Inconceivable Beauty

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.

A chess board showing a the game position.

Magnus Carlsen vs Sipke Ernst. Corus 2004. After 26 Rxh6+

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.



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15 responses to “Inconceivable Beauty

  1. I “don’t understand the grammar, the structure and the idioms” of Indian and Japanese music either, but I love much of it. Of course I lived there. So did these seep into my mind without my attempts. For I could not begin to explain them nor do I have a feeling of understanding. I just enjoy them.

    I feel sorry for you that the best illustrative example of Beauty you have is Chess while Weiqi (“Go” in English) offers much deeper beauty !

    I am deeply sympathetic with your love of beauty in religion. When it is used well and non-exclusively, it can be beautiful

    “Why”, I ask myself, “Can a man with such insight, not see how shallow Chess is and take that next step to embrace, WeiQi?”

  2. I find beauty in pretty much all sporting or intellectual activities. Anyway I can challenge you to a game of Chess? 🙂

  3. ian

    @sabio – Yes, it doesn’t have to be an intellectual grasp. But I’m not sure that I could tell the difference between a great Japanese work and a mediocre piece.

    As for Go. I’ve tried several times to play it (I’m a bit of a games fan generally). I know the basics of play. But I’ve suffered because I’ve not had the opportunity to play with someone who can tell me how to chunk. So I’m left still playing at the most basic level of abstraction and not understanding the broader flows of the game.

    One of the things I particularly like about chess, which I don’t sense in Go, is the claustrophobia of it. The fact that every move will change the landscape of most of the board. The fact that nothing is isolated. I have a close friend who’s a Go fan, and we have these same discussions. He finds Go’s fundamental simplicity beautiful. I find chess’ distinct heterogeneity intriguing.

    @t4t – Sure, why not? How do you want to do it? We could really boost the comment stats and do it in this thread 🙂

  4. Ian

    So, do I have to send you my email? And what would be the time limit that we allow? I have never done anything like this before so walk me through it.


  5. ian

    If you make a move at that link, you’ll see a new url appear in the text box. If you send me that url, I can visit it, make my move and send you my url. If we ping those urls back and forth on here then anyone else can click on them and also see the board. Otherwise we can email them. My email is ian at

    As for time limits, I’m not really worried. Correspondence chess normally plays out over a fair duration (i.e. make a move a day or whenever you can). Otherwise if you want something more instant we’d have to get hooked up via a chess server. I have an account on

  6. ian

    @sabio – Do you play go online? Care to show me the ropes sometime?

  7. Ian

    Ok, will try it. I moved. 🙂

    If it doesnt work maybe we can try your chess site. Bon chance mon ami.

  8. Do you have access to my email? Or do I have to send it?

  9. Sorry for all the questions. I am relatively incompetent when it comes to computers, lol.

  10. ian

    @t4t No problem. You have to make the move then send me the link from that text box somehow. Either copy and paste it here, or send me the link in an email.

    I don’t have your email address, and couldn’t find it on your blog. If you mail me at ian at I’ll step you through!

  11. ian

    Doh, I’m dumb. Of course I have your email! You fill it in when you comment.

  12. atimetorend

    I enjoyed the inspiring last paragraph, especially good for those like me who sometimes struggle to not throw the Christian babies out with the bathwater.

  13. @ Ian

    Good job, now the comment-following box has appeared. is where I play. Sure, I would love to play you. I am a poor play, but love the game [my life story]. Send me an e-mail once you have an account and we can set up some games.
    I am experimenting with bulleted text in comment, I think WordPress allows it. Sorry if this comes out jumbled. If so, I wonder if there is a plug-in for that too. Also, I wonder if there is a plug-in that allows people to edit their comments or at least preview before publishing
    I loved your analysis about the claustrophobic aspect of Chess and how a one move can grossly change the entire board. Indeed WeiQi has multiple battles happening simultaneously which is different from that.

  14. It rejected the [] HTML code for lists. I wonder what code your software tolerates. It would be cool to list that.

  15. ian

    @attr – Thanks. I’d like this blog to be somewhere that people of faith can come and chat too. So I too need to make sure I don’t get too snarky and lose the value.

    @sabio – I’ll do that (sign up). As for the HTML, I’ve no idea. This is basically a default WordPress install with a free theme. It isn’t on though, so I don’t know what plugins they have installed by default. I’ll have a root around later.

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