Is God more like Ella Fitzgerald or Ludwig van Beethoven?
Fall officially begins this week, which is wonderful news. Fall is by far my favorite season of the year. I lived in New England for about 45 of my 65 years, so I know a little about the wonders of fall. I grew up in northern Vermont surrounded by spectacular foliage colors every late September and sunny days in October wearing a jacket.
At least I remember, given that Vermont would have more cloudy days a year than any other state, there probably weren’t as many sunny days. In southern New England, where we’ve lived for 27 years, we have fall several weeks later than in Vermont. Trees in Rhode Island are not as coordinated in their color change as in the north. In my street, for example, a tree turns yellow and drops its leaves every fall, while the oak opposite remains as green as it was in midsummer. But their colors are just as vibrant, the fall days are getting cooler and less humid, why not love? Among other things, fall helps me appreciate the natural world like no other season does.
Those of us lucky enough to experience academic life welcome the start of fall, as well as the arrival of October in ten days or so, for more reasons than the good weather. By the time fall arrives, the fall semester has been in session for a few weeks, the first major papers have been awarded, these papers have been submitted (usually before the deadline), and for the first time since last spring , professors are buried under piles of notes (or at least virtual piles, since all of my student work is submitted, read, graded and returned online). Then, just because he loves teachers, October gives us Columbus Day, a twenty-four hour gift from the calendar gods providing a little extra time to breathe, think, adjust expectations, and take a walk or walk. bike. And write down the papers.
A few semesters ago, I spent a few weeks with a dozen specialist students studying Darwin’s The origin of species; one of my favorite things about Darwin and his theory of natural selection is that this theory erased the boundaries that everyone had considered fixed for centuries and showed them fluid and evanescent. One of the most appealing features of the natural world to many people is its apparent predictability: things have their place, behave reliably, and generally provide a reliable backdrop to our human adventures. When something appears in the natural world that doesn’t clearly fit our preconceived categories, we often don’t know how to proceed. The duck-billed, beaver-tailed and otter-legged platypus, for example, puzzled European naturalists when explorers first brought back specimens from the southern hemisphere; some considered it a hoax.
But in tension with this apparent regularity and predictability, there is a flexibility and a novelty that many of my students have found both surprising and baffling. Natural selection is not fueled by stability or predictability. What makes everything work is the apparent attraction of natural energies towards the novel, the unusual and the irregular. The title of my conference was “Beauty and violence”; in the natural world, these two are inseparably linked.
Indeed, great artists tell us that predictability, regularity and order are deadly to beauty of any kind, natural or otherwise. Pierre-Auguste Renoir, for example, once said that
The beauty of all nature finds its charm in variety. Nature abhors emptiness and regularity. For the same reason, no work of art can truly be called such unless it was created by an artist who believes in irregularity and rejects all fixed form. Regularity, order, the desire for perfection (which is always a false perfection) destroy art. The only way to maintain taste in art is to make artists and the public understand the importance of irregularity. Irregularity is the basis of all art.
And Charles Baudelaire observed that
What is not slightly distorted lacks noticeable appeal; whence it follows that irregularity, that is, the unexpected, surprise and astonishment, are an essential and characteristic part of beauty.
Irregularity, the unexpected, the novelty, even the disturbing and the edgy not only contribute to what is beautiful, they undoubtedly define it.
This opens wide the interesting doors. Why, for example, are human beings tuned in to beauty on frequencies and wavelengths that intersect with the apparent contradictions of beauty? Once again, we find that traditional binaries such as sacred versus profane, good versus evil, good versus evil, individual versus community, etc. are not at all opposed. Such binaries are so intimately and closely interwoven that only a forced interpretation at the surface level can insist on their absolute independence from one another. Regarding the natural world, Annie Dillard observes that “Terror and an insoluble beauty are a ribbon of blue woven into the fringes of the clothes of large and small things. Is this objectively true of the world we find ourselves in, or is it a fascinating characteristic of human observers? Is the world really like this or are we, products of the evolutionary process, programmed to experience the world in this way? The two? Or? I feel a class coming!
I am continually fascinated by the question of what this complex mix of good and evil, beauty and violence, regularity and irregularity, predictability and romance, could tell us about the creative force that put it all together. this alive and in motion. Maybe nothing. Perhaps all of the above is best explained in a naturalistic way without any reference to anything bigger than ourselves. But I’m going in another direction. Assuming that there is something bigger than us that has something to do with the reality we find ourselves in, what could we say? What could God have thought as he shaped such a world? Whatever else we can say, it is definitely not the God of your parents. It was not the traditional watchmaking god who created, and then continues to tinker with and polish, a cosmic machine.
What if, on the contrary, the process of creation was a continuous process, within which, as Teilhard de Chardin suggested, God does not: He makes things happen. Such a world is not finished, but rather is a creative process in which we are deeply involved. Is it pointed at something? Beauty? Freedom? Something else? These are endless and always fascinating questions. But suppose John Polkinghorne, an Anglican physicist turned priest and theologian, is on to something when he speculates that “creation is more like an improvisation than the performance of a fixed score that God wrote in eternity. “. A God who looks more like Ella Fitzgerald than Ludwig van Beethoven? It’s interesting.