Natural Beauty, Frontiers and God
What is it about wilderness—the seemingly endless landscape—that draws people out of their high-rise apartments and cookie-cutter suburban homes into a sort of ‘pilgrimage’—petroleum-fuelled pilgrimages beginning at 75 miles per hour into the mountains? What is it about the beauty of natural order—the curve of a leaf or the sun on water droplets—that can lift us out of our iPhone- and Excel spreadsheet-ordered lives? With all of our technology and scientific knowledge, are we really so different from Sioux dancers donning bison horns or druids worshipping at the summer solstice? One might argue that our attraction to nature is every bit as religiously significant as theirs—even if we end up colonizing the wilderness with asphalt and Plexiglas.
But have you ever stared at ten thousand blades of grass gilded by the setting sun as it lights up old beeches or green hilly backdrops?—a typical summer evening here where I live in Fife, Scotland. Or have you ever watched brown-grey deer gliding through mists, like ghosts of the autumnal wood? Such experiences seem to cry out for meaning. And maybe they even push us toward a threshold between two worlds.
Or have you ever had the Icarus-urge to sprout wings and soar along that seemingly endless space between a dark horizon and rose-tinted clouds? Such experience, said the nineteenth century art critic John Ruskin, speaks to our ‘heavenly hopes’ and our longing for an infinite God. Despite all of humankind’s progress, we have never lost our desire to dwell in the ever elusive frontiers of beauty and knowledge. And for Maurice Merleau-Ponty, the entire sensible and knowable world is a ‘frontier,’ a ‘horizon,’ that catches us up and includes us within its own being and purpose.
Perhaps it is with good reason, then, that Augustine called creation ‘divine art.’ In the Confessions, Augustine also said that he posed his questions to the world in the form of his attention. The response that he received from the world was its beauty. If nature can speak in such a way, then Wordsworth was right to view it, as he said he did, with ‘pregnant vision.’ Does natural beauty speak to us symbolically of the divine, through images of beautiful order, repose, and boundlessness? Do our natural frontiers speak to our spiritual destinations? What if the experience of the poets, and our own experience of the world, whispers rumours of God and a human destination revealed in the naturally beautiful?
For a more detailed and academic discussion of these questions, see L. Clifton Edwards, ‘The Beauty of Frontier: A Revelation of the Human Destination in God,’ American Theological Inquiry 3, No. 2 (2010): 15–19, and ‘Beautiful Interrelation with Nature: Divine Harmonies and Creation’s Fulfillment,’ forthcoming in American Theological Inquiry 4, No. 2 (2011).
L. Clifton Edwards is a student at the Institute for Theology, Imagination and the Arts awaiting his PhD viva at the University of St Andrews. He thinks Scotland is great, but he is in exile from Alaska.