Jan 20, 2015

Science, Beauty, and The Law that Kills

By Alison Schroeder

(This article is Part II of a series about the intersection of art and a Lutheran worldview. Part I is "Beauty, Order, and the Urge to Create.")

In Miracles, C.S. Lewis laid out two foundational premises that make possible the task of the scientist: 1) The created world exhibits order, and so can be systematically investigated and understood; and 2) Our own minds also are ordered, possessing the rational capacity for perceiving and inquiring into this natural order. Because we have rational minds capable of discerning order in the orderly world, scientists are able to work at building a helpful body of knowledge (scientia) around this investigative work--so much so that some natural discoveries are described as “laws of nature.” But science also shows us that nature isn’t beholden to her own laws. Along with the observable, underpinning order, there’s a simultaneous undercurrent of lawlessness and disorder. As the Third Law of Thermodynamics reminds us, things break down and decay. In addition, as Lewis’s book argues, miracles happen, wherein the supernatural intentionally disrupts the natural order of the cosmos (although this is a very different sense of “lawlessness”).

Human knowledge has its limits. For example, in science, there is no such thing as an irrefutable proof: all scientific theories are best educated guesses (“bold conjectures,” according to Karl Popper), based on the information at hand, and so all theories must continually be tested, for as inquiry continues and we face more discoveries, old theories break down and new ones take shape. Science is a living field of inquiry, an ever-growing, ever-changing record of our finite knowledge of the vast cosmos. If there’s anything science has shown us, it is that we are (despite our sincere efforts and our genuine interest), very small and very fallible. So much so that we can’t ourselves always see that: “the self is more distant than any star” (G.K. Chesterton).

It’s impossible to ignore the spiritual implications springing from an observational study of nature. This is why the first scientists (who were not called “scientists” until the 1800s) were considered natural theologians. Christianity was highly influential in the development of science as we now know it. Christian revelation says we can rely on nature to be somewhat orderly, because God is not a God of disorder: He created all things very good, and, since the fall into sin, even now keeps and sustains His creation in an orderly fashion. God the Son (divine Logos) upholds all things by the word of His power: it is continual, providential, merciful divine intervention that keeps the cosmos in working order. St. Augustine spoke of nature as “God’s other book, the book of His works.” Johannes Kepler, a Reformation-era scientist, described himself as “a priest in God’s book of nature” and his work as “thinking God’s thoughts after Him.” At the same time, however, Scripture tells us that the whole of creation (microscopic to cosmic) has been corrupted--disordered, broken--by the curse of sin.

I myself am not a scientist; I am a visual artist. But, like a scientist, I observe nature, I set my mind (and heart and hands) to work, and I am ultimately drawn to certain conclusions about this life. My own sketchbook is a record of this--an accumulation of little observations from nature and little discoveries (some, surprisingly good; some, dishearteningly bad). In nature, artists see both order and disorder, beauty and ugliness, good and evil. This information tells us a lot about ourselves.

On one hand, the artist sees and focuses upon (draws “inspiration” from) the good and beautiful. The objective existence of order in nature is something that I subjectively observe and find pleasing, and I call it “beautiful.” Beauty inspires reverence and longing for something beyond nature (“joy” as C.S. Lewis would say). Beauty, at first, is attractive and feels good (even comforting and uplifting), so I’m filled with a desire and a motivation to surround myself with beauty, think beautiful thoughts, have beautiful feelings, and continually work at bringing about this beauty with my own hands, just to keep that good thing going (and maybe, just maybe, to make myself more beautiful, more good by association).

There’s just one little (huge) problem: sin. The curse of sin sent thorns spreading over and through creation (as deep into the soul as one could penetrate, and as far-reaching into the cosmos as one can envision), and what glimpses of beauty I’m able to see, and subsequently, to conjure up with my hands (with borrowed materials and with my inherent limitations) aren’t nearly as perfect as that supreme beauty I envision: the “Greatest Conceivable Being” (Anselm). As I attempt to synthesize my labor into one simple, elegant work, I’m constantly confronted with those naturally observed divine attributes of beauty, goodness, power, etc., but not with the divinely revealed attribute of grace (God’s revelation of Himself in Scripture, the proclamation of the Gospel of Jesus Christ--unless I make a point to call it to mind, myself, deliberately).

So then, this beauty I observe, perishable and incomplete as it is, ultimately repels and terrifies me, because it awakens in me a knowledge of my own imperfection. Because of sin and my inherent creaturely limitations, I cannot come near to replicating the perfect ideal that I go on to deduce from this partial observation (natural revelation). Then, I find no medium can capture the thing I’m struggling to say, whether words or art. The effect of beauty as law, ultimately, is an intense awareness of sin, and, as a result, a stricken conscience. There’s a direct (quite often, negative) spiritual effect when working in art. The degree to which one may be affected by this depends on the individual (not all artists are affected the same way, but the effect is always there). The problem can be aggravated even further by attempting to work harder at your art (frustratedly pushing yourself to keep trying). To a person living in such inner turmoil, at first the law appears comforting; but eventually the law will terrify and kill that person as it shows him his sin and his utter inability to meet the ideal, and provides no solution to the problem.

