“Frustratingly incomplete”

I’m reading N.T. Wright’s Simply Christian.

It is, quite intentionally, his attempt at something like C.S. Lewis’ Mere Christianity. It aims to be both a persuasive introduction for outsiders and a guide to the essence of the faith for insiders. I think it’s probably stronger in the latter capacity, but its approach to the former task — persuading outsiders — is humbler and less didactic than Lewis’ was. Mere Christianity often comes across as saying something like, “here is why all right-thinking, reasonable people ought to be Christians.” Wright is, more winsomely — and more accurately — simply telling the reader what it is that he believes and why, inviting the reader to follow along.

Wright’s early chapter on beauty deals thoughtfully with what Lewis might have called “joy” — that sense of a fleeting glimpse of something transcendent. Lewis, I think, could be overconfident in attributing a specific, sectarian meaning to that experience. Wright is satisfied to say only that it suggests, or hints at … something.

This joy or beauty, Wright says, is like an “echo of a voice,” one of several such echoes he discusses in his opening chapters. These things, he is careful to say, in no way can be said to “‘prove’ either the existence of God or [God's] particular character.” About all these “echoes,” he says:

None of these by itself points directly to God — to any God, let alone the Christian God. At best, they wave their arms in a rather general direction, like someone in a cave who hears an echoing voice by has no idea where it’s coming from.

I wanted to provide that context for the snippet of Wright’s book below because his analogy is similar to the sort of thing sometimes put forward by proponents of “intelligent design,” and that is not what Wright is up to here. He’s discussing something that is both less arrogant and more important than that.

Wright is a biblical scholar and a Christian clergyman, but his discussion of this sense of something more, I think, will likely ring true for many who don’t share that particular perspective. His description here of the fleeting glimpse of something transcendent — the simultaneously tantalizing and frustrating incompleteness of knowing that there is so much more that we do not or cannot know — is the sort of thing that I think, for example, the late Carl Sagan might have embraced as something like the source of his own more secular passion for science.

But then, of course, I am reading this from the same perspective that Wright is writing from, so I’m curious to hear from others if this resonates with you at all — if this analogy is, as the book’s title suggests, “Simply Christian,” or if it says something more broadly about the human condition and the human predicament.

One day, rummaging through a dusty old attic in a small Austrian town, a collector comes across a faded manuscript containing many pages of music. It is written for the piano. Curious, he takes it to a dealer. The dealer phones a friend, who appears half an hour later. When he sees the music he becomes excited, then puzzled. This looks like the handwriting of Mozart himself, but it isn’t a well-known piece. In fact, he’s never heard it. More phone calls. More excitement. More consultations. It really does seem to be Mozart. And, though some parts seem distantly familiar, it doesn’t correspond to anything already known in his works.

Before long, someone is sitting at a piano. The collector stands close by, not wanting to see his precious find damaged as the pianist turns the pages. But then comes a fresh surprise. The music is wonderful. It’s just the sort of thing Mozart would have written. It’s energetic and elegiac by turns, it’s got subtle harmonic shifts, some splendid tunes, and a ringing finale. But it seems … incomplete. There are places where nothing much seems to be happening, where the piano is simply marking time. There are other places where the writing is faded and it isn’t quite clear, but it looks as though the composer has indicated, not just one or two bars rest, but a much longer pause.

Gradually the truth dawns on the excited little group. What they are looking at is indeed by Mozart. It is indeed beautiful. But it’s the piano part of a piece that involves another instrument, or perhaps other instruments. By itself it is frustratingly incomplete. A further search of the attic reveals nothing else that would provide a clue. The piano music is all there is, a signpost to something that was there once and might still turn up one day. There must have been a complete work of art which would now, without additional sheet music, be almost impossible to reconstruct; they don’t know if the piano was to accompany an oboe or a bassoon, a violin or a cello, or perhaps a full string quartet or some other combination of instruments. If those other parts could be found, they would make complete sense of the incomplete beauty contained in the faded scribble of genius now before them. …

This is the position we are in when confronted by beauty. The world is full of beauty, but the beauty is incomplete. Our puzzlement about what beauty is, what it means, and what (if anything) it is there for is the inevitable result of looking at one part of a larger whole. Beauty, in other words, is another echo of a voice — a voice which (from the evidence before us) might be saying one of several different things. …

  • http://profiles.google.com/yamikuronue Bayley G

    I wouldn’t say that the beauty of the world is incomplete. I would say, rather, that we demand more of the world than it is capable of providing. The world cares nothing for how beautiful it is – when we find moments of sublime beauty and joy, demanding meaning in addition seems…. arrogant and foolish. It’s the fact that beauty and goodness are not guaranteed, are not owed to us, are not automatic,that makes them so precious, so worth cultivating.

    If the sound of wind was as beautiful and intricate as anything Mozart could write, why bother writing music at all? 

  • At

    Hmm… They already knew there was a Mozart.  They already had a conception of what the music was going to be like.  What’s more, they know that there’s more of that music.  (I have no idea how they know it’s not a standalone piece, seems to me they are just sure it isn’t.)

    So they already “know” what they are seeking.  They are just fitting what they find into their  perception of the world.  Maybe it was someone who wasn’t Mozart but was a good imitator.  Maybe they are forgeries done a hundred years after Mozart died.  Maybe it really is a standalone piece but the reason they feel it is incomplete is the same reason the composer dumped it – it isn’t as good as they think it is, they are just over the moon about it so they think it’s brilliant.  Mozart thought it was crap.

    To me beauty just is.  I don’t need to find a reason for it, I don’t even see it as incomplete.  I see a sunset that isn’t as wonderful as others I have seen, it is still wonderful.  I can see the red desert around Broken HIll and not think “It is incomplete, there are no palm trees”.  It is just as it is, and accept it for that.

