Transcendence, Joy, and Beauty

In the 2015 movie, Room by Lenny Abrahamson, we see the tragic story of a young woman who has been kidnapped and forced to become her kidnapper’s consort, locked away in a shed for seven years. Eventually, she becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son, whom she raises in the windowless, 10 by 10 room for five years. But, uncertain how to help her son psychologically deal with being trapped as prisoners, she explains to him that while the room and everything in it is real, everything that he sees on a small television, isn’t real. So, the boy comes to believe that nothing exists outside of the room. But when it comes time to escape, the mother tries to explain to her son that there is a whole world outside of the room, a world of trees, birds, sunshine, and ice cream—all things he has seen on the TV. But, the boy is confused, and angrily disagrees with his mother: no, the things on TV aren’t real—the room is what is real. The mother is trying to expand the boy’s perspective on reality, there is so much more. 
That is a great parable of two ways to view life.
As we look around at the 10 by 10 room of suffering and disappointment and malaise in the world, we can either say, “This is all there is,” or, we can say, “There is more.”
This Is All There Is
We want to believe that there is more to life than the grim realities of disappointment and suffering and death, we want to believe in happy endings, but wanting something to be true doesn’t mean it is true, right? I can want to believe that I have a wealthy relative somewhere who will leave me a large inheritance, but that doesn’t make it so. Life is not marked by happy endings.
In fact, John Cheever, the Pulitzer prize winning author, noted: “The main emotion of the adult American who has all the advantages of wealth, education, and culture is disappointment and discontentment.”
To retain belief that there is satisfaction, high beauty, and joy appears to be a leap of faith that contradicts so much of the common experience of mankind, whose lives tend to be, according to Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” The poet Matthew Arnold identified faith as the basis of the belief in the beauty of the world:
The Sea of Faith
Was once, too, at the full, and round earth’s shore
Lay like the folds of a bright girdle furled.
But now I only hear
Its melancholy, long, withdrawing roar,

