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Out of Sight

Guest Contributor

Wherever you turn your eyes the world can shine like transfiguration. You don’t have to bring a thing to it except a little willingness to see. Only, who could have the courage to see it?

Marilynne Robinson[1]

Seeing is believing, so they say.[2]. Perhaps we see it, or we don’t.

Or maybe we’re just prone to miss it.

Long before others paid attention to nature and its conservation, John Muir was ever seeing what most missed. He was especially enthralled with Yosemite, which he helped to preserve as a National Park in 1890. He described Yosemite as “full of God’s thoughts… a new song, a place of beginnings abounding in first lessons on life, mountain-building, eternal, invincible, unbreakable order; with sermons in stones, storms, trees, flowers, and animals brimful of humanity.”[3]

The naturalist’s sentiments still draw generations to Yosemite—including a friend and me some years ago—and prompt memories as vivid as if they were of yesterday.

It was early September; the wildflowers in Tuolumne Meadows had gone to seed a couple of weeks before. Yosemite’s Bridalveil Fall was now nearly a trickle compared to its mighty rush in May. And then there were the seemingly endless switchbacks leading upwards, upwards through the forest. Lugging a heavy backpack and tent, I focused on pushing through while spurring on my friend who wondered aloud why we had planned this strenuous seven-mile hike to a campsite above ten thousand feet.

But beyond the dense forest—wow! We were greeted by alpine lakes, sweeping meadows, rocky peaks, and the occasional call of pikas and marmots. It appeared, indeed, as if sermons resounded in stones, trees, and “animals brimful of humanity.”

We arrived at our destination near sunset exhausted yet wide-eyed with joy. I had never trekked this far into the wilderness. Soon darkness descended, and a becalming, blue lake was no longer visible. Other groups were camping nearby, yet almost on cue, fear taunted me.

Then slowly, one by one it seemed, star upon star illuminated our surroundings. Moments later—could it be? I lay on the ground in awe as I watched the white brush of the Milky Way paint the night sky. Never had I seen such a glorious display of our galaxy with my own eyes.

Long-Range Sight

That night, the Milky Way communicated a world far beyond anything I could imagine. I would later learn our galaxy is just one of billions if not trillions in our universe, “sprawling systems of dust, gas, dark matter, and anywhere from a million to a trillion stars that are held together by gravity.”[4] And National Geographic reports, “In our own galaxy, the Milky Way, the sun is just one of about 100 to 400 billion stars that spin around Sagittarius A*, a supermassive black hole that contains as much mass as four million suns.”[5] If I may say it again, Wow!

Have you ever felt like a myopic wanderer suddenly given telescopic long-range sight? In Yosemite, I just couldn’t take my eyes off the landscape, and I sought to remember every detail of the night sky. Of course, there are stars above my own home in the suburbs, but I had never seen the Milky Way because it is hidden by streetlights and well-lit neighborhoods. Light pollution is sadly a reality in much of our world.

Seeing is believing, so they say. Now I never doubted the Milky Way’s existence before I saw it with my own eyes—but I hadn’t thought about it much either. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess. Yet as Muir mused, “We all travel the milky way together, trees and men.”[6]

Nature has much to share with us. Moreover, recent studies have shown how spending time in nature is vital for our emotional, mental, and spiritual wellbeing. From forest bathing and “awe-walks” [7] to Lucy Jones’s poignant and challenging Losing Eden: Our Fundamental Need for the Natural World and Its Ability to Heal Body and Soul (New York: Pantheon Books, 2021), the ever-growing conversation about the measured, medicinal effects of nature—including seeking experiences of awe and beauty—is fascinating. Our natural world beckons us to be present, to take in its grandeur and grace.

As Muir wrote, nature is “abounding in first lessons on life … eternal, invincible, unbreakable order.” It radiates both order and play, he intimated throughout his writings.

Yet I wonder if we give much thought to what nature is telling us. Out of mind, out of sight, if you will.

And I wonder if we sometimes do the same with God.

The Argument from Ordering

Our amazing universe invites us also to consider, why is it here? Why does it suggest order and play? Why am I here to enjoy it?

