Seeing God in beautiful engineering
Question: your wife is away for two nights and you have a whole day for yourself. What does a bloke do? Answer: you go on a circuitous train journey, finishing that evening precisely where you started that morning! This is how I spent this Tuesday, with Jacqui away with old friends at the remarkable Capenwray Hall. So I took trains from Preston through to Carlisle, then to Leeds, Manchester Piccadilly and finally back to Preston on a day ranger ticket, some 296 miles in just under eight hours. So why this particular route? Train buffs will recognise immediately that this takes in the legendary Settle-Carlisle railway, a wonderful 73-mile journey, heading south following the Eden Valley and then through the Yorkshire Dales. This is the only railway line with a Preservation Order, with no less than 20 viaducts and 14 tunnels. And I was not to be disappointed, particularly with the wonderful weather. Stunning scenery, of course. But what was just as beautiful was the quality of this Victorian engineering, not least the iconic 24 arch Ribblehead Viaduct. Not that you see the viaduct from the train; you simply see the view from the viaduct. Inspiring. At the same time that the Midland Railway company was taking on the challenge of this new mainline to Scotland under engineer John Crossley, it was commissioning his colleague William Henry Barlow to construct a single-span iron engine shed in Euston Road, London. This was opened on 1 October 1868. Only yesterday I gazed on his engineering masterpiece as I enjoyed my cappuccino in St Pancras International, my favourite railway station where heaven touches earth. Barlow’s aim was simple – to build a structure which was perfectly engineered. He understood that this in itself would guarantee a building of beauty. And here in the glory of his construction, we can see no less the glory of God. As creatures made in his image, we are designed to recognise and to enjoy beauty for in such beauty we see God’s handiwork, an expression of his very self. This evening I hope to be in Central Hall Westminster for a lecture given by my favourite theologian, Tom Wright. As it happens he identifies our capacity for beauty, both in appreciating and in creating, as an essential part of being human made in the image of God. “God is the one who satisfies the passion for justice, the longing for spirituality, the hunger for relationship, the yearning for beauty. And God, the true God, is the God we see in Jesus of Nazareth, Israel's Messiah, the world's true Lord.” The tragedy, however, is that so often we fail even to notice beauty; we despoil and we debase. We go for the ugly. As Wright observes “Made for spirituality, we wallow in introspection. Made for joy, we settle for pleasure. Made for justice, we clamour for vengeance. Made for relationship, we insist on our own way. Made for beauty, we are satisfied with sentiment.” If that is the problem, then the Good News is that God’s new creation of incredible beauty has arrived with the resurrection of Jesus.
“The sun has begun to rise. Christians are called to leave behind, in the tomb of Jesus Christ, all that belongs to the brokenness and incompleteness of the present world ... That, quite simply, is what it means to be Christian: to follow Jesus Christ into the new world, God's new world, which he has thrown open before us.”
And we are called, literally inspired to create, as Wright writes: “We are co-creators when we are artists, writers, and musicians. We are God’s work of art, created in Christ Jesus to do good works. And it’s not that we necessarily make His world a glorious place as much as we remind the world that it is a glorious place. We enhance the beauty around us by our God-given gifts. We are His artwork, created in Christ Jesus for those good works that God prepared beforehand for us to walk in."
My good friend Ken is anticipating that in this creation there will be some remarkable engineering and not just marvellous sunsets and beautiful flowers! (He’s an engineer as you may have suspected).
And he’s right. Beauty is multi-faceted. For that is the beauty of God – whatever he does, whatever he inspires is, by definition, beautiful. For God himself is beautiful.
One thing I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the Lord, and to inquire in his temple. (Psalm 27:4)