Overwhelmed by God: Beauty, Transcendence, and Seeing the Savior

Overwhelmed by God: Beauty, Transcendence, and Seeing the Savior

One thing I ask from the Lord,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the Lord
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the Lord
and to seek him in his temple. [1]

“My God, what a sight!”

As I’ve grown older I have lost my sense of transcendence. As a kid, I had a vivid imagination. I could use boxes, crayons, and bubble wrap to fly to the moon. A balloon wasn’t just a piece of rubber, and with a string it offered endless possibilities of flight. The colors on a bug’s thorax could delight; the rustling of the wind through the trees could be a symphony; and the clouds in the sky created shapes and stories.

But at some point I started trying to understand the world around me rather than be amazed by it. Suddenly there were facts to learn, problems to solve, and myths to debunk. It was the gaining of knowledge for the sake of knowledge, but more than likely it was for the utilitarian purpose of getting ahead.

As a child, I was astounded by the stories in the Bible. Here were these women and men of faith who witnessed incredible scenes and saw God do miraculous things. But at some point I stopped being amazed and tried to ascertain:

  • What does it mean that the sun stood still, and how do the physics on that work?

  • How exactly does the death of Jesus atone for the sins of the world?

  • Eight people and a boat full of animals? Really?!?!?

By the way, those aren’t terrible questions. But I stopped being amazed in an effort to be analytical.

But one day I was on a backpacking trip in the mountains. We were about six days into a ten-day trek, and we were mostly trying to crank out miles as quickly as possible. The goal was the distance and destination, not the journey to get there. The day started light and airy, but quickly climbed into the upper 80s. And then, without warning, a front rushed in, and the temperature dropped to below freezing in less than an hour. We went from sunshine to light rain to heavy rain to hail to sleet to snow, and I had to hike in my sleeping bag—feet sticking out of the bottom zipper—just to stay warm. The clouds darkened the sky and my mood, and I cooked my dinner with my friends in sullen silence.

Then without warning, the clouds began to clear. It was a moonless night, but the stars overhead were more numerous than I had ever seen. It was my first time to ever see the Milky Way in the sky rather than in a textbook. And as I stared up in open-mouthed wonder, all I could say is, “My God, what a sight!” Because at that moment I was transfixed by the beautiful majesty and mystery of God.

In his book Beauty will Save the World, Brian Zahnd argues that the Western church is completely influenced by the Scientific Revolution—it’s about facts, figures, and what works. When we sit down to describe the Christian faith we tend to speak in terms of apologetics and truth claims, or supply ethical arguments about the moral goodness of the Christian way of life. Those things aren’t bad, Zahnd exclaims, but might it be that what new generations need to hear isn’t apologetics or ethics but aesthetics? Because “beauty has a way of sneaking past defenses and speaking in unique ways. To a generation suspicious of truth claims and unconvinced by moral assertions, beauty has a surprising allure.” [2]

While we might argue amongst ourselves as to what is truly beautiful, many of us simply echo the words of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart: “I shall not today attempt further to define [it]… and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly doing so. But I know it when I see it.” [3] Beauty catches our breath; it focuses our eyes; it brings us back to reality and, in a way, past the concrete to truly reality—it is transcendent.

All I know is, when I looked at the stars that night, I was amazed by my smallness and God’s greatness, and I knew that there was a God. And a song lyric entered my mind:

Lord, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!
You have set your glory
in the heavens. …
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? [4]

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world. [5]

Fyodor Dostoevsky enigmatically wrote in his book The Idiot, “Beauty will save the world.” I am not sure it saves us, but it certainly can point us toward the Savior. At least, it did for me that day. May we always seek to gaze on the beauty of the Lord.

[1] Ps. 27:4.

[2] Brian Zahnd, Beauty will Save the World: Rediscovering the Allure and Mystery of Christianity. Lake Mary, FL: Charisma House, 2012; xiv-xv.

[3] Concurrent opinion, Jacobellis v. Ohio, 378 U.S. 184 (1964).

[4] Ps. 8:1, 3-4

[5] Ps. 19:1-4

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