The other day on a hike I noticed a mountain laurel bush jutting from the sheer wall of a rock tower, visible only to goat-footed hikers willing to climb up a mountain and scrabble over a series of shale-fissure rock formations just for fun. The laurel was a static explosion in white and green, as if the bush had been caught in the act of propelling itself off the rock wall, sending miniature blooms of white fire ahead as a vanguard. It was beautiful, and no one but the stray hiker will ever see it.
Nature reveals some of her most unexpected wonders to those who go searching in odd places, which is a major motivation for many hikers. But we may still find it strange that so much beauty comes to be and passes away far from the realm of human experience. Why does God cause a mountain laurel to grow in a place of aesthetic perfection that few men will ever see? What about the herds of majestic caribou in Alaska that will propagate for generations without ever encountering a human being? Or, even farther afield, what about the unimagined marvels of gas giants, stars, and whole galaxies that have come into and passed out of existence without any human interaction?
We may at first be tempted to believe that created beauty that men can’t experience is somehow wasted, as if all creation exists only for man’s enjoyment. Or we may respond with a convoluted train of reasoning showing how even unseen events in nature attain their true fulfillment as objects of human experience (e.g. the dinosaur was born, ate, reproduced, and died only in order to become oil that could be discovered by a Texas baron and then sold to feed the baron’s brood of babbling baronets).
These explanations are appealing because they recognize man’s unique dignity as a rational animal made in the image of God, to whom alone God gave dominion over the world and everything in it (cf. Gen 1:26-30). Also, we know that God providentially orders even the smallest events, so there’s nothing bizarre in saying that an event one hundred thousand years ago could have a divinely intended effect today.
But these views fall into error by focusing excessively on man; even though God chose to give the world to man for his use, the ultimate end of every created thing remains not man but God. In the act of creation, God chose to make the nearly infinite number of disparate beings as a way of revealing a nearly infinite number of different aspects of his own undivided being. Every created thing discloses some part of the divine goodness in which it participates; God did not have to create anything at all, but he chose to freely, making each thing the way it is out of wholly gratuitous love.
This means that the first end of a creature is not to be used by man, but to be itself, because in doing so it reveals some unique dimension of the God who made it. Man’s use or enjoyment of a creature always depends on the thing being itself; a man cannot kill and eat a chicken unless it is first a chicken, with all the inherent goodness of being a chicken. God made the chicken out of delight in his own goodness, and the chicken achieves its end by being what God desires it to be. The chicken derives its meaning not from the man who eats it, but from the God who made it.
This brings us back to my secluded mountain laurel, and all the hidden beauties of the universe. The beautiful mountain laurel does not exist in order to please me; rather, it pleases me because it exists, and because its existence points toward the glorious God who sustains it in being. Natural splendor that man never delights in is not wasted; God delights in it, and thereby brings it to its end.
Recognizing that God is the Lord of creation, the source of its meaning, and the end of its beauty frees man to marvel at the glory of the world. If man were the measure of the world, then all hiking, biological study, or aesthetic refinement would only be a complicated form of self-exploration, by which man would learn about himself. But because God is the measure of the world, every created good points in some distant way to the uncreated Good that made it. By grace, an encounter with a created beauty can point us toward the uncreated Beauty of God.
The joy of discovering a hidden mountain laurel clinging to a rock face is not a matter of imposing my own meaning upon an object. Rather, the joy of discovering hidden beauty is the knowledge that I have stumbled upon a chorus of praise that has been going on long before I came to see it, and that will continue long after I am gone. The hiker’s greatest gift is to join in this great chorus:
Bless the Lord, all you works of the Lord, praise and exalt him above all forever. . . Let the earth bless the Lord. Praise and exalt him above all forever. Mountains and hills, bless the Lord. Everything growing from the earth, bless the Lord (Dn 3:57, 74-76).
Image: Childe Hassam, Lyman’s Ledge, Appledore