Philip Yancey: Meeting God through the Marvels of Nature
Having grown up in a fundamentalist Christian home and church outside Atlanta, Ga., Philip Yancey was taught that God created the world in six 24-hour days, filling it with animals, oceans, lakes, mountains, meadows and, of course, man and woman.
But when Yancey began to learn more about science and evolutionary theory as a young adult, he felt betrayed by what he learned as a youth; he wondered, for a time, if embracing science and leaving out God, he said, was the best path to take. Should be become an atheist?
“What turned me from becoming an atheist, however, were the beauties of nature, classical music, and romantic love — and not reading the Bible,” Yancey told a group gathered this week at an event held at Cascade Fellowship Church in Grand Rapids, Mich.
Observing the world and appreciating its many aspects brought him back to God — and then to reading the Bible for what it really has to offer.
The Bible, he said, is God’s revelation of who he is. God is the creator of everything — the reason behind it all.
“Unlike some Nobel Prize-winning scientists and others, we as Christians believe we don’t need nature to tell us the truth about reality,” said Yancey, the author of many books including the best-selling What’s So Amazing about Grace?
“At the same time,” he added, “nature is very important. It is [often described] with words like glory and awe and wonder — those things that nature provides us.”
Titled “Science, Faith, and the Church: An Evening with Philip Yancey,” the event was sponsored by and served as an introduction to the work of BioLogos.
Based in Grand Rapids, BioLogos explains on its website that it provides a range of resources that “invite the church and the world to see the harmony between science and biblical faith as we present an evolutionary understanding of God’s creation.”
Speaking after Yancey was Ryan Bebej, a Calvin College paleontologist who also grew up in a church that taught that the Genesis account of creation was meant to be taken literally. Evolution, the theory of species evolving, adapting, and surviving over millions of years was considered wrong.
But, he said, his perspective on creation changed when he began studying the fossil record of walking whales — whales who once lived on land before adapting to becoming sea creatures.
“I once thought that the field of paleontology was one that was totally incompatible with Christian faith,” he said. “I now believe that evolutionary creation is a faithful option to consider.”
During his presentation, Yancey spoke of his relationship with nature changing from when he was a young writer living in a basement apartment in Chicago to when he and his wife, Nancy, moved to Colorado more than 20 years ago.
From his basement flat in the city, he could look out the window and see a little wildlife: perhaps a few hopping birds, foraging squirrels, and scurrying rats.
But in Colorado, where they moved into a home on a few acres of wooded land, the world of nature exploded for him. He saw deer and bears and flocks of birds and many other animals feeding in his backyard. Surrounding their home were snow-capped mountains that they took to climbing.
“In my years in Colorado, I’ve rediscovered my thirst for nature. I’ve learned so much more about nature, and my faith has been nourished by it,” he said.
Yancey and his wife have taken great pleasure in visiting mountain meadows filled with wildflowers, and in watching mountain goats adeptly navigate their way in seconds along rocky crags and across crevices that would take humans hours to traverse.
In Colorado, he said, a beauty-shaped hole that is in everyone’s soul has been filled for him with the grandeur of what God, the great heavenly artist, has created.
“This is the God who chose to become a human being and a servant who died on the cross for us,” said Yancey. “We are the recipients of what he has done for us — and we are obligated to get to know the God who created us and the world around us.”
While has seen great beauty in his travels around the world, Yancey has also confronted and written about sin and terror and poverty. There are villages he’s encountered that were beset by disease, towns destroyed by war, families ripped apart by gun violence.
Still, in the midst of it all have been remnants of natural beauty. For instance, some of the most treasured objects in his home are the multicolored and multitextured seashells he found on a deserted beach in Africa.
“Think of this — the most beautiful things in my house are the brainless excretions [outer skeletons] of mollusks,” he said.
Looking out his window into his yard in Colorado, he said, has made him wonder, “What did it take for God to manage coming up with a porcupine — or a skunk? There is a fierceness, a wildness to God. We can get hung up on the how and why. . . . But God has created some pretty impressive feats of artistry.”
By looking at and learning from nature, Yancey said, he feels humble and is aware of the holiness of lakes and forests and streams and of God’s wide world of creatures. He is also filled with the mystery of it all.
“There are so many huge mysteries,” he said. “Why is there something rather than nothing, and why is that something so wonderful?”
Impressing him especially is the thought that God created humans not only out of love but also to have a relationship with and to take pleasure in.
Finally, said Yancey, as he considers his faith and the revelations of the Bible, he has solid ground on which to stand, knowing that the universe is not simply a random collection of stars and black holes but that the universe — and human history — has a purpose.
“There is a plot,” said Yancey. “All things were created in and through God. We are part of the plot, and that came in Jesus.”