“Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exists. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. . . If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.” CS Lewis Mere Christianity
Have you ever wondered why people go on vacation? I know the obvious reason, or at least the reason many may say is that people need rest. The problem with that is that most of the times you hear those same people come back to work only to say they came back from vacation to rest. Now, I don’t mean to say people don’t need physical rest from their jobs. I am actually asking a different question. Why do people go places on vacation? Why do people from the mountains go to the beach? Why do people from the coast go inland? Why do country people go to the city and vice versa?
Almost everyone who is able to do this says they do it for one reason. They want to “get away”. What does that mean, get away? Well, I think it means get away from what is mundane. They want to get away from the everyday, humdrum life in which they seem to be stuck. This doesn’t solve anything though. It only begs the question. Why is it that people intentionally remove themselves from the most familiar and place themselves in the most unfamiliar? Why does a person have a desire to temporarily leave their geographical, social, and often safe context only to go to a place that looks different, they are strangers, and sometimes risk at least embarrassment? I believe vacations are an attempt to fill a void. Let me explain.
There’s something about the ocean the first time you see it. If you live in the mountains, pretty far inland, the ocean is unimaginable. I remember the first time we took my daughter to the beach for a vacation. She was pretty young, but all she knew were mountains, hollows, and hills. When we walked into that hotel room and she went onto the balcony, she was amazed at what she saw. I didn’t realize it, but as my wife and I were unpacking, I looked out to see her sitting in a chair just staring. She was speechless. I imagine coastal people do that the first time they see mountains, the majesty of them reaching into the sky like something flatlanders never see. There’s more to it than that though.
Have you ever thought about what’s going on when you see a beautiful sunset or sunrise? What about when you look into the October night sky when it seems you can see forever? There’s more to this than meets the eye. What is it that happens to a person in these moments? It’s not merely some physical experience that causes us to have some sensation through physical means. Everyone who is honest with themselves would admit to more. I think it has a name. AWE. People are not merely moved by beauty. People are awestruck. Here’s what I mean.
Let’s take that person who first sees the ocean. The ocean is beautiful on its own. The different colors of the water, the crashing waves from the tide, the contrast with the sky and the beach, all speak to us in a way that gives us some emotional response. When we see it, we may feel peace or joy or even fear, but we feel something. At the very least though, we see beauty. I call that pure aesthetics. It doesn’t end there though. There’s more that happens to us. When a person who doesn’t see the ocean very much looks at it to admire it, they are usually moved to a sense of wonder. People stare not only to see the colors or waves, but they are amazed at the vastness of the ocean. In the same way, coastal people look in wonder at mountains. Although one might make a false conclusion that mere aesthetic pleasure is derived from the first response, wonder is something altogether different. Wonder causes us to ask the question “how”. It’s hard to look at an ocean or mountain range and not ask how. To think that some might deny this to dodge the argument I can just about guarantee, but I don’t think they actually deny it. No one stands in front of an ocean for the first time and doesn’t feel some insignificance against the immensity of the water reaching into the horizon. When beauty begins to evoke this type of response, and I believe it does transcendently, aesthetics takes on a whole new meaning. Beauty leaves the subjective and moves to objective. It becomes something that we know. Furthermore, it moves from merely physical to metaphysical because it becomes a problem of the mind rather than the body.
This question of how is not a response of a purposeless evolutionary process. It is an essential question of a mindful being. That’s not all either. When people sense the beauty or aesthetic of an ocean or mountain or even that October night sky, there is evoked in a person one more response. I call it eternality. Eternality can be summed up by the question, why. Why am I here? When a person sees the vastness of an ocean, the majesty of a mountain, or especially the depth of a seemingly endless space, the natural and transcendent response after beauty and wonder is the sense that there must be something else and if there is, why am I here? Persons are moved on a level that is outside of the physical when confronted with an obvious design. No one looks at this earth spinning thousands of miles per hour around an immense ball of fire in a very conspicuous place where we can see the rest of the universe, all the while knowing our little planet is perfectly breathed, heated, and seated to sustain human life, and doesn’t ask the question, “why am I here”. In a massive place, we suddenly realize our finiteness. Yet, in that we also become more self-aware giving us a new perspective, placing within us eternity.
AWE, aesthetics, wonder, and eternality play an important role in our person. We are drawn to experience that which we cannot see. Aesthetics give us peace. Wonder gives us pause. Eternality gives us purpose. As a whole, these connect us with meaning like math or data cannot. That is awesome because it is obvious to those who admit it that all that is in front of us was designed to point us to the Artist. There is no great painting, whether signed in the corner or left unclaimed, which was not painted by a great artist. It’s true with the great art of the universe as well. It is real, objective, and metaphysical.
One last case in point. What may be one of the least beautiful things in the universe, at least by mere physical standards, that evokes one of the greatest metaphysical responses of things like love or joy, is unexpected. If taken merely by visual, audible, or even aromatic considerations, this thing should only evoke an avoidance mechanism within us. It is loud, discolored, smells bad often, and is helpless. Its shape is more like a watermelon than it is a creature. Its head is squished, its eyes buggy, its nose pudgy, and if it stood, its legs couldn’t support its body. It screams constantly and secretes nasty, smelly stuff. Yet, when one of us looks at one, we say it is beautiful. What do we mean by that? We are definitely not saying it is merely aesthetically pleasing. We are saying something very different. We look in wonder at a newborn baby. Not so much at its pleasant curves or colors, but at the wonder of how did this happen. Of course I know how it happens, that’s not what we mean. We are asking a deeper question. How did this baby come to me, as mine? There is no one who would deny the last thing, why. Every new parent would say they have a new sense of purpose. We are awestruck by newborn babies and have no merely physical reason to be.
There are things we are drawn to as human beings, things within us and things other than us, which move us. We long for the senses of meaning and purpose and we intrinsically understand that confrontations with the unfamiliar and vast places in our universe evoke these deep longings. We also know intrinsically that there must be an Artist, a Designer who made us this way and placed us in a universe designed on purpose not only for our existence, but to make us ask, how and why. I thank God for the beauty of the earth, the brushstrokes of His gracious hand.
Acts 17:26–27 (NET) 17:26
From one man he made every nation of the human race to inhabit the entire earth, determining their set times and the fixed limits of the places where they would live, 17:27 so that they would search for God and perhaps grope around for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.
1. For the beauty of the earth, For the glory of the skies, For the love which from our birth Over and around us lies;
2. For the wonder of each hour Of the day and of the night, Hill and vale and tree and flow’r, Sun and moon, and stars of light:
3. For the joy of human love, Brother, sister, parent, child, Friends on earth and friends above, For all gentle thoughts and mild:
4. For the church that evermore Lifteth holy hands above, Off’ring up on ev’ry shore Her pure sacrifice of love:
5. For the joy of ear and eye, For the heart and mind’s delight, For the mystic harmony Linking sense to sound and sight:
6. For thyself, best Gift Divine! To our race so freely giv’n; For that great, great love of Thine, Peace on earth, and joy in heav’n.
Chorus. Lord of all, to Thee we raise This our hymn of grateful praise.
Folliott Sandford Pierpoint 1864