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What’s Art Got to Do With It?

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January 26, 2011 Tags: Worship & Arts

Today's video features Mark Sprinkle. Please note the views expressed here are those of the author, not necessarily of BioLogos. You can read more about what we believe here.

This video features a discussion with Mark Sprinkle -- painter, educator, writer, and BioLogos Senior Fellow -- about the relationship between art and science. Art and creative expression, Sprinkle explains, are simply ways to give form to metaphor. Metaphor, in turn, is at the heart of two seemingly opposing entities: our understanding of God and our understanding of science.

While science is a data-driven pursuit, when we talk about what it actually means we almost always use metaphor. As an example, Sprinkle mentions the way we talk about atoms as tiny particles orbiting around other tiny particles. This description is based on data. It refers, however, to the metaphorical Greek idea that everything can be broken down into smaller and smaller particles or “building blocks”.

In a similar manner, spirituality and our understanding of God intrinsically include images. When Jesus describes the Kingdom of God, for example, he uses a variety of metaphors, implementing many layers of imagery to give his followers a more complete picture.

It is impossible, Sprinkle concludes, to talk about complicated things without reference to our senses. “Art”, he states, “is a language of description that connects both science and faith”.

Commentary written by the BioLogos editorial team.

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.

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Daniel - #49295

January 27th 2011

This description of science as a “metaphor” and linking it to spirituality as a way to use symbols to find truth is dangerously close to postmodern philosophy, which treated evidence, logic, and science as “just another way of knowing.” I am very disturbed that BioLogos is giving voice to postmodern arguments (such as this post comparing science to art, or Dr. Wilkerson saying that nature is a text that is interprited to find truth in the same way as unjustifiable faith).

I consider postmodern philosophy to be anathema to both scientific rationality and orthodox theology. I hope that BioLogos will reconsider its position and distance itself from these relativistic arguments about the nature of truth; continuing to postulate these views will cause many Christians, who are rightly critical of postmodern philosophy and cultural relativism, to ignore the good work that BioLogos is trying to do to open up American Christianity to science.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #49305

January 27th 2011

Excuse me for seeming to be repetitive, but the concept of Metaphor is basically the same as the concept of LOGOS (Word), found in the Bible, in philosophy, and indirectly in science, -ology.

Words are metaphors which convey meaning.  The Bible says that God the Father built God’s Meaning into the universe through the Word, God the Logos by means of God the Holy Spirit.

This meaning is not subjective, not imposed on a neutral universe by humans or God, but objective or inherent.  God created the universe to be a home for humanity and other forms of life.  When we try to go against God’s laws, whether they be the laws of nature or moral laws we must pay the price.  This is the difference between Christianity and relativism.

Non-believers usually try to have it both ways, they want an orderly natural world, but not an orderly moral world.  They seem to be afraid of any One telling them what is right and wrong.  This is one of the weaknesses or inconsistencies of the relativistic point of view.

Mark Sprinkle - #49326

January 27th 2011

Dear Daniel—

Thanks for voicing your concern that BioLogos seems to be incorporating the postmodern error of claiming that all knowledge is “relative,” including scientific knowledge.  You say that my position is “dangerously close” to such thinking, but I think it is only close in that I use terms that remind you (and, indeed many) of such claims.  But, I do not mention postmodernism, nor relativism, nor even subjectivity, much less make any claims about the untrustworthy nature of scientific knowledge. I do not, in fact, say that science is a metaphor, but that when it comes time to make sense of the meaning of the hard data of scientific investigation for human community, we nearly always resort to metaphor and image.  Is this really that close, much less “dangerously” so to postmodern relativism?  I don’t think so, and I don’t say that to belittle your concerns in the least, but to point out that the charged atmosphere that exists about these issues makes it difficult to talk about them with charity and care. 

cont. . .

Mark Sprinkle - #49327

January 27th 2011

cont. .

I work through many of these issues in my papers and blog series on the site, and there I do argue that the shared task of making sense of the world does, indeed, require subjectivity and a realization that our knowledge emerges through our subjectivities.  That’s closer to relativism, if you like, but still not the same thing. Sometimes this conversation requires that we do get close to such problems and ask each other (and ourselves) hard questions about them without immediately running for the door or shutting things down when we hear something we think is incorrect. Sometimes we can skirt those reactions by choosing our words carefully to avoid specific connotations (such as choosing to avoid “ism” words whenever possible), but sometimes teasing apart a term and its varied connotations is at the center of the problem and solution.

cont. .

Mark Sprinkle - #49329

January 27th 2011

and last part. . .

This is one of the critical problems of the conversation about faith and science, that we tend to leap upon specific words and phrases as indicators of whole worldviews, often without paying attention to what they mean in the context. In other words, we hear, but do not listen to each other.  Changing this dynamic is at the very heart of the BioLogos mission, and in the hearts of the entire BioLogos community.  If we can NOT ask each other “what do you mean when you say that,” and wait with charity for an answer or clarification, then we will, in fifty years, be no better off in communicating to the divergent worlds into which we speak the beauty and goodness the fellowship of Christ and the lesser but entirely complementary beauty and goodness of science.  That you take time to comment shows that you are committed to helping all of us get this right, so again, thanks for weighing in.