    To me Wright is begging the question (in the old fashioned sense).  ” the proposition to be proven is assumed implicitly or explicitly in the premise”.  He’s started from the idea there’s a God, so to him there’s something incomplete and needs God to complete and explain it.  To me there isn’t and the idea that beauty is incomplete is just weird.   I can’t think of anything I need to postulate a God to explain.
    Why does beauty have to be “for” anything?  I think the various Just So stories of evolutionary psych give just as much of a reason if reason you need than the existence of God, and possible more of them and to me more sensible ones.

    So no… doesn’t work for me.  He’s assuming God exists then finding reasons to bolster his assumptions and I find it entirely unconvincing.

  • picklefactory

    I think a more interesting question would be: if you find that the beauty of the world is incomplete, and that this feeling waves its arms in the general direction of god, what brings you from this more deist point of view to Christianity?

  • Anonymous

    I can’t say I’ve ever experienced “beauty” or “joy” in the sense meant here, or by Lewis.

    On occasion I’ll find it rather amazing how something (say, a cell) works, but it’s not a transcendent feeling; there’s no sense of a greater whole I’m missing, just admiration for something so complex.

    I understand that trying to grasp such a sensation when I have not experienced it myself is pretty pointless, but I do occasionally wonder what I’m missing out on by not undergoing such states of mind.

  • http://www.blogger.com/home?pli=1 Coleslaw

    I remember watching the first episode of the series Universe, and feeling a brief, visceral grasp of how truly enormous the universe is. Rather than having a sense of incompleteness, my reaction was thinking how we’re all alone here, and that’s scary.

  • Nathaniel

    Echoing a comment above, to believe that beauty necessitates god, is to assume that beauty comes from God in the first place. Let alone the difficulty in declaring why that means the Christian God is true, rather than the Muslim one, or the Hindu pantheon.

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ gjm

    No, I don’t generally find that the beauty of the world is “frustratingly incomplete” in the sort of way he describes. It’s frequently imperfect or not available in sufficient quantities, but those features don’t seem to me to point to anything Beyond. “Puzzlement about what beauty means” seems to me simply a confusion, like being puzzled about where music lives or what colour sex is.

    So, yeah, I’m inclined to think NTW’s analysis is “Simply Christian”, in the sense that I suspect Wright thinks beauty demands an explanation beyond itself mostly because there’s a Christian tradition of thinking that :-).

    (But I’m not certain that I know exactly what it is he’s writing *about*. I mean, there’s nothing in the paragraphs Fred’s quoted to indicate that he’s specifically describing a “fleeting glimpse of something transcendent”, and maybe the surrounding paragraphs show that he’s not really discussing beauty-in-general but some more specific *kind* of experience of beauty. In which case, what I said above may be irrelevant.)

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    Whenever the idea of a transcendent experience is brought up I remember someone talking about an entirely secular one.  Well, “remember” is too strong a word.  I remember that it happened but all the details have fled.  I think it was mmy and I think it might have happened in a math class, but I’m very unsure on both of those points.  I remember thinking it was awesome, I think.

    I have, on occasion, almost glimpsed the four dimensional.  First off, I don’t visualize very well in the first place so almost glimpsing something is an impressive feat for me anyway, but visualizing something like that, even something as simple as a hypersphere, is just … I don’t know.  It’s a liminal experience, as if your were lifted just the tiniest bit out of flatland and you were on the edge of seeing something extraordinary.  At least it was for me.

    Our understanding of just about everything is incomplete, and when I brush up against that incompleteness I often feel a sense of wonder.  There’s more out there, we just don’t know it yet.

    That said, it doesn’t make me turn to religion.  I believe that there is a God, but when it comes to trying to determine what the echoes described are of science where I turn.  It provides answers, but it also provides more echoes.  It always seems to me that no matter how much is discovered there’s are always more questions.  And that’s great, because it means we’ll never run out of new things to find.

  • Heartfout

    (I’m not really sure what incomplete beauty means, but this was my immediate reaction to the post. If someone can explain it I’ll address that, but as it stands this is my best stab in the dark at what it might mean.)

    I sometimes find the world too complete. It has lots of stuff and lots of people in it, and some of these things are very beautiful, but sometimes if I’m in a big place with lots of people and there’s lots of beautiful stuff around I get an overdose and I have to sit in my room and cuddle a pillow until I’ve calmed down.

    So, no, I can’t say I’ve got the feeling of incomplete beauty, just over-concentrated beauty sometimes.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The way I feel the beauty of the world might be “frustratingly incomplete” is in our abilty to describe it on its most fundamental level, rather than anything inherent in the world itself.

    As yet, physicists are still grappling with how to have a unified theory that describes all four forces in nature. We have been promised the moon with string theory, for example, but as yet only approximate calculations can be done with it.

    That unified theory’s close, though. And we know it’s there.

    But until we have it, there’ll always be something inherently dissatisfying about having to section off quantum mechanics from general relativity and apply each in its separate realm of competency, whiile only being able to carefully and in limited fashion, couple the two to get needed results (e.g. it was possible to show that the graviton has a spin of 2 well before string theory got off the ground).

  • konrad_arflane

    (I have no idea how they know it’s not a standalone piece, seems to me they are just sure it isn’t.)

    If you know your Mozart, or just music from the period in general, it’s pretty easy to tell whether a piano score contains a complete piece or the piano part of a piece for several instruments. It’s probably not too difficult to determine whether it’s piano concerto or a sonata for some instrument and piano, either.

