I spent ten days this month in Alaska, at a writing conference sponsored by the author Leslie Leyland Fields. From a small private island just off the large island of Kodiak, Leslie and her family run a commercial fishing operation. The twenty of us who flew in from “the lower 48” had to adapt to the wilderness setting: outhouses, no hot water, no cell phone service, and a limit of ten minutes per day on the Internet (yes!).

By its sheer size and remoteness, Alaska puts human beings in their place.  Less than a million people populate a state twice as large as Texas (which has 28 million and still seems uncrowded).  Before the conference, as we flew over Kodiak Island in a float plane, our pilot pointed out specks on the lush green hills: “Those brown dots are a herd of elk, and the white ones on the cliffs are mountain sheep.”  During that hour-long flight, we saw no human settlements, only a handful of secluded fishing cabins.

I got a glimpse of the way the planet must have looked at the dawn of creation, before our species multiplied to seven billion and reshaped much of it with our industrial might.  At the same time, I felt pity for those who grow up in cities such as Jakarta, Beijing, or Los Angeles, believing the world consists of foul gray air and dirty concrete.  From the plane we saw blue-tinged glaciers, silvery salmon streams, and majestic stands of Sitka spruce trees.  As a backyard gardener, I marveled at the forests and colorful meadows that flourish without cultivation, sustained only by water falling from the sky.

Recall, in the creation story God pronounced the world good even before the creation of man and woman.  God’s later instructions on caring for the land carried the tone of a concerned father surrendering his property to unreliable children.  If you defile the land, God warned the Israelites, “it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you” (Leviticus 18:29).  Nor, God added, should siege armies cut down fruit trees: “Are the trees of the field men, that you should besiege them?” (Deuteronomy 20:19).

Clearly, God cares deeply about the fate of the earth.  The naturalist John Muir, who treasured “the world as God sees it,” remarked about the fossil record, “It is a great comfort…that vast multitudes of creatures, great and small and infinite in number, lived and had a good time in God’s love before man was created.”

Whales barely survived the last century, tigers and rhinoceroses teeter on the verge of extinction, and elephants may be next.  Our float plane, however, was ferrying us to visit Geographic Harbor, a prime spot for observing grizzly bears (more properly, “coastal brown bears”), a species still plentiful.

Nothing undercuts human hubris like a grizzly bear.  A big male can weigh a thousand pounds and still outrun a race horse.  I once interviewed a Canadian teenager who leaped onto the back of a mother grizzly that had attacked his girlfriend.  When he plunged a six-inch knife into the sow’s shoulder, she roared and snapped her head back, breaking his wrist and flinging him ten feet in the air.  Then, one swipe of her claw peeled the skin off his face and skull.  Amazingly, he lived, though he lost an eye and an ear and had to endure ninety surgeries to repair the damage.  (Ever grateful, the girlfriend overlooked his scars and married him.)

As I stood in Geographic Harbor amid a dozen grizzlies, I felt anxiety, yes, but also an appropriate sense of awe.  We humans made small, slow movements, and tried not to look the bears in the eye.  The grizzlies sniffed the air, reared up on their hind legs, chased each other, slapped at salmon—in short, they did whatever they wanted.  Wilderness teaches humility by reminding us that we are a part of nature, not its masters.

Nature also inspires a sense of wonder.  For years it puzzled researchers that another species, polar bears, never showed up on the aerial infrared photographs used in animal censuses.  Strangely, they showed up very dark on ultraviolet photographs, even though white objects normally reflect ultraviolet light rays.  In 1978 a U.S. Army Researcher discovered the reason: polar bear hairs are transparent, not white.  Under a scanning electron microscope they appear as hollow tubes, lacking any pigment.  They trap ultraviolet rays, hence the dark images on ultraviolet photos.  Meanwhile, the fur provides such efficient insulation that the bear’s outer temperature stays virtually the same as the surrounding ice—which explains why polar bears do not show up on infrared photos.

Atheists such as Daniel Dennett and Richard Dawkins explain away such design marvels as the result of unguided mutations that get naturally selected over time.  I have had conversations with scientists who likewise accept randomness as the underlying force that somehow produced the diversity and complexity of all creatures on earth.  Still, as one admitted, “There are two questions no scientist can answer: Why is there something rather than nothing?  And, Why is that something so beautiful?”

