Wisdom & Wonder: Common Grace in Science & Art
Christian's Library Press, 2011
182 pp., 14.99
Breathing Eden's Air
The commands of the Lord are radiant, giving light to the eyes.
As an artist of Christian faith with a father as a research scientist, brother as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, mother as an educator, grandfather as a governmental official in the education department of postwar Japan (he was asked to document the aftereffects of the atomic destruction in Hiroshima two weeks after the bombing), and wife as a psychotherapist, I am indebted to Abraham Kuyper. Who else could cover the range of disciplines, as in a vast sweep of historical reflections, to integrate them and begin to make sense of the way they cohere? Kuyper (1837-1920), who spent his life as a pastor, a politician, a theologian, a journalist, a social entrepreneur, founder of a university, and prime minister of the Netherlands, provides a theological lens through which to view all of these disciplines. Now we are privileged to hold in our hands a new translation of his book Wisdom and Wonder: Common Grace in Science and Art, and we are left to indeed wonder in amazement at the wisdom, simplicity, and power of the vision he laid out a century ago, so timely for our complex journey today.
Kuyper reintroduced the doctrine of Common Grace as a central theme for Reformed thinkers. The idea that God bestows his gifts to all peoples, not just those who profess to be Christians, can be traced back to Augustine, but it was Kuyper who made it a theological pillar. Common Grace is to be distinguished from Particular Grace, the grace of God given to those whose eyes have been opened to God's existence and have been given the ability to accept the gift of salvation. Kuyper notes that the sciences and the arts are gifts given before the Fall and operate principally in Common Grace arenas.
What I found as an artist of faith, associated with the so-called "secular city" of New York, is that this city does not create a "secular vs. Christian" dichotomy but rather a wild pluralism. The theology of Kuyper, exemplified in his life, is a beacon of clarity in the dark and stormy seas of contemporary ideologies. His answer to pluralism was not to equivocate about his faith-position as a Christian. While recognizing distinct spheres of influence whose boundaries must be respected ("sphere sovereignty") he also defended Christ's central role in all creation. He famously stated: "Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: 'Mine!' " Because of Christ's reign, instituted by Christ's resurrection and ascension, God's goodness is to be felt and experienced at a very broad level, in all spheres of human endeavor. Therefore, Kuyper's approach was not about approving all paths and succumbing to relativism but rather showing how biblical "life systems" allow audacious clarity and authority, encompassing all of human thriving.
All artists, regardless of their faith, are breathing Eden's air when they create. Even if we are not artists, we need to partake in their generative journey by going alongside them and tapping into their offerings. Of course, we face a fallen universe and a fallen humanity, and oppositional forces against the created order (what Kuyper calls "antithesis") work toward self-destruction and entropy. Kuyper spends considerable effort in the chapter on the arts on the relationship between religion and the arts—more specifically, the relationship between worship and the arts. For to understand the arts, we must acknowledge their intimate and complex link to worship, and therefore to gospel theology.
Artistic creativity defines our humanity at the deepest core. Christians often speak about the "usefulness" of the arts for evangelism and discipleship. But when such pragmatism dominates, Kuyper says, we forget the provenance of art: "The inspiration of art never belonged to particular grace, but always proceeded from common grace." In the light of Common Grace, we can celebrate the arts as existing from the beginning of time. Art creates a context for, and echoes, the full thriving of humanity, an awareness needed before addressing a broken reality that requires restoration. A Christian cognizant of such activity of the Spirit can help facilitate and shed light on a conversation about the possibility of such an other-world even with those who do not yet believe; the arts require no justification to exist.
For many years now, I have advocated for the arts in the church and in the world. More recently, it began to dawn on me that what I was doing was not just for the sake of the arts but for the sake of the gospel reality of "what ought to be"—and, ultimately, for "the breadth and length and height and depth" of the gospel. By advocating for the arts, we are, by extension, advocating for the potential of humanity and for the evidence of God's grace in the world. In other words, the arts can be about Particular Grace as well, if—and only if—we acknowledge their rightful provenance in Eden.
By contrast, science has demanded independence from religion. Kuyper notes that this independence originated with God:
Science has not demanded such independence in overconfidence, but possesses this independence by divine design. So much so, that science neglects its divine calling if she permits herself again to become a servant of the state or the church. Science is not a branch growing from the trunk of government service, and even less a branch that grows from the root of the church. Science possesses its own root, and science rests on this root. From this trunk that proceeds from this unique root, science must grow its branches and bear its fruit.