    And now I’m going to be the annoying pedant and take the example too literally:

    When this sort of thing happens, as it will from time to time, actual people don’t stand around in consternation and wonder what might have been. You can be pretty sure that some musicologist somewhere will take it upon himself to reconstruct the work from the available material. Perhaps the most extreme example: Bach’s St Luke Passion was “reconstructed” (in this case, significant parts of it were plain made up) some ten or fifteen years ago, despite the fact that not a single page of music survives – all we have left is the text Bach set in music.

    It seems to me that there’s a parallel here to be worked out with how religions arise, but it’s late, and anyway I’m not sure I could do it without insulting someone.

  • http://twitter.com/neville_park Neville Park

    The Wright passage reminds me of certain arguments for the Forms by Plato, and the Neoplatonic idea of material things as existing only contingently and therefore have elements of both being and non-being. (“Glory be to God for dappled things…all things counter, original, spare, strange…”) Not sure where I’m going with this, tired and about to sleep.

  • http://twitter.com/merusdraconis Matt Cramp

    I have experienced ‘beauty’ or ‘joy’ like the authors describe; it was running across a sale for a Nintendo Gamecube at half price.

    While God may work in mysterious ways, that’s a rather stupid way. So I’m inclined to think that it’s an emotional response that people naturally ascribe outwards.

  • http://twitter.com/Rhysdux Rhysdux

    The world is full of beauty, but the beauty is incomplete. Our puzzlement about what beauty is, what it means, and what (if anything) it is there for is the inevitable result of looking at one part of a larger whole. Beauty, in other words, is another echo of a voice — a voice which (from the evidence before us) might be saying one of several different things. …

    I have seen both phenomenal beauty and phenomenal ugliness in the world, but I’ve never had the sense that either the beauty or the ugliness are incomplete.

     I’ve never wondered what beauty is for, either; whether or not you see something as beautiful depends largely on how you yourself define beauty. If you’ve ever seen pictures of seemingly ordinary Renaissance and Tudor-era queens who were reputed to be great beauties or the portraits by Titian and Peter Paul Rubens featuring gorgeous women who would now be victims of fat-shaming, you’ll know what I mean.

    Nor does everyone see nature–or at least not every aspect of nature–as beautiful. I have seen many pictures of the snow-covered Arctic and the Antarctic, and  I also know people who would see the snow and ice as pristine and elegant. Yet to me, snow and ice are cold, bleak, deadly nightmares and I want no part of them. 

    I’ve known people who saw more beauty in a well-planned and well-crafted city than any pastoral ideal.  Leo Rosten once asked Buckminster Fuller if he saw no beauty in Nature; Fuller replied that he saw very little beauty in a tapeworm. 

    I cannot say that I have ever looked at a beautiful forest (or ocean, or desert, or jungle) and felt that I was looking at one part of a larger whole, or the echo of a voice. Such things exist, but they don’t scream “there is a God” to me.

    The author seems to be trying to drag significance into something that doesn’t require it. I can almost hear him singing, “Double rainbow! What does this mean?”  Which puzzles me. Does it have to mean anything? Isn’t it enough that it’s here and that we can enjoy it if we want to?

  • Anonymous

    I definite get that “flicker in the corner of my eye” feeling, but I also think the Universe is its own glorious justification for itself. So I don’t need a divine explanation or even a bedrock “Why All This Is”, just always being curious and having a sense of wonder is enough. 

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    Can someone clarify something for me here?

    I’ve never been able to figure out if C.S. Lewis meant “Just Christianity” or “Mother Christianity”. “Mere” can mean “just” in English, but “Mère” is “mother” in French and oftentimes accented words in other languages simply have the accents dropped when writing them in English.

    Anyone wanna give me a confirm on this?

  • http://www.mccaughan.org.uk/g/ gjm

    Invisible Neutrino, definitely “just” rather than “mother”. “Just” isn’t quite right either; more like “Christianity reduced to its most basic and essential elements, as opposed to more specific varieties of Christianity like Roman Catholicism or Evangelical Lutheranism”.

  • http://twitter.com/shutsumon Becka Sutton

    In my experience moments of transcendence are moments of completeness. A moment of being pierced by light and burned up by love and then – a moment later – it’s gone and you can’t quite parse what just happened. And you look at the things that caused it and you can’t recapture it. That’s when beauty seems incomplete, when you suddenly become aware of something greater and then it’s gone.

    And it could be a trick of the brain or a genuine religious experience, you don’t know, but either way it’s a valid experience with value for the person.

  • ako

    The sense of the beauty of the world being incomplete…this is complicated for me, because deep down inside, I want to live in a fantasy novel.  My transcendental urges are pretty much all pointed in that direction.  I want magic, elves and fairies, dragons and mermaids.  I want sorcerers and enchanted swords.  And I want all of these things in a fairly literal sense.  (It isn’t a stand in for a higher or more mature or more respectable urge, I really do want magic powers.)

    When I do get transcendental urges, they all point to this direction, towards a door to fairyland, or to the kind of magic that lets me touch the stars in the sky with my bare hands.  It doesn’t fit with anything spiritual or religious or even particularly mature.  And I don’t have any reason to believe it connects with any higher level of reality.  So I’m a bit skeptical of the idea that such a sense means anything significant.

    Still, it’s nice to see people make a point of going “I have this sense and it points to something where I feel the Christian God is a good answer, but it isn’t actual proof of anything.”

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Patrick-Hickey/30117548 Patrick Hickey

    I’m afraid it doesn’t resonate with me.  Christian originated mysticism rarely does.  I don’t “get” this sort of thing.  Incompleteness, brokenness, all the various concepts Christian mysticism utilizes, they just don’t do anything for me.  Even “meaning” when its used by Christians tends to not “mean” anything to me.  I don’t know what people mean by words like “transcendent.”

