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Awestruck? Why?

Andy Bannister explores God, beauty and what’s going on when the natural world takes our breath away …

ANDY BANNISTER explores God, beauty and what’s going on when the natural world takes our breath away …

One of my favourite places in the world is the Lake District. Over the years, I have climbed every summit, wandered every shoreline and explored every valley. Every corner of this part of England offers incredible views, scenes that have drawn writers, poets and artists for centuries.

But what is it that attracts us to a spectacular mountain landscape, to a beautiful view, or to stare in awe at the maelstrom of colours in a sunset?

When faced with natural beauty, two philosophies present themselves. The first is naturalism, the worldview of many of my atheist friends, which says that only material things exist: atoms, particles, stuff. There is no soul, no spirit, no transcendent reality and certainly no God. The writer Anthony Esolen playfully parodies this philosophy:

“[For the philosophical naturalist] it is best to keep the word ‘only’ ready in the arsenal at all times. The flame of the sky at sunset is ‘only’ the part of spectrum that penetrates the atmosphere at that angle … it is ‘only’ something or other material that scientists know about … or at least somebody knows all about them in some Important Places. Beauty is ‘only’ a neurological tic, or a personal opinion.”1

Beauty is one of many such experiences that strips away our pretensions, exposes the frailties of our philosophy and points us beyond ourselves. The instinctive reaction to natural beauty is that it causes us to yearn, to desire, to sing with joy. As Wordsworth, who loved the English Lake District with a passion wrote: “My heart leaps up when I behold … the sky.”2

But there’s more. For many of us who love the wild places, as we look at natural beauty there’s an emotion sometimes more akin to homesickness: a desire for something or somewhere more beautiful, more radiant, more real. Whereas naturalism struggles to begin to even describe such emotions and the experience of seeing real beauty, a second worldview – Christianity – offers a more compelling explanation.

Consider these words of the Bible:
“The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Psalm 19:1

Why do we respond the way we do to beauty? Simply because it points beyond itself to something else, to the God who is the very source of all wonder, all goodness, all beauty; the God who is creator and artist and has painted and sculpted in creation countless masterpieces.

The atheist philosopher Albert Camus, wrestling with these ideas, wrote: “Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.”3

Tragically, I think that in atheism this holds true, because beauty points beyond itself and sets the heart yearning for something that molecules, atoms and particles alone can never ultimately satisfy.

But in the Bible, we read these words: “God has made everything beautiful in its time; He has also set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Eternity in our hearts. I might also add “and our eyes”. Plato once said, through the mouth of Socrates, that “wonder is the beginning of philosophy” and whilst that is true, it begs a question: where is its end? The answer, if we are to live authentically, is only in the fulfilment of wonder in the God who is the source of all beauty.    

Anthony Esolen, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books) 236.
Wordsworth, ‘My heart leaps up when I behold’ in Stephen Gill (ed.), William Wordsworth: The Major Works (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008 [1984]) 246.
Albert Camus, Notebooks 1935-1951 (New York: Marlowe & Company, 1963) 6.
Plato, Theaetetus.

  • Dr Andy Bannister is the Canadian Director of Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (RZIM). From churches to universities, business forums to TV and radio, Andy regularly addresses audiences of both Christians and those of all faiths and none, on issues relating to faith, culture, politics and society. His best-selling book, The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist (or: The Dreadful Consequences of Bad Arguments) is a fast-paced mix of comedy and theology that tackles many of the popular atheist soundbites about Christianity that regularly resurface in the media. Find out more and read a free chapter at www.theatheistwhodidntexist.com
  • PHOTO: Lake District scene - Shutterstock

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