Consider the life cycle of a tree. A seed must be planted in good soil, watered, and tended. After a while, the inner contents of the seed begin to grow and expand, cracking its hard exterior and allowing a small shoot to sprout from the top, beginning its journey through the soil and towards the fresh air above it. Throughout the years the tree grows leaves and loses them, transporting water from the soil at the tree’s base to continually nourish each leaf, branch, flower, and fruit that the tree produces. In the fall, the leaves of the tree die, revealing the radiant reds, oranges, and yellows that were hidden beneath the green throughout the year. At the end of the tree’s life, it is chopped down, leaving only its symmetrical rings to reveal the years the tree weathered on this earth – the things it saw and survived, the years of less and the years of plenty. Yet, this cycle continues on, generation to generation.
Henry David Thoreau wrote that “We need the tonic of wildness,” yet “at the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us” . Since Thoreau wrote these words, scientific discovery has allowed humanity insight into what he considered unfathomable. We can observe the beauty of changing leaves through microscopes, giving us insight into the radiant colors we see. We now comprehend the reason why each daughter tree is identical to its mother thanks to the discovery and analysis of DNA and how it functions differentially in the natural world. And despite all that we know, there is still a vast sum of knowledge about the natural world which humanity has yet to discover, behold, and perceive.
Despite our new capabilities, humanity has a tendency of not only failing to seek out the wonders of nature but also burying it deeper and making it harder to find. Industrialization causes enormous amounts of pollution to enter the natural world. An oft-overlooked form is light and sound pollution: in urban areas, one can typically see few or none of the many stars in the sky and cannot enjoy the wonderful sounds of the natural world. The sounds of beeping cars and sirens have become the average American’s lullaby, to the point that many supplement with “nature sounds” played from apps on smartphones just to drown it out. Light pollution not only has negative aesthetic effects: recent environmental research suggests that excess light may disrupt those plants and animals that rely on the sun to cue their natural patterns of life .
But it is not a flippant attitude towards the splendor of the natural world that is the root cause of this destruction. In fact, humanity does and always has had an intrinsic reverence for natural beauty. Immanuel Kant, in his Critique on the Power of Judgement, went so far even as to claim that mankind has an objective sense of beauty . Further, he suggests that humanity’s innate ability to tell the beautiful from the ugly – especially in objects which are secondary from their natural inspiration, like paintings or sculptures – reflects our ability to see their “blueprints” and our desire to understand them [4,5]. Thus, humanity is not irreverent of nature, nor have we become more so in past centuries. Rather, humans favor convenience over all else—including beauty. The average American living in a city has access to most needs with very little effort: packages can be shipped to our doorsteps, the grocery store is just around the corner, and any information we might need is a click of a button away. Still, as Kant argues, we intrinsically value the beauty of nature; we landscape around the base of our skyscrapers, buy potted plants for our desks, and listen to the recorded sound of nature at night. And, once or twice a year, we take a vacation from work or school to spend a week lounging on the beach, hiking in the forest, or skiing down a mountainside, taking in every breath of fresh air before we are forced to return to the “convenient” smog-filled city which we call home. For many people, this scheduled dose-of-natural-beauty structure of living is perfectly acceptable and certainly attainable. Yet it still leaves many unfulfilled.
The act of creating and the enjoyment of nature is central in the Christian tradition . To a Christian, the natural world is a living, breathing reminder of the artistry of an all-powerful God. Each new discovery about the natural world adds to the Christian’s long list of reasons to cherish what is naturally good in this world. The process of learning more about the secrets of beautiful nature thus becomes a way to reveal some of the mystery of a hidden (not distant) God; the natural world and the mysteries it holds parallels the mystery of God’s glory. A striking aspect about the beauty of nature is not only that it is hidden, but that it is hidden so well. There is no shortage of rocks on the earth – mostly a dull, gray color, all covered in dirt, and all generally unassuming to the untrained eye. But within any one of them there could be a beautiful geode, a cache of gold ore, or a delicate fossil from another life. Or think of the surprise and delight of the first person who picked up an ugly clam to cook dinner just to find a beautiful pearl nested inside. Beauty is everywhere in nature – we need only to look carefully. Similarly, the mysteries of God, though the whole of humanity will never unveil all of them, are accessible with a little detective work and persistence.
The Christian faith is unique in that it suggests that humans are not only capable of but are designed for a relationship with God. Throughout life on earth, the Christian is tasked with the seemingly impossible task of getting to know a God that he cannot even see. How does one know a hidden God? An incomplete but critical part of an answer to this question is through His creation. Just as one can learn about a writer by studying her works, so too can humanity learn more about God by beholding His earth and all that it contains. This does not mean that the Christian is meant to drop everything and either become a biologist or start pitching a long-term tent in the middle of the nearest National Forest. Instead, the Christian has a different lens through which he observes and interprets the natural world – one which gives him greater reverence for and understanding of the God behind the paintbrush.
The ultimate easter egg of the beauty of God’s creation, however, is perhaps the most hidden, simply because it is so obvious it doesn’t seem it could possibly be the right answer. Later in Genesis, in verse 27, we learn that man and woman were made in the image of the Creator Himself . Humanity is both in and above nature – we are made for it, to enjoy it, but we are also made to subdue it and care for it. As the Christian seeks to know God and revere His glory through the natural beauty around him, the clearest examples of who God is exist in the 8 billion images who walk the earth beside him. If we seek the beauty of God, we need look no further than the reflection in the mirror. Still, if humankind is the foundation of the beauty of creation, then the rest of the world is the frosting on the cake. The Creator of the universe has created a world of abundant beauty and mystery – what a joy and privilege that we can behold some of what He has hidden for us in plain sight.
Kylie Howerter, Social Media Director
Kylie is a senior from Littleton, CO studying psychology and business at Vanderbilt.
- Henry David Thoreau. 1854. Walden. Emphasis added.
- Olsen, Reed N., Terrel Gallaway, and David Mitchell. 2014. “Modeling US Light Pollution.” Journal of Environmental Planning and Management 57 (5–6): 883–903.
- Immanuel Kant, and Paul Guyer. 2000. Critique of the Power of Judgment. The Cambridge Edition of the Works of Immanuel Kant. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
- Reiter, Aviv. 2021. “Kant on the Aesthetic Ideas of Beautiful Nature.” The British Journal of Aesthetics 61 (4): 403–19.
- Genesis 1:1, English Standard Version
- Genesis 1:27, English Standard Version