    On top of that… I can’t imagine feeling that a sense of awe in something would direct me towards a belief in a god.  There are things I can imagine that feel… I don’t know, maybe “otherworldly” is a good term.  Things that are generally outside of human experience, and inspire awe in me.  The sheer scale of stars, for example, or the idea of a human life modeled in four dimensions.  But the concept of God is, to me, such a human and contrived and wretched thing that I can’t imagine associating it with beauty.

    I’m also deeply suspicious of these sorts of arguments.  I know Wright isn’t claiming that this “proves” God per se.  But… it seems like there are echos of cultism in this.  First, induce an enjoyable emotional state (in this case through poetics, which is less nasty than many other methods I’ve seen).  Then convince people to believe that emotional state is intrinsically tied to belief in your religion.  If you can do that, you have them forever.  Not only will they feel like they have evidence of their religion’s truth (I feel joy, so God must be real), but they will fear that should they ever stop believing, they’ll lose that aspect of themselves.

  • hapax

    When I do get transcendental urges, they all point to this direction,
    towards a door to fairyland, or to the kind of magic that lets me touch
    the stars in the sky with my bare hands.  It doesn’t fit with anything
    spiritual or religious or even particularly mature.  And I don’t have
    any reason to believe it connects with any higher level of reality.  So
    I’m a bit skeptical of the idea that such a sense means anything
    significant.

    Ever since I was very little, I have never seen a “path through the woods” — even if we’re talking about about a gap in the neighbor’s hedge — without feeling an instinctive surety that it leads somewhere beyond the lands that we know:  to an enchanted well, a garrulous old oak, maybe a ruined castle that is mysteriously complete and inhabited in the moonlight.

    Now, I have also, as long as I can remember, refused to walk down those paths.  Not because I didn’t want to visit Somewhere Else — I wanted that, more desperately than I could say — but because I knew that I could not bear the crushing disillusionment when I, sure as eggs are eggs, wound up at a prosaic clearing or the neighbors yard.  And, if for some reason (a hiking trip or walking the dog) was forced to take that route — well, I informed myself, that wasn’t the real Path, that you could only stumble upon unawares, glimpse out of the corner of your eye.

    So is this the same as my experiences of transcendent beauty and joy?  They are certainly akin, although I would not equate them.  But I would say that, wouldn’t I?  The only thing I know is that in rare moments of prayer and contemplation, I am certain that I have actually, truly and For Reals, brushed against the penumbra of Beauty and Joy in Itself — like Moses, cowering behind a rock, glimpsing the dark backside of Ha Shem.

    Yet I don’t know, can’t know if I am still deluding myself.  Maybe I am so emotionally dependent upon there being an actual Platonic Source that I’ve convinced myself into experiencing something that isn’t there.  We kind of specialize in that, with our highly evolved pattern-making monkey brains.

    Or maybe, if I’d ever had the courage to walk down those path, I might find myself within the stars, behind the sunset, over the rainbow… 

  • http://twitter.com/Rhysdux Rhysdux

     (It isn’t a stand in for a higher or more mature or more respectable urge, I really do want magic powers.)

    I do too, Ako. I would LOVE to have magical powers that fix everything, because…well, that’s the opposite of my life. And while I don’t care about elves or fairies…I’ve wanted mermaids and sorcery to be real since I was little.

  • Anonymous

    I remember watching the first episode of the series Universe,
    and feeling a brief, visceral grasp of how truly enormous the universe
    is. Rather than having a sense of incompleteness, my reaction was
    thinking how we’re all alone here, and that’s scary.

    Yeah, but we’re all alone together.

  • MaryKaye

    I have had an experience that maps to this (though Lewis’ description is closer than the Mozart one).  But I always found Lewis’ statement that it stopped happening to him after he became a Christian deeply troubling.  He said, you don’t need the signpost after you arrive at the destination.  But the destination he arrived at does not seem worthy of the signpost he described.  Certainly my own experiences as a Christian were not.

    The forms of it I have had as a Pagan seemed equally numinous but not so much about wanting something that’s not there; more about a very brief experience of what *is* there, but perceived very differently.

    I also have a rather strong does of what Ako is saying; a lot of what stirs nameless longings in me is mermaids and shapeshifters.

  • Tonio

    He’s assuming God exists then finding reasons to bolster his assumptions

    And he’s also assuming that humans can detect the existence of something like a god-being through feelings, as if joy was a form of extrasensory perception. I think it’s important to maintain a distinction between what we perceive and what we feel, because the universe is not about us as individuals. While emotions are important to us, they’re subjective, and two people can have vastly different emotions about the same fact.

  • http://willbikeforchange.wordpress.com/ storiteller

    The idea of it stopping happening after being a Christian is depressing.  Geeze.  Those moments, however small, are the ones that feed my faith, that keep me going when the world seems dark and angry and hopeless. 

  • Anonymous

    Oh, I so want to live in a work of fiction. Not necessarily fantasy; Sci-Fi works too :P. Not necessarily a happy fantasy world, either, just…somewhere where the fantastic is real. At times, usually when my depression is really acting up, I quite literally ache for it to be true. Feels like part of my soul’s been trapped in another world, and I can feel it pulling, trying to bring me there.

    I wouldn’t describe it as transcendental, or even remotely religious, but I completely understand why Richard Garriot spent millions of dollars, underwent surgery, and did months of intensive training just to go into space for a short while.

  • http://dpolicar.livejournal.com/ Dave

    > Oh, I so want to live in a work of fiction.

    I sympathize with this. But I suspect that, if I lived in a work of fiction, I would _still_ want to live in a work of fiction. That is, I suspect that the sense of dissatisfaction with the world as it is, and the urge for something somehow better, doesn’t go away just because the world gets better. No time and place is ever enough, unless I live in such a way as to make the here and now enough.

