Beauty, Science and Theology
It appears to be a universal experience for scientists to find beauty in their experimental systems. For a Christian, this encounter with beauty draws them nearer to God.
One thing I ask from the LORD,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
All the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the LORD
and to seek him in his temple.
Psalm 27: 4
I belong in the ranks of those who have cultivated the beauty that is the distinctive feature of scientific research.
All of the biologists I know are undeniable lovers of their objects of study…
Beauty in Science
As a biologist, I am fascinated by the fluorescent-on-black images of cells, 3D rotations of protein structures, and cross-sections of colourful tissue samples that grace the covers of scientific journals. I have spent whole weeks staring down a microscope at the beautifully transparent bodies of developing fish embryos, and whenever possible I illustrate my written work with photographs of the natural world. I’m not alone. In the institute where I did my PhD we had a basement full of microscopes and imaging technology, and it was considered important to have beautiful images in your presentations—movies were even better. The journal Nature: Cell Biology always features striking images on its covers, and in an editorial these photographs were described as works of art in their own right. In fact, ‘scientific art’ has become a recognised genre, and displays of science-related images are increasingly popular in research institutes, museums, science festivals and other public spaces.
Indeed, a number of practicing scientists have devoted their time outside the lab to communicating the beauty and wonder of science to the general public. (See sidebar.) One of these is Dr. Lynne Quarmby, a cell biologist who’s passionate about explaining her work to people outside of the scientific community. She writes a regular column, a ‘nexus of mystery, art, literature, beauty and science,’ for the online literary magazine Numéro Cinq.
If we can recognize and acknowledge that our direct biological senses, as wonderful as they are, give us only a tightly pinched and cloudy view of the world, then we open ourselves to unimagined beauty.
Lynne Quarmby, Numero Cinq, 20113
Biologists often label themselves according to the ‘model organism’ that they work on. I was a zebrafish person, and Quarmby is a Chlamydomonas person. Chlamydomonas is not an STD (you’re thinking of Chlamydia), but a gentle single-celled algae that is in all likelihood swimming around the standing water in your garden as you read. This microscopic creature is easy to grow in the lab (a jam jar on a sunny windowsill will do), its genome has been sequenced, and it is a surprisingly powerful tool for studying human disease.
Chlamydomonas was not an obvious choice for medical research, but the secret is in the cilia. Cilia are hair-thin appendages that wave around in a coordinated fashion to move their owner from A to B. But these algae don’t spend their whole lives swimming around. When they reproduce, their cilia are absorbed back into the cell body (scroll to the 4th video here). When conditions are stressful, the cilia simply drop off. Quarmby and her students studied Chlamydomonas mutants that hold on to their cilia, and discovered a family of proteins involved in the regulation of both cilia and cell division.
At the same time as Quarmby was studying the behaviour of cilia in Chlamydomonas, medical researchers were identifying genes that are mutated in humans. The same proteins involved in cilia and cell cycle control in Chlamydomonas were affected in some patients with polycystic kidney disease. What’s the connection? Cell biologists knew that most of our cells have cilia on them, but assumed that they were not important. Our cells generally do not swim around, unless they’re sperm. It turns out that these tiny appendages are involved in a whole range of vital cell functions. The cilia on kidney cells are important for sensing the flow of urine, and without these the kidney cannot function properly.
Perhaps beauty is in the eye of the beholder when it comes to unicellular flagellates, but what I appreciate is the detail. To see the minutiae of cell structure is stunning, particularly when you know how difficult it is to achieve images like the ones in this article in the journal Cytoskeleton, or even the image of an adult rat head, below. And little Chlamydomonas, a microscopic pond dweller, has advanced our understanding of a devastating human disease. This combination of aesthetic experience and elegant scientific explanation is what I find beautiful.4
It appears to be a universal experience for scientists to find beauty in their experimental systems. Perhaps this is because the daily discipline of examining anything in detail brings an appreciation of its finer points. Or maybe the process of choosing something to study and then spending the greater part of one’s waking hours staring at it provokes something akin to the loyalty of the mother who thinks her child is beautiful, despite the large pimple on its nose. But even bearing in mind the fascination and devotion of the true professional, there seems to be something more in the scientist’s experience of beauty.5 Most, I think, simply delight in the beauty of creation. For some, this gives a sense of the transcendent: a sort of natural spirituality. For a Christian, this encounter with beauty draws them nearer to God.
