An artist can appreciate the beauty of a flower. Can a scientist? Or, does the scientist get lost in detail and analysis, forgetting to enjoy the sheer beauty of what he or she is studying? That’s the question Richard Feynman leads with in this video, arguing that knowing something better just adds to our appreciation of its beauty. Looking closely at the flower doesn’t mean that we miss its beauty; it means that we get to see aspects of its beauty that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise.
As he was talking, I was struck by how similar this is to theology. Many worry that theology turns God into an object of analysis. Theologians study God like a beetle under the microscope, forgetting exactly how amazing and beautiful this wondrous God actually is. And, I’m sure that happens. But, that’s not theology. If theology is about reflecting deeply on who God is so that we get to know him better, it should only lead to a deeper appreciation of his beauty. Theology is about looking closer.
This is really just the first two minutes of the video. In the rest, Feynman discusses scientific knowledge and doubt in an uncertain and mysterious universe. And, he comments on why he finds all religious explanations unsatisfying.
Check it out. If nothing else, the pictures in the video are stunning.
While reading Augustine’s work Of True Religion, I was reminded once again of how vain I can be at times and how my vanity dulls my vision of true beauty. “If you take away vain persons who pursue that which is last as if it were first, matter will not be vanity but will show its own beauty in its own way, a low type of beauty, of course, but not deceptive.”
So often I pursue that which is last as if it were first. How many times have I decided to go mountain biking or grab a coffee or watch a manly movie without first considering God and asking him what his will is? These things are so trivial, yet I pursue the like with such fervor. “It is very easy to execrate the flesh, but very difficult not to be carnally minded.” Or as St. Paul says, “I don’t do that which I want to do, but I do the very thing which I hate.” It is such a difficult thing living as a Christian in the world. There are so many temptations, Lord I pray that you delivery me from these and every other unseemly thing.
“Life which delights in material joys and neglects God tends to nothingness…” Do I really believe this? Of course I do! The 2nd Law of Thermodynamics states that in a closed system order always leads to disorder unless energy is added. When I pursue material joys I am not allowing the energy of the Spirit to enter my life, and when no energy is added, I tend toward disorder and ultimately nothingness. (Yes, I just used physics to defend a theological position…I am a geek.)
Back to the original quote, Augustine was also hinting at something else: beauty. He was saying that created matter is beautiful. He is continually urging us to understand that creation is not evil in and of itself. By our idolatry we create a dualistic belief. We call matter evil, even if not blatantly. We say don’t eat this, don’t drink that, don’t have sex, et al. These things are not bad or evil, if we pursue them as though they are first it has disrupted the beauty and goodness but only because of our vanity. Why do we chase after the wind? We have promoted an idea that the material world is evil and this has caused us to not recognize the beautiful. The beautiful is all around us and all beauty points towards the ultimate beauty, the One Beauty, the 3 in One – glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit, both now and ever and unto ages of ages. Amen.
Now comes the question of True Religion: how do we recognize and enjoy the beauty yet not chase after the wind in vain?
What comes to your mind first when you hear the word “beautiful”? When you want to describe the beauty that’s in the world, what’s your go to analogy? For me, it’s easy:
- a waterfall
- a single blade of grass
- a child’s smile
What about you?
.We’re coming to the end of Jonathan Edwards week. And one of the primary distinguishing characteristics of Edwards’ theology was his appreciation of beauty. For Edwards, you really don’t know anyone or anything until you have come to appreciate his/her/its particular beauty – i.e. its particular “fit” in the universe as a whole.
And, you can’t really appreciate how something fits into the whole universe until you know how it relates to God. So, for Edwards, the experiencing the beauty of creation is ultimately about experiencing God’s own beauty.
Indeed, Edwards thought so much of the world’s beauty that he could say:
the reason why almost all men, and those that seem to be very miserable, love life: because they cannot bear to lose the sight of such a beautiful and lovely world. (Beauty of the World)
So, again I ask, what is “beautiful” to you? In what do you most often experience the beauty of the world and, consequently, God’s own beauty? If you want to leave a comment and tell us about it, great. If not, at least give yourself a chance to see beauty today. Go find it somewhere. It shouldn’t take long if your eyes are open.