Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Westminster Wednesday: Beauty

In the following WTJ article, Dr. William Edgar discusses the role that beauty played, and still plays, in the intellectual developments of various contexts.

Noteworthy is the observation that scientific breakthroughs arose not chiefly out of utilitarian consideration but aesthetic.

A typical example is the work of Joe Rosen from the University of Tel Aviv. After explicating extraordinarily complex examples of broken charge symmetry and the like, he asks, 'What makes a theory beautiful?' The answer is something of a tautology: 'Most scientists are prejudiced in favor of (what they consider to be) beautiful theories and feel (albeit irrationally) that nature should be described by beautiful theories.' Far more popular assays by those proclaiming the parallels between theology, science, and cosmology can be cited. For example, there is the work of Jeffrey Sobosan, who argues that the very uselessness of the stars in heaven means they have an aesthetic purpose. We are free to contemplate their beauty, and to be jolted by that into recognizing the true goodness of the cosmos, and, behind that, of its Maker. The enigmatic Stephen Wolfram is currently working on a theory of order in complexity that may speak even more eloquently of intelligence behind the design of things.


Thomas Kuhn, of course, has worked with a similar notion since the mid twentieth century, noting that the paradigm shifts leading to scientific revolutions were often experienced because of aesthetics, not measurement. To be precise, it was in large part out of a sense of 'admirable symmetry,' that is, the 'clear bond of harmony in the motion and magnitude of the spheres,' that drove Copernicus to question the older, earth-centered astronomy and to suggest a sun-centered system. As Kuhn puts it, 'Copernicus’ arguments are not pragmatic. They appeal, if at all, not to the utilitarian sense of the practicing astronomer but to his aesthetic sense and to that alone.'

Commenting on the phenomenon of the seeming mass migration of individuals from modern evangelicalism to more "traditional" expressions of Christianity, Dr. Edgar notes:

A variety of factors have stimulated churches to rethink the issues of beauty. One of them is the relatively modest delivery of seeker-friendly worship. It is significant to note that many churches which had become 'post-traditional' in an attempt to adapt to contemporary tastes in order to reach outsiders are now reconsidering. They found they missed the mysterious, the prophetic, and the beautiful, especially the rich musical heritage of the church of the ages. Even advocates of 'blended' worship and other attempts to reach out to different social groups find themselves defending the importance of aesthetics and making disclaimers about selling-out. The exodus from Protestant Evangelicalism to the other major communions, Roman Catholic and Orthodox, is due in part to aesthetics. Among the top reasons given for former evangelicals who take the 'Canterbury trail' is the perceived dearth of artistic sensibility in the typical low-church culture.

I haven't finished going through the whole article and have yet to get to the really juicy parts. I will be posting more about these wonderful revelations in the coming days, God-willing.

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