I believe Christians underestimate the power of beauty.  Books of theology begin with abstract qualities like omniscience and omnipotence, though beauty is surely the most obvious fact of creation, a bright clue to the nature of our Creator.  Jesus himself drew a contrast between an ostentatious king and an everyday flower: “Not even Solomon in all his splendor is dressed like one of these wildflowers.”  I think of that verse when I hike the Rocky Mountains and turn a corner to find a carpet of wildflowers, radiating beauty in a wilderness void of humans.

Beauty abounds in nature.  A collection of seashells, gathered from beaches in the Philippines, Kenya, and the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, comprises the most beautiful artwork in my home.  By any standard these castoff excretions of brainless mollusks represent art of the highest order, but for whom—and by whom?  It takes faith either way, to see beauty as a freak accident, or as the intentional expression of One for whom beauty expresses essence.  Augustine chose the latter course, tracing beauty to its source.  “I have learnt to love you late, beauty at once so ancient and so new!” he confessed; “…in my unlovely state I plunged into those lovely created things which you made.  You were with me, and I was not with you.”

As I saw this month, Alaska presents “those lovely created things” in abundance.  A bald eagle gracefully landing on the highest branch of a towering Sitka spruce, lifting his head and tucking in his wings as if posing for a photograph.  A pod of fin whales rhythmically spouting geyser-like columns twenty feet high.  Sea lions craning their necks to better view the small boats encroaching on their territory.  Sea otters floating on their backs with a furry pup nestled on their stomachs.  They took my breath away, these fleeting brushes with what transpires in nature regardless of whether any human observes.  Both the sea lion and the grizzly eyed me with a combination of curiosity and warning.  This was their world, and I an uninvited guest.

It saddens me that some of our best naturalists, committed to a materialistic point of view, lack the sense of wonder that expresses itself in praise.  Equally, it saddens me that so few Christians devote their lives to the study of God’s created world.  “Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them,” wrote the psalmist (111:2).

In his great poem on nature, “Providence,” 17th-century poet George Herbert asks,

But who hath praise enough? Nay who hath any?  
None can expresse thy works, but he that knows them…

As a model I look to John Muir, founder of the Sierra Club.  John’s Scottish Presbyterian father scorned his son’s interest in nature as frivolous and ungodly, wanting him to follow the example of Paul, who “desired to know nothing among men but Christ and Him crucified.”

Instead, John found resurgent faith in the realm of nature.  The smallest plot of ground, he said is “ten thousand-fold too great for our comprehension, and we are at length lost, bewildered, overwhelmed in the immortal, shoreless, fathomless ocean of God’s beauty.”

God loves matter. It is God’s creation, after all, and our own attempts at creativity yield but a poor imitation. We can, however, provide the appropriate words of response: wonder, praise, awe, mystery.  More, we can treat this world not as a cosmic accident, one that has neither design nor purpose. Rather, we can honor it as the gift of a magnificent Artist who has fashioned it for us as a home in which to thrive—and who asks that we respond with gratitude and the proper care befitting such a gift.

 

 

 

 

 

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50 responses to “The World Before Us”

  1. “He who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead; his eyes are closed.” – Albert Einstein

  2. Michele says:

    I find that most Christians, especially Protestant Christians, are blind to the beauty of Creation even if they sing song like How Great Thou Art, For the Beauty of the Earth,etc,in large part they take that beauty on trust and don’t bother to look around at it. Take snow, for example. Most people have accepted the concept that snow is white, and don’t give it another thought. Well, like the hairs of Polar bears snow does not actually have a color of its own anymore than water flowing from the tap does. It just reflects the colors of its environment, except for glacier meltwater since glacier lakes are emerald green. But have you ever really looked at a winter sunset when the snow is turning golden pink under the rays of the setting sun? I like to say that God was the first artist that ever lived, and all our ability to paint our world or sculpt it or represent it in any other way comes from Him. God CAN paint. He creates a brand-new sunrise and sunset every day, and no two individuals are exactly identical even billions of them have walked the earth since Creation, a proof of divine creativity if anyone needed it, but people prefer the same thing all the same, because that way you don’t have to wonder what to get next; it’s all figured out already. So we trade variety which is the spice of life for monotony because we are intellectually lazy and variety requires effort.
    When my mom lived in her condo near a local river I would watch the reflections of the setting sun on sunny winter days and daydream of being able to reproduce them on canvas one day. Well, I’ve tried but no success so far. Acrylic paints are too limited. I’d give a lot to know what media God uses in His artwork. I’ll cut this short because I’M REALLY SLEEPY, but all those who look and see the beauty of Creation, please do insist that your friends look at it. They don’t know what they’re missing.

