Why Skeptics Should Watch Les Miserables
finally gave in and watched Les Miserables with Abby last week. I was familiar with the story, but this was my first experience with the musical. To be perfectly honest, I wasn’t really looking forward to it. And then in the first scene Russell Crowe opened his mouth to sing, and I really wasn’t looking forward to it. (When I heard him sing it prompted me to tweet, “If I speak with the tongues of angels but have not love, I am but a Russell Crow singing in Les Mis.”) But alas, like a good husband I persevered. And I’m glad I did.
I loved it. There, I said it. In fact, I really loved it. When you consider the story, the characters, the music, and all its components, I think Les Miserables is breathtaking art. I was so enthralled that at one point during the film I turned to Abby and said, “How can someone watch this and say there is no God.” If you find that to be an odd response to a movie, then allow me to explain.
What is the best explanation for beauty? That is actually a very important question. When you watch something like Les Miserables, why are you stirred in indescribable ways? There are many experiences that are fundamental to the human existence that we never stop to think about. What’s with music, art, love, justice, virtue, purpose, and all these experiences that clearly transcend every culture of humanity?
The purely naturalistic worldview says they are but illusions produced by the human brain forged through ages of natural selection. Whatever your views are on the evolutionary process, I think you know that to label these things as merely by-products of natural selection is way too simplistic and only mocks the profoundness of these experiences in our lives. How did we ever get to the point where experiences that are so fundamental to our existence are discredited as nothing more than meaningless illusions created by our brains for the purposes of survival?
It began with the 18th century Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, with all its wonderful advances, had a crucial flaw. The only trusted reality and knowledge is that which you can test. Before the age of reason, things like meaning, value, morals, purpose, and beauty were trusted authorities and had a lot to say about reality and the deep truths of existence. But these are all forms of knowledge that cannot be tested in a controlled environment. The philosophy of the Enlightenment, and consequently the modern world as we know it, is that the only true knowledge is that which can be tested and confirmed. Since these forms of knowledge cannot be treated this way, they were marginalized and discredited.
In other words, we became really good at the question of what and how (What is a human being? How does a human being work?), but the question of why (Why is there a human being?) became obsolete. Things like beauty, joy, love, morals, virtue, and purpose, these questions cannot be explained by the scientific method and so they were reduced down to purely physical explanations. They are nothing more than chemical processes in the brain that somehow helped our ancestors.
The problem is that nobody truly lives that way. In fact we base our lives upon these experiences and are bound and compelled by them in inescapable ways. These realities are as fundamental to our existences as the laws of physics. They control us just as much as we are controlled by gravity. In fact they are so constraining to us that often we pursue them at the cost of our own survival. We see that in Les Mis as people lay down their life in the name of justice and the greater cause. Deep down we know these experiences are not illusions produced by purely physical realities. Nonsense! They are just as real as the world around us, and even the most nihilistic cynic lives as such.
What then are these things? They are signposts to something greater. They are deep-seeded clues inside us all that point to transcendent realities. Either beauty is a false illusion that has us all deceived, or beauty is real. I think when you watch Les Miserables (or whatever you find beautiful) you know it’s real. And if it is real then we must ask the question, where does beauty come from? What are its origins? The classic and logical answer to this is that there must be a transcendent beauty to which all beauty points. All the beauties we behold emanate from and point to the source of all beauty. All these fundamental realities and experiences that we know to be true even though we cannot place them under a microscope, they are all, as C.S. Lewis brilliantly described them, sunbeams of the sun.
Your inescapable sense of justice points to the transcendent reality of justice. Your inescapable longing for love points to the transcendent reality of love. Your inescapable conscience that knows there is such a thing as right and wrong points to the transcendent reality of right and wrong. Your inescapable quest for meaning and purpose points to the reality that there is in fact a transcendent meaning and purpose to life.
So what is this transcended source of all these experiences? That, my friends, is what we call God. What you experience when you watch Les Miserable is a real experience. If like me you found yourself lost in the beauty of the story and music, moved by the justice and love on display in the characters, if Les Miserables stirred something inside of you, that was not an illusion, it was a clue. Investigate the clues. Trace the sunbeam of Les Miserables back up to the sun itself. When you experience the beauties life has to offer, enjoy them, and then let them take you a step further. Let beauty persuade your soul that there is indeed a transcendent beauty to which all these lesser beauties testify. That beauty is God.