It can be easier to notice things away from home, when we are relaxed and surrounded by unfamiliar sights in an exotic location. But sometimes the same wonders at there in our own back yard: old familiar scenes that we haven’t taken in because we see them every day. GK Chesterton was a great advocate of intensive observation, and he invited his readers to take a fresh look at things that might be taken for granted. His motivation, he says in his self-deprecating English way, was being too lazy to travel – but mine is wonder. Continue reading
The oceans are the least explored place in the world. They are a source of great beauty and value to ourselves as a source of food, water and so many other ‘ecosystem services’, as well as having their own intrinsic value. Marine conservationist Bob Sluka has featured on this blog a number of times, and in this month’s podcast he shares his appreciation of the beauty of the oceans, and how that relates to his faith. Continue reading
In my reading of the natural theology literature I’m finding myself drawn to the pre-enlightenment scientists and theologians. Theologian Jame Schaefer has written about the appreciation that a number of patristic and medieval theologians showed for the beauty of the earth. In their writing they express awe, wonder, delight and joy in their study of nature.
‘diversity of beauty in sky and earth and sea…the dark shades of woods, the colour and fragrance of flowers; the countless different species of living creatures of all shapes and sizes…the mighty spectacle of the sea itself, putting on its changing colours like different garments, now green, with all the many varied shades, now purple, now blue.’
Augustine, The City of God
For these theologians, careful study of God’s creation is almost essential. It’s commonplace for them (and the early scientists such as Bacon and Pascal, that I recently read about in Nancy Frankenberry’s book) to express great thankfulness that they are able to ‘read God’s book of nature’, unlike the foolish ones who pass all these delights by.
Schaefer outlines five ways of appreciating creation:
- Affective appreciation – simply delighting in what is seen.
- Affective-cognitive appreciation – a deeper, scientific study of nature leads to even greater joy for the beholder.
- Cognitive appreciation – thinking in more abstract ways about the beauty of the whole interconnected universe.
- Incomprehensibility – being bowled over by the magnitude and complexity of the universe and everything in it.
- The sacramental quality of the physical world – the world God has created mediates something of God’s presence and character to us.
One of my favourites among the theologians covered in the paper was an unnamed Cistercian who wrote extensively about the abbey where he lived and the surrounding countryside. He was obviously very happy with his vocation, and showed a good understanding of the interconnectedness of the different factors – water, weather, crops etc – almost an early ecology. The other was Albert the Great, teacher of Aquinas, who wrote on ‘the importance of observation and experimentation in field and laboratory studies of animals, plants, metals, and inorganic elements’. He conducted field studies, and ‘legitimised the study of the natural world as a science within the Christian tradition’. For him, appreciation of nature had both cognitive and emotional aspects.
That I might train my senses to appreciate the world more is obviously not a new thought to a biologist. But Schaefer’s very clearly defined connection between science, a more intuitive appreciation of nature, and faith is interesting and extremely relevant today, when much of the world is being lost to the bulldozer. As Schaefer says, ‘At present, sacramental beholders are desperately needed.’