The most basic, uncontroversial manifestation of beauty is the beauty of the natural world. Sunsets, waterfalls, canyons, deserts, mountain vistas, forest glades, ocean views — these are the images that come unreflectively to mind as beauty in its raw, elemental state.
Appreciation for the grandeur of nature on the one hand makes us feel small, and on the other hand “stirs in us, obscurely, vague and indeterminate heroic potentialities. . . . Hence an impression both of awe and challenge,” as Jaques Maritain says.
This is the beauty everyone can agree on, whether believer or unbeliever.
The Church & Bible on Nature
The Church and the Bible are replete with appreciation for nature. Take, for instance, what the Catechism of the Catholic Church says about the natural world:
Even before revealing himself to man in words of truth, God reveals himself to him through the universal language of creation, the work of his Word, of his wisdom: the order and harmony of the cosmos — which both the child and the scientist discover — “from the greatness and beauty of created things comes a corresponding perception of their Creator,” “for the author of beauty created them” (Wisd. 13:3, 5). (2500)
As for the Bible, from the first chapter of Genesis, God is represented in a way that evokes the image of an artist, making things intelligently and freely, for His own delight.
The world is crafted intelligently, with the first three days of creation devoted to preparing spaces (light and dark, sky and sea, land) and the next three days devoted to filling the spaces with inhabitants (sun and moon, birds and fish, land creatures, and humans). There’s a plan, a pattern, that governs God’s act of creation.
The world is crafted freely. God doesn’t say, “We must,” before each act of creation. He says, “Let us.” Let’s do it. Let’s make it like this. Why? Why not? He’s the Creator; He can do whatever He wants.
The world is crafted for God’s own delight. Again and again, we read, “And God saw that it was good.” Remember, when you delight in perceiving something’s goodness, you know it’s beautiful. The psalms tell us that this is God’s experience with the natural world: “The Lord takes delight in his creatures” (see Ps. 104:31). And the book of Wisdom addresses God, saying, “For thou lovest all things that exist, and hast loathing for none of the things which thou hast made, for thou wouldst not have made anything if thou hadst hated it” (Wisd. 11:24).
Nature is orderly. God has “arranged all things by measure and number and weight” (Wisd. 11:20). Psalm 104 is a magnificent canticle to the divine plan of nature, to God’s organization of all things: “Thou dost cause the grass to grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate. . . . Thou hast made the moon to mark the seasons; the sun knows its time for setting. . . . O LORD, how manifold are thy works! In wisdom hast thou made them all; the earth is full of thy creatures” (vv. 14, 19, 24).
Stanley Jaki, among others, has repeatedly pointed out that the Christian recognition of the rationality inherent in the universe — which is made by the divine Intelligence — was crucial for the development of experimental science:
The history of science, with its several stillbirths and only one viable birth, clearly shows that the only cosmology, or view of the cosmos as a whole, that was capable of generating science was a view of which the principal disseminator was the Gospel itself. It was the Gospel that turned into a widely shared conviction the belief in the Father, maker of all things visible and invisible, who created all in the beginning and disposed everything in measure, number and weight, that is, with a rigorous consistency and Rationality.Stanley L. Jaki, The Origin of Science and the Science of Its Origin (South Bend, IN: Regnery, 1978), 99.
The point is that nature is understandable — it behaves according to consistent patterns that can be recognized and used for predictions and technology. If there were no consistent patterns in nature to be recognized, predictions and technology would be out of our reach, and all the benefits that come with physical science would be impossible.
Beauty always involves a pattern — a principle, a theme, or an idea that can be recognized by intelligence. This pattern is often called “form.” Nature is permeated with patterns, forms, and structures that can be seen and grasped and, usually, be given numerical expression.
Augustine describes the magnificent rationality present in the natural world:
The numerical or rhythmic structure of a tree is spatial, and it must be preceded by a numerical or rhythmic structure which is temporal. All growing things in the vegetable world grow by temporal dimensions, and it is from some deeply abstruse numerical system in them that they put forth their reproductive power. Such, perhaps, even more truly such, is the growth of physical bodies in the animal world, where the disposition of limbs and all else is based on rhythmic intervals and equality. . . . But even earth has its equality of parts, and its length, breadth, and height. All is due to the supreme eternal presidency of numerical rhythm, similitude, equality, and order.Augustine, De Musica, bk. VI.
But nature isn’t just orderly. It’s also surprising.
Nature is Surprising
The notion of “surprise” (or “wonder,” “astonishment,” “amazement,” “marvel”) is very difficult to capture. Let’s try a simple definition: surprise is the mind’s attentive response to what it does not find obvious. Based on that definition, we can say that there are two ways in which something can be surprising.
