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.
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. …