Wednesday, May 31, 2017

On Creation, Beauty, and Science

I just finished up a manuscript for InterVarsity Press, Mere Science and Christian Faith. There's a round of editing to come before it appears in early 2018. Until that happens, here's an adapted excerpt on creation, beauty, and science.

We are created to relate to the creation around us. The thrill of scientists is that the natural world is exciting to discover. And that begins the process of science. There we almost spontaneously praise our Creator. Jeff Hardin, zoologist at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, summarized it so well at a recent BioLogos science and Christian faith conference: “Why be a scientist? Worship.” In this very sense, the Psalmist was acting as a natural scientist when he exclaimed,
What a wildly wonderful world, God!    You made it all, with Wisdom at your side,    made earth overflow with your wonderful creations.
Psalm 104:24, The Message
The study of nature is the beginning of science and thus the calling for scientists. But it’s really for all believers. Back again to the psalms, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19:1, NIV). Many of us have become dulled to nature’s divine speech, and scientists help tune our ears to the mystery of a starlight night, the sophisticated order of our bodies, and the glorious structures of physical systems. In a graduate seminar on theology and science, I listened to a Berkeley biochemist describe for us non-scientists the formations of polymers. (Full disclosure: Until that moment, I had never carefully observed polymers.) He showed us a magnified picture and in the midst of a careful description, he just couldn’t help himself with a surprising re-discovery of something he already knew: “Look how beautiful these are!” After forty years of university teaching, his wonder and excitement was still fresh.

This is wonder based on beauty. When we grasp beauty in nature, we are drawn to the Source of beauty. And the nature of beauty is that it draws us in. I was reminded by David Bentley Hart in The Beauty of the Infinite that in Eastern Orthodoxy, theology begins with philokalia, or “the love of beauty.” I've also been reading Jonathan Edwards for the next book I'm writing, who, like the great Puritan pastors of the eighteenth century, studied both nature and Scripture as sources for finding beauty. Edwards wrote,
For as God is infinitely the greatest being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.
And there truth becomes beautiful. And I hope my meaning in that sentence isn't lost: rhetoric—as an engagement with beauty—should be used in concert with philosophy—as the pursuit of truth. Truth is only worth engaging if it’s beautiful, and beauty is that which allures us.
This is a particular beauty, the beauty of life’s making sense, of satisfying our need for deep abiding happiness, for Aristotle’s “human flourishing,” and for Jesus’s promise of “abundant life” (John 10:10). Drawing on these ancient, wise voices indicates that this obviously is not a new idea, and I concur here with the great French physicist Henri PoincarĂ©,
The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living….
Let’s can join hands with PoincarĂ© and with the ancient theologian’s philokalia. Let's weave together mainstream science and mere Christianity into what is truly beautiful and beautifully true.