Are we made for God, the One who is all goodness and truth, or are we just intelligent slime, thrown up from some primeval soup? In A River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, Richard Dawkins declared: ‘The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference.’ Is that true? Or does Augustine sound like he gets it right?: ‘You have made us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find their rest in You.’
Let us look at truth first. Jesus declared of God: ‘Your Word is truth’ (John 17:17). That is then reflected in us, His creatures. Hence Simone Weil could describe truth most wonderfully as ‘the radiant manifestation of reality’. Even in a world of falsehoods, truth somehow has power: ‘One word of truth outweighs the whole world,’ declared Alexander Solzhenitsyn in 1970, at the height of Soviet totalitarianism. In the days of King Ahab, some four hundred prophets told him to go to war against Syria and he would win (1 Kings 22:5-6). Almost instinctively the king of Judah, Jehoshaphat, senses that there is something wrong. In the end, the true word of Micaiah outweighed the majority viewpoint of the false prophets. Even in its fallen state – in its total depravity – the world remains wired for truth in some way.
The same is true for goodness. When he was an atheistic admirer of the brutal Soviet Union, W. H. Auden met Charles Williams, and the experience rattled him; he said he felt ‘for the first time in my life … in the presence of personal sanctity’. Holiness has great power, so much so that evil has to dress itself as good in order to be able to live with itself (Isa.5:20). King Herod feared John the Baptist, knowing that he was a righteous and holy man, and even gladly heard him preach (Mark 6:20).
Strangely enough, something similar can be said for beauty. There seems no explanation for the beauty of so much of the world except that God made it so, and preserved something of it even through the Fall. Folliott Pierpont based a hymn on this concept: For the beauty of the earth. Dostoevsky, exhibiting the Russian fondness for proverbs, even declared: ‘Beauty will save the world.’ Christ Himself compared the beauties of the lilies of the field to all the glory of Solomon, and expected His hearers to see the difference (Matt.6:28-29). God has made everything beautiful in its time (Eccles.3:11). Why are parrots, for example, so attractive to look at? It is because the beauties of the world are a pale reflection of something greater. David wrote: ‘One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in His temple’ (Ps.27:4). It looks like truth, goodness and beauty are all connected. So they are – hence J. S. B. Monsell’s hymn, O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.
Finally, for the moment at least, we could look at justice. When he rose in the House of Commons on 12 May 1789 to urge the abolition of the slave trade, William Wilberforce appealed directly to Christian principles:
There is a principle above everything that is political; and when I reflect on the command which says ‘Thou shalt do no murder,’ believing the authority to be divine, how can I dare to set up any reasonings of my own against it? And Sir, when we think in terms of eternity, and of the future consequences of all human conduct, what is there in this life that should make any man contradict the dictates of his conscience, the principles of justice, the laws of religion, and of God?’
It was not an appeal to popular opinion, the right side of history, the latest sociological insights, or self-interest; it was an appeal to justice based on the character of God.
Does not Dawkins’ claim, cited above, read as empty, perverse, and out of touch with reality? It is Augustine’s observation which fits in with Scripture, and also reality as we experience it. As Calvin put it: ‘Men were not born to eat and drink, and wallow in luxury, but to obey God, to worship Him devoutly, to acknowledge His goodness, and to endeavour to do what is pleasing in His sight.’ When we come to God, we also come to ourselves, to our senses (Luke 15:17).
Rev Dr Peter Barnes is currently the pastor at Revesby Presbyterian Church and Church History lecturer at Christ College, Sydney.