A scientist shows us how to look out the backyard window and describe a magnificent old oak tree as a Querus (Latin name), while the songwriter and poet Rich Mullins speaks of an oak in spring (in his song “The Color Green”) as a creature who “lifts up his arms in a blessing for people being born again.” And then there’s Tolkien, who turns trees into people and calls them Ents…
We need our vision rekindled by writers . . . who looked at the world and understood that it has something to tell us about ultimate reality. We need words to reenchant the world, partly because we have inherited a disenchanted way of seeing. We live in a culture shaped by materialism, by the belief that the physical world has no spiritual meaning and can be entirely explained by the language of science. Even if we believe that God is the creator of the cosmos, we tend more and more to describe it in terms of atoms and inches and measurements rather than in the language of mystery. Like Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, the character who embodies what C. S. Lewis considered the worst habits of the modern world, we could easily describe a star just as “a huge ball of flaming gas.”
Like Eustace, we need the sparkle-eyed correction of the much wiser Koriakin, who quickly replies, “That is not what a star is but only what it is make of.”
…We need . . . to liven our wonder because . . . we live with so many distractions—so many things to buy, so many places to go—that we barely have time to sleep, let alone stop long enough to recognize that the smallest moments of the everyday day are rich in beauty, steeped in God’s creative presence.
Beauty touches something deep within us. It captivates and delights us. It is consoling, stunning, intriguing, inspiring, exhilarating. We recognize it. It arrests our attention.
But beauty is elusive.
We are unable to analyze, categorize or place beauty together with all the other topics that we study. Our attempts to describe it fail miserably; our definitions fall short. The greatest philosophers acknowledge that the best we can do is to recognize it when it is there. Beauty will not be explained or contained.It is real, it is wonderful—but it defies analysis.
Something similar happens with God.
Humans have an innate sense that he is there, but we cannot reduce him to a formula or an equation. We can worship or reject him, but we cannot fully explain him. It is a mistake to ask scientists to prove or disprove his existence. He does not reside within their field of study—and good science recognizes its limitations.
“The secret of beauty lies, not in its chemical analysis, but in another mysterious reality,” writes J. Warner Wallace. Science cannot explain why a certain combination of pigments on a canvas is beautiful. And it is incapable of unraveling the mystery of God. When science finishes explaining everything it will have explained nothing.
Albert Einstein said, “The most beautiful thing we can experience is the mysterious. It is the source of all true art and all science. He to whom this emotion is a stranger, who can no longer pause to wonder and stand rapt in awe, is as good as dead: his eyes are closed.”
Wonder does not exist on the basis of rational explanations. It simply doesn’t work that way. It shows up unexpectedly and gives itself to those who are ready to be astonished. We are not about to figure out beauty and much less God—the source of all beauty—but they demand our attention. To ignore them is to be blind.
And to be fully alive involves responding to the awe-inspiring reality of both.
In a real sense, everything that we see is a shadow cast by that which we do not see. Plato was right: “The visible is a shadow cast by the invisible.” And so God is still around. All of our knowledge, all of our developments, cannot diminish his being one iota. These new advances have banished God neither from the microcosmic compass of the atom nor from the vast, unfathomable ranges of interstellar space. The more we learn about this universe, the more mysterious and awesome it becomes. God is still here.
Ultimately, science and religion should serve rather than dominate the human societies from which they emerged. Each, I believe, serves best from a stance of awe and humility that assumes as little as possible. The best from both worlds — the greatest scientists and the most profound religious thinkers and teachers — have always practiced these two qualities. Childlike awe motivated Einstein. “All our knowledge is but the knowledge of schoolchildren,” he accepted. “The real nature of things, that we shall never know, never.” Similarly, the German Jesuit theologian Karl Rahner invoked both humility and awe when he asked, “Which do we love more, the small island of our so-called knowledge or the sea of infinite mystery?”
The blazing stars, particles too small to see, the smile of children, the eyes of lovers, melody filling the soul, a flood of joy surprising the heart, mystery at the core of the plainest things – all tell us that we are not alone. They open our eyes to the vision that steadies and sustains us.
I see myself immersed in the depths of human existence and standing in the face of the ineffable mystery of the world and of all that is. And in that situation, I am made poignantly and burningly aware that the world cannot be self-sufficient, that there is hidden in some still greater depth a mysterious, transcendent meaning. This meaning is called God. Men have not been able to find a loftier name, although they have abused it to the extent of making it almost unutterable. God can be denied only on the surface; but he cannot be denied where human experience reaches down beneath the surface of flat, vapid, commonplace existence.
–Nikolai Berdyaev, Russian religious and political philosopher