Note: The BioLogos blog is on hiatus from regular content as we prepare for the launch of a major revision to our website. In the meantime, we are running excerpts from some of our favorite books on science and faith. This week, we are featuring excerpts from God in the Lab by Ruth M. Bancewicz.
So where does beauty take us? For some scientists, the beauty they see in their work points to something beyond science. These people are among the 20 per cent of elite researchers (see chapter one) who appreciate elements of spirituality but are not part of any particular faith community. Although my own convictions go further than this, I agree with these people that what we see in the lab points to something more than the measurements and pictures that make up our data.
The cell biologist Ursula Goodenough wrote in her book The Sacred Depths of Nature that
the beauty of Nature – sunsets, woodlands, fireflies – has elicited religious emotions through the ages. We are moved to awe and wonder at the grandeur, the poetry, the richness of natural beauty; it fills us with joy and thanksgiving.
Although she rejects traditional religion, Goodenough gives time to thinking about what she calls “ultimate questions” because “the remarkable beauty of the cell, of everything that is, coupled with the improbability that life would have originated in the first place … continues to draw me to spiritual issues”. Like the mathematicians, she also thinks that beauty is an indicator of truth: “the creative scientist … has as his or her goal the eureka, the unifying principle, the recognition of something beautiful embedded in Nature.”
Werner Heisenberg, a physicist who worked on quantum mechanics, saw the beauty of these unifying principles as a gift. In 1925, at the age of twenty-three, he published his groundbreaking work on quantum mechanics. At the moment when everything came together and he was able to set out his theory, he felt such a high that he said it was like summiting a mountain. Not a believer in God, he described the beauty he saw in philosophical terms, saying that “Not even Plato could have believed that it would be so beautiful. In fact these relations cannot have been invented: they have existed since the creation of the world.”
Explaining his own experience of beauty in the lab, Jeff Hardin said, “I could talk about the theologian Rudolph Otto’s ‘sense of the numinous’ – a spiritual feeling. But is there something more concrete than that? Is it, as the biblical scholar Tom Wright says, an ‘echo of a voice’? I’d like to suggest to my colleagues that creation itself is calling out to us, saying something about its creator.”
Christianity, science and beauty
In saying that scientific beauty speaks of God, Hardin is drawing on a tradition that began over 2,000 years ago, and continues today. The Old Testament tells how the whole world speaks a message about the God who created everything. The Psalms say that “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands” (Psalm 19), and “… the God of glory thunders, the Lord thunders over the mighty waters” (Psalm 29). The beauty of the land and everything in it is celebrated: mountains and trees, plants and animals, men and women.
The earliest Christian theologians, collectively called the Church Fathers, often expressed their delight in the details of animal and plant life, and what we now understand as ecosystems. They were writing in the first to eighth centuries, but their lack of scientific knowledge didn’t stop them enjoying what they saw. The theologian Jame Schaefer has surveyed the writings of the Church Fathers, and also some medieval scholars. Many of them thought that a careful study of God’s creation was essential to the serious worship of God. Their writing expresses great thankfulness that they are able to “read God’s book of nature”, unlike the foolish ones – they say – who pass all these delights by.
One of my favourites among the people Schaefer studied is an unnamed Cistercian monk from the twelfth century, who wrote about the grounds of the abbey in Clairvaux where he lived, and the surrounding countryside. He was obviously very happy with his vocation, and had a good understanding of the interconnectedness of the different factors: water, weather and crops – an early ecology. He writes about the “friendly”, “faithful” and “kindly stream” by the abbey and the different ways in which it serves the monks by providing for the fish, watering the plants and trees, helping things to grow in springtime and filling up the lake.
Albert the Great lived a century later, and contributed to the early development of science. He wrote about how important it is to make observations and experiments, studying animals, plants, metals, and inorganic elements. He carried out field studies, and “legitimised the study of the natural world as a science within the Christian tradition”. For him, the appreciation of creation involved both deep thinking and emotional sensitivity.
Schaefer noticed that these early theologians appreciated the beauty of creation on a number of different levels, starting on the surface and moving to a deeper, more intellectual understanding of both nature and God. Her classification is interesting because it reflects the different reactions of scientists to what they see in their work today.
First, there is a simple delight in what is seen: an emotional appreciation that doesn’t require any great thought or deep study. I can enjoy a tree just by looking at it, appreciating its colours and admiring the shape and pattern of its leaves and branches.
Second comes a more in-depth study. I could walk right up to the tree and touch its trunk, feeling the texture of the bark and noticing that it is covered with patches of lichen. I could look up and see the leaves stretching out in every direction to catch the sunlight, providing me with shade below. I could also find out what type of tree it is and learn some more details online. What sort of flowers or seeds does it have? How long will it live?
Third is a more abstract type of appreciation. I could think about other trees, and how their different species have come and gone over the millennia. Every organism is interconnected in some way: sharing air and water, decaying and becoming part of another organism. Each part plays its unique role in a global network of living things.
Fourth, and carrying on those more abstract ways of thinking, there is a feeling of mystery and incomprehensibility. There is something in the scale and complexity of the universe that eludes human comprehension. I could be struck by the absolutely vast number of these trees that exist, the billions of seeds they scatter each year and the small fraction that survive to maturity. It’s difficult to take in, especially when I think of how many other tree species there are, and what the world might look like if all their seedlings survived.
Finally, these theologians appreciated a quality of the world that could be called sacramental. For Christians, visible things can remind us of the invisible God’s presence and character. I could think about the fact that the tree has stood on that spot for hundreds of years, and will probably continue to do so long after I have died, which might remind me of God’s even greater strength and permanence. I will explore this type of “natural theology” in more detail later in the chapter.
So these early scholars believed that everyone should study creation and enjoy its beauty using their God-given intellect. Their detailed exploration of the wonders of the universe was fuelled by faith in a benevolent creator God, and their deep intellectual study led to heartfelt praise for the one who made it.
Excerpt from GOD IN THE LAB: HOW SCIENCE ENHANCES FAITH by Ruth M. Bancewicz. Reprinted by arrangement with Monarch Books, an imprint of Lion Hudson PLC (UK). Copyright © 2015 by Ruth M. Bancewicz
This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at https://biologos.org/blog/christianity-science-and-beauty