I remember a while ago standing barefoot in the warm sand, watching the waning minutes of light, as the sun dipped ever so delicately into the ocean. It was winter, but Carlsbad had fantastic weather. There a week or so left until I had to go back to school, so I trying to soak in the quiet nirvana of the non-intellectual life. Watching the vibrant purples, reds and oranges streaked across the sky, and the endless horizon in front of me, I was struck with a very uncharacteristic thought; this sunset—the color of the sky, the reflection on the water, the glow on the sandstone—was so beautiful, how is it possible that it came into being by anything other than a divinely beautiful and infinitely powerful being. The beauty of the sunset convinced me that God must exist.
I say this is an uncharacteristic thought because for the past few years, I’ve been steadily inching towards the agnostic camp (or firm atheism if you ask my rational side). Even more so, I’d always enjoyed a good, condescending chuckle whenever I heard an advocate of intelligent design talk about how the world is too amazing, complex, whathaveyou to have anything other than a divine being its creator. I just never understood this connection, and it always seemed to me a weak attempt to cast theistic belief in a scientific, empirical light.
The experience was startling; never before had I, in a state of complete lucidity, been so overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of an experience that I felt the presence of a divine power. In the interests of full disclosure, I have felt moments of religious euphoria before, but these have always been under rather dubious circumstances, if you know what I mean. Dumbstruck, I sat down to think about what the hell just happened to me.
Why did I suddenly feel that an indescribably intricate and beautiful sight necessarily attested to the existence of a perfect, omnipotent being? What does this mean about such a being? What does this mean about the sunset?
I thought for a while. About nature, the universe, God, beauty, and some such mighty things. And probably because such things are above and beyond what an imperfect intellect can comprehend (which is why I had the spiritual experience in the first place) I started from the beginning.
I looked at the sunset and I saw the particular pattern of light across the sky, the particular shape and positioning of the clouds, the particular pattern of the grain in the sandstone behind me, etc. In what ways might I say that this sight had been created by God?
I tried to put my original experience into a logical formulation; this sight is so beautiful, God must have created this—a direct and interventionist claim. God directly created this sunset, decided which cloud would go where, put this grain of sand above that one, colored that particular stone differently than that one, made that patch of water more shiny than the patch next to it, etc. God is supposed to be omnipotent, after all, so it makes sense that God can directly determine every motion, position, color, shape, of every particle, photon, grain of sand, droplet of water, and so on from each millisecond to the next.
But then I began to wonder about what kind of God this must be, who would exert such a direct influence over everything at all times. I started to chuckle; why would God care so much which grain of sand went where? Would it be less beautiful if that cloud had a tiny hump in the middle, rather than on its left? If anything, a God that is so directly involved brought to mind images of a micromanaging, perfectionist bureaucrat rather than a divine and omnipotent power.
Such an image didn’t seem to jive with the kind of elated euphoria I felt just moments ago, so I pondered other possible implications that could be drawn from this experience.
Indeed, it didn’t seem to make so much difference whether one cloud was shaped a certain way or one grain of sand in a particular position; I watched the sunset and it constituted a beautiful experience. The winds blew the sand around my feet, the clouds morphed ever so subtly into different shapes, the colors of the sky dimmed and darkened, and the sun’s tiny glimmer disappeared behind the horizon. Reformulating my original thought, I decided this sight is so beautiful it must attest to the existence of a higher intelligence; an intelligence so great that it could create laws governing motion, interaction between particles, and the constitution of matter, all in such spectacular harmony that they could manifest in this brilliance intricacy. This seemed to me a more fitting conception of God; the kind of being whose greatness and understanding is evident through the beauty of that which its creations bring about.
But thinking again on my original experience of beauty, I began to doubt the chain of connections I had just made. Yes, this sight is so beautiful; but can I say that God devised the physical laws for the purpose of bringing about this particular experience—and for the purpose of me experiencing it? Granted, there was a feeling of importance associated with my experience of divine elation—that somehow, this experience was meaningful. This experience is here for a reason. But what if my teleology is all wrong? It seems inverted to think that a divine being would create the most complex and beautiful set of physical laws for the purpose of bringing about this beautiful experience. Rather, this experience of beauty attests to the monumentality of physical laws of the universe themselves, I decided. The fact that there have been and will come to pass endless sunsets of unequalled brilliance, and that these sunsets will be followed by sunrises of unparalleled beauty, and that these events fit in to an inconceivably large chain of motions and reactions, of which they are only an infinitesimal portion, with other elements, chemicals, plants, animals, tectonic plates, planets, stars, galaxies governed by the same laws was the true experience of the divine; the feeling of sublimity that accompanies the experience of utter minusculity within utter monumentality.
And as I sat on the beach, watching the stars appear in the night sky, wondering on the expanse of space that light traveled through to get to me, I realized that the real experience of the divine that I just had didn’t have anything to do with God. For the beauty I saw in the setting sun attested the to beauty of the system in which clouds form, winds blow, stars glow and planets spin—beyond which I can know nothing. The experience I just had was an experience of beauty of the laws of nature, not of that which brought them into existence.
The divinity I felt was the divinity of the physical world—beyond which there is no other knowable divine.
And no other divine needed…