Christian Appreciation of Beauty in Science
One of the driving forces behind the work of many of the early scientists was their Christian faith. The astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) initially hoped to pursue theology, but was eventually satisfied that science was also a way to glorify God.6 Many others, including the famous naturalist John Ray (1627-1705), were ordained clergy in addition to their academic studies, so their science and theology were naturally interwoven. Others, like James Clark Maxwell (1831-1879), examined Christianity as rigorously as their scientific experiments.
These pioneering scientists (or ‘natural philosophers’, as they called themselves back then) were encouraged by a rich tradition of theology that wholeheartedly encouraged their exploration of creation. The Hebrew Scriptures tell how creation reveals the glory, generosity and faithfulness of God who created and sustains everything.7 The beauty of the land and everything in it is celebrated: mountains and trees, plants and animals, men and women.8 A number of the earliest Christian theologians, the Church Fathers, often expressed their delight in the details of animal and plant life, and what we now understand as ecosystems.
Diversity of beauty in sky and earth and sea…the dark shades of woods, the colour and fragrance of flowers; the countless different species of living creatures of all shapes and sizes…the mighty spectacle of the sea itself, putting on its changing colours like different garments, now green, with all the many varied shades, now purple, now blue.
Augustine, The City of God
Theologian Jame Schaefer has surveyed the writings of many of the Church Fathers and Medieval theologians, and found five broad themes in their contemplation of creation.9
- Affective appreciation: Simply delighting in what is seen.
- Affective-cognitive appreciation: A deeper, scientific study of creation leads to even greater joy for the beholder.
- Cognitive appreciation: Thinking in more abstract ways about the beauty of the interconnected universe. Each part plays its unique role for the greater good of the whole.
- Incomprehensibility: Being overwhelmed by the magnitude and complexity of the universe and everything in it.
- The sacramental quality of the physical world: The world God has created mediates something of God’s presence and character to us.
One of my favourites among the theologians covered in Schaefer’s work was an unnamed Cistercian who in the twelfth century wrote extensively about the grounds of the abbey in which he lived, and the surrounding countryside. He was obviously very happy with his vocation, and had a good understanding of the interconnectedness of the different factors: water, weather and crops – an early ecology. Basil of Caesarea (ca. 329-379) spent time observing animals and plants, noting similarities and differences, and encouraged others to do the same, giving glory to God for everything he saw. Hugh of Saint Victor (1096-1144) delighted in what his senses could tell him about creation, so enabling him to praise the Creator all the more, and lamented that others might pass such an opportunity by.
An important Medieval figure in the early development of science is Albert the Great (ca. 1200-1280), teacher of Aquinas, who wrote on “the importance of observation and experimentation in field and laboratory studies of animals, plants, metals, and inorganic elements”. He carried out field studies, and “legitimised the study of the natural world as a science within the Christian tradition.” For him, appreciation of creation had both cognitive and emotional aspects.
For all of these early scholars, to study creation and enjoy its beauty was an activity that everyone should engage in using their God-given intellect. Their detailed exploration of the wonders of the universe was fueled by faith in a benevolent creator God, and this deep intellectual study led to heartfelt praise for the one who made it. Is this something we can share?
It is of course possible to appreciate the beauty of creation1 intuitively, simply delighting in a scene full of colour, pattern and variety. We instinctively enjoy wide-open vistas, long stretches of clear water and high lookout points.2 We also seem to value symmetry and order. But there is great pleasure to be had in training the senses to a higher degree of observation, and this is something that poets practice as well as scientists. W.H. Davies’ poem ‘Leisure’ encourages the cultivation of a deliberate habit of unhurried observation. I also love Elizabeth Barrett-Browning’s slightly caustic observation:
Earth’s crammed with heaven,
And every common bush afire with God;
But only he who sees, takes off his shoes,
The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries…
Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Aurora Leigh
The discipline of science, with its long hours of observation and careful scrutiny of data, has helped generations of scientists to appreciate natural beauty. Jeff Hardin is Professor of Zoology at the University of Wisconson-Madison. He spends his days working on cell migration and development in the tiny (1mm long) worm C. elegans.
