The Most Beautiful Moment

Why do we think something is beautiful?

Imagine looking at a canvas painted solely in your favorite color. For me, that would be orange. I might think, “That is a really beautiful orange. There’s something complex in it — some depth.”

But even though the painting was 100% my favorite color, I’d probably like some other colors nearby as well, right? I once saw this installation, titled 24 Colors — for Blinky at the Dia:Beacon museum.


rsz_24_colors_for_blinky

Each painting except one is monochromatic, but the overall effect was overwhelming. There was the exquisite color on each painting to gaze on; the play of each color with its neighboring colors; the variety of shapes among the unity of concept; the various rhythms at work in the paintings, ceiling, wall panels and floorboards; and the sheer scale of the paintings and of the gallery compared to the human observer. This was the final gallery I visited on that day. Having had my mind tuned to the abstract by the museum’s other galleries, this one left me awestruck.

24 Colors did include a rich orange, but it was the combination of unity, variety, and relationship that made the gallery so powerful.

I won’t say that the paintings knew each other, but it was almost as if they did, so intense was their communion.

This idea of communion is also behind the most meaningful experience of beauty that many people have, namely union with another person. In fact, to know was once a polite way of referring to sex that was not of the casual sort. “And Adam knew Eve his wife; and she conceived…” (Genesis 4:1, King James Version).

The deepest forms of beauty involve knowledge and intimate connection, as well as the usual aesthetic principles of variety balanced with regularity.

So what is the most beautiful thing in the universe? What is the most profound expression of the Platonic Form of Beauty?

I suggest it is not a thing but a moment: the moment when the universe came to know its own origin.

Starting as nothing more than a quantum flicker, and speaking only the language of mathematics, the universe instantly expanded to tremendous size; formed atoms from primitive particles; compressed clouds of atoms to form stars; forged heavy elements in the stars; scattered those elements across the void when those stars went supernova; and regathered the heavy elements into planets orbiting other stars.

A Moon orbited one of those planets, pulling an ocean across the rocks, caressing the first life into existence. Evolution eventually discovered sexual reproduction, and life really took off.

Just as consciousness in an organism is more or less localized in one organ, so we can think of sentient beings as the locus of the universe’s consciousness. Eventually, these beings contemplated more than their next meal and their next mate, and lifted their eyes to the stars. The universe was becoming self-aware.

Civilizations rose and fell. China, Greece and Rome produced their art. Eventually mankind lit a Candle in the Dark and we were able to peer into the heavens as never before. We discovered moons around other planets, the shape of our galaxy, and eventually galaxies beyond our own.

We also saw that the universe was not static and eternal, but that space itself and time itself had burst forth from that quantum fluctuation long ago.

Bingo!

At that moment, the grandest aesthetic loop had been closed. It included everything that had happened from the birth of time until then: billions of years of sterility and emptiness, the first spark of life, its precarious evolution, the cooperation and love that had enabled families of weak-limbed but strong-brained humans to flourish, their millennia of superstition, their eventual enlightenment, and finally the dawning realization of how it had all happened. The universe had heard Beat One of its own music, seen Stroke One of its art, and understood its own story. To me, that is the most profoundly beautiful moment so far.

2 responses to “The Most Beautiful Moment

  1. I have nothing to say about this post, I just really want to know a few things and hope I’m not out of line: why, in your questions about Christianity, do you use the Old Testament (or Jewish Bible) and not the New Testament (or CHRISTIAN Bible), which has the words and life of Jesus? I am new to following Jesus but am truly blown away at the number of people who regard the Old Testament as holding Christian values or as it having any place in Christianity. Those are works from two separate religions as far as I’m concerned and my church (Nazarene’s) literally never reads from the OT, don’t even know if it’s in the Bibles there. My understanding of Christianity is following the teachings of Jesus Christ. Those are not in the Old Testament.

    I have go back to Jesus saying if we have to add to or take away from anything he said, then they are not doing his will. Just as he told the Apostles to simply tell people what he taught them and make disciples. He said nothing about including OT scriptures or a lot of other things people pin on Christianity that have no basis in what Jesus or the Apostles taught. Just curious.