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.
(Matthew Arnold, “Sea of Dover”, 1867)
The world can be beautiful and new so long as the sea of faith is full; but once its long, melancholy withdrawing roar is heard, the mask of beauty is ripped off to reveal darkness and confusion.
Speaking of “the salvation of Jesus Christ,” Arnold wrote: “Never let us deny to this story power and pathos, or treat with hostility ideas which have entered so deep into the life of Christendom. But the story is not true; it never really happened,” (Matthew Arnold, preface to God and the Bible, 1875). In other words, Arnold is saying: the story of faith is beautiful, but false. The “real world” isn’t where we find beauty. When C.S. Lewis was still an atheist, his friend J.R.R. Tolkien was speaking with him about the beauty of ancient myths and Tolkien was trying to show Lewis how the gospel was a “true myth”, but Lewis waved it off at first, claiming that “myths were lies and therefore worthless, even though breathed through silver.”
Religion may be able to lead to beauty and transcendence, but it isn’t true. So, if there is no god, then what is true?
“That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the débris of a universe in ruins—all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built,” (Bertrand Russell, The Free Man’s Worship).
And yet, I want to suggest, that no one can live like this:
“Anybody who goes through life with open mind and heart will encounter moments that are saturated with meaning, but whose meaning cannot be put into words. These moments are precious to us. When they occur it as though, on the winding, ill-lit stairway of our life, we suddenly come across a window through which we catch a sight of another and brighter world--a world to which we belong but which we cannot enter,” (Sir Roger Scruton, Confessions of a Heretic).
We all intuitively know: there is more.
There Is More
The Sublime
Consider your best memories, the most cherished moments of your life. What did you experience when the circumstances all clicked in place and life handed you something precious, something that seemed to reach elbow-deep inside of you, grab the tangled knot of your person and yank it down into new depths? I can remember several. Watching my bride walk down the aisle, holding my firstborn for the first time. But let me share something more basic. I remember being 18 years old, driving to Seattle on a trip with my little sister. It was her birthday and we had left in the dark of the morning to make it to an event there that night. Just outside of Yakima and Selah, you pass through what feels like a barren wasteland. There is nothing but brown tumbleweeds and dry dirt. But not long before you make it to Ellensburg you climb a massive hill, and on the other side there is a great valley and suddenly, the dry, barren brown just shuts off. It looks like God spilled a bucket of green paint down the hillside, pooling up at the farms and fields at the bottom. I was so taken aback that I pulled over. The sun had just risen, the air was crisp, and “White Winter Hymnal” by Fleet Foxes was playing on the radio. Small houses dotted the farms below, golden light painted everything, and an experience of transcendence washed over me—a sense of awe and quiet grandeur that I (though I have been back to that spot many other times) have never been able to recreate.
In The Hobbit, when the group of dwarves are hungry and lost in the dark of Mirkwood, the dwarves keep seeing and smelling at a distance a warm feast that the wood elves are holding. But every time they draw near, the lights go out and the elves disappear. There are moments in our lives—when reading a book, listening to music, laughing with friends, looking at the stars—where we feel like we have stumbled into an elvish feast, a place of light and high beauty that we do not come from, but feel as if we are made for, pine after, crave. But then, within moments, it fades. C.S. Lewis, however, presses in with this shocking suggestion:
“The books or the music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited,” (The Weight of Glory).
Lewis’ provocative idea is that the beauty, the sublime was never actually in the thing itself. They were not containers, but windows.
The Disappointing
Lewis, in his essay, goes on to point out a problem: “…we remain conscious of a desire which no natural happiness will satisfy.” We have these flashes, these moments of beauty and joy which are so wonderful that our longing for them is almost painful. But, herein is the dilemma: we cannot satisfy this craving. We can satisfy all sorts of other cravings, desires for food, sex, adventure, but not this. One of the chief problems of mankind is that we confuse our desire for the transcendent with one of the things that the beauty comes through. We assume that it is the food, sex, or adventure itself that contained the joy, the beauty, but it isn’t. This is why those rare moments where the window opens to you can’t be recreated, even if you do everything again the same way—you can’t get into Narnia the same way twice.
So we are bound to, it seems, a perpetual disappointment—not because we lack good or stimulating experiences, but because what we long for is beyond the experience itself. Speaking of the fading light of that transcendent experience, Lewis goes on:
“For a few minutes we have had the illusion of belonging to that world. Now we wake to find that it is no such thing. We have been mere spectators. Beauty has smiled, but not to welcome us; her face was turned in our direction, but not to see us. We have not been accepted, welcomed, or taken into the dance…We do not want merely to see beauty, though, God knows, even that is bounty enough. We want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it,” (Lewis, Weight of Glory).
The Argument
Here is how Peter Kreeft forms the argument from desire, in the form of a syllogism:
Premise 1: Every natural, innate desire in us corresponds to some real object that can satisfy that desire.

Premise 2: But there exists in us a desire which nothing in time, nothing on earth, no creature can satisfy. 

Conclusion: Therefore there must exist something more than time, earth and creatures, which can satisfy this desire.
Premise one: “A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will. A man may love a woman and not win her; but it would be very odd if the phenomenon called “falling in love” occurred in a sexless world.”
Premise two: Consider Solomon: “And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure, for my heart found pleasure in all my toil, and this was my reward for all my toil. 11 Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun,” (Eccl 2:10-11)
“There comes a time when one asks, even of Shakespeare, even of Beethoven, 'Is that all there is?’” – Jean-Paul Sartre
Conclusion: ““Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for these desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim; well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself desires which nothing in this world can satisfy, the only logical explanation is that I was made for another world,” (Lewis, Mere Christianity, “Hope”)
The argument thus far has only demonstrated the plausibility of theism in general. But what does Christianity uniquely offer? Like other theistic religions, Christianity holds out the promise of transcendent joy and sublimity, but it does not remain remote or unspecified. Jesus, the Lord of glory, has come to us. And has worked salvation on our behalf to not only welcome us into the realm of the transcendent upon death, but has promised that we will ourselves be transformed.
“At present we are on the outside of the world, the wrong side of the door. We discern the freshness and purity of morning, but they do not make us fresh and pure. We cannot mingle with the splendours we see. But all the leaves of the New Testament are rustling with the rumour that it will not always be so. Some day, God willing, we shall get in,” (Lewis, Weight of Glory)