Creative blocks, then, are the living-out of the humbling, crushing, mortifying effect of the law. One becomes so overwhelmed by this knowledge of the self’s utter inadequacy (and of the “demons” within), that the guilt and shame exert a debilitating effect, mentally, emotionally, spiritually: finally, you’re rendered totally helpless, unable to create. Practically speaking, as good as dead. Eventually, the passing of time or keeping oneself occupied with other diversions may help those feelings pass; but they creep back and burden the conscience, and that’s every artist’s lifelong struggle. There comes a point at which art no longer provides an escape, and tortured (that is, heavily law-oppressed) artists go on to look for relief in all the wrong places. Libertinism, legalism, addictions--for some artists, relief only comes at the bottom of a bottle (or at the edge of a bare bodkin). Christians are just as susceptible to these temptations as anyone else. All men live under the law. Remember Michelangelo? Thomas Kinkade? They had their pet sins and their doubts, but, as far as we can tell, they also confessed faith in Christ.

A dark night of the soul can often coincide with darker themes in art--minor keys, a “blue period,” tragedy, sarcasm, and irony--but not always: Satan masquerades as an angel of light, too. All art involves longing, a search for something (e.g., “waiting for Godot”), we know not what (“je ne sais quoi”), and it’s this intangible quality (the “it factor”) that gives art its peculiar power. Whether utopian or dystopian, art considers the place we’re at and the place from which we’ve fallen, and wonders “What’s it all about? What does it mean? Where do we go from here? Is this all there is? Could there be something more?” Artistic pursuits lead the artist from basic questions of epistemology (what we can know) to greater metaphysical concerns (what stuff means). Natural revelation has its limits, and there soon comes a point at which art and science themselves provoke too many questions and reveal too few answers.

Only Christianity (divine revelation) has the answers to these questions, and we, as Christians, are all called to be ready to give a defense to those who ask. Art alone cannot provide the answers, but it can play a helpful supporting role: like Luther said, “music is the handmaiden of theology.” Art can assist evangelism (as Law precedes Gospel), in keeping the discussion open “past watchful dragons,” as C.S. Lewis said. By speaking to the heart and mind of man via imagination, art can draw attention to both the beauty and the brokenness in nature and in the self, and in so doing, helps to awaken the conscience and weaken the barrier of human pride and self-sufficiency. (Beauty is indeed good, but it itself is not the Gospel, and has no power to convert or to save: it is an expression of order [natural law], and the law always accuses.)

If artists struggle so, does this mean art is sinful? No, beauty is good, the law is good, and we are God’s workmanship created in Christ Jesus to do good works which God prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. Artisans, liturgical artists, musicians, singers, lyricists, dancers, and craftsmen (carpenters and tentmakers) show up throughout Scripture. David would be a prime example of a truly gifted artist (and look how he struggled!). In Exodus, we read how God gave detailed instructions for the building of his temple (even including representational art: designs involving pomegranates, appreciated for their delightful appearance and taste, as well as their symbolic value), “for glory and for beauty.” God gifted those artisans to their tasks: “in the hearts of all who are skillful I have put skill” (Ex. 31:6, NASB).

Art can be a support to faith. A beautiful work of art is a good and worthy goal, and we should encourage artists within the church in their efforts. We need to tread carefully in this area, though, as the tendency to praise artists and their works (in particular, for example, in solely gushing about how the artist’s vocation and works are blessings to the church and give glory to God) may strike a sensitive artist’s ears as hurtful (well-intentioned though it may be), and be taken as an attempt to diminish (however unintentionally) the suffering they may be silently living out. What the incidence of tentatio-burdened, conscience-stricken artists really means is this: that the law is doing its job, and that these artists, to a greater degree than they realize, live in great need of pastoral care. Most especially, I think, are such individuals in need of the opportunity to avail themselves of private confession and absolution, wherein Christ’s own pronouncement of sins forgiven can help these artists receive exactly the kind of freedom and peace for which they’re truly longing.

“It is good to be tired and weary from fruitlessly seeking the true good, so that one can stretch out one’s arms to the Redeemer.”-Pascal, Pensees

Read Part III a week from next Tuesday. 


Alison Schroeder is a married mother of three. A daughter and sister of artists, herself an artist (though she's loath to admit it), she blogs at Alison's Open Sketchbook.

Title Image: "Hope" by George Frederic Watts, 1886


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