Creation, Evolution, and the Over-Active Imagination, Part 2

| By Jeremy Begbie

Today’s blog post was first published on the IMAGE project’s ‘Good Letters’ blog, and arose out of conversations and experiences with participants of the Whidby Island Colloquy, funded by theBioLogos Evolution and Christian Faith grant program. Today’s post is continued fromPart 1 yesterday.

Creation, Evolution, and the Over-Active Imagination, Part 2


In yesterday’s post I had to skip over a lot of detail and nuance, but only to make what I hope is a fair point: that behind much of the polemics of the evolutionism controversy lies an imagination that has got out of hand. The problem is not with the imaginative drive to find and construct patterns, which help us make sense of things, or the fact it often works with metaphors. The difficulties start when the imagination gets over-confident too quickly, ending up with patterns that extend beyond their proper use, and thus distort our view of reality.

How can artists of Christian faith help us here? At the very least, artists can help us imagine the universe as the creation of the God of Jesus Christ.

The Christian imagination is, or should be, in the business of discovery, disclosure—just as it constructs its visions, metaphorical or otherwise. (Just think of C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters.) It cannot indulge in undisciplined fantasizing, only in disciplined truthfulness to the vision of the cosmos disclosed in life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

In this light, with limited space, I close with four reflections.

First, artists need to be invited to explore the distinctive depths of the Christian tradition, and not settle for a shallow theology which stifles the magnificent vista which biblical faith makes possible.

So, for example, to say that God created all things out of nothing is not to claim God made everything “at a point in time”; it’s to say the entire universe (including time) depends on God at every point for its existence. God is not another cause on a time line; God is the one who creates time. A Christian account of creation is not a rival to a scientific account—for how could science ever establish the existence of the One on whom everything depends?

Science cannot account for the existence of the universe, nor for the fact that it is ordered—the Christian faith can indeed give an account of these things. In short, the Christian account of creation is both subtle and vast in its implications, and artists ought not to be content with anything less.

Second, artists can help remind us that Scripture is awash with “artistic” genres—myth, parable, narrative, extended metaphors, drama, and so on.  To make that point with students I often point to Isaiah 40-55, where the prophet longs to jerk the imaginations of the exiled Jews in Babylon out of their apathy. He does not deliver a lecture on international relations; he offers streams of potent metaphors—law courts, rivers, plants breaking through dry earth, a mother in labor. That is how the Jews’ vibrant hope will be restored.

Third, artists can help rescue us from the bleak wilderness of “reductionism.” The creationist-evolutionist debate is bewitched by reductionism, the idea that one type of explanation can account for everything we encounter. So, for example, the creationist wants to shrink the notion of “truth” to what can be encapsulated in a certain kind of historical statement; the evolutionist (or at least one type of evolutionist) wants to explain the whole of human life in terms of genetic variation.

This kind of move may appeal to our sense of control—once we have the key to everything, we can control the world. This is the imagination run wild. But reductionism leads to a withered life. The arts, by their very nature are multiply allusive (as Calvin Seerveld puts it), always suggesting more than can be perceived at one level. The arts remind us that the world always exceeds our grasp, always eludes our control, that it is an arena of suggestiveness, in which, as Jacques Maritain said, things “give more than they have.”

The arts can’t prove reductionism is wrong, but the artist can bear witness to a world in which one type of explanation is never enough. Indeed, in this light, there are some respects in which creationists and evolutionists need each other; at their best they can prevent each other from succumbing to reductionism.

Fourth, artists can testify to the world’s good future. The problem with some forms of evolutionary theory is that when they get over-inflated by the imagination, they encourage a kind of optimism that suggests the world is progressively improving. Applied to the human sphere, humankind is thought to be on a steady march of moral betterment. Fortunately, this type of thinking is less popular than it used to be. Even so, many of us are slow to face up to the wider picture that the sciences do indeed unfold for us—that the cosmos is heading inexorably and predictably towards dissolution. In purely physical terms, the future is dark and hopeless.

The Christian hope, however, is not rooted in evolutionary optimism. It is grounded in God’s raising of Jesus from the dead, itself a promise of re-creation, a re-making of the cosmos (Rev. 21). Moreover, the claim is that foretastes of this new creation are possible here and now. Artists can help us counteract the facile optimism of the undisciplined, over-active imagination with evocations of what the dying and rising of Jesus actually promises for the future.

I came across a remarkable example of this the other day in a TV documentary about Auschwitz, a place devoid of all newness and creativity, flat with a grey sameness and horrific predictability. The virtuoso Maxim Vengerov played the entire Chaconne from J. S. Bach’s D Minor Partita for solo violin while walking around the death camp.

Significantly, some think Bach wrote this piece in the wake of the death of his wife. It is, in effect, a breath-taking musical protest against death—over sixty variations on one simple bass line and a set of chords; each variation is full of the unforeseen, alive with newness, and at the same time directly engaging dissonance. Into this site of mass annihilation, comes music which demonstrates an almost infinite possibility, one that is gloriously unpredictable.

Newness from beyond. A sonic preview of a world to come.


About the Author

Jeremy Begbie

Jeremy Begbie is Thomas A. Langford Research Professor of Theology at Duke University, North Carolina, and Affiliated Lecturer in the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge. He is a professionally trained musician, and has taught widely in the UK, USA and South Africa.