CultureTheology & Spirituality

Embracing the Aesthetics of the Lab

I often enjoy visiting the various Smithsonian museums, particularly the National Museum of Natural History – and this past weekend, I did just that. Yet this time was different: wandering through the Hall of Mammals and into the Hall of Human Origins, surrounded by old fossils and countless instances of the the “millions and millions of years ago” language criticized by some as Darwinian indoctrination, I was abruptly struck by a hitherto-unfelt realization.

The aesthetic beauty of the idea that complex life could have evolved from lower forms – a process of change and adaptation, bound within a universe of world-sustaining yet transcendent grace – is a concept almost wholly lacking from the Christian intellectual project.

Theologians and scientists have worked to reconcile ideas of natural selection with the Christian tradition for decades, but as yet such sentiments have failed to penetrate the artistic community. There need be no destructive tension between a theological account of the human person and a biological one: perhaps our rational faculties – alongside those immaterial aspects of the self that respond to beauty on a deep, foundational level – empower us to appreciate the grandeur that surrounds us.

Finnish symphonic rock band Nightwish seems to have grasped this notion in their recent release Endless Forms Most Beautiful, inspired by the work of Charles Darwin and featuring occasional spoken-word segments from Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins. In keeping with its lofty themes, the album is a grand, thundering opus filled with lashing guitars, operatic vocals, and soaring orchestral backing. Songs like “Shudder Before the Beautiful” and “Our Decades in the Sun” treat the glories of nature with reverential awe; “Weak Fantasy” and “Yours Is an Empty Hope” dish out scathing critiques against those who employ religion as a tool of oppression and rely on “God-of-the-gaps” theology. The 25-minute finale, “The Greatest Show on Earth,” traces the history of life on Earth from the Devonian era all the way up to a murkily depicted future apocalypse.

It would be easy, on first impression, to write off Endless Forms as a grandiose attempt to aestheticize pop atheism – and there’s undoubtedly a good deal of anti-“religious” angst here. More intriguingly, however, the objectivity with which the album discusses beauty, humility, and morality reflects a decidedly anti-materialistic ethos: the Endless Forms booklet juxtaposes quotes from G.K. Chesterton alongside those of Carl Sagan, and actions arising from individual preference alone are identified as seeds of vice.

Endless Forms is no quasi-religious gloss on naturalistic theology, but rather the other way round: the scientism on display is a veneer within which a traditionalist teleology remains. Ultimately, despite all the venom Endless Forms directs against unctuous sermonizing, what exists here is not a polemic or screed – it is a piece of art tapping into a sentiment common to humanity. (For all the criticism it received, Darren Aronofsky’s Noah belongs in the same category, and depicts a similarly harmonized understanding of nature and grace).

And even Endless Forms’ more aggressive moments are not without elements of truth: in its haste to preserve the historical veracity of the Genesis account, anti-evolution dogmatism carries with it aesthetic deficiencies of its own. There is a fundamental ugliness in any vision of a Creator who shapes beautiful things – a veritable menagerie of extinct reptiles, birds, fish, mammals, and lifeforms far simpler – and then casually elects to destroy them for no discernible reason (did they just not fit on the ark!?). Nor is it better to suggest that such vestiges of a primeval past were simply deceptions meant to confuse the “worldly wise” – such a hypothesis makes the King of Kings a petty cosmic charlatan.

Against these objections, the committed critic will undoubtedly retort that “God’s ways are not man’s ways.” Yet to suggest such a discontinuity between the morals of God and the aesthetic reasoning of those bearing His image is to cast oneself headlong into the horns of the Euthyphro dilemma: how, after all, is any God to be trusted as moral or beautiful who violates the norm of truth-telling set forth as absolute?

I am neither a scientist nor theologian, nor is this a defense of a particular set of biological or doctrinal propositions. But as a writer, I do appreciate the power of story and of art, in the contexts of historical truth and narrative truth alike. The aesthetic wonders uncovered by the scientific project need not remain confined to the lab – and indeed, should not, when such discoveries testify powerfully to the transcendent, and yet personal, grace that holds our world in being.

Perhaps, in their near-infinitude of variation and flux, the evolutionary arcs of creation simply reflect the vastness and immeasurability of their Sustainer. That sentiment is bold enough to fuel a generation’s worth of artworks.

Photo courtesy of Scott Clark.

John Ehrett

John Ehrett

John currently resides in Arlington, Virginia, where he works as an attorney and writer. He holds a J.D. degree from Yale Law School, and is pursuing his Master of Arts in Religion at the Institute of Lutheran Theology.

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