John Muir frequently characterized nature as a gift resembling its joyful Giver: “God’s love is manifest in the landscape as in a face,” he exclaimed.[8]

You might expect a naturalist to avow that there is more to nature than meets the eye—but perhaps not a sociologist who sought a “value free” assessment of our world, as he called it.[9] After the publication of Peter Berger’s book The Sacred Canopy, the influential Boston University sociologist realized it could have been read as “a treatise on atheism” and “a counsel of despair for religion in the modern world.”[10] But that was not his intention, he said. So he addressed these misconstructions and “The Alleged Demise of the Supernatural” in his next book, A Rumors of Angels.

Here Berger makes the case for “phenomena that are to be found within the domain of our ‘natural’ reality but that appear to point beyond that reality.”[11] He explains: “The phenomena I am discussing are not ‘unconscious’ and do not have to be excavated from the ‘depths’ of the mind; they belong to ordinary everyday awareness.”[12] He calls these phenomena “signals of transcendence.”

Berger sees five signals of transcendence in our everyday experience that point us past this world to something more. Interestingly, two are order and play—the very ideas that Muir observed in nature. Furthermore, these signals involve “prototypical human gestures” such as our innate need and search for order. In other words, daily we find clues both in our natural world and in our own actions that hint at much more beyond our earthly existence.

Of order, Berger writes: “Throughout most of human history men have believed that the created order of society, in one way or another, corresponds to an underlying order of the universe, a divine order that supports and justifies all human attempts at ordering.”[13]

He continues,

[Our] propensity for order is grounded in a faith or trust that, ultimately, reality is “in order, “all right,” “as it should be.” … Needless to say, there is no empirical method by which this faith can be tested. To assert it is itself an act of faith. But it is possible to proceed from the faith that is rooted in experience to the act of faith that transcends the empirical sphere, a procedure that could be called the argument from ordering. 

In this fundamental sense, every ordering gesture is a signal of transcendence.


Berger offers an example of “the most ordinary, and probably most fundamental, of all—the ordering gesture by which a mother reassures her anxious child”[15] with the words “everything is all right.” He states what we instinctively know to be true: “The parental role is not based on a loving lie. On the contrary, it is a witness to the ultimate truth of man’s situation in reality … itself a reflection, an imitation, of ultimate reality.”[16]

Thus, he surmises, “At the very center of the process of becoming fully human, at the core of humanitas, we find an experience of trust in the order of reality.”[17] Berger is not without academic support here. Other contemporaries, such as philosopher Michael Polanyi and Bible scholar Lesslie Newbigin, make similar arguments about ultimate reality and the inescapable place of trust.[18]

The sociologist concludes, “In the observable human propensity to order reality there is an intrinsic impulse to give cosmic scope to this order, an impulse that implies not only that human order in some way corresponds to an order that transcends it, but that this transcendent order is of such a character that man can trust himself and his destiny to it.”[19]

What I Was Missing

Peter Berger’s insights on order (and his argument from play not discussed here) invite us to consider fundamental human questions that our natural world intimates. From shooting stars to birds in my backyard, nature has so much to tell us. Furthermore, I didn’t really understand what I was missing in the night sky until the Milky Way unexpectedly illuminated the dark canvas around me in Yosemite. There the psalmist’s memorable words came to mind:  

The heavens declare the glory of God,

and the sky above proclaims his handiwork.

Day to day pours out speech,

and night to night reveals knowledge.

Psalm 19:1-2

I wonder what else I might be missing because of light pollution—whether actual or metaphorical. Do you know what I mean? We are ever seeing yet not seeing, knowing yet not knowing what is often right before us.

Our innate need for order and play witnessed in nature suggests that we want to belong, to know, and be known. From forest bathing to taking “awe walks,” we long to connect not only with fellow humans but also with something beyond ourselves, whether we look up to the heavens or the phones below our noses. Surely, this search for transcendence motivates the direction of our lives.  

