I believe the key element in our recovering the lost theology of beauty—a loss that is evident in our often insensitive and utilitarian approach to the natural world—is to recognize that the beauty of the created world is evidence of the Creator himself. It’s significant that in the Genesis creation account the first fact mentioned about the trees of the garden was that they were “pleasing to the eye” (Gen. 2:9). Yes, they were “good for food,” but apparently what was most striking to the new dwellers of Eden was their beauty.
John Muir believed that “everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to body and soul alike.” The value of natural beauty to the human soul was what inspired the masterful landscape painter Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River School of painting. With his paintings he wanted to put people back in touch with the Creator. He hoped his paintings would give city-dwelling admirers a yearning for the outdoors where they too could discover what he had—that “in gazing on the pure creations of the Almighty, he feels a calm religious tone steal through his mind, and when he has turned to mingle [again] with his fellow men, the chords which have been struck in that sweet communion cease not to vibrate.”
Maybe that’s why I admire Cole’s paintings and not Picasso’s. If we saw something like a Picasso in nature, we’d know at once it did not come from God’s hands! Beauty may be nature’s most profound apologist for God. [For a very deep look at Picasso and the issue of beauty, see this essay by N. A. Berdyaev.]
[Painting: "Falls of the Kaaterskill" Thomas Cole, 1826]