Friday, February 3, 2012

Explaining Beauty Away

I have spent a lot of time in the past 10 years writing about the hardships in life.  My scars are hardly unique, but I have sought to embrace the experiences and the implications of  life’s broken beauty with as much honesty as I can muster.

But there is more to “broken beauty” than the broken.  There is also beauty. As C.S Lewis pointed out, one cannot understand crooked without understanding straight.  In the same way, one cannot think with clarity about the ugliness of life without an understanding of its beauty.

In the presence of sometimes staggering pain and ugliness, one must either explain it or explain it away.  Worldviews have dismissed it as illusory (some Eastern religions), refused to even define it (Atheism), or sought to understand the reason and the solution (Christianity).
The presence of grandeur and goodness provides no less of a challenge.  One must either explain things like beauty, awe and wonder, or explain them away.
The New Atheist movement believes that Christianity fails in its attempt to explain our existence: “Something of the wonder of this world is lost when we explain away phenomena with supernatural, untestable, unfalsifiable, conjecture.”  
The Christian theologian wonders, in turn, how atheists find wonder or appreciate beauty in a world without God -  a world that atheists believe is without meaning, purpose, or design.

    A good worldview needs to explain the world, not explain the world away.

If a picture is truly worth a thousand words, I will let the following pictures and quotes make the bulk of my argument - Christianity explains beauty; atheism explains it away.  

“Peacocks are carrying around this beautiful…useless [tail][ but they are still strong enough for really important stuff…evolution is just producing these weird things… have to admit that important parts of life are not efficient or engineered to work out. If you wound back evolution, you wouldn’t end up with the same things we have now. This isn’t the world we had to get—it is just some weird possibilities that happened to catch on.”  – David Rothenberg

“I am deeply impressed the the existence of value in the world....our physical world is shot through with value, with beauty...the wonderful order of the world and the fruitfulness of cosmic history are reflections of the mind and purpose of the Creator." John Polkinghorne

I believe the book of nature .. suggests a God of purpose and a God of design. And I think my belief makes me no less a scientist.”  Owen Gingerich

“Wilson suggested that natural selection might have instilled in us a “biophilia,” or reverence for nature, that benefits both us and those creatures with which we enjoy mutually beneficial relationships. But why do we respond to so many things—butterflies, starfish, rainbows, sunsets—from which we extract no tangible, utilitarian benefit?” - John Horgan

"[A]n acquaintance with natural laws means no less than an acquaintance with the mind of God therein expressed." Physicist James P. Joule


“It was when I was happiest that I longed most. The sweetest thing in all my life has been the longing to find the place where all the beauty came from.” C.S. Lewis

"Take your choice: blind chance that requires multitudes of universes or design that requires only one..."  Cosmologist Edward R. Harrison

Joseph Conrad, on life: ”…that mysterious arrangement of merciless logic for a futile purpose.”

"Part of the joy of beauty is the realization that it is part of a larger whole, most of which appears to be just out of sight.  We are drawn forward toward something...and left waiting, wondering."  N.T. Wright

“Faith indeed tells what the senses do not tell, but not the contrary of what they see. It is above them and not contrary to them.”   Blaise Pascal

  life is like a ship “tossed by every wave and by every wind; a ship headed to no port and no harbor, with no rudder, no compass, no pilot, simply floating for a time, then lost in the waves.” - Clarence Darrow

"I would say the universe has a purpose. It's not there just somehow by chance." Mathemetician Roger Penrose.

"The more I study nature, the more I stand amazed at the work of the Creator." 

- Louis Pasteur, the "father" of the science of microbiology

“Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.“  Albert Camus

"The only objection to Natural Religion is that somehow it always becomes unnatural. A man loves Nature in the morning for her innocence and amiability, and at nightfall, if he is loving her still, it is for her darkness and her cruelty." - G.K. Chesterton

“Two things fill my mind with .. ever new & increasing wonder & awe... the starry heaven above me and moral law within me.”                                  Immanuel Kant

“The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.”  - Richard Dawkins

"Order is manifestly maintained in the universe, governed by the sovereign will of God." James P. Joule

”Whether atheist or theist,  a thoughtful person can only stand in awe of the way the universe seems designed as a home for humankind.” Owen Gingerich

"At the heart of all beauty lies something inhuman, and these hills, the softness of the sky, the outline of these trees at this very minute lose the illusory meaning with which we had clothed them, henceforth more remote than a lost paradise... that denseness and that strangeness of the world is absurd."  -Albert Camus

"Scientists cannot bear the thought of a natural phenomenon which cannot be explained, even with unlimited time and money." Robert Jastrow

“That man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes, and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms... Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitations henceforth be safely built.”  - Bertrand Russell

"Overwhelmingly strong proofs of intelligent and benevolent design lie around us."
 Lord Kelvin [William Thomson], physicist.

"And beauty is a form of genius -- is higher, indeed, than genius, as it needs no explanation. It is of the great facts of the world, like sunlight, or spring-time, or the reflection in dark waters of that silver shell we call the moon. It cannot be questioned. It has its divine right of sovereignty. It makes princes of those who have it."  - Oscar Wilde

"It is very necessary to have markers of beauty left in a world seemingly bent on making the most evil ugliness."  -Vita Sackville-West

"I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and so new!" -Saint Augustine 

"There are various orders of beauty, causing men to make fools of themselves in various styles... but there is one order of beauty which seems made to turn the heads not only of men, but of all intelligent mammals, even of women. It is a beauty like that of kittens, or very small downy ducks making gentle rippling noises with their soft bills, or babies just beginning to toddle and to engage in conscious mischief --a beauty with which you can never be angry, but that you feel ready to crush for inability to comprehend the state of mind into which it throws you."  -George Eliot

"Beauty puts a face on God. When we gaze at nature, at a loved one, at a work of art, our soul immediately recognizes and is drawn to the face of God."  -Margaret Brownley

"Sunsets are so beautiful that they almost seem as if we were looking through the gates of Heaven." Sir John Lubbock


"For by Him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible..." Colossians 1:16


  1. Great thoughts for rumination, Tony... still my favorite vs. re. to the universe: Col 1:17

  2. Thanks for the verse, Gayle. There are a lot to choose from!