This post is brought to you by Deseret News. View the original post here.
Watching a beautiful sunset or looking out over majestic mountains, many of us intuitively sense Something or Someone behind them, a Person not only grander than ourselves but far grander than the scenes we’re contemplating.
The prominent Austrian-American sociologist Peter Berger, who recently died, was known to say that, to him, the most powerful evidence for the existence of God is alpine Italy’s Lake Como.
“The heavens declare the glory of God,” declares Psalms 91:1, “and the firmament sheweth his handywork.”
In that same spirit, one of the greatest astronomers of the past half century, Allan Sandage (d. 2010), declared that it was the order and beauty of the cosmos that led him to religious faith. More than a few scientists have remarked on the sheer elegance of the mathematical laws of the universe; some even identify such elegance as an indicator of a new discovery’s truth.
If I seem to refer here only to naturally occurring beauty, though, it must be recalled that, in the end, to a naturalistic thinker, there’s really no other kind. But, to borrow a question posed by the ardent evolutionist T.H. Huxley (d. 1895), “Darwin’s bulldog,” how do we deduce “Hamlet” and “Faust” from “the molecular forces in a mutton chop”?
Why does such beauty exist? The aesthetic pleasure that we derive from a fine poem, the resolution of a dissonant chord, a symphony, a well-crafted piece of furniture, a satisfying melody — such pleasure seems superfluous, unnecessary in a purely naturalistic world. It serves no evolutionary purpose, spreads no genetic material, furthers no reproductive success. We may well be moved by the awesome splendor of the heavens, but such awe contributes nothing to the propagation of our species. As the Catholic blogger Joe Heschmeyer puts it on his blog at strangenotions.com, there’s no obvious correlation between “I cry at museums” and “I am adept at surviving and mating.”
Many religious skeptics point, as a principal argument against God, to the problem of evil. And it’s a serious challenge that defies easy answers. As I’ve recently argued in this column (see “The existence of evil as evidence for God,” published July 6), however, our perception that something is evil or wrong presupposes a standard of right, which may, itself, point to something beyond this defective world.
But the skeptics, too, have a problem, and it may be even bigger. We might call it the problem of beauty.
The 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes famously described human life in “the state of nature” as “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (which sounds rather like the name of a law firm).
However, as Heschmeyer points out, if life is really that bad, why complain about its brevity? He cites the American philosopher Woody Allen: “Life is full of misery, loneliness, and suffering — and it’s all over much too soon.”
“The very fact that we lament the fleetingness of life (our own and others’),” Heshmeyer observes, “points to a recognition that life is beautiful. Evil is noticeable precisely because it sticks out: it sharply contrasts with the beautiful background of life that we so often overlook or take for granted.”
Viktor Frankl, an Austrian Jewish neurologist and psychiatrist, experienced evil in perhaps its purest human form. His wife and all of his immediate family died in Nazi concentration camps. Following his own release after two and half years at Theresienstadt, Auschwitz and Dachau, Frankl wrote a famous memoir titled “Man’s Search for Meaning” — recalling, among other things, moments of piercing natural beauty that, to him, disclosed transcendent ultimate purpose beyond the squalor and murderous injustice of his surroundings.
So, too, in the case of Louis Zamperini, whose story — including two years of torture and abuse in a Japanese prisoner of war camp — is powerfully recounted in Laura Hillenbrand’s book “Unbroken.” (The film adaptation, unfortunately, is less successful.) After a wartime plane crash, while drifting for 47 horrible days on a raft in the Pacific, he experienced a time of such beauty and stillness on the ocean that, he felt, only some greater being could have created such perfection.
This isn’t a logically conclusive argument, of course. It’s obviously conceivable that beauty is merely illusion, an accidental byproduct of nature’s blind and pointless fecundity. Many, though, will find that explanation insufficient. Like the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins (d. 1889), they sense that “the world is charged with the grandeur of God.” To those for whom faith is a conceivable option, the beauty of the world can be a powerfully suggestive support.