This week I gave a talk on Shakespeare and wonder, for the Maclaurin Institute at the University of Minnesota. (While I am at it, I'd like to thank them publicly for their good cheer and hospitality, and I urge anyone in the Twin Cities area who wishes to see how Christians can help irrigate the desert of higher education to pay them a visit; they are doing extraordinary work.) The thesis of the talk was that in our grade schools and secondary schools we have scorched the fields of the child's imagination, mystifying the self while slandering or stifling three principal objects of wonder: the hero, the beloved, and God.
I'd been told that there might be a few opponents in the audience. In fact, the first man to speak up objected, "I'm a biologist and I do not believe in God, yet when I look at the beauty of nature I think I can feel that wonder you are talking about. So, obviously, belief in God is neither here nor there." Although I had said that "God is the source of our wonder, and the guarantor of its truth," I'd been careful also to note that there would always be a few souls, though only a few, who could respond fully to the wondrous beauty of nature or of man while denying the ground of that wonder. In any case, I responded by noting that at all costs I wished to affirm that what I was talking about was not a mere sentiment, but a reverence for nobility or grandeur that an object actually does possess. My fear, I said, is that the unbeliever who begins with that reverence will end, by the force of his logic, by consigning it over to irrelevance. It will be a kind of neural tic; it will depend wholly upon the disposition, even the gastric temperament, of the unbelieving beholder.
I am well aware that atheistic scientists can be enthralled with the complexity and magnificence of natural phenomena. The late Carl Sagan was such a man; yet as he grew older he also grew sourer and angrier, more and more determined not to show how beautiful nature was, but how beautiful it was not, lest the beholder be brought to the threshold of belief. In that sense he was a sentimentalist, as was my interlocutor in Minnesota. Such men want to bask in what they must concede is simply a feeling, pleasant enough, but not logically or empirically warranted by the object.
How far such a feeling can take you, as you grow old and your bones ache, or cancer ravages your body and you confront the great fact of death, may be shown by my favorite materialist, the ancient poet Lucretius. He too, as logically ruthless as he thought himself, was another sentimentalist, and he too had a keen eye for the glories of the natural world. So his poem On the Nature of Things begins with a hymn to Venus, an allegorical representation of the fecundity of nature:
Mother of Romans, delight of gods and men,
Sweet Venus, who under the wheeling stars of heaven
Rouse the ship-shouldering sea and the fruitful earth
And make them teem -- for through you all that breathe
Are begotten, and rise to see the light of the sun;
From you, goddess, the winds flee, from you and your coming
Flee the storms of heaven; for you the artful earth
Sends up sweet flowers, for you the ocean laughs
And the calm skies shimmer in a bath of light.
But the sixth and final book of the poem ends with a horrible description of the great plague of Athens in 430 BC. The dead and dying are everywhere, and there is no remedy, no consolation, no Epicurean calm; only miserable mankind born to die:
Many lay flat in the street for thirst, lay prostrate
Before the fountain-statues of Silenus,
Breath choked by the great desire for that sweet water.
And strewn about in the roads and parks you'd see
Legs and arms, nerveless, attached to half-dead bodies,
Ragged and dirty, clothes caked with excrement,
Dying, with only bare skin left to the bone,
Nearly buried already in pus and sores and filth.
Yes, all those holy temples of the gods--
Death stuffed 'em with corpses, and the shrines of heaven
Were charnel houses, burdened by cadavers,
Places the priests had filled with worshipers.
Now their religion, now the will of the gods
Meant nothing: present pain was conqueror....
The suddenness and poverty incited
Horrors. On funeral pyres heaped up for others
People would lay their own kin down, and wail,
And set their torches underneath, and sometimes
Brawl and shed blood, rather than leave their dead.
So the poem ends. Me, I prefer not the sentiment of wonder, so quick to flee, but the real thing, granted by God and affirmed by the testimony, objective testimony, of those apostles who have made known to us the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, who were eyewitnesses of his grandeur.