When Hardin teaches courses on cell and developmental biology, he tells his students that his main goal for the semester is that they would think cells, or embryos, are beautiful. He uses this quote from Einstein:
‘The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed’.3
In his introduction to developmental biology Hardin uses some ancient Hebrew poetry: Psalm 139, where the writer is musing about embryonic development. David doesn’t understand the process of how his body was formed, but he knows that it’s fearful and wonderful. Hardin tells his students, “Whether you share David’s worldview – as I as a Christian happen to – or not, by the end of the semester I want you to share his sense of wonder about the incredible intricacy of developmental biology.”
The Beauty Revealed by Science
The things that scientists find beautiful might not be immediately attractive to the uninitiated beholder – though perhaps you can appreciate their enthusiasm. This is illustrated wonderfully in American Naturalist John Muir’s account of his travels through the Californian Sierra.4 One particular episode shows his detailed observation and appreciation of nature, and also his great sense of humour and interest in (or tolerance of) people. He travelled in the company of an insalubrious shepherd, whose lunch every day consisted a piece of meat tied in a cloth and hung from his belt, dripping grease all over his clothes.
‘His trousers…have become so adhesive…that pine-needles, thin flakes and fibres of bark, hair, mica scales…and indeed bits of all plants, animals and minerals of the region adhere to them and are safely embedded, so that though far from being a naturalist he collects fragmentary specimens of everything and becomes richer than he knows…Man is a microcosm, at least our shepherd is, or rather his trousers. These precious overalls are never taken off, and nobody knows how old they are, though one may guess by their thickness and concentric structure. Instead of wearing thin they wear thick, and in their stratification have no small geological significance.’
It takes a born naturalist to go to such pains in describing a revolting old pair of trousers, and to even find beauty in them!
More seriously, physicists have appreciated beauty in symmetry, in order, and in complex systems that are reducible to a series of ‘elegant’ mathematical equations.5 Biological systems are more complex and difficult to describe mathematically, so the beauty observed in the life sciences is more often to do with colour, pattern, shape, movement, or detail. At times, complex biological systems are understood at a level that does reveal their mathematical simplicity. When order emerges out of apparent chaos biologists begin to use words like ‘striking’, ‘beautiful’, and ‘astonishing’.6
The eminent theologian Jürgen Moltmann was fascinated by science and mathematics as a teenager, but the onset of WWII changed the course of his life, and after spending time as a prisoner of war he devoted himself to theology. According to Moltmann, beauty in science can be experienced as symmetry, simplicity, or unity. Beauty is seen most clearly when systems are moving from chaos to order, or vice versa. Moltmann is convinced that while scientific beauty is not worth seeking for its own sake, it is a sign that you are nearer the truth, and is not subjective. Beauty may be useless from a utilitarian point of view, but it is meaningful in itself.
Several of the ancient Greek philosophers taught that beauty is closely related to truth, and one could make a case for this in science and mathematics. A number of successful physicists and mathematicians have followed beauty in their search for truth, or see beauty as a confirmation that a theory models reality.7 The Nobel Prize-winning physicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar has even claimed that scientists with a highly developed sense of the aesthetic are more likely to make significant discoveries.8 On the other hand, philosopher James McAlister has pointed out that there are trends in scientific or mathematical aesthetics, and scientific revolutions often involve a revolution in aesthetic perception. For beauty to model truth, the aspect of beauty in question must relate to some fundamental property of the universe.9
The exercise of working to understand a system and make sense of a collection of ideas and observations can be beautiful in itself. If a theory is developed that can be used to predict further experiments and explain other data, then it has its own intrinsic beauty.10 We appreciate the order, unity and simplicity that it brings to our understanding of the world.
It was a sort of act of faith with us that any equations which describe fundamental laws of Nature must have great mathematical beauty in them…It was a very profitable religion to hold and can be considered as the basis of much of our success. –Paul Dirac
I think that the beauty seen in science falls into four broad categories. First, a scientist may find beauty in their experimental system, whether it is a model organism, a certain diagnostic printout, or an aesthetically pleasing series of molecules. Second, there is the cleverly devised experiment carried out with skill and patience that results in good clear data: the molecular biologist’s sharp DNA bands on a gel, the organic chemist’s high yield, or the physicist’s precise measurements. Third, the data and the theory that gathers them into a coherent whole may have an intrinsic beauty that is both striking and satisfying. Finally, there is the beauty that the scientist themselves brings to the data: the black and white telescope images that are colored to distinguish between different wavelengths of light, elegant graphs, or a carefully crafted PowerPoint presentation filled with photographs of microscopic organis
ms.11 Each of these four types of beauty involves characteristics that are intrinsic to the natural world, but also require observation, imagination and creativity on the part of the scientist.
