Encountering something new and terrifying is not an experience many of us seek out deliberately, but simple astonishment is usually a fruitful emotion. We have the opportunity to learn when we come up against the unfamiliar. Astonishment imprints something in our minds, and prompts us to ask questions. Take a child’s first encounter with a grasshopper: How can such a little thing make such a big noise without seeming to move a muscle? Why does it jump away so fast? How can it jump so high with such little legs? Such questions can lead to a lifetime’s fascination.
Theologian Jurgen Moltmann has written about the experience of wonder and its importance in both science and theology. The ancient Greek philosophers taught that knowledge begins in wonder. When we are open to something and give ourselves up to discovering what it has to show us, we learn. When we already ‘know’ what it is about we shut down our perceptions and it has nothing to tell us. Continue reading →
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.
Understanding Beauty in Science
It is of course possible to appreciate the beauty of creation intuitively, simply delighting in a scene full of colour, pattern and variety. We instinctively enjoy wide-open vistas, long stretches of clear water and high lookout points. We also seem to value symmetry and order. But there is great pleasure to be had in training the senses to a higher degree of observation, and this is something that poets practice as well as scientists. W.H. Davies’ poem ‘Leisure’ encourages the cultivation of a deliberate habit of unhurried observation. I also love Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s slightly caustic observation:
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… Continue reading →
In his teens Moltmann was a keen student of chemistry, physics and maths, doing experiments in cellars with his friends and competing with them to learn more and more advanced theories. His education came to an abrupt halt when he was drafted into the German army at 16 and spent five years in uniform: about a year fighting and four years in British prisoner of war camps.
As a prisoner Moltmann, like many of his companions, suffered from boredom, horrific nightmares and deep depression. After his first winter in a Belgian camp the beauty of spring cherry blossom filled him with overwhelming joy. Eventually he was moved to a POW camp in Kilmarnock where he experienced warm hospitality and acceptance by his Scottish hosts, and began to feel human again. When a British army chaplain gave him a Bible Moltmann read it, first out of boredom and then with real interest. He realised that Jesus had also been through ‘the valley of the shadow of death’. Moltmann’s discovery of a God who loved him helped him to find hope again.
After just over a year of captivity Moltmann heard of a camp where the younger prisoners whose schooling had been interrupted by the war could study for university entrance exams. ‘Norton Camp’ had a well-stocked library and here the Moltmann read his first theology books, enjoying an almost monastic experience of intensive study and spiritual growth. After attending a post-war Student Christian Movement conference where he experienced reconciliation with young people who had fought on the other side, he decided to study theology.
In the second half of his lecture Moltmann spoke about the human dimensions of science: power, beauty, truth and wisdom. Unless ethical power develops as far as scientific power, science will remain dangerous.
Moltmann is the first person I have heard to actually flesh out what beauty in science looks like (though I expect others have written on this – answers on a postcard…) According to Moltmann, beauty in science can be experienced as symmetry, simplicity or unity. And beauty is seen most clearly when systems are moving from chaos to order, or vice versa. While beauty is not worth searching for in science for its own sake, Moltmann is convinced that beauty is a sign that you are nearer the truth, and that this sort of beauty is not subjective. Beauty may be useless from a utilitarian point of view, but it is meaningful in itself. I wonder how much an experience of the horrors of war informs this theologian’s love of beauty?