On the 26th of April 1336, Italian poet Francesco Petrarca decided to climb Mont Ventoux simply because he wanted to see the view. It might come as a surprise, but this is widely considered the first time anyone ever climbed a mountain for the sake of simply enjoying nature. Prior to this point in history, activities like hiking were strictly seen as practical endeavors. That is not to say people never enjoyed the views of say, an evening sunset. Perhaps there were some people who enjoyed hiking as a leisure activity prior to the fourteenth century; however, their accounts are not recorded and would be outliers to the dominant Western cultural view, which did not consider the material aspect of God’s creation as something caring about for its own sake. This way of thinking about God’s material creation was part of the Byzantine tradition of theology and culture which spread across Europe with the Catholic church.
People living in the milieu of the Byzantine worldview put a great deal of importance on the intellect and the spiritual, to the extent that they often looked down on the material parts of creation as second-rate. Byzantine thinkers believed the perfect life was characterized by contemplation of God, his characteristics, and the reality of our one day being with him in heaven. Byzantine artists believed the spiritual and heavenly were more real and deserved more attention. This is why art from that era emphasized spiritually important people with halos. Prior to the Byzantine era of Western history, pagan and Greek thought also had little use for the material world. For them the purpose of life involved cultivating a heroic character which did not involve leisure activity or an appreciation for what we might call nature.
All of this changed with a Dominican monk and professor of theology at the University of Paris named Thomas, who happened to be from a Sicilian town called Aquino. In modern philosophy and theology books he is known as Thomas Aquinas, and he completely supplanted the Byzantine worldview with his book Summa Theologica. In this massive work he detailed a different way of thinking about reality which included a corrected way of regarding creation. He believed the words of Psalm 19, that all of creation reflects God’s glory. From the tiny and insignificant dung beetle to the lofty cliffs of Cinque Terre, Thomas believed that in every last detail of creation, “there is found the trace of the Trinity, inasmuch as in every creature are found some things which are necessarily reduced to the divine Persons as to their cause” (Book I, Question 45, Article 7). Because God caused everything to exist, we can expect to find a little bit of who God is represented in all of his creation.
This would not have been a new idea to medieval thinkers at the time. However, Thomas believed that part of what made this concept so profound was that it has a moral bearing on how we ought to view the world. Thomas argued that God loves all of the different things in the universe because he created all of them, and we should love those things too. Thomas wrote,
He produced many and diverse creatures, so that what was wanting to one in representing the divine goodness might be supplied by another. For goodness, which in God is simple and uniform, in creatures is manifold and divided; hence the whole universe together participates in the divine goodness more perfectly, and represents it better, than any single creature.” (Book I, Question 47, Article 2)
If you have ever wondered why God created so many different species of animals, Thomas gives us our answer. It is because everything in the universe plays its own unique role in representing—in some small way—one of the infinite aspects of who God is. As historical inheritors of Thomas’s theology, we have the pleasure of beholding the universe and everything in it as a work of divine art which tells us something about the divine artist. Furthermore, because all of creation is the work of God, as Christians we know it is the greatest possible work of art.
With the ushering in of such a profound, and novel for its time, way of thinking about nature, it should be no surprise that within fifty years of Thomas’ death an intrepid poet would take license to climb a beautiful mountain and write poetry about his experience. For the medieval Byzantines hiking a mountain was not spiritual enough compared to staying home to recite scripture. Thomas made it philosophically and theologically worthwhile to go outside and to simply enjoy what nature has to offer.
However, it is important, to remember that the purpose of God’s creation is to point to God. One of the dangers of Thomas’ theology of appreciating creation is the potential to over appreciate it to the point of glorifying God’s creation instead of God himself. Good and proper appreciation of God’s creation should always be within the framework of God as the only thing in the universe worthy of worship. My infant son loves to lay on his back under a mobile of glittery plush celestial bodies. His favorite seems to be a gold moon. I joke that because he likes that tiny stuffed moon so much now, once his eyes are strong enough to take in the real moon it is going to blow his mind. The diversity of creation serves a similar function for us. All those the things about God’s creation that we come to know and appreciate in this life have their origin in the creativity and will of God, and as Thomas Aquinas says, they are analogies for him. That is, one day we will have the awesome pleasure of beholding all we love about nature in its fullest sense, unified in the august character of the Triune God. This is why the Apostle Paul says in First Corinthians 13:12, “now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face; now I know in part, but then I will know fully.” In the meantime, we can, and we really should, enjoy God’s creation the way Francesco Petrarca enjoyed Mont Ventoux, and the way my son enjoys his stuffed moon.