The New Atheist gets all grumpy about ‘stupid’ conversions to the faith. Francis Collins – a self-described ‘obnoxious atheist’ and incredible genetic scientist – revealed the end of his own journey to God…
“I turned the corner and saw in front of me this frozen waterfall, a couple of hundred feet high. Actually, a waterfall that had three parts to it — also the symbolic three in one. At that moment, I felt my resistance leave me. And it was a great sense of relief. The next morning, in the dewy grass in the shadow of the Cascades, I fell on my knees and accepted this truth — that God is God, that Christ is his son and that I am giving my life to that belief.”
…and was called weak-minded, a cop-out; someone who had clearly not thought out either of his positions, atheistic or theistic. Or Jennifer Fulwier, that beautiful woman who writes over at Conversion Diary. Her atheism ended the moment she looked at her new baby. Or Peter Hitchens, a believer after seeing a painting of heaven and hell. All of them have been snidely called out as subjective, emotional and illogical human beings.
In reality, the majority of conversions to the faith are of this nature – an experience with beauty. Granted, most of these experiences are preceded with some logical venture – Francis Collins was convinced of Darwinism’ inability to explain the Moral Law before his hiking trip. But this isn’t stupid at all. In fact, it’s one of the most logical reasons to admit the existence of God by admitting the existence of beauty; by experiencing beauty.
“A frozen waterfall? What intellectual failure! What pathetic sentimentality!” the atheist might argue. Not so. The atheistic position falls flat in the face of a frozen waterfall.
Now the reason Beauty gets a bad rap – especially as a catalyst for conversion – is because the modern mind conceives it as subjective. How can Beauty lead you to God, if to the next man it may be regarded as ugliness? But as I have attempted to show, the modern mind is just plain stupid. Beauty is objective. Beauty is outside of us. If we close our eyes, our children are still beautiful. It is not defined by us, rather it is something we recognize.
But there is another quality to Beauty, or rather, a quality within a quality (Quality Inception!) that a reader-whom-I-hope-will-not-mind-me-quoting wrote on,
…beauty really hurts. It causes intense longing and a painful desire, sehnsucht. It makes us wonder. It’s both agony and ecstasy. We catch a tiny glimpse of the fulfillment of all desire, and it awakens an even fiercer desire for that object. That’s probably why the saddest things strike us as the most beautiful – because beauty hurts. It’s like fire, as Augustine makes clear: “Thou touched me!—I tasted thee, and now I burn to live within thy peace”…
This is a fact of life I believe everyone can attest to, that beauty makes us long, whether it be framed in our wives, the Shenandoah Valley, or the poetry of The Chronicles of Narnia. Though perhaps I am being presumptuous. Perhaps, by some strange miracle, you’ve never experienced The Longing. Sit then in the quiet with this, and I apologize for ruining your hitherto simple life with soul-tugging pangs of sweet-pain.
This sudden and breath-taking feeling of ‘something greater’ cannot be discounted as mere sentimental emotion – as the New Atheist might wish – for it is a universal experience. No, this quality within the experience of Beauty is our innate acknowledgment of the infinity of Beauty. The experience of Beauty is often described as lifting our hearts, elevating us, pulling us to something higher, etc. etc. – what are these phrases but attempts to explain that there is always more Beauty? If Beauty were finite, perhaps we could be simply satisfied with it; sit down with some Mozart and say, “Yep, this is dandy. I feel perfectly satisfied.” We could leave the Pieta, unmoved; walk in a New England Autumn woods and feel no inexplicable desires. But if it is infinite, it would make absolute sense that the experience of Beauty is accompanied with Longing – for an experience of Beauty could only ever speak of greater Beauty to be found. The experience of the infinite would send the heart and mind soaring upwards, for infinity is the always-more.
This innate knowledge of Beauty being infinite (which, by the way, is a fact taken as self-evident by the Ancient philosophers) fits perfectly with the fact that it is objective. If it is objective, that is to say, something that is, not simply something that exists upon the certain construction of nature, or upon ourselves viewing those constructions, then it is outside of nature. Outside of us. Supernatural. You might draw an exquisite piece of art, but you conformed that piece of art to a knowledge of beauty; the art does not bring the beauty into existence. Thus if art did not exist, beauty still would. If the world did not exist, beauty still would.
Beauty is infinite necessarily. Because to judge anything from not very beautiful at all:
to the famously, incredibly beautiful:
…is to admit the existence of a scale. But since there is always possibility of more beauty, as there is always the possibility of a greater number, the scale must be infinite. The most Beautiful Thing Ever would have to be infinitely beautiful. And saying something is infinitely beautiful is saying that something is Beauty itself. (If I am infinitely like a train, I am a train.)
So have the conclusion: If Beauty can indeed be maintained to be an Infinite, Supernatural Existence, then God is Beauty. For there cannot exist two independent infinities. An immovable object and an unstoppable force cannot meet. Another way of saying this is that God is infinitely beautiful, which as I showed in the train example, is the same as saying God is Beauty. This means that St. Francis, upon recieving the stigmata and crying to Our Lord ‘”You are beauty…You are beauty!” was not being poetical in the subjective sense of the term. He was being honest. He was being absolutely, ruthlessly logical.
So when Francis Collins falls to his knees before the sight of a gorgeous, frozen waterfall, it isn’t emotionalism. It isn’t weakness. For all practical purposes, it seems to be basic mathematics. The existence of Beauty declares the existence of God, for Beauty, in it’s infinity is God. Any experience of beauty, whether experienced by the hardcore atheist or the flabby-minded Christian, is an experience of God.