Christian theology provides what I think is a satisfying explanation for our experience of beauty. The Bible describes a God who creates order out of chaos, and sets creatures in it who are capable of understanding and appreciating its harmonies and beauties. When we work with our head and hands to create beautiful and useful things, we are fulfilling our calling as people made in the image of God.12
CS Lewis understood our experience of beauty as a foretaste or reflection of the beauty of God’s restored kingdom described in the book of Revelation. If we are fascinated by what we see in creation and find it beautiful, or if it awakens something in us that we can’t put a name to, Lewis would say that we have a ‘desire for our own far-off country.’ The beauty of creation awakens something in us, and we want to find its source.13
We enjoy scientific beauty – the startling elegance of the mathematical solution, or the model that makes sense of what seemed to be a muddle of data – in the same way that we enjoy the serenity of a garden or carefully tended olive grove on a summer’s day. It’s the beauty of shalom: not only is the prospect attractive, but it is also deeply satisfying, ordered and harmonious. To achieve that state the scientist, gardener or farmer has expended time and energy. Bringing order from chaos, watching things develop and become chaotic again and bringing order once more using reason, creativity and imagination, is one of the most fulfilling experiences in life. The process is usually protracted, complicated, expensive and often painful, but we somehow have the drive to do it over and over again. To me, the Christian teaching that God has made us in his image using a long and complex process in order to work out our own processes in the world, makes perfect sense of this experience.
What beauty tells us about God1
Studying God is a balancing act. At times the theologian has to hold their breath, as it were, and suspend their sense of the sacred in order to understand deep truths, but they should also spend time on their knees – perhaps both mentally and literally – revelling in the presence of God as they study his attributes.2 I feel the same about natural theology. It’s fascinating to look at examples of fine-tuning in the universe: here, perhaps, is evidence for the existence of God. Logical analysis of physical constants requires a good deal of spiritual breath-holding, but it’s possible – at least for a time – to remain focused on the physics. It’s when I look at what creation3 reveals of God’s character that I begin to find it difficult to sit still and calmly rational in the library.
There is a huge literature on the biblical concept of the beauty of God4 and, as I have mentioned in my previous posts, there is also a strong Christian tradition of studying what creation reveals about the Creator. Exploring this area of scholarship has helped me to understand what I experience when I see beauty in creation: either intuitively as I walk in a garden or wilderness area, or through the highly developed techniques of science or art. There are two main strands of Christian theological thinking on natural beauty that are relevant here. In the first, the beauty experienced in creation is something we can learn to transcend to reach God who is the perfect source of beauty. This ascent from earthly to spiritual beauty is a Platonic idea that was adopted by some Christian theologians early in the history of the church. The beauty of creation was seen as a pale shadow of the beauty of God. The second way to view the beauty of creation is that is somehow transparent to the transcendent or, when rightly interpreted, it reveals a transcendent reality: it shows us something of God. This second, more horizontal concept of beauty has a more solid basis in the biblical idea of creation revealing God’s glory,5 but is also more complex because it requires discernment.
There are four main dangers in natural theology. Creation is not God, so it does not fully reveal his character or purposes (for that we need Jesus) but our universe was created by God and so bears marks of his character, however dimly perceived. As creation is not God, it is not to be worshipped or idolised in itself. Also, we are not perfect, so we need to be aware that we might deceive ourselves and say things about God’s character that might be false. Finally, creation is described as ‘groaning’: the world we live in is not perfect and will only reveal God’s character fully when it is restored. For these reasons, some theologians have rejected natural theology entirely.6 Others have decided that, rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, we should learn to discern what we can of God’s attributes from creation. We should test every new insight thoroughly, and keep what we learn firmly in the context of the Christian gospel. Alister McGrath put it this way: ‘The Christian doctrine of creation provides an intellectual framework for seeing God through nature; the doctrine of the incarnation allows us to see God in nature, culminating in Christ himself’.7 Outside of the theological debate, many Christians today intuitively experience creation as an important point of contact with God.
