The heavens declare the glory of God,
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
– Psalm 19:1
There is no one who can avoid this issue; there is no one who can be indifferent to this issue. From the first day of its existence, mankind directly or indirectly always has been dealing with this issue. If we look to the Bible, we see that mankind at the beginning had the understanding and awareness of God’s existence, but then lost it up to that moment when God started to reveal Himself to us, at first to Noah and then to Abraham. After Abraham and until today, God has never stopped revealing Himself in different ways.
When I think about God’s existence, I always remember the words that say, “It is as difficult to prove God’s nonexistence as to prove His existence.” Both are difficult. There is a paradox when we want to prove God’s existence. If we insist on proving that God exists, in reality we don’t have God in our minds, because God is not a material reality to be proved or not. God is a metaphysical reality; we can only feel and live God’s existence.
In this article I won’t write about the literature and theories that exist about this issue, because they can be obtained through books and the Internet. This article is about my personal experience considering this issue.
I lived in Soviet Armenia, then Soviet Russia, and then in free Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This transformable time was full of discussions about God and religion. I got the opportunity to know some highly educated and morally pure people who were saying that they were atheists. This was understandable, because these people lived and were educated under the Soviet system. I had discussions with them about God. The interesting thing was that all these discussions began with them saying that there is no God and ended with them accepting the idea that there is a supreme being, even though they refused to call it God.
I recognize the same thing here in the United States. Truly, it is very difficult to neglect God. I believe that every person understands this. What role that understanding plays in the life of each one of us is a separate issue.
Einstein was not a religious man, but he believed in the existence of the transcendent God-as-Creator (in other words, a “scientist’s God”). This is the supreme power that created the universe, but is not personal like the religious God; in other words, a God who does not intervene and communicate with us like the God of the Bible. Einstein called this God a “soul” or “spirit,” which is closer to the understanding of the personalized, religious God. Why did Einstein say this? Was it a coincidence? Or did the truth come out of his mouth unwittingly?
Enrico Fermi, one of the fathers of the nuclear power and a Nobel Prize winner, said that he always remembered with excitement the testimony of a peasant who, during a conversation with him on a summer night and inspired by the beauty of the skies and the stars, said: “What a beauty! Still, there are people who say that there is no God.” Fermi explained: “This peasant was illiterate. But there was a spot in his soul where the light of God did exist. This light was a little less powerful than the light that enlightened the prophets but at the same time stronger than what many philosophers received.” This reminds us of Psalm 19: “The heavens declare the glory of God, the skies proclaim the work of His hands.”
On the opposite side, there are some scientists who don’t believe in God at all. The cosmologist Stephen Hawking once proposed a theory which said that the universe could have been created and continues to exist without God.
These examples show that the saying “science neglects God” is wrong, because scientists have different ideas about God’s existence. Some of them are atheists like Hawking; some of them are believers in the transcendent God like Einstein; and some of them are deeply religious like the American scientist Francis Collins, who said, “I am a scientist and a believer, and I find no conflict between those worldviews.” And what we can say about the fact that the founder of the Big Bang theory, which attempts to explain the beginning of the universe, is none other than a Belgian Jesuit priest, Fr. George Lemaître? So it is true when they say that little knowledge keeps man away from God, but the perfect knowledge brings him closer.
Coming to the arts, we can see that this issue is clearer and more obvious. This is because art, like religion, is connected to our hearts and souls. We know that all great composers believed in God, even though not all of them were religious. Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Handel, Brahms, Bruckner, and Mahler all believed in God in different ways. Beethoven, who opposed the church, presents a very interesting case. It is difficult to call him an orthodox Christian, but he had a personal and unique relationship with God. He had many sayings about God, such as “Music is the language of God,” or “No friend have I. I must live by myself, but I know well that God is nearer to me than others in my art, so I will walk fearlessly with Him.”
In the 20th century, we can see that the composer Aram Khachaturian, in spite of Soviet atheistic doctrine, had faith in God—especially in his last years, when he often visited Holy Etchmiadzin and the Catholicos of All Armenians. Another composer, Dikran Mansourian, once asked the great composer whether or not he believed in Christ. Khachaturian said nothing, just looked out of the window and made a sign of the cross . . .
