Beauty, Science & Theology, Part 3: Beauty & the Character of God

This series of more extended posts sums up my recent work on beauty in science and theology, and is reproduced (with permission) from the BioLogos blog.

Lungs, from fact sheet © Euro Stem Cell.

What beauty tells us about God[1]

Studying God is a balancing act. At times the theologian has to hold their breath, as it were, and suspend their sense of the sacred in order to understand deep truths, but they should also spend time on their knees – perhaps both mentally and literally – revelling in the presence of God as they study his attributes.[2] I feel the same about natural theology. It’s fascinating to look at examples of fine-tuning in the universe: here, perhaps, is evidence for the existence of God. Logical analysis of physical constants requires a good deal of spiritual breath-holding, but it’s possible – at least for a time – to remain focused on the physics. It’s when I look at what creation[3] reveals of God’s character that I begin to find it difficult to sit still and calmly rational in the library. Continue reading

Fatherhood and Suffering

© Ruth Bancewicz

Jesus used parables to demonstrate how God reveals something of himself in nature. For example God is compared to a shepherd, his word is like seed, and beautiful flowers in a field are an example of God’s lavish provision. (Alister McGrath, The Open Secret)

But any attempt to experience God by enjoying the beauty of the world will quickly founder unless the issue of suffering is addressed. Much suffering is caused by humans exercising their freewill in selfish ways, but at times death and disease seem to come through ‘natural causes’. The god of the Enlightenment, conceived by well-to-do men in their carefully tended estates, was a distant (deistic) creator of a good world. This philosophy fell apart as people became more aware of suffering and natural disasters occurring around the world. How could a good god allow such monstrous things?

What about the Christian understanding of God? If God is all-powerful and all-loving, then why do we suffer so much? I won’t address the ins and outs of Christian understandings of God’s good creation and the fall. The upshot, though, is that creation is a cracked mirror, reflecting only part of God’s glory. It has been suggested to me that because creation is somehow fallen, natural beauty is not an effective way to God – but I’d challenge that for the following reason.

Jesus often compares God to a father. But no dad is perfect, and some people are unfortunate enough to experience very bad parenting. Somehow the existence of terrible fathers didn’t stop Jesus using fatherhood as an analogy for God. Why?

I think our flawed human experience only makes Jesus’ illustration more effective. We know what is expected of good dads. At times we see glimpses of perfection, and we want more. Rather than shying away from using fatherhood as an analogy for fear of misinterpretation, Jesus knew that our best parenting moments shine out as an illustration of God’s love for us.

On that basis I think that nature, while flawed, can at times be an effective illustration of God’s own power, perfection and beauty.

Our Father, The Creator

Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh

This fabulous quote was used by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Donald Coggan in his commentary on Psalm 148 (BRF/Lion, 2003). Psalm 148 almost feels as if it was written by a scientist, it is so tidy in its structure – moving from the outer reaches of the universe and zooming in to the tiniest creatures.

Praise the Lord from the heavens, praise him in the heights above…

Praise him, sun and moon, praise him all you shining stars…

Praise the Lord from the earth, you great sea creatures and all ocean depths…

you mountains and all hills, fruit trees and all ceaders,

wild animals and all cattle, small creatures and flying birds…

Coggan says that

We are bidden to listen to the song of praise that creation sings, to join in the ongoing hymn of the universe. We are to become aware of our place in creation, of our relationship with the creator, with all creation and all created beings. This will lead to a realisation of our own littleness and yet to a realisation of the uniqueness of our humanity.

Coggan’s last point is what gets me – that I worship a God who created the universe, and I can call him ‘Father’ (daddy, even!) I can be amazed by an incredible view from the top of a mountain or by something I have seen down a microscope but I don’t have to be overwhelmed by my smallness or weakness. The one who’s responsible for the universe cares about me and enjoys my every act of worship. Worship is everything I do that’s offered to God, like a kid running to its parent with a picture for the fridge. I’m not earning something, I’m worshipping a God who already loves me. If only I could constantly keep that in mind and not get distracted by blackberries…