Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Problem With Beauty

It is THE question. Or certainly one of the big ones. It's the question I may hear more often than any other. It's the one I hear from Christians, other religious people and non-religious people alike. It's the one that gets asked with the most sincerity in the I-really-need-an-answer-that-makes-sense-to-this-but-I've-always-been-afraid-to-actually-ask kind of way. And it's the question I personally wrestle with all the time.

The question itself takes many forms:

  • "Why does bad stuff happen to good people?" 
  • "If there is a god, why is there pain in the world?" 
  • "If God created the world, why is there evil in it?

Theologians like to use the fancy word "theodicy"to describe the question, but many people just describe it as "the problem of pain" or "the problem of evil." I've sometimes seen people use the question itself as proof of God's lack of existence, as if there can be no answer to the question and therefore the debate is over. I do have answers to the question (I think it's too complicated and important for just one answer), but instead of trying to settle the question in this blog posting, I prefer to ask a different question: "How do we deal with the problem of beauty?"

You see, to a certain extent, pain can be understood from a purely rational viewpoint. Pain has an evolutionary purpose; it tells our brains: "Something is wrong. Fix it!" Whether it's physical or emotional, pain can preserve and protect us by serving as a warning system. While we can wax philosophical about the causes of pain and how we deal with pain, the fact of pain makes sense.

But what about beauty? I've never met anyone who watches the sun set over the ocean in hues of pink and orange and doesn't think that it is beautiful. And most people agree that Van Gogh's "Starry Night" or Monet's water lilies are beautiful. But why? Where does our sense of beauty come from? If the universe is purely random and uncaring, why do we have a sense of beauty? What evolutionary purpose does it serve?

For that matter, how do we make sense of joy? Pleasure? Humor? Love? We take them for granted as part of human experience, but they are just as senseless as pain and suffering. To be clear, I'm not an evolution denier (before following a call to be a pastor, my plan was to be a biologist). But if the existence of pain and grief is somehow proof that God doesn't exist, then my counterpoint is that beauty, joy, and laughter are just as legitimately arguments for God.

As long as there is life, there will likely be debates about the existence of both evil/pain and God -- and there should be -- but for my money, there is just as much mystery to be found in the problem of beauty, the trouble with humor, and the senselessness of joy. It is wrestling with those mysteries that gives my life purpose.

“The space between the tears we cry is the laughter that keeps us coming back for more.” -Dave Matthews Band, "The Space Between"

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