In my earlier posting I wrote primarily about my personal journey as a Christian and why I am a believer rather than an atheist. In the course of my life I do not think atheism would have ever been a possible way to live – the questions of my life and heart would have been either silenced or bludgeoned into non-existence.
But there are other aspects worth writing about. One has to do with the reductionism of atheist thought. To view the world in a purely materialist fashion makes sense in a secular protestant mindset (I have written on this a defined my terms in a previous post). It is possible to see the world as existing in discreet, concrete terms – as self-existing. The problem is that it leaves so much of human experience unaccounted for, and undervalued.
Theories of knowledge, for instance, in a world of discreet materialism, are fairly straightforward, though boring. Materialist explanations of non-materialist experiences always border on silliness to me. It’s like reducing love to a chemical expression. If you like movies (though the rating is not what I would normally recommend) the independent film, Dopamine, has an artful explanation of love versus mere chemical reaction. What do we do with the encounter with Beauty? Materialist explanations not only sound contrived but manage to turn the experience of beauty into something of ugliness. This is why I earlier charged that atheism has produced no worthy art: it’s ugly and boring.
The very experience of Beauty has a way of drawing us beyond ourselves and towards the Transcendent. The number of conversions of which I am aware that involve an experience of Beauty extend far beyond those famous cases such as Dostoevsky and Bulgakov. One of the most profound I have heard came from the priest, Fr. Anthony Tregubov, an excellent iconographer, and late secretary and later priest to Alexander Solzhnetisyn (when he lived in Vermont).
I was reading earlier today in the theology of Fr. Pavel Florensky. His theology is deeply intertwined in the question of aesthetics and epistemology (Beauty and the Theory of Knowledge). I frequently think that if someone has had a true encounter with Beauty and can come away with a simple materialist explanation, they have either purposely diminished the experience, or have dismissed it in a way that protects them from the demands that Beauty would make.
I am sure that a materialist could respond to questions of Beauty that they are simply responses based on how we are “hard-wired.” If such an explanation is sufficient then Beauty has become as prosaic as digestion. There are experiences of Beauty that bring you to a complete stop – that render us powerless and speechless. We can be completely ravished by Beauty and find ourselves reduced to willing servitude.
On the other hand, to have lived life in this world and never to have experienced any Beauty of such power, is to have lived a poor life. The greater the saint, the more easily they are overwhelmed by such beauty – to the extent that every glance at this created world is itself a glimpse of God. No materialist account of human life has a place for such experience – at least not a place that has not rendered the experience as again as banal as digestion (though I venture that the saint even marvels at digestion).
When I was a child in second grade, my teacher was an artist. For whatever reason, she focused her attention on about three students in her class and gave us special attention (this is all probably illegal today). One thing she did for us was to take us on a private visit to the County Museum of Art (a deeply modest event compared to its existence today where it houses the largest Wyeth Collection in the nation). But we were children of the margin – not farm families nor city folk. My father was an auto mechanic, my mother a seamstress. The others were the child of a hog salesman and the manager of a trailer park. She took us to see art. Not the chalk drawings she dazzled us with on her blackboard in the classroom, nor our own feeble efforts in clay and finger-painting – but true art, wonderful, colorful and beyond anything we had known. Unlike pictures in a book it was the product of a human hand.
I remember aching with the experience. I wanted to be an artist (I never became one – seeming to lack the talent). But I have a daughter who draws with an absolute delight and intends on becoming an artist. She has no idea how I rejoice in her work and pray that she be transformed by the encounter with Beauty.
There is a vast human conversation – even a conversation I can have with a Buddhist or Hindu for that matter, despite the difficulties – that are simply foreign to the materialist account of reality. As a believer I also belong to the human race and the whole of its experience. I can at least take part in the conversation. Materialism and its concomitant brother, atheism, seem to have exempted themselves from the largest part of the human conversation.
Dostoevsky is quoted as saying, “God will save the world through Beauty.” He never quite said it that way – but the saying stands as true (I believe). I do not doubt that every assault on Beauty, every attempt to reduce it to less, to a mere process of the brain, and has diminished humanity and the eons of its encounter with this wondrous experience.