Faithful Poetics and Christian Knowledge of the World, Part 1
This is the first is a series of posts taken from Mark Sprinkle's scholarly essay "Faithful Poetics and Christian Knowledge of the World", which will be made available in our Scholarly Essays section at the conclusion of the series.
Picking up where my last series left off (here), today’s post is the first drawn from Faithful Poetics and Christian Knowledge of the World, a new paper added to the Scholarly Essay section of the BioLogos site that, itself, continues the thoughts and arguments begun in my previously-posted essay Metaphor, Mystery and Paradox at the Confluence of Science and Faith. As before, these posts are about the importance of acknowledging the creative and subjective aspects of human knowledge in the midst of the debates about the relationship between science and faith. I am inviting the reader into an alternative way of perceiving and interpreting the natural world in relation to Scripture than the strictly logical, perhaps legalistic reasoning that currently holds sway in both the academic scientism of the atheist camp and in the camp of those who seek surety in a “simple,” or “plain” reading of the Bible, and even among those who desire to identify proofs of God’s agency in the biological world.
In other words, I suggest that a distinctively Christian way of approaching (or, rather, receiving and glorifying in) the truth is one that revels in the incompleteness of our knowledge and the necessity that we “reason together” through image and song as much as by proposition. There is a critical difference, though, between that and merely asserting that what seem to be contradictions between natural science and the biblical narrative, or between different parts within the Bible, are “mysteries” either to be taken at face value and let alone as beyond our ken, or to be studied and explained away or denied. We may (must) bring our whole toolbox of investigative methods to bear on such things, but a belief that “all Scripture is God-breathed” means that our investigative goal should always be to understand what interesting thing God may be telling us about himself through such instances of irresolution.
Given the centrality of imaginative structures in our scientific discourse as well as our religious life, it should not be hard to embrace the fact that creative practices and creative works can provide a bridge between the two fields of inquiry, helping us towards something like a synthesis, but a synthesis that is shimmering and fluid rather than hard and fast—process and relationship rather than conclusion. Again, not that the truth, itself, is essentially provisional; but our understanding and experience of it must seem so because we are enmeshed in the world we want to understand, partaking of both the material and immaterial, knowing via our imaginations as much as our senses. We should not shy away from the inherently subjective and provisional aspects of our experience or our artifacts, for those are some of the qualities that make them most human, reinforcing our ongoing dependence on each other and the Creator.
This is not, in fact, a new or revolutionary way of thinking about how we ought approach and represent the world: Christian use of imaginative works (even speculative images of the Triune God) has deep roots in the classical Christianity defined by the Nicene Councils that approved the use of icons and rejected iconoclasm. Historian, curator, and contemporary art critic Daniel Siedell, for instance, has written extensively about the affirmation of icons during the various councils in Nicea, and about the importance for the church today of their thinking about visual representation, in his book God in the Gallery: A Christian Embrace of Modern Art. (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 2008).
There is also a new flowering of support for art within many parts of the contemporary Church, as witnessed by the following description of the way art is a particularly true response to the order and meaningfulness of creation from journalist and cultural critic Ken Myers. Yet such thinking seems particularly striking in its absence from the science/religion debate, perhaps precisely because so many who weigh in on the issues conceive of it as precisely that—a debate to be won or lost.
A Christian framework of meaning—which begins with our belief in a creator who ordered Creation coherently—involves an affirmation of our ability to perceive the meaning within creation; in other words, our framework of meaning, our culture, if you will, our convictions about what is true, claims that creation itself is really meaningful and capable of generating coherent frameworks of meaning. Culture isn’t just arbitrary human making, it is making that is more or less in keeping with the making that God did in the original work of creation. Great art—including great music—isn’t just about invention, it’s about discovery; and often those discoveries involve the recognition of likenesses or resonances within creation. A poet, for example, captures the essence of an experience with a combination of metaphors and rhythms and assonance; a composer evokes grief or triumph or longing with a musical vocabulary that uses sound to create an echo of something that’s finally inaudible.1
Myers points us to the critical mediating role that artworks seem always to have played in human culture: mediating between material and immaterial forms, and mediating between beings who are likewise both physical and more-than-that, located and active in concrete social space. It is this mediating role of specific images, ideas and even sounds that I’ll turn to in the next three posts, starting to bring together the various threads laid out in the previous series and taking Myers’ “musical vocabulary” as a jumping off point to re-emphasize the way the weaknesses of individual images helps define the usefulness of creative forms of thought as a whole.
1. Ken Myers, “Jeremy Begbie on the art of "hyper-hearing." Mars Hill Audio Journal Vol. 94:8: 00:08-01:20.
Mark Sprinkle is an artist and cultural historian, and was formerly Senior Web Editor and Senior Fellow of Arts and Humanities for The BioLogos Foundation. A phi beta kappa graduate of Georgetown University, he received his M.A. and Ph.D. in American Studies from the College of William and Mary, where he studied how artworks embody complex relationships in different cultural contexts. Since 1996 he has been an independent artist and frame-maker, also regularly writing and speaking on the role of creative practices in cultural mediation and renewal, especially in the area of science and Christian faith. Mark and his wife Beth home-schooled their three boys, and are active in the local home-school community in Richmond, Virginia.