  • rm

    This is the idea of the sublime (and, and). The question for believers and non-believers is whether the Romantic poets invented (unacknowledged legislators!) this feeling which we now have when we feel overwhelmed with beauty and terror in the face of Creation, or whether it’s a universal human experience which they latched onto. I go with the idea that people have always felt this. What we say about it afterwards is religion.

    But, you know, it’s something people do feel, so y’all please speak for yourselves if you want to be utterly dismissive.

    Okay, so, you know, all of you people, read some literature!!!1!!1! Read some classics(crtl-F for “apostrophe”)!!!1! This (ctrl-F for “contact”) is all free on kindle!!!!1!1 READ, you internet kids, READ!

  • rm

    Not you personally, I mean, dear fellow commenters.

  • Anonymous

    Yes. I… yes. That’s why I was always so drawn to Lewis– he talked about that feeling of longing that always felt… not sinful, but not quite addressed by the Christianity I knew. But I don’t know. I don’t know if incomplete is the right word (and, all things considered, that might support the idea that Lewis dealt with depression, or something, anyway) though. The wild joy that also seemed sinful (because it didn’t Fit with the Ineffable Plan as dictated by the Elders), and the feeling of… longing? I don’t know. I don’t know, and that is the most frustrating feeling. I don’t know the word for it. Joy seems to fit sometimes– running, over sun-warmed granite mountaintops and cliffs, barefoot, and every single sense seems to sing, and I believe fully and wholly in God and in the Divine and in Joy. But also, staring out into a pale dusk, where the trees point starkly into the fade from smoky blue to a darkening purple, and that feeling… not incomplete. Longing, but not for anything tangible, or even expressible. And both senses are, at least IMHO, equally sharp, and connected to the same… thingie. The feeling of Joy, the feeling of Longing.

    (And yes, the feeling that over that stone wall, there is Something Else, the feeling that every path leads to Somewhere Else, the constant niggling feeling that this world is not all there is, but that probably is just imagination. It used to make car rides bearable– I might not know the destination, or the reason, or anything, but I could always stare out at the trees on the side of the highway, and as long as I couldn’t see the other side of them, it was obviously another world. Or maybe they went on forever, clearings of moonlight and dancing elephants and all. (Lewis was too close to Pagan, but my dad was a Kipling fan.))

    But I’m a Christian and a Shamanist, so perhaps this isn’t the fresh perspective. At any rate, it would be great to read that point without the condescension that Lewis offers. I shall have to seek this book out.

  • Anonymous

    I actually read this pretty recently.  A friend’s pastor is a big fan and keeps a huge box of them for giving out.  It’s really, really not a persuasive introduction for outsiders.  Several times, he brings up an objection to something he’s saying, notes that there are people who find the objection convincing, and then moves on to something else. Edit: To be clear, he deserves a lot of credit for doing this; it’s just not the best way to go about being persuasive.

    Stuff like the quoted passage did seem to me like useful information about what/how (some) Christians actually think.  If taken seriously as an argument, it’s way too credulous with respect to intuitions gleaned from emotional and/or culturally-driven responses.  But of course Wright stresses that he’s not really making an argument, so that’s not really a criticism.  There is, however, a bit of tension between his “this is only vaguely suggestive” disclaimers and the back cover’s claims of persuasiveness.  Overall it’s a very honest-feeling book.

    As an atheist and as someone more socially liberal than Wright, I was inappropriately amused in a few places.  He slides easily from our natural appreciation of beauty and love and whatnot to the wrongness of gay marriage (maybe homosexuality in general too, but definitely gay marriage).  He’s also very fond of that “echoes of a voice” analogy.  Of course, if I’m in a cave, and I hear a distorted voice from far away, chances are it’s /my/ echo.

  • 2-D Man

    If you want feedback from non-Christians, I’ll give it to you. The first thing that jumped out at me was this:

    None of these by itself points directly to God — to any God, let alone the Christian God. At best, they wave their arms in a rather general direction, like someone in a cave who hears an echoing voice by has no idea where it’s coming from.

    I remember a certain apostle having harsh words for people who believed in an Unknown God.

    [Wright's] analogy is similar to the sort of thing sometimes put forward by proponents of “intelligent design,” and that is not what Wright is up to here. He’s discussing something that is both less arrogant and more important than that.

    The problem with cdesign proponentists is that they are wrong. Their arrogance might offend, but it doesn’t damn their message. And it wouldn’t even if the message were right.

    Wright is a biblical scholar and a Christian clergyman, but his discussion of this sense of something more, I think, will likely ring true for many who don’t share that particular perspective. His description here of the fleeting glimpse of something transcendent — the simultaneously tantalizing and frustrating incompleteness of knowing that there is so much more that we do not or cannot know — is the sort of thing that I think, for example, the late Carl Sagan might have embraced as something like the source of his own more secular passion for science.

    I don’t. I’m no expert on Sagan, but from what I remember, he was pretty quick to whip out Occam’s razor, and cut away any explanation that wasn’t tied to direct, repeatable observation. Fleeting glimpses didn’t seem to interest him.

    As for the Mozart bit, it’s built on a contradiction. “The incompleteness of beauty points to its creation by a god. Think about a beautiful piece of music created by Mozart….” Obviously, we don’t need a god to get beautiful things, so beauty does not point towards gods. (Some might be tempted to say that God created Mozart, and thus is ultimately responsible for the cited beauty, but then one may as well do away with the analogy.)