  3. Cameron says:

    Phillip,

    It was such a privilege to meet you Monday @ the Biologos event. I am glad to see some of your thoughts from that event written out here!

    It’s interesting- having read many of your books- it felt like I’ve already known you for years. I never knew you were such a funny guy, though! Your analysis of Bloodhound Gang’s ‘The Bad Touch’ had us rolling… and your point will not be forgotten.

    All the best to you and your wife,

    Cameron

  4. Thank you Philip, for this wonderful piece on God’s beauty. As I love the beauty and splendor of the desert Southwest from Santa Fe to Sedona…from the Grand Canyon to Arizona’s elevation changes when driving from Phoenix to Flagstaff. God Bless You my friend and author in Christ.

  5. Preston Rentz says:

    When I was young, I tried to escape my pain through the marvels of a man-made world. As I age, I’m increasingly finding comfort in God’s exquisite creation, and its beauty pierces me on a deeper level than any pain ever did.

  6. Holly Cory says:

    I can’t get enough of God’s magnificent creation. I owe much of this to my parents. My mom was an art teacher and my dad taught Biology. They both instilled a love for art and nature in the lives of their 5 children. I now seek to instill that same love to my children, grandchildren and students. I grew up in Wheaton, IL, but have lived in CO for 30 years. I have family and friends that know and love you from both places. Your books have always been my favorite Christian books. You tell about life in stories. You are open, humble and real. Your blog makes me jealous. I want to experience God’s creation around the world as well as in my backyard. I hope to get to Alaska some time! Holly LeMaire Cory

  7. Laurel C Kriegler says:

    You always say it so well. Completely agree with everything you’ve said here. May God bless you.

  8. Carol Byrd says:

    I remember reading your interview of Annie Dillard back in 1978 (I think), and it made me want to read Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Thank you for consistently leading me into a deeper sense of awe of who God is and all that He has made.

  9. Grace says:

    Speaking of John Muir, have you read: “The Laws Guide to Nature Drawing and Journaling” ? It’s a great book!

  10. Ruth Silver says:

    Thank you for bringing this glimpse of the wilderness which is Alaska which as ever is expressed so eloquently and gives so much food for thought. From where I live in what was once coal mining country in South Wales, UK I am amazed that nature has once more reclaimed the land which is bursting with trees and love the sight of buzzards flying overhead while at the same time enjoying seeing the wren and the robins to name a few smaller birds in the locality. The one reminder of the industrial past is the pit winding wheel in the valley below.

  11. Katy says:

    Thank you for this, Philip. It made me wonder if you’ve heard the late John O’Donohue’s beautiful interview with Krista Tippett: https://onbeing.org/programs/john-odonohue-the-inner-landscape-of-beauty-aug2017/

    I am now reading his book on beauty…it’s one of those that you savor every paragraph for hours.

  12. George Fanning says:

    Philip, As usual you leave us more encouraged rather than guilty and for that I thank you.

    George

  13. Robert says:

    Speaking of God’s natural beauty, I was intrigued to see Rumors of Another World is to have a new lease of life as A Skeptics Guide to Faith. For years I have considered Rumors to be an undiscovered gem in the Yancey cannon. Most people I speak to about your work are familiar with What’s So Amazing About Grace or The Jesus I Never Knew, but I’ve hardly met anyone who’s come across Rumors, which I find astonishing as in my opinion it’s the book where you really nail the fundamental mysteries of God’s existence, the beauty and purpose of our world and the meaning of our lives. It’s my first port of call for any confused atheist or agnostic, and I can’t recommend it highly enough to anyone interested in our relationship to the universe. As a writer myself, I am constantly baffled by what catches the popular imagination and what doesn’t, and I can certainly imagine your publisher’s frustration at this book slipping under the radar. Whilst I sympathise with their notion that a more prosaic, descriptive title might do the trick, I’m afraid it does nothing for me and I’ll be sticking to Rumors of Another World!

