Nearly all of my students disagree with me, but you cannot convince me that beauty is not one of the most compelling arguments for God’s existence.
I understand, at least in part, the seeming flaws of the argument. They protest that beauty is subjective and that nobody would believe in God simply because someone says there is lovely music or they saw a sunset. Perhaps, perhaps most people would not listen to Bach and then profess belief in God. But, perhaps some would, perhaps some have.
When I was in middle school, I read the book A Memory for Wonders. It was by a French woman who was raised in Morocco because her parents, staunch atheists and communists, didn’t want anyone to speak to her about God, filling her mind with such superstitions. Despite her parents’ best intentions, her initial experience of God took place when she was three years old.
“Suddenly the sky over me and in some way around me, as I was on a small hillock, was all afire. The glory of the sunset was perhaps reflected in the myriads of particles of powdery sand still floating in the air. It was like an immense, feathery flame all scarlet, from one pole to the other, with touches of crimson and, on one side, of deep purple. I was caught in limitless beauty and radiant, singing splendor. And at the same time, with a cry of wonder in my heart, I knew that all of this beauty was created, I knew God. This was the word that my parents had hidden from me. I had nothing to name him: God, Dieu, Allah or Yahweh, as he is named by human lips, but my heart knew that all was from him and him alone and that he was such that I could address him and enter into relationship with him through prayer. I made my first act of adoration.” A Memory for Wonders, Mother Mary Francis, p. 30
My parents spoke freely to me of God while I was growing up. So this experience of seeing the beauty of a sunset and being unable to name the author of it, isn’t something I can share. Yet I can share, in part, the feeling of piercing beauty at different sights and sounds.
It was during a semester studying abroad that the power of beauty become real to me. Surrounded by history and architecture unlike any in the United States, I was continually amazed at what I saw. In Switzerland, my heart ached as I walked around a lake and soaked in the beauty of mountains. I was nearly in tears as I surveyed God’s handiwork, and I kept thinking, “No atheist can live in Switzerland. How could you deny God in the midst of such splendor?”
I climbed a radio tower on a mountain in Austria and watched the sun rise. As the light spread across the mountains, I felt fully alive. My heart was in awe at the magnificence, at a beauty that did not need to be there even if the sun was necessary for our survival. The glory of a sunrise is entirely “extra.”
My awareness of the power of beauty began during my European adventure, but it has continued ever since. Probably three times this week I have been near tears as I watched the sun rise or set. My heart cannot stop itself from aching and expanding, my mouth uttering the briefest of prayers, “Lord!” Beauty is not always warm and delightful. Sometimes it aches: it is a blade, a spearing of the heart, a breaking into my world, and an unearthing of the hidden wellspring within.
For most, beauty may never transform their hearts of disbelieving atheism into ones of faith. Yet for me, beauty is one of the most potent reminders of God’s presence. It is a sunrise offered to millions and I look at it, bold colors covering the expanse of the prairie skies, and I think, “For me, Lord?” For a little girl in Morocco decades ago, it was a sunset that started a relationship with the living God, one that grew into her conversion to Catholicism and her entrance into a religious community.
A heart that is able to see beauty is one that is more fully alive. Beauty opens us up to an experience of something outside of ourselves. It places us in a feeling of smallness at such majesty and yet a feeling of greatness to glimpse such sights. You must be open to such beauty, however, to be transformed by it.
So, perhaps my students are right. Beauty will never force people to believe in God. It cannot overcome your free will. But beauty, if you are open to it, can seize your heart, providing the ineffable conviction that the Creator of all this splendor must be worth seeking, following, and loving.