Faithful Poetics and Christian Knowledge of the World, Part 5
This is the final post in a series of posts taken from Mark Sprinkle's scholarly essay "Faithful Poetics and Christian Knowledge of the World", which can be downloaded in out Scholarly Essays section. The first post can be found here.
Rethinking the Biblical/Natural Witness
To summarize the key points of this essay: first we have that subjective perceptions and reasoning are essential to discovery and explanation in all of the most important fields of human knowledge and experience, including scientific inquiry just as much as religious belief. Second, we have that creative and imaginative practices like image-making, musical composition and poetic and parabolic narrative are also essential to the process of making sense of our subjective and objective experiences and insights, because such forms give us true, concrete representations of the otherwise abstract relationships that are at the heart of our physical reality, and because they enable us to engage such concepts in a personal way rather than just an intellectual one. Third (an extension of the last point) such artistic forms push us to engage and negotiate not only with concepts, but with other people, particularly when the abstract forms and relationships being embodied by our pictures, songs and stories are of a nature that defy easy explanation or description by means other than art. And fourth, we have that Jesus, himself, modeled the centrality of creative, imaginative processing (rather than legalistic reasoning) in receiving the presence of God in and communicating it to the world and each other.
So, with this rich understanding of what pictorial or musical or verbal forms of creative symbolic expression are and what they do for us, let us return briefly to our understanding of the Bible and its relation to the physical world, with the hope that the aims of our discussions about the cultural tensions between faith and science will be changed as much as their tone. For this matter of letting image and metaphor lead us deeper in the paradox of the God-who-is-with-us is not just a lesson for the scientist, whether atheist or believer, but for the student of Scripture, as well. The problem (rather, gift) of the embedded narrowness of our perspectives in the context of the material/social world is no less crucial for our comprehension of the Bible as revelation than it is for history, or the natural sciences—where at least the return of ecological thinking is helping us see the cosmos and earth as connected on many interrelated scales rather than being made up of discrete systems.
As with the natural world, we must always retreat a short distance from our favorite Bible stories or psalms or other parts of Scripture in order to remember the grand sweep of the biblical narrative—and not just so that we can see how all of it “fits together” in the sense being clear and unequivocal, but to remember how beyond us the whole, in its totality, really is. To rehearse our earlier metaphor, the Bible is not an elephant to be grasped by the trunk, or the leg, or the tail and described by its weight or height or texture. We are not given the convenience of standing outside of its narrative and deciding which kind of book or story or myth or command or song it is, but are met with an object that is also an ongoing event of which we are each a small but significant part.
To put it another way, the Bible does not just contain parables, the Bible is, itself, parabolic. Firstly, it “throws down” different incongruous images, stories, literary types, and characters (including seemingly-contradictory portrayals of God) next to each other, not least to confound the wisdom of the wise. But going further, scriptural revelation is also part of the ongoing parabolic act of the Lord, being thrown down besides the “object” of the natural world as studied and described by science. Both the scriptural account and naturalistic ones are, essentially, parables of creation, rather than descriptions, in that they are narratives given by the creator through the agency and mediation of human beings for the purpose of (together) giving us a rich picture of the mystery of God’s working and indwelling of the cosmos.
Indeed, those who focus rightly on the cultural embedding of the Bible’s early books in their Ancient Near East context and those who understand it to be the directly-given narrative of human biological as well as spiritual beginnings, miss some of its majesty as revelation when they see these things as contradictory claims rather than as paradoxical invitations to go further with each other and with the Lord. As with Jesus’ speaking of and enacting parables of the kingdom during His earthly ministry, those of us “with ears to hear” are hardly less confused than the rest of the crowd, and are compelled together to seek out the Master for the purpose of being with Him as much as to ask Him for a clearer explanation of exactly what He meant.
So what does that mean, then, for how we should go forward in struggling to hear rightly the complex harmonies between science and Scripture? It may, in the end, be as simple as this: we must realize that many of the irreconcilable issues that we want resolved may be the most instructive for us exactly when we leave them in tension (or transcribed as cycles of tension and resolution), not just because this situation of uncertainty is representative of the complexity of God in Himself and in relation to the Creation, but also because it reminds us of the provisional quality of our understanding of all things. Some of this has to do with the ultimate inscrutability of the Lord, but it has perhaps more to do with another central tenet of Christian faith—that we are all sinners, and that our perceptions of ourselves, others, and of God are always subject to the darkness of that glass.
It is not that we cannot see the truth (or the paradox) in interpretations of the world that conflict with our own, it is that we don’t want to—because in our passionate debates with each other we are each of us always working to secure or prove our own righteousness, even in the midst of our honest desires to defend and honor God. Our hearts—all of our hearts--are always clouded by pride in our own achievements and faithfulness, even (perhaps particularly) in the midst of contending for the faith against our fellow believers. Perhaps artworks and creative interpretations of both natural and spiritual truths may help us forward because they make manifest the contrivance of our sureties, even as they may also offer halting syntheses of such mysteries as our freedom in light of God’s sovereignty, or our forgiveness in light of His justice, or our continuity with all other mortal life in light of bearing His image. Such subjective means as parable, poem and painting are worth considering within these usually technically-focused debates if by their strangeness and beauty they prod us out of our age-worn confidence that we know the world as it is and as it has always been, and towards a Savior whose promise continues to be, “Behold! I am making all things new.”
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.