Jurgen Moltmann: The aesthetic dimension of science

Tanaka Juuyoh, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license

German theologian Jurgen Moltmann spoke very movingly in his CIS-Faraday Lecture ‘From Physics to Theology: A Personal Story’ on Tuesday. Moltmann described in detail his experiences as a soldier in the Second World War, his discovery of Christianity and early immersion in theology.

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?

Atmospherics

On my recent trip to the US I visited Kathy Strabala, who works in meteorology & remote sensing in the Space Science & Engineering Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  Here are some of her thoughts on awe, wonder and worship.

How can you not see God in the power of a storm? The energy that’s created is more powerful than an atom bomb, and it all comes from the processes of the sun and the earth and the atmosphere and the ocean – talk about green energy! A storm rolled through Madison this morning that had spectacular power and energy in just one strike of a lightening bolt. We are powerless to stop it, and we can’t harness it – it’s too much energy. I see God in that. It’s exciting to me that I know what the structures are in the atmosphere that cause that storm. These structures are ordered, so we can study them. It’s not chaos, but that doesn’t mean we can control them.

During a big storm there’s no work done in our building. One time there was a tornado across the lake and the tornado warning sirens were going off. People were going into shelter areas, but everyone in our building was on the roof watching it. A small tornado doesn’t really ever show up in the satellite data, so the best observation is your eyes. When I see something like that I feel nothing but awe and respect, and am to a certain extent grateful even to witness something like that.

I teach workshops on how to use satellite data. We have a tool that allows the students to plot scatter diagrams that describe different spectra in the atmosphere: the clouds, the atmosphere, and the surface. The patterns that are revealed through these plots are just amazing. The student’s eyes get bigger and bigger as they think, ‘Look at this, wow this is exciting’, and that’s what happens when I look at that type of data too. I love being able to say ‘Look at this data, look at what you can see, look how beautiful this is. Look at these patterns that arrive in nature.’

There is no way that this field of study would exist if we didn’t have an ordered, structured environment. The more I learn the more I can believe that God is good. Even looking at the balance of our atmosphere is amazing. It’s so thin – just a tiny little layer – and yet we exist.

I love hearing this sort of reflection from a scientist, and hope – perhaps in another medium – to write in more detail about their work so that others can share the wonder.