The Sublime and the Significance of Man

Religion, as old as humanity itself, has always managed throughout all millennia to capture man’s mind afresh.[1]

–Hans Küng

Alain de Botton’s new book, Religion for Atheists, seems to reinforce this fact.

As much as man may rail against the idea of God or certain portrayals of God, he has a hard time of ever doing away with, once and for all, the question of God and religion. Even some of the most radical proponents of atheism, Feuerbach and Nietzsche, remained fascinated by these questions until the end of their lives.

A while back I read another one of Alain’s books, The Art of Travel. Alain is an excellent writer and in general can poetically elucidate many aspects of life. Yet even this very human book on travel draws on religious and theological sources.

The book has a clever structure to it. Each chapter highlights an aspect of the art of travel (anticipation, curiosity, habit, etc.) and then provides a fitting place for the discussion (Barbados, Madrid, London, etc.) and a relevant historical figure as guide (J. K. Huysmans, Alexander von Humboldt, Xavier de Maistre, etc.).

Interestingly, the chapter ‘On the Sublime’ is set in the Sinai desert with Job (from the Bible) as its guide.

The chapter discusses how certain landscapes and geographical features imbue us with a poignant feeling of their power, significance, immensity, nobility, and even moral goodness. They often confront us with our own smallness and fragility and yet while they assert their presence over us they don’t demean us. In all their defiance and even threatening, there is no tinge of viciousness.

For an animal comparison, consider the difference between a bull and an ox. One is sublime, the other is not.

Alain concedes that sublime landscapes do stir within us an acute sense of God:

that some intentional being must have had a hand in this, something greater than man and with an intelligence that mere ‘nature’ does not possess- a ‘something’ for which the word God still seems, even to the secular mind, a far from unlikely appellation.[2]

Turning to the book of Job and the reason for his sufferings, Alain reasons this way:

…God draws Job’s attention to the mighty phenomena of nature. Do not be surprised that things have not gone your way, He declares: the universe is greater than you… See how small you are next to the mountains… consider sublime places for a reminder of human insignificance.[3]

Here again, although drawing on a religious text, Alain wants to divorce the divine answer to Job (which he rather misinterprets) from its context:

But the religious answer to Job’s question does not invalidate the story for secular spirits.[4]

This presents a question: how much can you borrow from Christianity—both answers and practices—before you admit that it actually has something to offer? Does not all this recognition and borrowing give credence to the significance of Christianity? Hans Küng says that,

Only very frivolous humanists will question the fact that modern post-Christian humanism, in addition to its debt to all the other sources (particularly the Greeks and the Enlightenment), owes an enormous amount to Christianity… tacitly adopted and assimilated, not always with due acknowledgment… in Western (and thus largely also global) civilization and culture, Christianity is part of the air we breathe. There are no chemically pure secular humanisms.[5]

And yet the very un-Christian last sentence in this chapter is telling of the discrepancy:

Sublime places… may help us to accept more graciously the great, unfathomable events that molest our lives and will inevitably return us to dust.[6]

Is this what the sublime leads to? A resolve to calmly accept all events without passion, grief, or joy? Stoicism in the face of the inevitable? Job reaches quite a different conclusion.

I had heard of You by the hearing of the ear, but now my eye has seen You; therefore I abhor myself, and I repent in dust and ashes.

–Job 42:5-6

The Bible presents a radically different interpretation than Alain does. God is not out to punish man or put man in his place, but to turn man from the frustration of the self so that God could work Himself into man. God is not capricious but purposeful, not just in His creation but especially in His dealings with man.

In God’s view when you place a man beside a mountain, the mountain pales into significance, not the man. Man is not the plaything of nature, but the reason for nature. Actually, man is the meaning of the universe.

A universe without mankind would be like a perfectly decorated fish tank without fish.

Or imagine this picture—a football stadium in West Texas on a Friday night. The bleachers are packed. The local news channel is down on the sideline. The cheerleaders are cheering their hearts out. Concessions have been selling hotdogs like they’re going out of style. And yet there is no football game being played. What’s the point?

Sublime places should remind us of the greatness, beauty, and significance of man in God’s eternal purpose.

Thus declares Jehovah, who stretches forth the heavens and lays the foundations of the earth and forms the spirit of man within him.

–Zechariah 12:1


1. Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, p. 61
2. Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel, p. 168
3. Ibid., p. 171
4. Ibid.
5. Hans Küng, On Being a Christian, p. 31
6. Alain de Botton, The Art of Travel, p. 176

One thought on “The Sublime and the Significance of Man

  1. Well done KB. The awesomeness of nature does not communicate to us that we are purposeless. Rather, it tells us of God’s existence, portrays His characteristics and divine power, it even reminds us that He and we are full of purpose. Even though God has spoken all these sublime sceneries much larger than us into being, only man is made in His image and after His own likeness (Gen. 1:26). Surely this is not without significance.


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