Transcendence

© Ruth Bancewicz

I am becoming more and more convinced that the vast majority of scientists value what one could call transcendent realities. I’m not talking about ‘religion’, which for some has negative connotations*. By ‘transcendent’ I mean experiences and ideals that are consonant with but go beyond scientific evidence: that feeling of pure joy when you find yourself discovering something for the first time; delight in the beauty of nature or scientific data; the standards we set for ourselves; or the importance we place on certain relationships.

I think nearly everything that’s fun in life has the potential to get a scientist talking like a mystic. For example, a cell biologist wins a new grant to study a tiny protein involved in signalling pathways, and she starts speaking about getting closer to the truth. A neurologist studying a particular sensory experience understands the neural mechanism but not how the individual perceives it, and he becomes interested in the ‘hard problem’ of consciousness. Or a developmental biologist is expecting her first child, and suddenly embryology takes on a whole new meaning. Continue reading

Beauty – The Weight of Glory

I’ve just read CS Lewis’s ‘The Weight of Glory’, in which he considers heaven, and explains his understanding of reward and future glory in Christian theology. I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that Alister McGrath references this essay quite extensively in his book on natural theology, ‘The Open Secret’.

In the first part of the essay – the part that McGrath quotes so extensively in his book – Lewis explains why he thinks we all long for heaven, sometimes without realising it. Some of the subjects we learned at school may have seemed boring at times, but opened the door to a wealth of enjoyment in the future (hopefully!) We might have had a glimpse of that future from time to time, but often it was a hard slog, learning things seemingly for the sake of it. Lewis says

‘if we are made for heaven, the desire for our proper place will be already in us, but not yet attached to the true object, and will even appear as the rival of that object.’

If we are fascinated by what we see in nature, find it beautiful, or if it awakens something in us that we can’t put a name to, Lewis would say that that is a ‘desire for our own far-off country.’ But if I were to lose myself in nature-worship I would be disappointed because I would inevitably find suffering and death lurking around the corner.

‘The books or music in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing… For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not yet found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.’

Lewis would insist that this ‘desire that no natural happiness will satisfy’ is evidence, of a sort, for the existence of this ‘far-off country’.

A man’s physical hunger does not prove that that man will get any bread; he may die of starvation on a raft in the Atlantic. But surely a man’s hunger does prove that he comes of a race which repairs its body by eating and inhabits a world where eatable substances exist. In the same way, though I do not believe (I wish I did) that my desire for Paradise proves that I shall enjoy it, I think it a pretty good indication that such a thing exists and that some men will.’

That’s not something I’ve considered before, but it’s an interesting thought!

The Open Secret

I’ve been reading Alister McGrath‘s book on natural theology, ‘The Open Secret‘, and learning a lot…

If the heavens really are “telling the glory of God,” this implies that something of God can be known through them, that the natural order is capable of disclosing something of the divine. But it does not automatically follow from this that human beings, situated as we are within nature, are capable unaided, or indeed capable under any conditions, of perceiving the divine through the natural order.

McGrath, The Open Secret, p1-2

What can we see of God in his creation? I’ve been particularly interested in the parts on awe, wonder and beauty. A psychological study of awe found similar responses to nature, large buildings, grand theories or encounters with God – so there may be links between natural theology and worship (p279-280).

An interesting question is, does science enhance our engagement with nature, disclosing its true character, or does the reductionist drive of science diminish our sense of wonder: ‘unweaving the rainbow’, as Keats suggested in his poem ‘Lamina‘. Dawkins has critiqued Keats’ rainbow idea in his book ‘Unweaving the Rainbow‘, and McGrath responds in ‘The Re-Enchantment of Nature‘ (perhaps more later). Though I agree with McGrath and think Dawkins has missed Keats’ point, I love Dawkins’ lyrical descriptions of science revealing a vast, complex and very beautiful world that would otherwise remain closed to us.

McGrath concludes – drawing on C.S. Lewis‘s ‘The Weight of Glory‘ – that our experience of beauty taps into our sense of longing for something more.

Lewis argues that we posses an instinct of transcendence, stimulated by beauty – “a desire for our own far-off country, which we find in ourselves even now,” For Lewis, beauty evokes an ideal that is more real than anything we encounter in this transitory world, evoking a sense of longing for a half-remembered realm from which we are presently exiled. (p287)

I think that makes a lot of sense.