  • Anonymous

    “the fleeting glimpse of something transcendent — the simultaneously tantalizing and frustrating incompleteness of knowing that there is so much more that we do not or cannot know”

    I can’t relate to this description.  I have occasionally felt taken up in an expanding consciousness of the breadth and depth and realness of the world, but that hasn’t been accompanied by a sense of “tantalizing and frustrating incompleteness” and I can’t imagine holding that feeling and the (as it seems to me) small anthropomorphic “God” concept in my head at the same time.  However, if it has something to do with the feeling that something’s “missing” from the ordinary physical universe, that there’s something “else” besides the dance of field quanta and spacetime in our human experience, well, let’s get down to brass tacks here:

    Last year my family had to put down the dog.  In the hours and days immediately following that event, it occurred to me that I really wanted him to still be alive somehow – to still be “chasing bunny  rabbits somewhere in the universe” is I believe how I put it.  Naturally, I had no rational reason to believe such a thing was possible.  Everything I had learned about the universe told me that Buddy Bear simply no longer existed – the phenomena that gave rise to his excitability and energy and friendliness no longer occurred.  Yet I couldn’t get the idea of him running through some far-off Elysian fields out of my head.  It seemed to have more validity, more power in my mind, than the facts I had learned.  It still kind of does.  So in that sense, I did feel that there was something “missing” from quantum field theory and general relativity and biology and stardust.

    But that wasn’t something that I somehow sensed existed through a tantalizing and incomplete glimpse – it was something I wanted but had no evidence for.

    I suppose that may be the closest I’ve ever came to feeling this “tantalizing and frustrating incompleteness.”

  • ako

    Several times, he brings up an objection to something he’s saying, notes
    that there are people who find the objection convincing, and then moves
    on to something else. Edit: To be clear, he deserves a lot of credit
    for doing this; it’s just not the best way to go about being persuasive.

    I’m wondering if there’s any point trying to persuade people when it comes to stuff like this.  When it comes to joy, transcendence, and beauty, what people feel is going to be very personal and not entirely a matter of logic.   It’s not like you can talk people into going “Yes, now that you say it’s intellectually appropriate, I do feel a sense of incompleteness in joy that points towards the existence of God!” or “Well, now that you’ve given me indications that it’s not a universal human experience or a reflection of reality, I’m just going to stop feeling this!”  It seems like the best you can do on this front is describe what makes sense to you and see what resonates with other people. 

  • Amaryllis

    Nor does everyone see nature–or at least not every aspect of nature–as
    beautiful. I have seen many pictures of the snow-covered Arctic and the
    Antarctic, and  I also know people who would see the snow and ice as
    pristine and elegant. Yet to me, snow and ice are cold, bleak, deadly
    nightmares and I want no part of them. 

    But “bleak” and “nightmarish” are just as subjective as “beautiful:”

    One must have a mind of winter
    To regard the frost and the boughs
    Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

    And have been cold a long time
    To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
    The spruces rough in the distant glitter

    Of the January sun; and not to think
    Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
    In the sound of a few leaves,

    Which is the sound of the land
    Full of the same wind
    That is blowing in the same bare place

    For the listener, who listens in the snow,
    And, nothing himself, beholds
    Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

    -Wallace Stevens

    But even though it’s not the wind that’s miserable but the listener, we will never be able to be Stevensonian “Snow Men.”  Even when we try to see “nothing that is not there,” in the act of description we can’t help but ascribe, beauty to the sun’s glitter and barrenness to the blown snow: neither beauty nor barrenness is a “something,” yet aren’t they “the nothing” that is there? And if there’s a “nothing,” is it an echo of a Something?

    I don’t know. But sometimes it feels that way.

    Or is the only “Something” the beauty that’s created by human art? Is it only the poem that makes the snowscape beautiful? Sometimes it feels that way too.

    ETA: edited, because Disqus.

  • Amaryllis

    Not because I didn’t want to visit Somewhere Else — I wanted that, more
    desperately than I could say — but because I knew that I could not
    bear the crushing disillusionment when I, sure as eggs are eggs, wound
    up at a prosaic clearing or the neighbors yard. 

    There was a road ran past our house
    Too lovely to explore.
    I asked my mother once — she said
    That if you followed where it led
    It brought you to the milk-man’s door.
    (That’s why I have not travelled more.)

    -Edna St. Vincent Millay

    But I know that feeling– there was a wood behind my grandparents’ house, which in retrospect I realize was just a tiny little copse– but I always had a half-hope of coming out somewhere else if I could walk just a little farther down its paths…

  • Anonymous

    Well, there’s a big difference between saying “I feel a sense of incompleteness in joy that makes belief in God intuitively appealing for me” and saying “I feel a sense of incompleteness in joy, and this justifies a belief in God”.  To be clear, when Wright is noting objections to what he’s saying, he’s not talking about people who don’t have those feelings; he’s talking about people who don’t find the fact that some people have these feelings to be (at all strong) evidence for God.  If I’m remembering right, he punts on the problem of evil.

    It’s also difficult to argue people out of those kinds of positions, but those are at least positions which are on-face amenable to argument.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=581585394 Nicholas Kapur

    I’m wondering if there’s any point trying to persuade people when
    it comes to stuff like this.  When it comes to joy, transcendence, and
    beauty, what people feel is going to be very personal and not entirely a
    matter of logic.   It’s not like you can talk people into going “Yes,
    now that you say it’s intellectually appropriate, I do feel a
    sense of incompleteness in joy that points towards the existence of
    God!” or “Well, now that you’ve given me indications that it’s not a
    universal human experience or a reflection of reality, I’m just going to
    stop feeling this!”  It seems like the best you can do on this front is
    describe what makes sense to you and see what resonates with other
    people.

    Not being familiar with Wright’s actual work, I can’t address what he does or does not actually say regarding this. However, as far as I can tell, he is just describing what makes sense to him and seeing what resonates with other people.

