Sunday, August 21, 2016

"How Great Thou Art" to an #AtheistEar

If ever there were a quintessential Hymn of Praise, this is it. Despite the countless doctrinal disagreements between the thousands of sects and denominations of Christianity, this song holds an appeal that they can all embrace - and every church I've visited has had it in their hymnal.

The original poem goes back to Swedish poet Carl Gustav Boberg, who wrote nine verses in 1885. It was translated into German in 1907, and countless times since then. The tune evolved to the version we recognize today by the time of its 1894 publication. Here's a version I remember seeing on TV when I was growing up:

(Lyrics for this version available here.)

Most versions, regardless of style, begin with a humble approach, quietly building through the first verse:
Hubble Deep Field - from Wikipedia

Oh, Lord my God, when I in awesome wonder
Consider all the worlds Thy hands have made
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder
Thy art throughout the universe displayed.

I admit that even as a jaded non-believing adult, I still find this very stirring. I don't believe there is a supernatural being running the cosmos, and I don't believe in the mystical notion of a soul - but allowing for the poetic framing device attributing all of this universal awe to an omnipotent being, a powerful rendering of this verse can still stir my sense of wonder and evoke all of the beauty and majesty of the worlds that we see - worlds that we are still discovering.

Since this poem was first composed, we have discovered that the stars Boberg wrote about were just the beginning. Edwin Hubble, who helped prove that the "nebulae" his telescopes revealed were actually galaxies outside of the Milky Way, was born just four years after the poem was published. We've learned so much in the century since, just from looking up with better and better eyes; and we've even begun to visit more and more of the "worlds" in our own neighborhood.

We keep learning new things all the time, and finding new ways to explore deeper, further out, and farther back. No single person can fully comprehend or appreciate our universe - that's what this song is about. Containing that feeling from that moment of being overwhelmed, and seeking a way to label all of this amazement.
Then sings my soul my Saviour God to Thee
How great Thou art, how great Thou art.
To me, growing up, a performance of this song was always one of the purest and most universal expressions of that feeling. Even now, when I don't believe that any kind of supernatural being is out there, supposedly designing and controlling everything we see, I can appreciate the basic human need to praise something; to signify how impressed we are with something outside of ourselves.

Another inspiring omnipotent being
I don't believe actually exists
Of course, I also find it frustrating that people can't easily express that sense of wonder without tying it to their mythology. It's not just Christianity that does this; Islam, Judaism, all of the poly- and pan-theist faiths to one degree or another rely on an that sentiment for their existence. "If you feel that sense of wonder," they seem to argue, "that is proof of God (or gods)!"

I understand why they feel compelled to do that. It has never been easy for people to separate what they believe from reality. For many, the overwhelming feeling that I call a sense of wonder can be terrifying if there is no god there to protect them from it. They remind me of my grandmother the first time she took me to the Grand Canyon, and I rushed to the side to look down. Majesty and colossal beauty come with a certain amount of danger.

And that's how I relate to this song, now. I see it as a way for people to approach the vast, dark, amazing universe with a shield (if they need it), and express their amazement. There are many other, lesser known verses in this poem, but the best of them only serve as an excuse to return to the climactic moment of wonder.

There is certainly much to dissect, theologically, in those other verses. Some of them use the coming of Christ as a signifier of cleansing judgement; others look forward to escaping the pain and drudgery of daily life. We'll look at those ideas in other songs another day. All of them return us to the same place. But now that I don't feel saddled by the guilt that I was told to feel as a child, I can gloss past those verses if I want to. Today, I want to.

Today, I'd rather look up and marvel.

(The photo above contains a quote and image from Doctor Who, as played by Matt Smith; "The Universe is big, it's vast and complicated, and ridiculous and sometimes, very rarely, impossible things just happen and we call them miracles.")

Update: I meant to include a couple of links to some people who regularly inspire my desire to marvel: Phil Plait of Bad Astronomy (on Slate), and Ethan Siegel of Starts With A Bang (on Medium, and other places).

Be careful - they're like a gateway drug to other astronomical coolness.

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