C Luke Mula - #50029

February 3rd 2011

I think the main thing to keep in mind, though, is that metaphor isn’t at the heart of science. The data is. When experts in a scientific field relate information about that field to each other, the source of understanding isn’t based on any metaphor, but in the hard data and math itself. Mathematics is the language of the physical world, and it is only those with no expertise in a given field who must resort to metaphor when attempting to gain a basic grasp of the subject.

When it comes to topics of faith, however, it seems that metaphor actually is the basis of understanding. I can’t think of any talks about spiritual topics that don’t rely on metaphor. Even our greatest theologians are confined to it. There is no “language of the spiritual,” if you will, at least not as there is for the physical with mathematics.

I am open to other views, though, as I haven’t spent a great deal of time looking into this idea and could very well be wrong.

Arthur J Stewart - #50433

February 8th 2011

Data are very important, absolutely.  But the metaphor—the way we think about and envision t the problem being explored—is what drives the experimental design, the selection of things to measure, and the tools for making those measurements.  Thus, data originate as a consequence of the metaphor!  That’s the heart of the “dichotomy”.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #50084

February 3rd 2011

I disagree with the previous comment.  Metaphor is the heart of science, not data.  When we say that the earth goes around the the sun, rather than the other way around, we are talking metaphoric language, not data.  Indeed we still report sunrise at X am and sunset at x pm.

Evolution is an idea, expressed in metaphoric language, not a set of data.  Science is based on Logos, rational language, just as is theoLogy.

Math is the language of msome aspects of science, but I have never seen a book of science which contains no words.  A leger is not a book of science.

C Luke Mula - #50195

February 5th 2011

But the understanding is not from words at all. That’s only a way of expressing science, which is not the same at all as being at “the heart of science.” If all we had were metaphors, we wouldn’t have science in the way we do today. Our scientific understanding of planets revolving around the sun doesn’t come from these words but from the mathematics of general relativity. Yes, we have to resort to words to express the data, especially with those who are unfamiliar with the field, but that doesn’t mean that it is at “the heart of science,” unless I’ve completely misunderstood this original statement (which I may very well have done).

And I would argue that evolution is not a “set of data,” but an expression of patterns within the data. We express it in words, but it is the process of accumulated and quantifiable changes over time. The fact that evolution is a quantifiable process makes it data-centric, not word-centric. You say that a ledger is not a book of science, but I would say that evolution is the pattern behind the cash flows of nature, recorded in the biological and geological ledger, if you will.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #50233

February 5th 2011

C. Luke

The governing metaphor of evolution is still “survival of the fittest,” even though people have criticized and rejected this view.  Indeed Malthusian natural selection, the basis of survival of the fittest, has never been proven, and there is much evidence, data against it. 

The basis of science and faith is experience.  The experimental method is central to today’s science, which is of course one of the reasons multiverse theory is troubling because it cannot be experiencially verified.  Also I find it troubling that scientifically oriented people say that life is without purpose, not because this is the result of their life experience, but because that is the result of their anti-telological bias.

Faith is based on experience.  It is the experience of God and God’s actions as found in the Bible, and confirmed as we live a life of faith seeking understanding.  I suggest that scientists also have faith, faith that the world makes sense, and seek to understand how the world fits together.  The biggest difference is faith is a concern with spiritual values, how people experience communion with God and community with others, while science is concerned about the physical structure of the universe.

Arthur J Stewart - #50222

February 5th 2011

My interpretation of the main message that Mark offered in “What’s Art Got to Do With It?” is:  images (as in art) are a form of metaphors, and that metaphors are central to the way(s) in which we understand religion (faith) and the sciences.  This seems totally correct to me.  Metaphors are hugely important in science.  And one of the more effective science-education programs that I’m aware of specifically relates images, language (poetry) and science (http://www.jic.ac.uk/staff/anne-osbourn/ ; click on “science-art-writing”).  I allocate several hours on a topic of metaphors in science in a Nature of Science course that I present to high-school science teachers due to importance of metaphors, similes and the power of story in every area of science. Sure, data are extremely important: but how you THINK about the data, and express your interpretation of them to others (which is a part of science, too), depends on metaphor.

Roger A. Sawtelle - #50234

February 5th 2011

This leaves out the world of ideas which has been terribly neglected to the harm of all.  It also leaves out the world of living things, where Darwinism and the faith are at odds.  Thus when we narrow our view to say that science and religion are at odds, we are leaving much out of our purview and this leaves a simplistic and misleading dualistic black and white view of reality.     

Art is based on the view that life has meaning.  Art also goes beyond the math and the data of science to give life meaning.

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