“One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek:
to behold the fair beauty of the Lord,
and to seek him in his temple” —Psalm 27:5-6
I’d like to present three scenes from my life. For these to make sense, you need to know a few things about me. I was raised the son of a Baptist minister and attended Wheaton College, an evangelical institution. I was an avid and enthusiastic adherent to conservative Christianity until my early 20s. I am now an Episcopalian, and I serve as the choirmaster at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Denver.
Scene 1: This scene took place in September of 1985, at the beginning of my junior year at Wheaton during a nocturnal walk. It was a stormy, windy night. With the growing realization that I was having difficulty accepting many of the religious tenets of my upbringing, the weather proved an appropriate metaphor for my mental state.
Foremost was my philosophical inability to reconcile the sovereignty of a benevolent God with the simultaneous existence of evil and suffering. This has been variously called the Problem of Evil, the Problem of Suffering, or Theodicy—why a good God permits evil. Simply put, this growing sense of a contradiction and inconsistency within the Christian worldview brought me to an impasse. Throw in other typical questions of a 20-year old Wheaton student on authority, sexuality, and an evolving political sense, and I was shaken to my core. My very identity was in question.
By the time that stormy walk was over, I had acknowledged that I was no longer a Christian. This avowal was at first frightening, but over time it became easier to accept, and even pricked a nascent sense of joy in the exercise of my intellectual freedom.
Scene 2: Five years passed, and I was mid-way through a doctorate at the University of London’s Royal Holloway College. Strangely, given my continuing tendency toward atheism and the inability to reconcile the idea of a good God permitting evil and suffering, my doctoral thesis was in the field of sacred music. I had never ceased attending church weekly, or more. When asked to explain this dichotomy, I had been known to quip to my bemused friends the reverse of a well-known phrase: “I’m religious but not spiritual.”
One Sunday morning found me seated in the congregation of St. George’s Chapel in Windsor Castle, which was an hour’s walk from my college. Having recently lost my father quite unexpectedly, and plagued with a few uncertainties about my own health, I was pondering the unfairness of what I saw as a godless universe, and the uncertainty of life. In this gloomy state of mind, my sense of frustration rising to a peak, I recall asking myself, “Why am I sitting here? Why do I still come to church? I don’t believe any of this stuff and nonsense, so why do I still slavishly attend? I can’t pretend to worship something I don’t believe exists.”
In my exasperation I looked up at the breathtaking fan vaulting of St. George’s, listening to Stanford’s Te Deum in C as it reverberated magnificently around the Gothic tracery and arches, and I heard the following voice in my head: “You may not worship god, but you worship Good. There is something transcendent that you can’t explain when you enter an edifice such as this, and hear music such as this; and that is what you pay homage to; that is what you love; that is the Ground of your Being; that is God.”
Someone asked me once whether I thought (or think) this was the voice of God speaking to me in St. George’s. In the traditional sense, no. But that it was some divinely-linked part of myself, or something in my soul that yearns for transcendent meaning, or the Spirit that speaks to me through beauty, yes. Definitly yes.
So I return to the words of the psalmist prefacing this reflection: “One thing have I asked of the Lord; one thing I seek—to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and to seek him in his temple.” And I see my 24-year-old self sitting in St. George’s Chapel, asking this one thing fervently of the Lord. That I still sought God in the temple, attending church faithfully despite an intellectual conviction that such a God did not exist, makes these words of the psalmist resonate deeply within me. And that the thing most fervently sought by the psalmist was to behold beauty—this is reassurance that the voice I heard in my head was not a deceptive one, not an empty one.
And this leads me to Scene 3, which is not really a scene at all, but the summation of some recent deliberations and ponderings. Over the 25 years since my experience in St. George’s Chapel, I have returned to that moment, and several others that have briefly parted the veil that obscures the transcendent in the mundane, to sustain me when my agnosticism threatens to overwhelm my halting faith. But recently I’ve found myself quite moved by the thought of the Incarnation—of the idea that God took on human flesh; that the Divine became mortal.
I have always been more moved by, more enthusiastic about, Christmas than Easter—that is to say, the Incarnation than the Redemption. The Baptist part of my upbringing sometimes castigates myself for this; but recently I read something by William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury during World War II, who wrote that the Incarnation meant that “the personality of every man and woman is sacred.” He went on to imply (in my mind) that humankind was not redeemed by the cross so much as the manger. This emphasis on the Incarnation as the essential moment in “the drama of salvation” is a hallmark of Anglicanism, and it is a concept that I have come wholeheartedly, and perhaps not surprisingly, to embrace.
And I have gone further in this line of reasoning recently in thinking that the idea of God’s taking on physical substance hallows that physical substance; and, therefore, the Incarnation affirms the delight we take in earthly beauty. The duality of Platonic thought, which holds that the material world is evil and the spiritual good, is nullified by the Incarnation. And therefore beauty itself, which is the physical world in its most perfect manifestation, reflects the divine. And finally, therefore, that “to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, and to seek him in his temple,” is the highest that one such as I, with all my wranglings and imperfections and doubts, can strive for in this life.
And therefore I do. I strive to behold the fair beauty of the Lord, through music and art and poetry. And I still seek him in his temple, in the architecture and acoustics of beautiful spaces. Perhaps this is myheresy. Perhaps it is a sign of my waywardness. But I hope, and even dare to pray, that God will honor it as the best way—in fact, the only way at present—that I will be given glimpses, albeit brief, of the Divine that I must try to believe surrounds us and upholds us in its love.