So what does creation reveal about God? First, and most generally, the beauty of God is reflected in the beauty of the world. Basil of Caesarea said that ‘from the beauty of the visible things let us form an idea of Him who is more than beautiful’8. What does the beauty of God mean? Perhaps the next best word is ‘glory’. Theologian Karl Barth thought that to explain God’s glory you needed both the concepts of power and of beauty, but he considered beauty to be secondary to glory (he was worried about nature-worship).9 Hans Urs von Balthasar, on the other hand, went beyond Barth’s cautious handling of glory and spoke of beauty as an analogy of God. His multivolume work ‘The Glory of God’ has been highly influential across many theological traditions. Creation is for God’s glory, and its beauty reflects his glory. Augustine of Hippo also expressed this well in his book, Confessions. His love for the beauty of the world reflected his love for God.10
The ‘glorious’ corresponds on the theological plane to what the transcendental ‘beautiful’ is on the philosophical plane.
-Hans Urs von Balthasar11
Secondly, creation could be seen as a vast and harmonious work of art. For earlier generations of theologians this balanced and coordinated functioning of the whole universe was creation’s supreme demonstration of God’s character.12 The grand picture of the world painted by science today is even more impressive: many animals, plants and microbes interacting together; an environment where seismic events and thermal cycles combine to create varied ecological niches; a planet with lunar and solar systems that provide tides and seasons; a universe where stars produce the ingredients for life and immense physical forces create the stability needed for that planet to exist. The order and harmony of the universe that we see reflects the unity and wisdom of the Trinity.
‘The world is a work of art, set before all for contemplation, so that through it the wisdom of Him who created it should be known.’
-Basil of Caesarea
‘Each creature manifests God in some way, but the best manifestation of God is the beautifully ordered universe of all creatures functioning in relation to one another as God intended.’
Finally, the symmetry, pattern, order and intricate detail we see are the result of finely balanced physical properties. If beauty is at times an indicator of truth, particularly in the more mathematical branches of science, could beauty in creation be a reflection of the wisdom and truth of God the ultimate lawgiver?
Some have spoken of beauty as evidence for God, but I would prefer to think of it as a thought experiment. If a good God created a world, what would you expect? I would expect great beauty. And if we are created ‘in God’s image’, it is perhaps not surprising that we are equipped to appreciate the beauty we see. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar has put forward the idea that scientists who are more aesthetically aware are more likely to do great work.13 In a more recent paper Tracee Hackel has suggested that Christians are necessarily more aware of the beauty of God, and therefore more likely to be attuned to the beauty of creation.14 Or would people who are more attuned to the beauty of creation be more likely to recognise the beauty of God?
The elephant in the room during this discussion is suffering. We live in a world of great beauty and great pain. Often the wonders we see have a terrible side, and need to be ‘handled with care’. Spectacular mountain ranges can be the death of unwary explorers, the sea that has inspired so many great paintings has claimed countless lives, and animals can inflict injury or disease if not approached in the right way. Any tropical ‘paradise’ is usually fraught with dangers for the unwary: poisonous snakes, biting insects and horrific infectious diseases, not to mention the danger of earthquakes, hurricanes or volcanoes. If a creator god exists, could he or she resemble the caring personal God of the Bible?15 Even if we are satisfied that, despite all this, God is good we have some serious problems to face in applying natural theology. At best creation is a cracked mirror, reflecting only part of God’s glory. It has been suggested to me that because creation is groaning, natural beauty is not an effective pathway to God – but I’d challenge that assumption for the following reason.
An analogy needn’t be perfect to be effective. Jesus used parables to demonstrate how God reveals something of himself in creation. For example, God is compared to a shepherd, his word is like seed, and beautiful flowers in a field are an example of his lavish provision. If you push them too far, all of these analogies break down: God does not have a boss as a shepherd does, he doesn’t have to ‘sow’ his words in order to make a living, and God’s provision for us usually involves some effort on our part. Jesus also said that we should call God our father, but no dad is faultless, and some people are unfortunate enough to experience extremely bad parenting. Somehow the existence of terrible fathers didn’t stop Jesus emphasizing this aspect of God’s relationship to us. I think our flawed human experience only makes Jesus’ teaching more effective. We know what to expect of a good dad. At times we see glimpses of perfection, and we long for more. Rather than shying away from speaking about God as our father for fear of misinterpretation, Jesus knew that our best parenting moments shine out as an illustration of God’s love for us. On that basis I think that creation, while flawed, can often be an effective illustration of God’s own power, perfection and beauty.
About the author
If you enjoyed this article, we recommend you check out the following resources:
BONUS | God in the Noticing