by Philip Hefner
I am grateful to Paul Carr for opening up the vistas of beauty--in life generally and in the mix of science, spirit, and religion. There are a few precursors to be reckoned with, but very few substantial discussions with the breadth of resources and interpretations that are offered in this book, Beauty in Science and Spirit.
This book moves beauty to the center of our reflection on science and spirit, rather than leaving it at the periphery. The desire for beauty, after all, is not only universal in human history, but it manifests itself everywhere, in all facets of experience. Whether there is universal consensus on the criteria of beauty may well be argued, without reaching resolution, but the fact that every individual and every culture hold to that which they consider beautiful--is not contested.
In what is often called "high culture," we find beauty in humankindís great art. It is on display in our leading museums, in our concert halls, and in our literature. We nurture this artistic beauty in our schools, academies, and conservatories. Billions of dollars are given to the support of high cultureís devotion to beauty. This manifestation of beauty often belongs to an elite, those who possess the education and sophistication required to appreciate it. Outside this elite, in what we might call "popular culture," the devotion to beauty is just as earnestly pursued and just as prominent. Every city has its murals that cover any suitable wall; some are planned and approved by the communityís leaders, others appear spontaneously, authorized only the spirit of the artist. Graffiti, even those that may be objectionable, are frequently pleasing in form. Street musicians are everywhere on the urban scene.
Utilitarian objects reveal the beauty of design, whether it is in the shape of a toaster, a lamp, a washing machine or an eighteen-wheel tractor trailer hauling freight across country. These objects are the product of the bonding between beauty and technology. Carrís discussion reminds us that scientists also pursue beauty: it appears in Mandelbrot fractals in a dramatic fashion, as well as in the spectacular photographs that NASA exhibits. It also appears in mathematical equations and in theories that help us understand the natural world. Ockhamís razor--that the explanation of any phenomenon should make as few assumptions as possible--applies to science, philosophy, and theology. What is this "razor" but a criterion of beauty, since parsimonious explanation is more beautiful than a cumbersome one that is burdened with redundant arguments?
So far as we know, beauty has been our ambience for ever. The earliest known artifacts of hominid culture--the Paleolithic bone and stone implements, for example--are beautiful in their design. Ornaments of all types, as well as carvings and the figurines that represent mythical powers, such as totems, exhibit their beauty. The cliff and cave drawings, going back 30,000 years, have been recognized as beauty since their first discovery by modern humans. That is why the first anthropologists called them rock and cave "art." They were first compared to the art works that hang in the Louvre and other great museums. Now we tend to understand them as part of the ubiquitous presence of beauty in all human ventures--hunting, rites of passage, veneration of the sacred.
We cannot escape the conclusion that beauty is everywhere and that every one of us carries the thirst for beauty and also ideas of beauty with us in all we do and think. Scientists in their search for knowledge, prediction, and useful application, engineers working on the resolution of practical problems, spiritual seekers questing for the ultimate, theological thinkers elaborating doctrines--all of these transpire in an ambience of the thirst for beauty, even when that thirst is not perceived or acknowledged. Since this is so, how can beauty be left out of our reflections on science, religion, and spirituality? When beauty is left out, something central to human nature is missing, and that deficit makes itself felt in our efforts to understand the world and, even more, in our interpretations of the human quest for knowledge of the world. Both our self-knowledge and our knowledge of the natural world are less adequate than they might be if we do not bring beauty into our reflections.
Since beauty is inseparable from the human quest, we must recognize that it is a necessity for human life--as essential as the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the food we eat. We may not recognize the essential place of beauty if we confine it to the grand museum or to the work of the recognized "classic" artist, whether that be Michelangelo or Shakespeare. The fashioners of prehistoric implements were not prehistoric Rodinís, just as the cave painters were not prehistoric Picassoís. The beauty they produced is the beauty that is inherent in human nature, the beauty that animates the ideas and work of each of us.
The thirst for beauty that permeates our lives is an opening to transcendence, because it is not only a necessary dimension of ordinary living, it also leads us beyond the necessities of mundane life. Beauty activates our imagination. What is imagination but the sensibility that ordinary life brims over with possibilities that are not yet actual, but which we can bring into actuality as the future unfolds? In its role as a testimony to what is not yet, but which can be, beauty opens our eyes to the possible and thus also to the dimensions of the future. If we are looking at a Mandelbrot fractal, we see more than the physical sensations that prompt Mandelbrotís striking images. When we see a mural on a city street that depicts the life and dreams of the people who live in the neighborhood, we share their sense that there is more to this city scene than we thought. In the same way, Picassoís "Guernica" gives us a perspective that transcends the factual destruction of a Spanish village and Arthur Millerís "Death of a Salesman" evokes a sensibility of the too often overlooked hopes and pathos of an ordinary man. Guernica becomes every town and Millerís salesman becomes every one of us. Little wonder that the thirst for beauty has permeated every religious quest--the stained glass of Chartres cathedral, the mandalas of Buddhism and Hinduism, the calligraphy of Islam, the poetry of Israel. Not as decoration or recreation, but as an opening to the transcendent. So, too, in science, the beauty of theories, models, and graphs opens up knowledge that is not yet actual, but which comes into being as the scientist pursues the vision that is opened up. The photos of the Orion nebula and the early universe, for example, which appear in this book, elicit a powerful drive to know more about the history of our universe and also of its future.
Paul Carrís book is filled with wonderful provocative source material for our reflection upon beauty. He recognizes its "delicate dance between mystical, subjective revelations and the mathematical, objective processes that maintain the universe and life." We might add that in this delicate balance, beauty sharpens our sense of what both our subjective life and the objective world can become--harbinger of the future, if we remain sensitive to the delicate nature of beautyís dance. This is dance that leads to what Gerard Manley Hopkins spoke as "beautyís self and beautyís giver."1 Some will speak of nature itself as that self and giver, while for others the dance will lead to God. All who share in the dance will find riches in this book.
Professor of Systematic Theology Emeritus
Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago
1Gerard Manley Hopkins, "The Leaden Echo and the Golden Echo," The Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins, eds. W. H. Gardner and N. H. Mackenzie, 4th edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967. p. 92.
--This book was published in October 2006 bywww.BeechRiverBooks.com/id08 Center Ossipee, NH, tel 888-874-6904 194 pages. 37 illustrations including 16 color plates. ISBN 0-9776514-7-9, $18.00 softcover, $29.00 hardcover.
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