First, something can be subjectively surprising. In this sense, we’re surprised whenever something exceeds our personal comprehension or expectations.
Something can also be objectively surprising, however. Something is surprising in itself when it doesn’t have to be the way it is. If something is different than it might have been, then the way it is isn’t obvious. It’s obvious that an octagon has eight sides, but there’s nothing obvious about a stop sign being octagonal. Our stop signs could have been triangular or round. So we might wonder: Why did we make our stop signs octagonal?
Nature is surprising (marvelous, wonderful, amazing, astonishing) in both these senses.
It’s surprising to us because it exceeds our comprehension and our expectations. Walk in the woods on a fall day, and look at the trees without their leaves. Even though each of the trees conforms to a consistent pattern — they all share a common nature and have the same basic structure — look at the overwhelmingly diverse expression of that pattern! All the different shapes the branches take, the different directions they point in, the different crisscrossing designs you get from looking at them in various clusters. It’s dizzyingly complicated, too much to take in.
And being overwhelmed at the complexity of nature isn’t just a feature of the scientifically illiterate. Nature exceeds the comprehension and expectations of scientists themselves. That’s why scientists keep doing research — because no matter how much they discover, there’s always more about nature that they’re trying to figure out.
Nature is also surprising in itself because nature doesn’t have to be the way it is. We can imagine nature being differently constructed. There’s nothing obvious about gravity — why shouldn’t all objects repel instead of attracting? There’s nothing obvious about grass — why should it be green instead of red? And, most importantly, there’s nothing obvious about the fact that it exists at all. It doesn’t have to be the way it is. God was free when He made it, when He “calls into existence the things that do not exist” (Rom. 4:17).
So nature isn’t obvious — not to us, not in the way it exists, not even in existing at all. That is why we are able to say that nature truly is surprising.
God’s Existence and Nature’s Beauty
We’ve said that God’s intelligence is expressed in the orderly character of nature and that His freedom is expressed in the surprising character of nature. The beauty of nature consists in precisely this, that it expresses God’s intelligence and freedom.
Nature is God’s artwork, and it reveals the Supreme Artist. This is why reflecting on nature’s beauty should lead the mind to realize that Someone made it all.
St. Paul makes it clear that failing to acknowledge God can come only from ignoring the truth inherent in nature: “Ever since the creation of the world his invisible nature, namely, his eternal power and deity, has been clearly perceived in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse” (Rom. 1:20).
And St. Augustine explicitly ties the divine expression in nature to the notion of beauty:
Question the beauty of the earth, question the beauty of the sea, question the beauty of the air distending and diffusing itself, question the beauty of the sky. . . . Question all these realities. All respond: “See, we are beautiful.” Their beauty is a profession. These beauties are subject to change. Who made them if not the Beautiful One who is not subject to change?St. Augustine, Sermon 241.
So, what are the key takeaways here?
Looking at nature has gotten us closer to understanding what beauty is and what art is — since the beauty of God’s art, evidently, should serve as a paradigm for other forms of art and beauty.
Philosophers from Aristotle to Immanuel Kant have suggested that the fine arts are meant to imitate nature. And Christians who recognize nature as divine art, made intelligently and freely, would naturally agree.
Aquinas is very clear: “Nature is nothing other than a certain kind of art, namely God’s art.” Dante goes on to highlight the relation between God’s art and human art: “Your art too, as best it can, imitates Nature, the way an apprentice does his master; so your art may be said to be God’s grandchild.” Granted, Aquinas and Dante are using the term “art” in its generic sense, but it certainly applies in the more specific sense of fine arts as well.
Moreover, we’ve seen that the divine art of nature can be aptly characterized as both orderly and surprising. This will serve as our guide in unpacking other general subjects under the heading of “aesthetics.”
More than that, if the quest for beauty is a requirement of our existence, we are morally bound to protect and experience beauty manifest in the natural world. This means not only traveling to go camping or taking walks in the woods or hikes in the mountains, but also preserving natural beauty as an integral part of human surroundings.
Everybody knows nature can be a resource for humanity. And everybody knows nature is a home to humanity. But people tend to forget that nature is first and foremost a message to humanity — it is a mode of communication between us and God. And whenever we attack nature’s beauty, we undermine that message.
So no matter how impressive our own industrial projects, we must realize that the beauty of creation comes first. Again, Pope Francis worries that “we seem to think that we can substitute an irreplaceable and irretrievable beauty with something which we have created ourselves.”
We can’t, and our aesthetic sensitivity will remain permanently underdeveloped — we’ll never have a healthy relationship to beauty or art — if we don’t begin with the beauty of the art God Himself has produced on our behalf.