I’m not much for exercise. I have very little self-discipline and tend to avoid things that demand effort or cause discomfort. The home gym in my basement sees more use as a clothesline for the shirts waiting to be ironed than as a machine for building muscles. I’ve learned that in order to stay in something resembling good shape, I have to trick myself into exercising. So last year, I started taking long walks at night. Not for exercise, of course, but rather to take time alone to listen to my ipod and think.
One of the first things that struck me on these walks was how peaceful and calm our city is at night. I can walk for over an hour and not pass a soul. Sometimes I won’t even see a car passing by. Most times I feel like the only person on earth. It makes me wonder what people in this town do with their evenings, especially on the really magical nights.
Last night was just such a night. It was cold, but calm. We’ve had a few days of fog, and the resulting hoarfrost has made the whole landscape look as though it had been heavily dusted with icing sugar. The street lamps gave everything a sparkle and a glow. I followed my usual route and came to a park that looked like something out of The Chronicles of Narnia. The kind of moment that makes your soul ache.
I continued on through the empty streets and playgrounds feeling both a sense of awe and outrage. Awe at what I perceived to be the delicate handiwork of a great artist, and outrage that this magnificent work of art was going unnoticed and unappreciated. Most folks were likely too enthralled by 42″ of Liquid Crystal to be bothered with suiting-up to brave the elements and engage this wonder on it’s own terms. So there it sat. Like an extravagant art showing that no one bothered to attend. Like a candlelight dinner going cold, waiting for a spouse who is running late. Like an Easter Egg lying in the grass, waiting to be stumbled upon.
To be fair, I spend my fair share of nights in front of the TV too, but not last night. It’s a shame that so much beauty seems to go to waste. Or maybe it’s extravagance. In which case, I think it speaks something about the author of our universe, and that is a point of particular comfort to me. The more I try to take note of the world around me, the more I begin to see God as an artist, rather than an economist.
Lately, many people I know have begun to question and even walk away from belief in God. I can’t blame them. Our world is a mess, and what’s worse, the God most of us have been offered is the God whom Modernity has fashioned in its own image. The modern God must be productive and efficient, if He is to be any kind of God at all. He must rid the world of pain, put all the “bad guys” under a rock, and hang a neon sign in the sky pointing to Himself. Since the world we observe is full of tragedy and what appears to be wastefulness, we reason that there is no accountant God. If this was the only available image of God, I too would abandon the idea of God for something (or nothing) else.
But, a universe without God leads to all sorts of absurdities. I’m not saying atheism is absurd. Atheism makes perfect sense to me. What I am saying is that a universe without God would be an absurd place. For one thing, there would be no basis for the objective moral values and duties we apprehend. (You do not have to believe in God to be a moral person. That’s not what I’m saying. I know many atheists who live lives that are morally exemplary. What I do mean is that the moral values we all perceive, whether we believe in God or not, make for convincing evidence of God’s existence.)
Also, a universe that simply “is” would be one in which our lives have no reason or purpose aside from what we assign ourselves. Sadly, this meaning would be nothing more than self-deception. In the face of a meaningless universe, one would need to knowingly deceive one’s self, in spite of the truth. Now I grant, it’s possible that, as a Christian, I am the one who has been deceived. Although I’ve tried to base my conclusions about my faith on logic and good evidence, it’s possible that I may have miss-interpreted that evidence, or worse yet, someone else may have deceived me by planting false evidence. Even if that were true, this kind of deception would be of a far more innocent sort since I would be its unwitting victim. The earlier deception is much less honorable, since it requires one to knowingly deceive oneself in spite of the truth.
Since I find the notion of a Godless universe untenable, and since I too have rejected the idea of God as bookkeeper, I find myself staring at the handiwork of a God who is more like to an artist, an author, or a chef.
Good art is in itself extravagant and is very seldom efficient or practical. Good stories take a long time to reach a satisfying ending, and in the middle there’s often room for a great deal of drama and heroism in the face of tragedy. Good chocolate, is often more satisfying if there’s some bitter to offset the sweetness. Even though, there are chapters and characters in the story that I wish had been left out, I trust that the story is reaching a climax. The alternative is that there is no story, and all the tragedy and extravagance is senseless and pointless.
So there I stood in the snow. Marveling at this extravagance, and feeling more comforted than bothered by it. I’d far rather be a character in a grand story, a brush stroke in a work of art, or an ingredient in a wonderfully prepared meal, than a number in an accountant’s ledger.
“Earth’s crammed with heaven, And every common bush afire with God; But only he who sees takes off his shoes; The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries.”
-Elizabeth Barrett Browning