    Which I, personally, think is the only acceptable approach to evangelism in the first place. Regardless of the religion (or lack thereof), I am firmly of the position that apologetics is a fundamentally broken endeavor. If your aim is to convince everyone else that your religious position is correct, then you are going to fail because you just. can’t. prove. that. Apologetics by definition is taking your personal metaphysical beliefs, which need no defending beyond “this really resonates with me,”* and shoving them into the realm of things reasonable people should conclude, which suddenly requires logic and evidence and other stuff that, again, you aren’t going to have.

    * I am obviously excluding “beliefs” that are simply incorrect statements of fact, objectively harmful beliefs, etc.

  • http://stealingcommas.blogspot.com/ chris the cynic

    The incompleteness of beauty points to its creation by a god.

    I’m up way later than I usually would be (a combination of procrastination and stomach pains is why, in case anyone wonders) so maybe that’s hindering my reading comprehension.  Assuming that it isn’t and I’d still thinking the same thing at a reasonable hour, could you explain where you’re getting this from?

    I’m not seeing anything in the original post as claiming that something points towards creation by god of any sort.  In fact the echos in a cave description seems to imply that the pointing is in all directions so if it does point towards creation by a god it must also point in the opposite direction as well as directions entirely perpendicular to whether or not there was a god involved in creation.

    To assign direction to the thing that is described by saying that one “has no idea where it’s coming from,” seems wrong to me.  It makes me tempted to say that you’re intentionally trying to interpret the original text in a way flatly contradictory to said text.  It makes me tempted, but given that the overall tenor of your post does not seem to be one of intentional ignorance I’m assuming that I’m the one who is seeing things wrong here, not you.

    Could you explain how you arrived at the conclusion the original text was saying what you claim it says?

    -

    If anything I personally feel like the text is somewhat overly obvious in the nature of its claims.

    Incompleteness points to stuff.  Well, yeah.  Incompleteness always does.  That’s how we figured out there had to be dark matter.  (Since then, of course, we’ve discovered evidence that goes beyond incompleteness, if I understand correctly.)  That’s how we know that there are words missing when fire ants got to the manuscript before we did.  That’s how we know there was more to Livy than what survives.  It is incomplete, so there must be other stuff.  Stuff that we don’t have.  Given that it’s stuff that we’ll likely never have (though we do occasionally find something once thought lost forever) that’s one area where I definitely do get frustrated by incompleteness.

    We don’t know what the stuff incompleteness points to actually is.  Again: Well, yeah.  If we had that knowledge then things would be complete.  They aren’t.  That’s what incompleteness means.  If we knew what the stuff being pointed to was then there would be completeness.

  • http://feathertail.dreamwidth.org/ Tachyon Feathertail

    I think you play the other half of the song yourself.

    I also think it’s possible for nonhumans to find meaning and transcendence in this world.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Anna-Besmann/59703189 Anna Besmann

    As an atheist, it’s not that I don’t agree with the statement so much as I don’t understand the basic premise they’re working from. I don’t see the world’s beauty as incomplete, I see it as it is. It can be increased or decreased, but there’s no specific end goal that it fails to live up to.

    The entire parable just doesn’t work for me.

  • muteKi

    I’ll bite this one too, and counter with David Cope. He has spent a lot of his career working with algorithmic composition (like Markov modeling of music by, say, Bach); since music is fairly abstract, it’s actually not too hard to take a computer, give it lots of examples of pieces in a certain style, and then have it come up with something that sounds like that style (without as many unusual turns of phrase that, say, automatic Twitter generators due).

    Some will say, “But a spirtually or emtionally meaningful piece could never be created by a computer, as it lacks any sort of soul or emotions!” Given the responses to many of the pieces his work has generated, this doesn’t seem to be the case. And although it clearly bases itself on successful work that came before, it’s difficult to say the songs themselves were particularly designed per se.

    The point I’m getting at, in a roundabout way, is that “beauty”, expressed so abstractly, is too vague, and too subjective to signify anything. So to not only say that the world is “full of beauty” but that it is somehow inherently “incomplete beauty” strikes me as misguided and could suggest something self-serving. It implies the perspective of someone already expecting the world to be designed around fully satisfying that person’s desires — and if you start from the idea of a designed world, it certainly stands to reason that a designer is going to show up in your worldview!

  • nanananana

    …I know this is really off topic…

    But is everyone who follows this blog a genius?Like genuine 200 IQ 5.0 genius?
    Seriously everyone here is discussing stuff like advanced physics and music composition and international linguistics.

    Definately not a bad thing.Keeps this place interesting, it’s just…I feel kinda stupid now :/
    Maybe it’s cause I’m in high school.Is this stuff you can study in college or something?

  • Rikalous

    Oh, I so want to live in a work of fiction. Not necessarily fantasy;
    Sci-Fi works too :P. Not necessarily a happy fantasy world, either,
    just…somewhere where the fantastic is real. At times, usually when my
    depression is really acting up, I quite literally ache for it to be
    true. Feels like part of my soul’s been trapped in another world, and I
    can feel it pulling, trying to bring me there.

    You’re writing about how you want to live in a Sci-Fi world, where the fantastic is true. You are writing this on a machine that instantaneously transmits your words to where they can be read by people all over the world. People in North America and people in Australia, on the other side of the planet, are reading this.

    There’s a device in my pocket right now that combines a phone, an alarm clock, a calendar, a calculator, a stopwatch, and two different games. All that, in a little gizmo smaller than my hand. It isn’t a high-tech toy for the super-rich, it’s one of the cheapest models that were available a few years ago.

    Humanity killed a disease. All of a disease. All over the planet. Smallpox was a thing that existed, and we didn’t like that, so now it isn’t. Back in August, we finished doing the same thing to rinderpest.

    We put a man on the moon. The moon. That big grey thing in the night sky. There are human bootprints and an American flag up on that bastard. We did this over forty years ago.

