By Wayne Allensworth
A light in the night sky on a prairie horizon. A falling star passing through a deep blue firmament that phases ever so subtly to lighter shades of blue bordered by a wisp of cottony clouds. The red orange hues of the setting sun. Stark tree limbs seem to reach for the star on a smoky autumn evening. Let your eyes stay riveted on the star as long as you can see its proud flight, its last desperate trajectory. But it won’t end. There will be others. The parade of life’s passage will go on. Its carousel of wonders will continue.
How did I know that falling star was beautiful? Materialists would simply describe it as a ball of combusting matter guided by gravitational forces that will burn away in the pitiless folds of the earth’s atmosphere. But that’s not what is to me, a casual observer seized by its awesome descent. It’s not some sort of forced cultural conditioning. It just is. I did not choose it. It chose me. It came over me as such things do. There was no act of will on my part. And the pang of longing one feels at such a sight is but a whisper of the great longing that all humans are born with. The longing for beauty. The longing for the divine. And that imaginative longing is a way of knowing and a way of being. There’s no mechanistic explanation for that. No way that a deterministic and ruthless selection alone could reach such a place. No strained explanations can convince me it is a mere artifact of a deadly game of meaningless struggle. The meaning of that star streaking across that wonderous canvas interlocks with other meanings and places me and you and all of us within its awesome, painfully beautiful frame.
Why did nature choose such dazzling hues for the peacock’s tail? The materialist utilitarian explains that it’s meant to attract a mate. How? And why that assortment of colors and why other spectrums of magical hues in many other places? And where did our sense of the beauty of a wonderous, but stark, canyon or craggy mountain top come from? Just the byproducts of a process of erosion, of decay. Yet they are in the eyes of an attentive observer sculptures that suggest the shapes of animals and men and houses carved out of the earth. Architecture we can only emulate. A suggestion of something so great it overwhelms us. The very fact that these shapes can overwhelm us speaks to the human soul. Even the enveloping, hazardous terrain of the desert inspires us. As does the lyrical songs of birds. And the majestically frightening forms of the great predators. They, too, are beautiful in their way. The embodiment of some mighty will. An expression of something beyond us.
And we know that. What we have is a disposition that is inherent within us and built into the natural world. What modern people lack is attention. And how we direct that attention, what we attend to, is an act of will. But we are distracted by all our machines and all their noise. Constricted by the technological cocoons we have confined ourselves within. If we are to regain a sense of enchantment. If we wish to reignite our own sense of meaning, we must ourselves act in such a manner as to attend to that. We must aim to regain the eyes and the faith of a child.
On an evening that had grown cool, when the leaves had just begun to fall, I was walking with my oldest granddaughter, and we crossed our street and strolled through the leaves, and I showed her an intricately woven, and remarkably sturdy bird’s nest that had fallen from the high limbs overhead. Her eyes lit up with the surprise of the six-year-old that she is. And she took the bird’s nest in her cupped hands and carried it. She said that she wanted to decorate this magical artifact and I opened the tailgate of our pickup truck, and she placed the nest there. She pointed at bright purple strands that were interlaced into the thin bits of tree branches. I asked her if she knew what those were. And she shook her head “no.” So I told her: They were “Easter grass.” Strands of bright color we had used in her Easter basket for an egg hunt way back in the spring. The season of rebirth. And the birds had been attracted to them as I had been to their songs. And they found them in our yard. And they took them and wove them into the nest.
She said she wanted to decorate the nest. And she gathered some yellow mums we had planted in the front yard flower beds, and she picked leaves from a bush, and she placed them in a circular pattern around the cusp of the nest. My wife had gathered some enormous acorns from the post oaks in our neighborhood, and my granddaughter took them and placed them in the nest like eggs. And she beamed and we were both quite pleased. She sprinkled her marvelous creation with leaves of grass. And we kept that nest.
Crabby village atheist types who seem to come out of the woodwork from time to time would argue that this was a meaningless episode in a dark and cold and deadly universe. That the child’s unprompted sense of beauty was merely the residue of a merciless accidental process. And that the quiet work of art that is a child at prayer a conditioned response forced by domineering parents.
But in that moment and at that time, gazing at the beautiful adornments a simple child added to what itself was an example of divinity expressed in life, I knew that wasn’t so. Children, after all, can see the same falling stars that we do.
From Iain McGilchrist’s The Matter with Things (Volume II): The colors and forms, and the sweet scents, of plants are extraordinarily beautiful to humans, but having a sense of their beauty serves no utility…Why is the aesthetic sense of birds so similar to our own, not just blatant or tawdry? Birds could be ugly to us and it really wouldn’t matter to our survival or theirs. Nor can it be said that all living things are considered equally beautiful…Why do we think there is a kind of beauty in the finest horse that could never be matched by the finest donkey, however attractive?…
Religious experience exists across the life span, from childhood onwards. The literature attests to the existence of profound religious experiences in children. Children’s ‘intuitive theism’ appears to be independent of culture and environment, including parents’ beliefs (whether theistic or atheistic), the storybooks that have been read to them or the content of family conversations. Young children whose parents are atheists may have religious experience, and their religiosity may persist without specific cultural reinforcement.