Last night, I had a good conversation with my daughter about an assignment she has for one of her fall classes. She attends a Jesuit university. The class is titled The Problem of God. The paper assignment: reflect on why it is important to think about arguments for the existence of God. The paper is only two pages long, based on personal reflections, and includes references to some of the material they’ve read for the class. She wanted to talk about some of the initial ideas she has written down.
Near the end of the call, she asked me if I had anything to add to our discussion. I said I could extend some of the arguments or ideas we had just discussed, or give some personal reflections. She invited me to go for either one, so I went for the latter. I’ve had some interesting thoughts related to this subject for a few weeks now.
The train of thought begins with some reflections on Vincent van Gogh’s The Starry Night, but I think a more direct path into the subject may begin with the feeling people often describe when they look into the night sky. When I say night sky, I don’t refer to what you see when you’re in the city. I’m talking about what you see when you look into a clear night sky far away from any city, when you can see all the stars on display.
People often say when they see our portion of the universe laid out before them like that, it makes them feel insignificant. You can see the Milky Way in the distance, and you know the universe extends to millions or billions of galaxies far beyond ours. We’re on this lonely blue planet, perhaps the only life that exists in the whole universe. I can see why that makes some people feel unimportant in the vast reach of creation, and why that sense of insignificance might lead to doubts about whether our life here has any meaning.
The vision of the night sky doesn’t make me feel that way. Every vision of nature, every display of beauty in God’s creation, makes me feel peaceful and at rest. It renews a sense of closeness to what he created, and sense of kinship with the creator himself. I have a place in this scheme. Everyone is here for a reason. If that’s true, God put me hear for a reason. He gives us our purpose. If you lose your sense of purpose, you can try to regain it through prayer, or any other form of communication with God. For me, contact with nature serves as a form of prayer.
The night sky might be the most effective antidote to life’s anxieties ever imagined. After all, God could have put our planet in a claustrophobic little box, with no windows. Instead he created a universe for our home, a universe so vast and incomprehensible, the creator behind it is unmistakable. The night sky makes us feel part of the creator’s family, reminds us we have a valued, special place in his creation.
That returns us to van Gogh’s famous painting. I didn’t know early in my life that van Gogh was a religious man. He was. His unusual images of natural scenes show that his vision of color and form in nature was unique. He had no precedents or imitators. No other painter would present God’s world to us quite like that. We say that his hand and his eye had the touch of genius.
When you see The Starry Night for the first time, your first response might be, well that’s interesting. Look how large and swirly those stars are. Look how brightly the yellow orbs shine from the dark blue sky. See how they illuminate, but only barely, the hills and the village below. The scene looks kind of peaceful, yet the stars and especially the Milky Way look intense and turbulent, like the surf, by comparison with the actual night sky.
Hearing Don McClean’s song about van Gogh, and reading an art historian write about the religious meaning in this painting, made me think about The Starry Night in a different way. We can’t ask van Gogh, but I believe he painted the stars that way to communicate God’s welcoming warmth toward us in our universe, to make us feel comfortable and, if not at rest, at least part of the uniquely beautiful home he created for us. Those swirling stars may convey a sense of some turbulence and energy, but they are friendly reminders of his joyful, even playful love for us all, even as we sleep in an obscure village.
That brings us back to the question I talked about with my daughter: why is it important to consider arguments for God’s existence? Theologians may have a number of more or less formal answers to a question like that. Formal answers have value. They draw attention to the content and structure of these arguments, to their logic and their ability to persuade. As we think about God, these persuasive elements, as well as doubts, help both believers and non-believers to formulate reasons for the positions they take.
Personal reflections are valuable as well. You might reduce my thoughts about The Starry Night to the remark, “Well of course, if you know something about art, you can appreciate it better.” That’s not the point. If you can connect a painting like that to your appreciation of nature, and connect both to your belief in God, that tells you why it’s important to think about arguments for God’s existence. No matter what your personal experience, these arguments give you intellectual tools to think imaginatively about these kinds of questions.
Without these tools, you are a flat observer, a spectator without depth. You catch a sunset, a mountain range or a flower, snap a picture, then switch your view to the next great panorama or gem. To be more than a spectator, you want to live in nature, such that you feel the presence of nature’s creator, or connect in any way that feels comfortable. I’ll allow that you can connect in this way without thinking overlong about the problem of God’s existence. Certainly God does not require that of us.
Nevertheless, if we can deepen our appreciation of what God has done, if we can live every day aware of his love, we’ll feel both secure and purposeful. We won’t feel small, doubtful, or lonely and remote. We’ll proceed with confidence to fulfill his hopes for us. Those assurances of love and purpose derive from confidence that God is with us, everywhere. He gave us these gifts of nature. We can see them, hear them, smell them, touch them and taste them. If we think about the home he created for us, we’ll be grateful for every gift in it. Gratitude is all we need.