    This whole “Biblical Slavery” issue you were on about and whether or not Jesus would have condoned it compelled me to reach out and just say that as a black American (descendant of slaves), it is phenomenally insulting to say that Jesus was clapping it on and allowed slavery to flourish and did nothing. This is incredibly insulting, as much as The Dreaded *N* Word, actually. I know you could not possibly understand this, but if God is to be discussed so does the opposite, evil. And so does free will. The people who do things in the name of religion but violate the basic tenets of said religion, are not what they proclaim, no matter how believably they say it.

    The association people, white people in particular (no offense), make between religion and “mental slavery” is quite condescending, as if having a belief and faith in God is an intellectual defect or retardation or stumbling block. “Reason” is often stated as an excuse to castigate and work to degrade others with belief as inferior because apparently, the human race has evolved to not need God and to think otherwise is to be subject to ridicule and absurd arguments about the nature of God.

    I am so happy and apparently lucky to not have been traumatized by “religion” and that I know and trust God and that Jesus made that possible. I have to say, if I’d found websites like yours just starting out in following Jesus, I would have probably been discouraged to continue. So, your site is successful in its mission.

    • First of all, Erin, your comment is one of the most beautifully expressed I have ever received. If you are not writing professionally, or at least blogging, I hope you’ll consider doing so.

      >> [Jesus] said nothing about including the OT scriptures…

      You must know that the Church of the Nazarene’s view of the OT is not the one that most conservative Christians hold. When Jesus said in Matthew 5:18 that “not one jot or tittle” shall pass away from the Law of the OT until all is fulfilled, most Christians take that to be an endorsement of the moral precepts of the Law, even if Jesus’ death fulfilled the sacrificial aspects. Also, the New Testament is chock-full of quotations and allusions to the Old, citing it as an authority. It’s hard for me to see how one could believe the NT to be inspired without believing the same thing about the OT.

      >> why … do you use the Old Testament … and not the New Testament?

      My posts since December have been an extended response to Christian apologist Paul Copan’s book, Is God a Moral Monster?. His book mostly concerns the Old Testament, so that’s where my responses have been.

      The series on biblical slavery that you read also focused on the OT because that’s where Jehovah got to set the rules for an ideal society. You may not believe the OT is normative for Christians (a “separate religion” as you put it) but surely you believe that the same God was at work in the OT as in the New. Therefore, we can learn about his character from studying the OT, even if we don’t follow those rules anymore.

      Finally, when I talk about the creation/evolution wars, my focus is on the OT because that’s what fundamentalist Christians quote to support creationism.

      As you may have read in my series on Why I Left Evangelical Christianity, those subjects were important in my journey out of the Christian faith. I write about what has been important to me, so there we are.

      Sometimes, I do address the New Testament. See, for example, my posts on Why It Is So Difficult to Leave the Christian Faith from September, 2015. But you’re right: I do dwell mostly on the Old.

      >> …as a black American (descendant of slaves), it is phenomenally insulting to say that Jesus was clapping it on and allowed slavery to flourish and did nothing.

      I am sorry for the brutality that your ancestors endured. But surely you know that the Christian faith was used as moral cover for the practice of slavery. As Frederick Douglass said in his famous speech, What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?, “But the church of this country is not only indifferent to the wrongs of the slave, it actually takes sides with the oppressors. It has made itself the bulwark of American slavery, and the shield of American slave-hunters. Many of its most eloquent Divines. who stand as the very lights of the church, have shamelessly given the sanction of religion and the Bible to the whole slave system.” and “There is no power out of the church that could sustain slavery an hour, if it were not sustained in it.”

      You suggest that the slaveholders could not have been true Christians, but this is nothing more than the No True Scotsman Fallacy, for slaveholders throughout the South (and North! Did you know Jonathan Edwards owned slaves?) would have passed every a priori test of being orthodox Christians.

      You mentioned my post in which I said that, based on the beliefs of evangelical Christians, Jesus must have approved of slavery. You found this insulting. Please bear in mind that I don’t believe Jesus approved of slavery. As I said toward the end of that post, “That may seem far-fetched. I don’t believe it myself. But I don’t see how a Bible-believer can deny it.” As a Christian (at the time), my own reaction when I noticed that the Bible supported slavery, and the Church had taken its cues from the Bible not only on that subject but on other evils as well, was not to feel insulted, but to be outraged. I am surprised that you don’t react the same way.

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