    Tl;dr: I understand the desire for more magic and wonder in the world, but there’s already so much insanely cool stuff right here that we take for granted.

  • muteKi

    I suppose I took too long to reply (far too many distraction out there it seems). Everyone else is indeed saying the same things.

    And will agree with Anna’s point above mine, which I had wanted to express at the time but was having trouble — it is quite hard for me to view the universe as “incomplete” as such. What is it incomplete compared to?

    And yes, I suppose, depending on what slice of the universe it is that you’re working with, a valid answer may be, “A set of changes that I feel would greatly improve society and life in the world.” 

    I may also clarify my last point a bit better here as well — not everything that is “beautiful” is something created for the sake of being beautiful, as in the computer-generated music example. To presume that something beautiful requires a designer (as, after all, everything beautiful is created for that purpose, the reasoning would go) rings hollow to me.

  • Anonymous

    This is very much a neo-platonist though, like Lewis made. With Lewis, I find I am never sure if he was Christian or pagan. It is not difficult to imagine that, had he not become close to the devout Christian Tolkien, Lewis might instead have become an advocate for what we would now call Hellenic revivalism. Lewis had no doubts of his Christianity, of course, but from the outside it seems he was always so much referencing pagan philosophers. To which Lewis would probably have replied that he was speaking about truth, which was universal. Hunh.

  • muteKi

    Personally I think a lot of it comes down more to a lot of varied and diverse experience of the world, along with a curiosity that drives much of the commentariat to seek more of them, or to consider moral and social viewpoints that may conflict with their gut instincts.

    And there’s also the fact that, as you suggest, several of the people here are older than either of us — someone who’s 44, for example, will have had potentially twice as long as I have to study or gain experience in any given field, and thus it’d be weird if I were able to  claim more expertise than any such person. I, for one, have a rather limited knowledge of literary criticism compared to many of the others here, and with good reason as compared to math, science, and music, I spent very little time with it as an undergrad and only a bit more in high school. Professional and academic specialization contributes; nobody here would likely consider themselves experts in more than a few subjects.

    In any case, it’s certainly good to hear that you think this diversity is a good thing! And, for that matter, that you’re interested in finding out about things that you’re not familiar with. Nurture your curiosity and it will serve you well in time.

    However, should someone know more than you, don’t beat yourself up about it! In comparing yourself so negatively to others, you may risk resenting others’ having knowledge (hey, it happens to me fairly frequently as well), and resentment is rarely a motivator of curiosity or communication. If someone knows more than you to the point of confusion, ask. Hopefully they will be willing to share — those who do not, should they use as justification that it would degrade the value of their knowledge or their status*, are not worth your time or trust.

    *Of course, there are much more valid reasons for not answering a question or a desire for knowledge. There are far too many to list here, but practically any reason not done to inflate one’s self-importance could qualify.

  • http://apocalypsereview.wordpress.com/ Invisible Neutrino

    The incompleteness of beauty points to its creation by a god.

    I have some serious issues with that opinion stated as fact.

  • Anonymous

    Um… An entirely secular transcendental experience, possibly taking place in a math class… That sounds oddly like something I said, once? I don’t know if it’s the story you’re thinking of, but at one point, I mentioned a moment I had in high school where we were being taught about division; specifically, that dividing X by a number less than one ends up looking more like multiplication. My brain rejected this. It didn’t work. Division is like cutting a cake into segments. You start with a cake, and you end with the same amount of cake in smaller pieces. There is no way to cut more cake. It is impossible. There is finite cake. Stop asking me to math nonsense.

    I asked my teacher how that could possibly work, and she demonstrated, mathematically, that it’s true. She pointed out the pages in the textbook. She invited me to put it through a calculator as many times as I wished. But none of that helped me understand why or how such a thing could occur. It contradicted reality. I refused to accept it. After a few days of outright refusing to answer those questions, I ended up begrudgingly going along with it, writing down the supposedly “correct” answers, even though I felt like the whole thing was a farce. 

    A couple of weeks of this later, we’d been handed a stack of math problems to solve. A few of them involved the dreadful contradictory division. I finished a little earlier than most of the class, so while I was waiting for the teacher to start the next segment or hand out more work, I thought about the problem some more. You can’t cut more cake. It just can’t happen. There is only one cake, and you can’t magically turn it into two cakes with a knife.
     
    Unless, it slowly dawned on me, unless you don’t need there to be more cake. You cut it in half, and the total amount of cake stays the same, but there are two pieces of it. If [half a cake] can be thought of as an individual item, then it is undoubtedly %100 of one [half a cake]. You just count them separately! That’s why the numbers go up! But… Taken together, they were still two halves of the same cake. Nothing had changed. Dividing by 2 and dividing by 0.5 was the same thing! It was just a matter of perspective! And if the difference between something being %50 of a thing and being %100 of a thing was merely a matter of perspective, what does that say about the universe

    It was a huge revelation. It felt like I had touched the sun, like I had looked upon the very existence of Truth. I stared at my classmates, incredibly energised, wondering why I hadn’t seen anyone else act appropriately amazed. I mean, everyone else had found this division thing way easier to accept than I had, right? Why had people treated it like just another arbitrary math rule? We were unraveling the secrets of reality with this stuff! This was big

    I tried to talk about it with my teacher and a friend once class was over, but I couldn’t put into words what it was I found so compelling. (I was fifteen, I was pretty bad at talking. Well, I still am pretty bad at talking, but I was worse then.) Nevertheless, they were pleased enough that I had finally stopped complaining about a relatively simple kind of math problem. 

    So yeah, I kind of see where Wright is coming from, although I wouldn’t describe it as “frustratingly incomplete”. It was the most satisfyingly complete thing I’d ever seen. I understand why it might feel like god, though. 


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