At this time of year, our deck is one of my favourite places to read on a weekend. I love the view of our garden and the rambling, overgrown pathway that leads into the small woods that lie at the rear. I love the sound of the wind in the trees and the patterns of sunlight cast by the leaves. And I love the feel of the warm wooden boards of the deck beneath my feet. It was sitting there in the sunshine one weekend, idly reading a newspaper, that my eye was drawn to an article on the front page: “Twenty-Seven Places to See Before You Die”. Always drawn to a potentially good travel piece, I turned to the article. There, accompanied by some stunning photography, was laid out a collection of beautiful locations — Yosemite Valley, Cape Tribulation, the jagged peaks of Torres del Paine; even the English Lake District.
The beauty of the photographs aside, I was thrilled to discover that I had visited seven of those 27 places. 7 out of 27! I felt like a seasoned world traveller. Then a thought occurred. Last year I turned forty. That means that, quite probably, almost half of my life has gone and I’ve only seen a quarter of the sights on this list!
Then came a subsequent thought: Does that matter? The whole tone of the article was one of urgency: “Look at these amazing, beautiful places. Aren’t they wonderful! Aren’t they sublime! Wouldn’t you regret it if you got to the end of your life and had merely seen seven?” Understand that, as well as being a lover of nature, I am also a questioning soul and as I sipped my coffee and gazed at the newspaper, three questions occurred to me.
The first question was 'why'? Why do people compile lists like this—“Things To See Before You Die”? This is the theme of the 2007 movie, The Bucket List, in which Jack Nicholson and Morgan Freeman play two old men, Edward and Carter, who meet in a hospital ward where both are being treated for terminal lung cancer. Carter decides to write a list of things to see before he “kicks the bucket” and the film tells of the friendship that develops between the two men as the initially cantankerous Edward helps his new friend achieve his goal. The movie is playing with the same idea as the newspaper article: Wouldn’t it be terrible to die and not have experienced these things?
But if death really is the end, if this life is all there is, if all that awaits us beyond the grave is literally non-existence, then what does it matter? It’s not as if your first reaction on dying and realising you haven’t visited Venice will be regret or annoyance. Your first reaction after death will be the same as your next reaction: precisely nothing at all. As one atheist blogger put it: “Atheism teaches that your loved ones will die, your friends will die, your family will die, you will die, and that the universe, too, will ultimately die, empty and cold and alone. Nothing survives.” But if this is true, why worry about life and ensuring we pack it full? There’s no vantage point beyond the grave from which one will look back and regret. You see, lists like “Things To Do Before You Die,” show that many people’s outward atheism is only a thin shell. If we’re not careful, we’ll find experience poking holes in that outer shell—holes through which the transcendent can begin to shine.
One of the places where the transcendent sometimes shines through concerns the second question that occurred to me as I continued to read the newspaper. This time the question was 'what'? Specifically, what is beauty? Clearly these 27 places had been selected for the list because they were spectacularly and sublimely beautiful. Nature is certainly full of beauty. I can sit on a mountain summit and happily contemplate a view for hours. Natural beauty can render us speechless, move us to joy or tears, lift us beyond ourselves and instil awe at something greater than ourselves.
But what is beauty? It’s clearly more than just subjective personal opinion. Otherwise, this list of places simply tells us about the journalist’s personal preference and not anything about the places themselves. Beauty is, as Roger Scruton put it, “a real and universal value”. But that raises a deeper question: Where is that value grounded? If not in my personal opinion, then where? I remember hearing an atheist philosopher attempt to provide a “secular” explanation for our love of natural landscapes. “In the distant past,” he explained, “our Neanderthal ancestors would have looked at lush fields and winding river valleys and known this meant a good place to find food. Our love of beauty is simply a misfiring of this ancient primordial instinct.” When I heard that remark, I instantly thought back to my time trekking in the Himalayas. The Everest region has a wild and untamed beauty, it’s jagged snow peaks have drawn artists and photographers and climbers for centuries. But as much as I love the classic view of Everest’s north face, I have no illusions that it might be a good place to hunt game. I wonder if, once again, we see in natural beauty—real, genuine beauty and the wonder it can inspire—another glimpse of the transcendent.
I mentioned three questions. 'Why?' 'What?' And lastly, 'Who?' As I sat reading the newspaper, enjoying the deck and the garden, the sunshine and the coffee, it occurred to me that the natural reaction to joy, wonder and pleasure is thankfulness and gratitude. I was grateful to my wife, who had made me the coffee; grateful to the previous owners of the house for building such a lovely deck and having the wisdom not to landscape the garden but to leave it wild and rambling. Gratitude seems to flow naturally. But then, if I was grateful for the deck and coffee and garden, what about the sunshine and wind, what about nature and even beauty itself and what about the 27 spectacular landscapes in that newspaper? You see, the problem for most of us is not that we have nothing to be thankful for, but rather that we have nobody to be thankful to. If the atheistic account is true, there is no answer to that conundrum. My sense of thankfulness is nothing but a Darwinian “misfiring”—just the random chemical bubbling of the aging collection of synapses in my head.
On the other hand, if the Christian story is true, then there are answers to all three of my questions. We sense that we are made for more than just this life and so we yearn, we long, we write our bucket lists. We encounter beauty and it makes our heart sing and our soul ache and we feel something that words cannot fully express, and through it we catch a glimpse of reality. And … if the Christian story is true, there is Somebody to thank—to thank for the warmth of sun on our skin, the whisper of the wind in the leaves, the taste of fresh coffee, the smell of pine trees and the sights and splendour of creation.