God the Connoisseur

Did God create the universe because God loves beauty?

I have been preparing a set of talks on the two creation stories we find in Genesis 1-3. A recurring note in the first story (Genesis 1:1-2:3) is that after each day’s work in the creation process, God pauses to survey what he has done. He finds it good.

When the whole work of creation is complete at the end of the sixth day, God not only finds his creative work good, but declares it “very good”. This places a superlative judgment on all of God’s work.

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Like a precious pearl: The earth seen from outer space. Photo credit: NASA.

The Hebrew word we translate as good in this text is the word tov. It is helpful to understand the specific associations of this word. Tov does not carry a primary association of moral goodness. Rather it seems to mean more precisely good as something that pleases us, something that delights us, or something that gives us pleasure because it works the way it is supposed to. It has an aesthetic connotation rather than a moral connotation.

So when we read in Genesis that God looks upon his creative work and declares it tov, the text is signaling that God looks upon his creation like an art connoisseur. God sees it working as it is supposed to. He appreciates its beauty. That fills him with pleasure.

When we attend church, we don’t often hear ministers talk about God as one who delights in beauty. But I think we should. For the one who creates us as sensuous creatures is one who appreciates the power of beauty to move us deep within.

What Evokes Our Feeling of Awe

I know there are many ways people think of the power of beauty. I think of it, however, as the power to evoke in us a spontaneous response of pleasurable awe. When we stand in the presence of something beautiful, we catch our breath. Why? Because it seems so right as it is. For whatever reason it exists, it fulfills that reason perfectly. It is what it is meant to be.

That’s why, for example, a mathematician may describe a particular mathematical formula beautiful. It is what it is meant to be, often with the greatest of simplicity. When we look at a painting or a sculpture and proclaim it beautiful, we are in awe of what it is, precisely because every aspect of it–whether color, line, shape, or texture– contributes to that right being.

That is apparently the response of God in the Genesis text when God surveys the world he has created. In God’s vision, every aspect of this world is as it is meant to be. Therefore it is exceedingly tov or beautiful.

I think humans get in touch with that same feeling when we see some of the images of heavenly phenomena that have been captured by the Hubble telescope. Some of the images of galaxies or astral clouds just shimmer with color. They dazzle us.

Is that why on the seventh day God rests? God takes time to enjoy the beauty of the work he has just completed. Maybe that is also one reason why God created in the first place. God enjoys beauty and cannot help but be an artist.

Certainly the beauty of creation is cause for praise, according to the psalmist. One of the great praise psalms is Psalm 148. It soars as a song praising God for all the beautiful diversity of the universe. The psalmist moves from the glories of heaven, with its sun, moon, and stars, through the sea monsters and other creatures of the deep, through natural phenomena like fire, snow, and stormy winds, through the majesty of mountains, to the abundance of animals and wild beasts, to the diversity of human beings.

When we seek to create things of beauty, we humans show ourselves to be images of God, as the Genesis creation text says we are. We too take delight in creating things that shine out a glory because they are what they are meant to be.

We Praise Because We Are

Psalm 148 gives the amazing grace of being as the rationale for praising God.

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A NASA photo looking out into outer space.

The last five psalms in the Book of Psalms are known as the Hallelujah psalms. That’s because each starts and ends with the word Hallelujah, which in Hebrew means “Praise the Lord.”

Why praise the Lord, however? The five psalms give different answers. The answer given by Psalm 148 is one we might not expect. It comes in verses 3 through 5. There the psalmist summons the heavenly bodies–sun, moon, and shining stars–to join the angelic choirs in singing God’s praises.

But why? Because God commanded and they were created (Psalm 148:5). They are to praise God because God summoned them into being.

This turns out to be a rationale for praising God for not only the heavenly beings, but for every existing thing, including us humans. The psalmist calls upon all creation, including us, to praise God just because all creation exists. This summoning into being is a gift, in fact, one of God’s greatest gifts to all that is.

I say it is a great gift because the alternative is not to be. If we had never been, we would have missed out on this great privilege of being alive and a part of this splendid creation that God is making.

God considers it important that each one of us be a part of this great work, and so he summons us into being. I know that life can bring many disappointments, sufferings, and sorrows, but I wonder how many of us pause now and them to remind ourselves of what an astonishing gift it is to just be.

The Question Science Can’t Answer

Science tells us a great deal about how the universe and living things came into being. They say it all began about 13 and a half billion years ago with a stupendous, big, explosive bang.

They have mapped out the many evolutionary stages that that expanding universe has gone through in the billions of years since to bring us to the amazing planet on which we now live with all its teeming life.

But there is one thing I am convinced that science cannot answer. That is the question Why? Why does the world exist? Why do we exist? What is the universe’s meaning? What is its–and our–purpose?

Science is not able to answer that question. In fact, many scientists today, relying only on scientific observations, will tell us that the universe has no meaning. So human beings must turn to philosophy and religion to find an answer.

I believe that Christianity has an answer to this question Why? The answer is: Because of the overflowing love of God. The God we acknowledge is one who out of love creates because it gives God pleasure and God wants to share that pleasure with an abundance of other material and living beings.

When my Presbyterian heritage asks the question–“What is the chief end of human beings?”–it answers it with a statement of faith–“To glorify God and enjoy God forever.” God creates the universe–and each one of us individually–so that we can all share in his life of super-abundant love. Creation gives God delight and God can’t keep that delight to God’s self.

That is a compelling reason for the invitation to praise God that the psalmist issues to us. Let everything that is praise the Lord.