    • Philip Yancey says:

      Very encouraging post, thank you. It’s a mystery to the writer to, as you know. My favorites of the books I’ve written are almost inversely proportional to the sales records! –Philip

      • Thank you Philip, for this wonderful piece on God’s beauty.
        And thank you Robert for pointing me to:’Rumors of another world’
        It will be next on my reading list.
        As a visual artist I hope to point people, through my work, to the mysteries and beauty of God.
        I expect ‘Rumors of another world’ to be a help in my own life and in my process of creating work that celebrates God’s beauty and mystery.

  14. Jeanette says:

    This article makes me think you must be a kindred spirit. The awesomeness of nature is what makes me glad I’m not an atheist–it begs a response of praise.

  15. Tom Matthews says:

    I live in Juneau, AK and have pastored a small church here for almost 14 years. We love the ministry here because of the people. But it is also my prayer that we never lose our appreciation of the incredible, awesome world around us. What a gift from God that continually reminds us of His love for us, of His grace that abounds (we sure didn’t earn this), and of His love of beauty that is seen in His creation.

  16. Grace says:

    Thank you for such a great piece of writing. I absolutely love nature. I have to say, Singapore isn’t the place when you think of abundant, breath-taking beauty (our beaches are dirty and water mostly blackish) – but finding beauty even when in hard pressed places like Singapore is a personal project i’ve decided to embark on. The skies’ pastel colours and the way the clouds swirl – those things alone can take one’s breath away. We don’t have lots of natural wildflowers (mostly imported), but our tropical rainforests and little hidden nature reserves still stir up that sense of awe.

    I agree, Christians don’t discuss the wonders of nature enough – the things made by God’s words! “He spoke, and they came to be”. This article is a great call to return nature’s already-there embrace.

  17. Wanjiru says:

    Dear Philip,
    This is indeed a lovely piece..every day as I travel to and from my home to work, I marvel at the beauty of nature all around me and especially the majestic trees and beautiful flowers. It helps to calm and prepare me as I head to the office.

    Thank you for the reminder that we have a responsibility to safeguard the earth as God has given us.
    God bless

  18. Frank Procopio says:

    Beautiful!! Thanks for sharing!!

  19. Dave says:

    Phillip,
    Thank you so much for this work, “The World Before Us”. I have been kind of lost lately, for a while actually. When reading any of your works, I feel as though I am sitting across the table from my best friend. We are honest an open with each other and don’t really know where the conversation will lead, but we always end up growing in knowledge and love of God.
    “The World Before Us” moved me from my worldly “woe is me” attitude to see and appreciate the beauty and love of God’s creation that is there every day.
    Peace and Grace,
    Dave

  20. Angela says:

    I enjoyed reading your account of your experience in Kodiak island , Alaska and immediately shared it with my children and on FB! It is true that we don’t take enough to savour the beauty of God’s created world. As a child I enjoyed my holidays in the hills in my little island could try Ceylon now called Sri Lanka. If you thought of God’s unspoilt beauty in Kodiak was so enriching, then you must visit Sri Lanka! And soon too!
    Ensure you go to the hills and to Elephant and Wildlife sanctuary and in UDA WALAWE and Yala.
    Hope to see you soon!
    God Bless you and thank you again for bringing to life God’s beauty using magical vocabulary !

  21. Jeff M says:

    Beautifully written. I did, however, double back at the end to check that the title wasn’t “A Pilgrim on Kodiak Island” 🙂

  22. Thanks so much for sharing your Alaska trip with us. I’ve tried to find my purpose in writing and come back to what you talk about: showing people the beauty of the world. That seems to be what people respond to. Your writing here affirms that. Blessings…

  23. Michelle Novak says:

    Phillip,

    This is a post after my own heart, in many ways.

    I have spent a half-decade building a creation theology, with a wonderful immersion in the entire word of God, and countless hours wandering and studying seemingly every inch of western NY State in all seasons, as well as meeting and conversing with most of the great writing naturalists.

    It’s been a thrill. Reading your post here makes my heart pound with worship for our Glorious God!

    But Leslie Leyland Fields is also a dear friend, who led me to Christ back in 1993! We’ve written thousands of letters back and forth since I left Kodiak, and your post here also makes my heart ache for those days.