Science's own "root system" creates a sphere of influence and decision-making that Christians and non-Christians share, but at the same time, recognition must be given to one critical issue: Kuyper notes that failing "to maintain the independence of the spirit from matter will eventually lead one, by the time the destination is reached, from worshiping man ultimately to idolizing the material." Such a path will lead science outside its sphere, inevitably resulting in the misuse of its power.
Christians have a responsibility to be engaged in the process of scientific discovery and artistic creation because we are "particularly made aware" of wisdom. Rather than triumphantly trumpeting Christians' abilities, this is a call to serve the Fallen reality, to stand in the gap between the world that ought to be and our "Ground Zero" conditions. Christians can not only excel in these fields, but they can be voices of moral clarity, contributing to the restraint of evil and clearing the path for the full thriving of humanity.
In Redeeming Science (2006), Vern S. Pothyress makes the audacious claim that "all scientists—including agnostics and atheists—believe in God. They have to in order to do their work." Poythress owes Kuyper, and Common Grace, his starting point. One may extend this claim to the arts: that all artists must have faith to create, and by creating they are exercising their innate Edenic consciousness and their longing for the World to Come. In the arts and sciences, we are naming these realities, just as Adam named the animals in Genesis, as a poetic exercise given by God in the Garden. (Kuyper's precise and imaginative discussion of Adam's act of naming the animals alone would make this book worth obtaining.)
What makes Kuyper uniquely useful for the complex pluralism of our time is that, even as he recognized the value of pluralism itself, as reflecting the "rich fullness of (God's) thoughts," he also anticipated the implosions of ideological structure awaiting in our days. Wisdom and Wonder reads as if it were written in response to the onslaught of secularism and the ensuing postmodern relativism. Looking at this book from our vantage in the 21st century is like finding a treasure map of wisdom, but knowing that the cave in which the treasure is hidden is deep beneath the waters, trapped by a seismic ideological shift. Would Kuyper have predicted a post-secular age in which there is no clear dominant ideology, and therefore no single point of opposition ("antithesis") can be identified? The treasures have been shifting around in our liquid times, making them even harder to identify.
Art and science need to be grasped as such treasures, "liberated from their bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of children of God" (Rom. 8:21). As such, they can lead us toward the sanctifying presence, and immanence, of the Spirit in the world.
Imagine this: Every day that our cities are kept safe, we can attribute the restraint of evil to the intervention of Common Grace. Without that invisible thread of grace, the world will collapse, and we will cease to exist. The arts and the sciences celebrate this invisible thread of our Semper Creator, continuing to create in the world and through us. Therefore, Christians should be the first to be advocate for, let's say, a local theater group, even if it is not "Christian Theater," because "the stones are crying out" and Christ operates powerfully within these productions despite their lack of theological precision. We need critics and facilitators who are made aware of the Spirit's work, through Common Grace, to reveal these productions' inner workings of grace, and to generate discussion in the public sphere. The most dedicated scientists should come out of Christian homes, and we should be honoring even non-Christian scientists who stay true to their calling as scientists.
Has it not occurred to us that the thriving of both of these spheres, the arts and the sciences, has much to do with our safety and ultimate shalom? Insofar as Christians are lagging in enthusiasm, we have misunderstood not only these sister spheres but also the mystery of both Common Grace and Particular Grace. All too often, instead of contributing to the thriving of the world, the church has been seen in both of these spheres as a stumbling block. Kuyper invites us to reconsider. Common Grace should allow us to celebrate the arts and sciences as post-Edenic remnants of grace—and the harbinger of what is to come. Even if we are to stand on the Ground Zero ashes of Hiroshima, as my grandfather had to do (an experience that shook his faith to the core), God's voice rings through to the other side of darkness: "For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us" (Rom. 8:18). Through Kuyper, we see that Common Grace is God's gift to us all as we live under our common curse, the consequences of which are all too evident. The ultimate deformation of science in the atomic reality of our time must lead us to a closer dance between theology, art, and science. Only in this way can we be truly human today.
Makoto Fujimura, an artist based in New York, is the founder of the International Arts Movement. His illuminated edition of The Four Holy Gospels was published by Crossway last year.
Copyright © 2012 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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