The psalmists and prophets of the Bible understood our human search; over and over they invite us both to look at nature and beyond it: “Lift up your eyes on high and see: who created these? He who brings out their host by number, calling them all by name; by the greatness of his might and because he is strong in power, not one is missing” implores the prophet Isaiah (Isaiah 40:26). Who is this Creator, and can we know Him? The psalmist tells us, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds. He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names” (Psalm 147:3-4). “He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—he remains faithful forever” (Psalm 146:6).

Nature hints at order and play; it is a window to a faithful, gracious, ever-present God bidding us to take notice. Nature intimates what Scripture reveals: the Maker of heaven and earth created us to know Him, to reflect the radiance of his glory, and to enjoy Him forever.

Seeing is believing, so they say. Yet how often we live as practical atheists, even as God’s people, with our hearts and minds far from our Creator. God is to us like the Milky Way: ever present but sometimes out of mind and out of sight.

Our amazing universe beckons us to look at it and through it. Forests, mountains, moon, and stars—nature exclaims, “Behold!” “Come and see!” Nature is an endless invitation from an attentive Caretaker rejoicing over His created order—and “this transcendent order is of such a character that man can trust himself and his destiny to it.”[20]

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[1] Marilynne Robinson, Gilead: A Novel (New York: Picador, 2020), 245.

[2] Interestingly, days after I wrote and recorded this article came the release of groundbreaking photos of Sagittarius A*, the massive black hole at the center of our Milky Way galaxy. The Wall Street Journal reports, “Black holes by their very nature are unseeable, but their boundaries cast a shadow against the bright backdrop of hot gas and dust that encircles them.” After witnessing these images, one astronomer remarked, “Seeing is believing, and this moment of finally seeing something that was always just a fantasy or an idea or model, it’s just such an amazing, captivating moment.” Quote from Heino Falcke, radio astronomy professor at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands. Cited in Aylin Woodward, “First Image of Black Hole at Center of Milky Way Galaxy Revealed,” The Wall Street Journal (May 12, 2022), https://www.wsj.com/articles/image-of-black-hole-at-center-of-our-milky-way-galaxy-is-captured-for-first-time-11652362399?mod=hp_lead_pos9.

[3] Matt Vasilogambros, “Yosemite, Through John Muir’s Words,” The Atlantic (June 17, 2016), https://www.theatlantic.com/news/archive/2016/06/yosemite-john-muir/487493/.

[4] Michael Greshko, “Galaxies, explained,” National Geographic (April 17, 2019), Galaxies—facts and information (nationalgeographic.com).

[5] Ibid.

[6] John Muir, The Mountains of California, (New York: The Century Co., 1894), https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/the_mountains_of_california/chapter_10.aspx.

[7] See e.g., “Forest bathing: What it is and why you should try it,” April 8, 2022 https://thrive.kaiserpermanente.org/thrive-together/live-well/forest-bathing-try.

[8] John Muir, The Cruise of The Corwin: Journal of the Arctic Expedition of 1881 in search of De Long and the Jeannette, Chapter IV: In Peril from the Pack,  https://vault.sierraclub.org/john_muir_exhibit/writings/cruise_of_the_corwin/chapter_4.aspx.

[9] Peter L. Berger, A Rumor of Angels: Modern Society and the Rediscovery of the Supernatural (Garden City, NY: Anchor Books, 1970), iv.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid., 53.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid., 54. See also Berger’s argument for play (not examined in this article) on pages 57-60 of A Rumor of Angels.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid., 57.

[17] Ibid., 56.

[18] See especially Michael Polanyi’s Personal Knowledge: Toward a Post-Critical Philosophy and Lesslie Newbigin’s The Light Has Come: An Exposition of the Fourth Gospel (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1982).

[19] Berger, 56.

[20] Ibid.

Danielle Durant invites others to join her in unearthing the perpetual wonders of beauty and truth found in the ageless drama of Scripture. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from the College of Charleston (Charleston, SC) and a Master of Divinity from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary (South Hamilton, MA). Danielle is passionate about all things running, nature, and her expressive Maine Coon cat, Simeon.