    I’m so glad you were able to work with Leslie, and that you were able to derive so much enjoyment from Alaska.

    This is a marvelous piece.

    Lord bless you as you continue in your ministry.

  24. Joanie says:

    Hi Phillip,
    It’s Joanie. Loved this blog!!!
    So beautiful!!!! I have read the afore mentioned book you wrote several years ago. (naturally)!
    You are right….. We get so caught up in the abstract that we miss what our Creator is trying to tell us about His Creative Nature by showing us a facet of Him.
    This blog is a blessing I really needed this blog to hear from you at this juncture in my life.
    How do you know when you write,that for me, …. it is to see, hear, and reflect right when I need it most?
    Thanks for the blog.!!!! It is beautiful as are you ,my friend,with the wisdom of your words and thoughts……
    Always,
    Joanie

  25. Dan Story says:

    I have long enjoyed your books, and have felt we are like-minded in our love and enjoyment for God’s creation. This blog was even more confirmation. I thought you might be interested in my recent blog series: “Encountering God in the Wilderness: A Spiritual Journey of Discovery,” which is adapted from my newest book (in progress). You can check them out at http://www.danstory.net/blog. I also wrote a book for Kregel Publications, Should Christians Be Environmentalist? of course the answer is yes!

    Thanks for you ministry,
    Dan Story

    I

  26. Bob Sutton says:

    My wife and I live in the midst of similar beauty, thank you Philip for your good, God-inspired comments. Lord, open my eyes to the wonder of Your creation!

  27. Doranna Cooper says:

    I used to escort senior citizens on trips & cruises. One thing I noticed was the behavior: Alaska, they were awed by the scenery & didn’t party as much; Panama Canal & Caribbean was to try every drink & party late at night. God’s creation was that effective.

  28. Ah, Philip! Your last paragraph captures my sentiments about God and His glorious creation! God is indeed a “magnificent Artist”! Thank you for sharing your thoughts in this piece and for sharing your gifts–yourself–on Harvester. Lovely photos! I have the same one of the otter and her pup!

  29. Verne Becker says:

    Wonderful, Philip! Made me think of a book about Alaska that I savored years ago: The Island Within, by Richard Nelson.

  30. thank you so much for such words, making our eyes open even more to contemplate the beauty of the world around us. Even when there is too much concrete and traffic! How wonderful to see all those animals where they should be.

  31. Randy Chenoweth says:

    Philip,
    Thank you for drawing me towards ,however momentary, His places of such beauty. We read in Genesis ”
    And God saw that it was good.

  32. Stephen Monk says:

    What a wonderful blog and an amazing and blessed writer. Philip you always enrich my priestly ministry. Thanks you. From Derbyshire , England. God bless.

  33. Teddie says:

    Thank you so very much, Every morning when I get up, I am reminded what my Mom always said, “This is the day the Lord hath made, let us rejoice and be glad in it” and I look out my windows and see the birds in their birdbath or in their feeders and am always in awe has to what our God has shared with me! Blessings, Teddie

  34. Yes, “God loves matter” so it should matter to us! Thanks for your thoughts, Philip. My whole adult life I’ve taken my daily prayer walk in God’s creation, whether 90 degrees or 10 below zero. It’s just easier for me to communicate with the Creator when I’m in His creation.

  35. Thank you for giving me a moment to pause and marvel at God’s creation, here at my desk. I love the line from George Herbert too.

  36. Philip, Amen and amen. I am so privileged to call this place home. After decades here, if my eyes grow dim and narrow, forgetting to wonder and praise, I bring planeloads of guests whose joy and vision reminds me: “How Great Thou Art.” Thank you for sharing our island with us and opening our eyes yet further!!

  37. Jill Orr says:

    I had wanted to attend this conference, but God had other plans for me during this time. I prayed for the group throughout the week and have added it to my bucket list.

  38. Jane says:

    Amen, and Amen. Thank you, Philip.

  39. Sarah Sams Uyeshima says:

    Wonderful! Makes me want to see Alaska all the more. Today I will settle for watching brown pelicans soar low over the water off my deck as they hunt for breakfast.

  40. Bruce says:

    Great thoughts about nature and God’s role. Blessings

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