I was once talking with a college professor who was an atheist. He said that he wasn’t given the grace to have a spiritual experience. It is interesting that by using the words “given the grace,” this individual recognized that, for him, faith was something higher that needed to be achieved. The professor’s words also bring us to the most important issue of faith: In order to have faith, personal spiritual experience is a crucial factor.
I also remember a conversation that I had when I was still living in Russia with a former fan of rock music, who later became someone who appreciated the value of classical music. During that conversation, this person confirmed to me that he couldn’t imagine how big the differences between rock and classical music were until the day when he was able to experience the high artistic and aesthetical qualities of classical music. The same thing can be said about faith. Once a person experiences spiritual life—once he “tastes” it—he will always want to have that grace again. This is just like the Apostle Peter: when he had the real experience of divine reality during the Transfiguration of Jesus, he didn’t want to leave it. He asked Jesus to stay there forever by saying, “Lord, it is good for us to be here” (Matt. 17:4).
For me personally, besides the living spiritual experience, which is almost impossible to describe, there is something else that is connected to the fact that besides being a clergyman I am also a musician. This is something I think about a lot, and it has impacted my faith in a very strong way. I have always been able to appreciate the masterpieces of spiritual and sacred art, whose subject as we know is God and no one can doubt their quality. I have also known many atheists who value this kind of art.
Living in former Soviet Union, I saw thousands of works of art dedicated to Lenin: paintings, portraits, sculptures, poems, novels, songs, monumental symphonic works, movies. Every artist was obliged to dedicate at least one work to Lenin. Even artists and poets like Hovhannes Shiraz, who later became anti-regime advocates, dedicated poems to Lenin when they were young. And I was amazed by the fact that there were no masterpieces among these thousands of works, not even a single one. Even when an artist of genius had dedicated a work to Lenin, it was far from being a masterpiece.
For example, the great Soviet composer Dmitri Shostakovich, who justifiably by many is considered the Beethoven of the 20th century, has a symphony (#12) about the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution dedicated to Lenin. Being the creation of a genius composer, this work has some valuable sections and is sometimes performed today, but it is far from being a masterpiece like his other great works.
I have often asked myself why there weren’t any masterpieces dedicated to Lenin, who was a real person, and why there are so many great masterpieces dedicated to God, who is invisible. Where does logic take us as we contemplate these facts? If the source of spiritual art, which is God, did not exist, would it be possible to create all these masterpieces? If God did not exist, would it be possible to create the works of St. Krikor Naregatsi or Michelangelo, the works of J. S. Bach or our sacred music, from nothing or only by imagination?
It is a well-known fact that one of the first conditions to create a work of art is the existence of a real subject. If that subject does not exist, it is impossible to create not only a masterpiece, but even a successful work of art. This is one of the crucial and fundamental rules of art. The biggest enemy of art is dishonesty and fabrication. For this reason there are no masterpieces dedicated to Lenin, and there are many, many spiritual and sacred masterpieces, because the source of these works is God who is real. For this reason, anyone who appreciates sacred art must accept the fact that the source of that art is God, although that might present a challenge for an atheist or an agnostic.
Here I have presented my personal experience, which is a powerful way to show the truth, rather than obtain it from books and theories. This truth is the Alpha and Omega for me and for many and that is the existence of a good, wise, and perfect creation, the existence of God.
This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Today’s American Catholic. Reprinted with permission.
Fr. Bedros Shetilian was born in Aleppo, Syria, in 1963. After high school, he moved to Armenia and then to Russia to pursue a musical education and graduated from St. Petersburg Conservatory with a master’s degree in symphony conducting. Between 1992 and 2003 he successfully worked as a conductor, with concerts in Russia, Armenia, and Europe. Fr. Shetilian attended the Catholic College in St. Petersburg and the Seminary of the Catholicosate of Cilicia in Lebanon. He was ordained as a married priest in 2003. Afterward, he was assigned to serve in the US. Since 2005, he has been the priest in residence at St. Gregory the Illuminator Armenian Apostolic (Orthodox) Church in Springfield, Massachusetts. Fr. Shetilian continues to combine both his callings as a clergyman and a musician.