“I don’t believe in God, but I miss Him.”
Thus begins the poignant novel by Julian Barnes (Nothing to Be Frightened Of).
The story represents a wrestling match with mortality in a post-Christian age. Yet my interest in it pertains to a much narrower topic: what one might call the Aesthetic Argument for faith; that is, the argument from beauty.
The question runs as follows:
Can the experience of beauty be a guide to God?
The possibility is raised by James K. A. Smith in his recent book, How (Not) to Be Secular. In his words:
[Barnes] seems, if not tempted, at least intrigued by an aesthetic argument […] : that religion might just be true simply because it is beautiful. “The Christian religion didn’t last so long merely because everyone believed it,” […] It lasted because it makes for a helluva novel.
“A helluva novel.”
While there are several classical arguments for God’s existence (see Aquinas’ Five Ways), it should not surprise you that this isn’t one of them.
Yet consider also the words of a very different source, the former Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger (Pope Benedict XVI). As he writes:
The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced, and the art which has grown in her womb.
For the former Pope: sainthood speaks to “goodness,” while artwork points to “beauty.”
Yet as Rod Dreher notes (here), neither goodness nor beauty are, strictly speaking, arguments at all. But they can be gateways to truth—like what Francis Schaefer called “pre-evangelism.”
They are, to use the phrase of N.T. Wright, “the echo of a voice.”
The idea, for both Barnes and Benedict, is that even atheists and agnostics have moments in which they are—for lack of a better word—ambushed by an aching beauty.
And more specifically, a beauty that bespeaks Transcendence.
Amidst doubt and skepticism, there comes a haunting sense that the world is “charged with the grandeur of God” (Hopkins). And at certain moments: “it will flame out like shining from shook foil.”
Behold the (non-)argument for God from beauty.
But surely there is a natural explanation for this feeling. Right?
Indeed, several thoughtful ones have been proposed.
The most popular evolutionary argument (see here) for how art emerged has to do with its benefits in attracting mates. We have art, so to speak, because the artist got the girl and produced offspring
(That’s true actually. Just ask my wife. Incredibly, my youthful musical skills managed to mask both my acne and my near total lack of long-term earning potential. We have four kids.)
Still, there is a problem with the purely evolutionary argument.
In short, it tells us why artists might a procreative advantage now, but it fails to show why anyone should have found such art beautiful or moving in the first place.
As should be obvious, the meaning must precede the mating, or there is no evolutionary advantage to such artistry.
And to all appearances, this beauty-conciousness is hard-wired into us.
To be human is to be unique as homo artifex.
And there are few analogues within the animal kingdom. My dog leaves the room when I pull out the guitar, and she was mostly “meh” on last year’s Oscar nominees.
We alone seemed awed by beauty. Perhaps, then, the former Pope and the agnostic author (Barnes) were on to something.
Life itself is, to quote Barnes, “a helluva novel.”
But do not all novels have an Author?
NOT PROOFS, PERSISTENT WHISPERS
In the end, my own view is that there are no ironclad “proofs” of God’s existence—much less of the more specific question of “Which god?”
Metaphysics doesn’t work that way.
And perhaps it’s for the best.
Because in the worst cases, such “proofs” come into conversations like Elijah’s earthquake on the mountaintop. They thunder through the internet and through theology textbooks.
But as with Elijah:
“the LORD was not in the earthquake” (1 Kings 19).
If you want proofs, take math.
The Christian God desires trust sans certitude.
Hence, as with Elijah: He comes (often) in the “whisper” (1 Kings 19.12).
Thankfully, however, in moments of transcendent beauty, such whispers can be annoyingly persistent.