Friday, 24 April 2015

Of Beasts and Beauty

The Hubble Telescope is 25 years old.  In that time, it has allowed us to see further and more clearly across our universe than ever before, and revealed the incredible, mind boggling beauty of creation.

It is a very common to hear people asking some variation of ‘If there is a God, why is there evil in the world’, or ‘If God is good, why would He allow evil’?  These are very valid and important questions, and I’ve made my own fumbling attempts to answer them according to my own understanding.

However, it has occurred to me that this may be a very wrong-headed way of looking at things.  People generally focus on the negatives.  The glass is half empty far more often than it is half full, and by and large we love nothing better than having a good moan.  Focussing on the negatives can be beneficial, since it allows us to see what is wrong, and therefore what needs correcting, what needs improving, what needs removing.  However, it can also lead to us forgetting the positives, wallowing in despair and depression, shaking our little fists and demanding to know what kind of God would allow, or worse create, such a state of affairs.

What if we reversed the question?  ‘If there’s no God, why is there good in the world?’  How about, ‘If God is evil, why would He allow good?’  Why is there goodness?  Why is there beauty?  Many good things can, if one wishes to do so (and I don’t), be explained away in materialistic, evolutionary terms.  Love, even the selfless, self-sacrificing love of agap√©, can be construed as improving the survival of a community.  Charity speaks for itself.  Hope keeps individuals alive when despair would claim them.  Faith can be used to increase group cohesion.  These are all things that we, as mere human animals, could have developed purely for utilitarian, functional reasons.

But what about beauty?  I struggle to think of any reason why humans should have an innate sense of beauty.  I’m not talking about human beauty, since again the evolutionary pressures for this are fairly obvious.  But why would we find a sunset beautiful?  A waterfall?  A rainbow?  The incredible images sent to us by the Hubble Telescope?  It seems to me that the ancient ape-person sitting staring at a sunset in awestruck rapture will very soon be staring at the inside of a no-longer very hungry leopard.  Do the sheep and cows that stand and stare look at their world and wonder at its amazing and majestic beauty.  I speak neither ovine or bovine to ask them, but I have not seen anything to indicate it.

Why should there be so much beauty in the world?  Or rather, why is it that we, odd little ape-things that we are, should find things beautiful?  What is it in us that responds to the majesty of nature, the wonders of creation, that drives us to try and capture them in paintings and photographs and poems and songs?  Art and music can be waved away as things that draw us closer together, increase group cohesion and social ties and improve group survivability, but not what inspires them; the incredible longing, the appreciation, the ability to stare in awesome wonder.

Should we ignore the bad and focus only on the good?  Of course not.  Evil has functions of its own, helping us to strive towards, and to be, something better than we are.  We must not forget the bad, but let us also not forget the good.

Two of my favourite hymns start by glorying in the beauty of the world.

Yes God is good.
In Earth and Sky,
In ocean depths
And spreading wood,
Ten thousand voices
Seem to cry,
God made us all,
And God is good!

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