When gossip goddess Oprah Winfrey interviewed long-distance swimmer Diana Nyad earlier this month on her weekly gabfest, “Super Soul Sunday,” the audience was undoubtedly interested only in whether Nyad had ever ridden a shark, but the conversation suddenly veered into murky waters.
Nyad recently became the first person to swim solo from Cuba to Florida, a feat she’s been trying to pull off for 35 years. The endeavor ranks somewhere between quixotic and stupid, on a par with someone trying to skateboard across the Sahara. Her chat with Oprah was going swimmingly until she mentioned that she is an atheist. Then, lest the audience turn on her and start throwing jellyfish, she tried to qualify that declaration, and came off sounding like a lot of “spiritual” people:
“I can stand at the beach’s edge with the most devout Christian, Jew, Buddhist, go on down the line, and weep with the beauty of this universe and be moved by all of humanity, Nyad said. “All the billions of people who have lived before us, who have loved and hurt and suffered. So to me, my definition of God is humanity and is the love of humanity.”
Never mind that Nyad tried to define God after she said she didn’t believe in one, as Oprah pointed out, kind of. (“I don’t call you an atheist…I think if you believe in the awe and the wonder and the mystery, then that is what God is.”) The question for today is: Does our impulse to weep, to be moved, to be awed at the beauty of the universe—does this have to have an explanation? Or more precisely: Does our appreciation of beauty have to have a target, other than the beauty itself?
A devout person, in trying to describe God, generally does so in terms of His relationship with man. When he sees something beautiful, he ascribes it to God—to the God who created it so that we could enjoy it. Reasonable, perhaps, because we do enjoy it, and it might seem to have no other purpose. But consider the premise: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. To a dog, a dead squirrel or a mound of manure it can roll in is a thing of beauty. Does the dog assume that these things were made just for it--and make it part of its religion?
I have to admit, whenever I catch a glimpse of Oprah on TV, I am filled with awe and wonder myself—at Oprah’s hair.