Sunday 11 January 2015

Of lilies and mountaintops

Consider how the lilies grow in the fields;
they do not work, they do not spin;
and yet, I tell you,
even Solomon in all his splendour was not attired like one of these.
Matthew 6:28-29 (NEB)

"In reading hundreds of years of Christian literature, it is not until the seventeenth century that anyone ever climbs a mountain in order to bask in its greatness and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Christians were so unworldly, so ascetic, that they had no proper appreciation for the joy of nature."

The above quote is from a 1991 seminar transcript by Bob Brinsmead (Jesus and a Post-Modern Worldview). Certainly there are passages in the Bible - such as the one from Matthew and others in Psalms - that can be read as demonstrating some sense of aesthetic appreciation of the natural world. But the contention here is that this kind of awe disappeared as the church rose, that by implication the original Christian view of creation was entirely utilitarian.

Can anyone cite a church father or other Christian source prior to the seventeenth century to the contrary?


  1. "All the efforts of the human mind cannot exhaust the essence of a single fly." ---Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274)

  2. Great topic. Sad -- when folks seek what is beyond, they miss the trip right under nose. Church "fathers" were too busy branding each other heretics or starving themselves into hallucination in the desert to notice the beauty of their creator in a simple (rather than utilitarian) way.

    One could hope to propose that the rise of religious art somehow made an effort, but the christian versions did start rather later and still mainly serve(d) dogma and liturgy rather than appreciated the wider world of things "wonderfully made." Pope John Paul II wrote a letter to artists in 1999, I posted at In it, he claims: "Among the many themes treated by Augustine we find De Musica; and Hilary of Poitiers Ambrose, Prudentius, Ephrem the Syrian, Gregory of Nazianzus and Paulinus of Nola, to mention but a few, promoted a Christian poetry which was often of high quality not just as theology but also as literature." He doesn't mention hilltops, though.

    Here's a sample from Gregory Nazianzus, which is somewhat telling of the focus for the patriarchal period with respect to their contemplative lens: "I do not celebrate the madness of love and the beauty of ephebes for whom the lyre of men of former times was softly struck. I celebrate the great God ruling on high, and the shining of my brilliant Triad, gathered together in one (godhead)."

    They were too worried about distinguishing themselves from the pagans (even though they still ended up using pagan forms) and drawing a fence around orthodox doctrine to stop and smell the roses (or lilies).

  3. Au contraire: "To all earth's creatures God has given the broad earth, the springs, the rivers and the forests, giving the air to the birds, and the waters to those who live in water, giving abundantly to all the basic needs of life, not as a private possession, not restricted by law, not divided by boundaries, but as common to all, amply and in rich measure." --- Gregory of Nazianzus

  4. If read from a wide view, it is still only a utilitarian use of the features of nature -- to give the god credit for providence -- not to appreciate the elements as beautiful in and of themselves. It's hard to believe anyone can really read Gregory on the whole and come away thinking he was a lover of nature -- but all are entitled to their interpretations.