The Argument From Beauty

The path through the trees was narrow and overgrown, climbing gently as it wound its way up from the valley. It brought me to the ancient moss-laden wall that surrounded the forest, from which a wooden gate led out on the hillside. From there the track quickly steepened as it wound up toward the mountaintop. I paused every so often to catch my breath, turning to watch the cloud shadows chase one another across the hills on the far side of the valley.

Onwards and upwards I climbed, as dusk began to take hold and the shadows grew longer. I gained the summit ridge just as the sun was beginning to sink behind a bank of clouds hanging over the distant Langdale Pikes, among the most well-known of Lakeland’s hills. Suddenly, as the sun dropped completely behind the cloudbank, the whole sky turned the colour of burnished gold and the clouds themselves lit up as if on fire, a maelstrom of red, orange and ochre, with the occasional flash of silver. At that moment, through a gap in the clouds poured a great ray of sunshine, streaming into the valley below like a searchlight and throwing into stark relief the lines of fields, lanes and hedgerows.

All this took place in utter silence: not a breath of wind, nor the cry of a bird, nor the plaintive bleat of a sheep. For a moment, it seemed as if the whole of creation had paused and taken a deep breath. I watched, transfixed, hearing just my heartbeat in my ears from the exertion of the climb. The lightshow continued as colours mixed and mingled. I was awestruck with wonder, unsure what the right reaction was before such beauty — I wanted to cry, to dance, to shout for joy.

For many of us, our instinctive reaction when faced with such beauty is to try to capture it on camera: perhaps we can somehow bottle the experience, pin it down, capture it in megapixels. But digital renderings are flat, lifeless things, capturing the colour, but not the sounds, smells, textures, emotions — the being-there-ness. Reflecting on our reaction to beauty, two philosophies present themselves. The first is naturalism, the worldview of many of my atheist friends, which says that only material things exist: atoms, particles, stuff. There is no soul, no spirit, no transcendent reality and certainly no God. However, for those of us who love the outdoors, especially the wild places, naturalism patently fails; it would claim that all I saw from the mountaintop that evening were atoms and photons whilst my experience — well, that was only the motion of chemicals in my brain. Yet this does not come close to my actual experience on the mountain that evening. Reminiscent of the “flat” digital photograph, naturalism represents a fumbling attempt to simplify and reduce an experience that is rich, deep, three-dimensional, to a caricature. It is not that the naturalistic explanation is entirely false, it is simply that it falls considerably short.

Beauty is one of many such experiences that strips away our pretensions, exposes the frailties of our philosophy and points us beyond ourselves. The instinctive reaction to natural beauty is that it causes us to yearn, to desire, to sing with joy. As Wordsworth, who loved the English Lake District with a passion wrote: “My heart leaps up when I behold … the sky”.

But there’s more. I sensed that evening as I watched the fiery sunset a feeling almost akin to homesickness, a desire for something or somewhere more beautiful, more radiant, more real. Whereas naturalism struggles to begin to describe such emotions and the experience of seeing real beauty, a second philosophy, the Christian worldview, offers a more compelling explanation. Consider these words of the Bible:

The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Psalm 19:1

Why do we respond the way we do to beauty? Simply because it points beyond itself to something else, to the God who is the very source of all wonder, all goodness, all beauty. The God who is creator and artist and has painted and sculpted in creation myriad masterpieces. This understanding of beauty also helps explain that sense of homesickness I described; beauty reminds us, tells us, shouts at us, that we are made for something more than just this world.

Atheist and existentialist Albert Camus, wrestling with these ideas, wrote: “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.” Tragically, I think that on naturalism this holds true, because beauty points beyond itself and sets the heart yearning for something that molecules, atoms and particles alone can never ultimately satisfy.

In the Bible, we read these words: “God has made everything beautiful in its time; He has also set eternity in the hearts of men” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). Eternity in our hearts. Plato once said, through the mouth of Socrates, “Wonder is the beginning of philosophy.” Whilst that is true, it begs a question: where is its end? The answer, if we are to live authentically, is only in the fulfilment of wonder in the God who is the source of all beauty.

Dr Andy Bannister is the Director of Solas and an Adjunct Lecturer at Wycliffe College, University of Toronto. He is the author of an academic book, An Oral-Formulaic Study of the Qur’an, and two popular-level books: The Atheist Who Didn’t Exist (or: The Terrible Consequences of Really Bad Arguments), and Do Muslims and Christians Worship the Same God?. He blogs at http://www.andybannister.net where you can find the original version of this blog. Reprinted with permission, all rights reserved.

You can hear more from Andy on Christianity & the Environment on our Life and Leadership podcast.