Ayers face

Conversations about believing

“Sunsets,” said my friend.  “Or the seashore, especially during a storm.  Or a field of wheat, stirred by riffles of a breeze.  When you see something like that, you just have to believe there’s a creator.  So much splendor can’t be simply the result of chance.”

“It really is pretty amazing,” I agreed, “that God would create so much beauty and then give it to us.”

“Well,” she hesitated.  “I’m not sure I want to say that it’s just for us.  Wouldn’t that be pretty arrogant, to suppose that God made all of creation just for us?”

“Perhaps it is not for us alone.  God may well have other purposes for the universe that we don’t know about.  But the fact that we should be able to perceive the beauty of the creation:  this is a gift of God’s love for us.  And quite an unexpected one at that.”

“What do you mean?” she asked.

“Suppose we see that something is dangerous,” I said, “like a snake or a steep cliff, and so we avoid it.  Or suppose we see that something is good for food, like an apple or an ear of corn, and so we eat it.  Perceptions like that have survival value. Natural selection could well account for them:  they help keep us alive.  But why should we need a sense of awe at the splendor of the mountains, or a sense of delight in watching a squirrel hop across the lawn?  There’s no survival value in perceptions like that.”

“Maybe not, but our lives would certainly be a lot poorer if we couldn’t appreciate those things.”

“Yes, they would,” I agreed.  “But how is it possible that we can?  Why should we notice that a daffodil is beautiful, or a baby’s smile, or leaves turning in the fall?”

“I don’t know,” she said.  “They just are.  Why do you need an explanation?  Just enjoy them.”

“Indeed,” I laughed.  “That may be the best advice.  Yet even in enjoying them, a person ends up wondering:  and that wondering points us toward an interesting realization.”

I paused.  She waited patiently for a moment, and then shook her head in mock exasperation as she recognized she was supposed to ask the next question.  So she did:  “Namely?”

“Hmm,” I said.  “I can’t remember.”

“What!?”

“Oh wait, I’ve got it.  The fact that I can enjoy the beauty of these items points to the fact that all this beauty is a gift to me from God.  It is special.  It is unexpected.  It is an indication of God’s love for me; for although I could survive without it, my life (as you pointed out) would be much poorer if God had not given me this capability.  But if God loves me this way, and gives me all these gifts, then that suggests that I am invited to respond by loving God.”

“No, wait a minute.  I think I can enjoy the wonders of nature; I’m even willing to concede that all of the beauty around us implies the existence of a creator.  But then you’re pushing beyond that, talking about love and invitation and relationship.  I don’t think you can make those kinds of decisions for other people.  Instead, I think it’s up to each individual to decide what they want to believe about that.”

“Certainly, it’s up to each individual to respond,” I said.  “Each of us does decide, all the time, what we’ll do or not do about God’s gifts.  That freedom to respond is also one of the gifts that God has given to us.  All I’m saying is that all these gifts mean something.  Actually, I think it’s not that hard to understand what they mean.”

“Well,” she laughed, “let me raise my hand and admit that I don’t think I understand.”

“Suppose you come home from work and find a package on the doorstep, decorated in colorful paper. You untie the ribbon and find a beautiful present.  There’s no note.  You don’t know who it’s from.  Can you simply enjoy the gift, without even asking who it’s from, or why they sent it to you?”

“I guess I would be pretty curious,” she admitted.

“And let’s suppose,” I continued, “that a couple days later you receive a parcel in an ordinary brown box.  When you open it, it also turns out to be a gift.  Unsigned.  Flowers show up a few days after that, but without a card.  And so on, as the days run by:  beautiful, unexpected, unpredictable gifts.  How could you not wonder where it all is coming from?  Do you have a secret admirer?  What is this person trying to say to you?”

“So you’re saying that all the instances of beauty we see around us are like God’s secret gifts to us?”

“And that we can hardly avoid the implication that God must love us very much, and very creatively, to keep on giving us presents that catch us by surprise and take our breath away with the wonder of what we have been given.”

“I never really thought about it that way,” she said.

“When we humans do this sort of thing, it’s pretty easy to understand,” I said.  “Whenever you bake a pie or your best lasagna, when you compose a love letter, when you cultivate flowers in your garden, and then cut and arrange them:  you are participating in the creation of beauty.  And the beauty you create is an indication of your love for the people you give these gifts to.  Even if sometimes they hardly seem to notice.”

“Yeah,” she nodded.  “I have made some lovely meals for my family, and sometimes they wolf it all down in five minutes and then disappear.”

“Just like we sometimes take God’s gifts for granted,” I said, “despite their wonder and extravagance.  But suppose we saw them for the gifts they are.  How would we want to respond?”

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