The Question of Beauty

Richard’s best-selling book Reflections on the Existence of God continues to receive very favorable reviews.

“Richard Simmons’ book is the fruit of many years of thoughtful reading about the relationship of theology to the issues of modern life. He brings the biblical doctrine of God into conversation with the most basic questions about meaning and morality, science and human reason. Chapter after chapter offer helpful insights.”

TIM KELLER, Redeemer City to City

The next three blogs, including today’s, are essays from Reflections on the Existence of God.

I remember a number of years ago driving down a highway at the end of the day. A magnificent sunset was unfolding, and then the radio station began to play my very favorite song from college, “Stairway to Heaven” by Led Zeppelin. A powerful euphoric feeling came upon me as this beautiful visual sunset and this wonderful song converged. It was a brief experience that I have never forgotten. I have reflected on that moment from time to time and have concluded that it was the visual beauty of the sunset and the audio beauty of the song that moved me so powerfully.

But what is beauty? How do you define it? It strikes me that beauty is quickly realized by the one who beholds it. We know there is something special about it because it moves us. It stirs us. We experience it deep from within.

C.S. Lewis would tell you it is a clue to the meaning of the universe. He would tell you that beauty in this world is a sign that points you to something significant. The human quest for true beauty is the central theme of his wonderful short work The Weight of Glory. Lewis was convinced that we all possess an instinct for transcendence that is stimulated by beauty.

Alister McGrath, I believe, provides some profound insight when he said, “The human quest for beauty is thus really a quest for the source of that beauty. However, it is not contained in this world.”

What do we make of beauty if there is no God, and we are nothing but chemicals and molecules? Richard Dawkins, in his best-selling book The God Delusion, is quite blunt about it: “Beauty is just a chemical reaction.”

Before becoming a Christian, C.S. Lewis agreed with Dawkins. He believed that all reality was:

“a meaningless dance of atoms and that any suggestion of beauty within nature was simply a subjective phosphorescence.” At this particular stage he believed his atheistic worldview was true, though he conceded that it offered a “grim and meaningless” view of life.

Later in his life as a Christian, he looked back on his former worldview and said this:

“You can’t get much pleasure from beautiful music if you believe its beauty is ‘pure illusion’ and that the only reason you find it appealing is ‘because your nervous system is irrationally conditioned to like it.’ He said you may enjoy the music but ‘you will be forced to feel the hopeless disharmony between your own emotions and the universe in which you [think you] really live.’”

I believe Nancy Pearcey has articulated it best:

“The naturalist asserted that the universe does not have an author, and therefore things do not have a secondary, higher meaning. Humans are trapped in a one-dimensional world of sheer biological existence. Nature is ‘red in tooth and claw.’ Life is a harsh, dog-eat-dog struggle for survival. This was a dark, gloomy picture of the world, and many naturalists responded by dismissing the very concept of beauty.”

When you reduce the world to nothing but matter, you risk losing your sense of wonder and appreciation for beauty. You drain all the joy out of life. You see this is what took place in the life of Charles Darwin. These are his own words from his autobiography:

“Up to the age of thirty or beyond it, poetry of many kinds… gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare…Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have almost lost any taste for pictures or music…I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did…My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of a large collection of facts…The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”

It appears that Darwin is acknowledging that his loss of happiness is a result of his change in worldview. His naturalistic perspective over time undermined his appreciation for beauty, resulting in a joyless, unhappy life. So, we must consider this question: If there is no God, how do we account for all the joy and beauty we experience in this life? Have you ever been moved by a star-lit sky, the beauty of the ocean, or some other body of water? Then you have the view from the top of a mountain, along with a gorgeous sunset. Do any of these have any evolutionary or survival value? Beauty is a reality, but how do you account for it?

Atheism does not appear to have a plausible explanation for the human appreciation for beauty, and therefore concludes that it is an illusion. However, it is difficult to accept this conclusion when we continually encounter beauty that moves us in such a powerful way.

Richard E Simmons III is the founder and Executive Director of The Center for Executive Leadership and a best-selling author.


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