; and the only reason people fail to perceive this is because they do not want to.

But if you will grant that your perception of nature’s beauty is decidedly personal, you at least open the door to the possibility of relating personally to nature’s Artificer. And let me assure you, there is vastly more beauty in knowing the Creator than there is in apprehending the wonder of His creation. Do not misunderstand—such relational beauty does not marginalize one’s perception of nature’s beauty; it rightly and thus more powerfully celebrates it. On the other hand, one’s experience of such relational beauty secures the soul against the dead-end notion that the material world is all there is; in which case there is no Artist to know and only death to come. Surely this is no way to view the good heavens or anything else in all creation.

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PaulF's picture

Great thoughts, thank you for sharing your vivid description of the scene from your balcony.  I felt like I was there with you!

My father and I shared great times discovering nature through our scouting program and I wish we could turn back the clock on that situation, but regardless of the program (i.e. Christian Service Brigade, Royal Rangers, Cadet Corps, it's wonderful when youth (and adults) spend time disconnected from the internet and video-tube and game boxes, etc.  Seeing the wonder of bugs, birds, and every living thing opens our eyes and our hearts to let the Holy Spirit wiggle in deeper and help us push out the worldly stuff we keep hoarding to our own detriment.

This is my Father's world.
E'en yet to my listening ears
All nature sings, and around me rings
The music of the spheres.

This is my Father's world.
I rest me in the thought
Of rocks and trees, of skies and seas,
His hand the wonders wrought.

This is my Father's world.
The birds that their carols raise,
The morning light, the lily white.
Declare their Maker's praise.

This is my Father's world.
He shines in all that's fair.
In the rustling grass I hear Him pass,
He speaks to me everywhere.

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