Monday, March 18, 2013

No confusion: Science and art can be illuminated by faith

Greg Cootsona, pondering whether he's confusing
Sometimes I’m afraid I confuse people in my congregation. 

Here’s what I mean: I’m writing this piece somewhere between Bidwell Presbyterian’s February Religion and Science conference and our March-April “Seeing the Savior” art show. Science and art: How in the world do I think these two disciplines come together, not to mention, do they meet somewhere with Christian faith?

The key claim I’ll make is admittedly audacious: Christian faith doesn’t close our world. It opens us to new discoveries.

I’ll put some onus on the 17th chapter of Acts, where Paul quotes the first century secular writer Epimenides, who writes in “In Him we live and move and have our being.” In other words, Paul is engaging with a secular poet about the nature of the physical world—we would today call science. And, here Paul links both science and poetry with faith. Paul even asserts that Epimenides’s Deity “unknown to the Greeks” is actually fully revealed and “known” through the Christian gospel. Apparently, faith didn’t close Paul to discovery, but opened him to see new depth and connections.

Fairly early in my Christian faith, as an undergrad at Berkeley, I discovered that contemporary worldviews were often restrictive. I was surprised that one of the secular prophets in my day, Michel Foucault—from whom I learned a great deal—was still remarkably weak in providing depth. His philosophy was very French, erudite, and compelling, but ultimately quite limiting. It didn’t ultimately offer meaning. Today, we hear Richard Dawkins opine that the universe is “blind, pitiless indifference.” Others call human beings “machines made of meat.” I wouldn’t describe that as a philosophy that inspires. I discovered it then and continue to see today how limited many atheist philosophies are.

And yet, when I approach science and art from faith, it becomes surprisingly illuminating. As my second example, I often see artistic expression—whether poetry, music, paintings, or various other arts—as the search for beauty, which takes us back to Creator of this beautiful world. As the famous poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins, wrote,
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty,
Back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver.
That’s why I think artists should be in the congregation and art in the churches. That’s why we are bringing paintings from several different ethnic visual artists to our congregation. Because they help us “see the Savior” in new ways, to make new connections. Because beauty is God’s, and artists bring a fresh appreciation of beauty back to the church. And, as Hopkins points out, because all this beauty flows from the Source of beauty, God.

In the midst of these two events, I’m also teaching a class on the literary scholar C. S. Lewis. He closed a lecture at the Oxford Socratic Society (a group designed to debate the truth of Christianity in light of other disciplines) with an assertion that Christian theology, in contrast to an atheistic scientism can fit in “science, art, morality.” It illuminates them. Lewis concluded with this telling line: “I believe in Christianity as I believe in that the Sun has risen not only because I see it but because by it I see everything else.”

That’s also been my discovery. I hope it’s accurate for my congregation… and anybody else who wants to come along for the ride.

This article also appeared in our local paper, Chico Enterprise-Record, here.

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