How the beauty of the Highlands can lead us to greater understandings - Dr Andy Bannister

Every year around this time, the outdoor bug gets hold of my kids and they start dropping hints: “Dad, it’s going to be five degrees on Saturday—please can we go camping?”

Dr Andy Bannister, Solas
Dr Andy Bannister, Solas

Thus last weekend the shed was prised open and miscellaneous dusty camping paraphernalia stuffed into our elderly Volvo until its springs groaned. Despite my wife’s trepidation, the sun actually shone and we had a fantastic weekend, the highlight of which was bribing the kids to climb their first Munro, the gnarly rock summit of Càrn Aosda that overlooks the Glen Shee pass.

My six-year-old son’s reaction on arriving at the top was priceless. As the cries of “Wait for me!” and “Parents shouldn’t be allowed to make their kids climb mountains” died away he stood, open-mouthed, gazing at the incredible view down Glen Clunie, with the snow-capped Cairngorms glittering in the distance. “Dad! That’s amazing!” my son cried out. “Look at the view!” And then he flopped to the ground and just stared for a few minutes. It’s one of the few times I’ve ever known him silent.

Sometimes kids see the wonder in the world better than we adults, but this time my son wasn’t alone: I heard similar gasps of appreciation at the spectacular scenery from others on the summit that day.

There is something about natural beauty that often just takes our breath away. And here in Scotland we are blessed with so much of it: awesome mountain ranges, lonely glens, rugged coastlines, and pristine forests. So much that we can sometimes take it for granted.

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But have you ever wondered about beauty: why are we so drawn to it? One of Scotland’s best-loved nature writers, Nan Shepherd, spoke of natural beauty being “a small enchantment”—but why? What is it about beauty that can evoke joy, wonder, and awe?

There’s a conundrum here, in that our secular age wants to tell us that only material things exist. Many of us have been taught that there is no soul, no spirit, no transcendent reality and certainly no God. And on this view of the world, well, a sunset is just light bouncing off the atmosphere; a view merely photons hitting our retinas; and our sense of wonder and awe, only chemical reactions, a neurological tic.

But that doesn’t come even close to our actual experience of beauty, does it? Something has gone badly wrong with us if that’s our reaction to the natural world.

So where does beauty fit into a secular view of things? The stark and simple answer is: it doesn’t. Struggling with this very question, the famous French atheist Albert Camus 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.” In other words, beauty points beyond itself and sets the heart yearning for something that molecules, atoms and particles alone can never ultimately satisfy.

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But if the secular, materialistic view of things fails, those of us who love the natural world need not despair, because there is a different view of the world into which beauty fits much better.

In the Bible we read: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands”, one of many places where the Bible speaks of natural beauty as a signpost. Why do we respond so instinctively to beauty? Simply because beauty points beyond itself, to the God who is the ultimate source of all wonder and all beauty.

If beauty is not just an end in itself (lovely as it it) but a signpost to the God who made it, maybe next time we’re awed by the natural world, consider reaching out to and seeking that God—for the invitation at the heart of the Christian faith is not just to know the artwork, but the artist.Dr Andy Bannister, Solas Centre for Public Christianity

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