Beauty is found in all sorts of places. And often you need a certain level of knowledge or skill to appreciate it. Beauty often isn’t self-evident, you have to work at seeing it.
For example, I find it very difficult to appreciate the beauty in non-western music (more on that tomorrow), because I don’t understand the grammar, the structure and the idioms. I find it difficult to appreciate the real deep beauty in some buildings, because I access architecture on only the most basic level. And I can’t access the beauty of a great piece of German literature, because I don’t read German.
But I can see the beauty in a piece of software, and I recognize that most people can’t because they don’t understand it. A borderline case for me is chess.
I love chess, but I’m often simply not good enough to appreciate the poetry of the best players in the world. If I could, I suspect, I would be a much better player. But on the other hand there are games that just shine through my ignorance. Games I enjoy playing through repeatedly for the sheer craft of them.
The January 2010 chess rankings reveal we’ve got a new world #1 – Magnus Carlsen. Here’s a game he played as a 13 year old. I don’t think you need to be that good at chess to find the last third of this game an absolute triumph. Ernst in this game also shows his sportsmanship. He realised that his position is hopeless, but played the game through to mate to let it stand as a work of art.
The point to posting is that I see this kind of beauty at work in religion too. Dawkins, for example, claims he finds parts of the bible and western religious art beautiful. I think that too, but I’d go further. I find parts of orthodox Christian theology beautiful: imaginative, elegant and intricate; lovingly crafted among complex constraints.
But other atheists tend to treat the entire edifice with contempt. I think that is a shame. There is beauty everywhere in religion. When talented people strive to become the best they possibly can at something, often the results are truly inspiring. And for a large proportion of our cultural history the Church was the natural home of the talented. Like chess, however, you sometimes need to have dabbled a bit before you can appreciate their art.