We’ve all heard the expression, “Beauty is only skin deep.” And any quick Google search of beauty will demonstrate that our common examples of beauty are attractive women (often used to sell us products of all sorts). But what if I told you that there are many forms of beauty that are much deeper and so profound that they might be a unifying theme for connecting science and faith?
Contemporary notions certainly point to a restricted view of beauty. That’s why I wish we could time travel about 300 years in the past and meet the brilliant 17th century Christian thought leader Jonathan Edwards. There’s any number of things we can learn from him, but one stands out—how beauty brings together science and faith … because it leads us to wonder and to worship.
Edwards’ intellectual and devotional curiosity knew no bounds. He devoured all kinds of books from an early age. And though many today think of him solely as a Puritan theologian and pastor, he also learned science—or what was called “natural philosophy” in his day—seemingly with his mother’s milk. In fact, at age 11, he published an article in a prestigious English journal of science.
Throughout his life, Edwards would regularly get up at 4:00 a.m. and study 13 hours a day. Those countless hours matured his thinking, and as he gained prominence in the Colonies in America, Edwards brought together a variety of fields and seemingly divergent cultural streams. He could both champion the religious revivals of the Great Awakening and pursue the new lines of natural philosophy.
How did Edwards achieve this? In many ways, it was the beauty: the beauty of nature, of the God who created nature, and of a life lived in consonance with God’s creation. All of this led Edwards to wonder and to worship.
Edwards never stopped writing about beauty, and he thought theologically about science around the concept of beauty—a fruitful connection point for relating science and faith. How did he think about beauty? It’s far more than the only form of beauty we see paraded around today; these are only a fraction of the truly beautiful.
For Edwards, beauty is proper relations and harmony, connected with glory, excellence, and goodness. It manifests itself where and when things fit properly together.
- To learn more about Edwards, here’s an excellent video.
- Christianity Today considers America’s greatest theologian.
- An online collection of Edwards’ scientific writings.
- George Marsden on Edwards and the scientific revolution.
- My favorite compilation of excerpts from Edwards’ writings.
- Much more detail on beauty in science and theology.
- Marsden again, on Edwards’ relevance for us today.
- BioLogos considers the topic of beauty in both faith and science.
- Zoologist Jeff Hardin on faith and beauty in his science.
Beauty in the Eyes of the Faithful Beholder
Edwards self-consciously fashioned his work in the wake of the explosion of science in the 1600s, especially the physics of Isaac Newton. He presented a captivating blend of Newton, joined with a sustained reading of Scripture. As Christianity Today wrote:
“Edwards believed that God’s providence was literally the binding force of atoms—that the universe would collapse and disappear unless God sustained its existence from one moment to the next. Scripture affirmed his view that Christ is ‘upholding all things by his word of power’ (Heb. 1:3, RSV).”
This deep engagement with natural philosophy—which today we call science—characterized the work of eighteenth-century clergy. Pastors like Edwards were the most educated members of society and would naturally comment on scientific discoveries. In fact, few of his contemporaries thought theology and the natural sciences conflicted. On the contrary, since God created both nature and Scripture, Edwards (like many of his time) could structure his reflections around the beauty of the Bible and the cosmos.
He saw a world shot full of God’s glory: “For as God is infinitely the greatest being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.”
And this leads renowned historian George Marsden to summarize Edwards’s views: “the essence of true religious experience is to be overwhelmed by a glimpse of the beauty of God, to be drawn to the glory of his perfections, to sense his irresistible love. This experience of being spiritually ravished by God’s beauty, glory and love is something like being overwhelmed by the beauty of a great work of art or music.”
All in all, Edwards was convinced that God’s beauty (or glory) is the ultimate goal of creation. It fills the universe, streams forth from our beautiful Creator, and gives light and peace to our lives.
Beauty, for Edwards, is certainly more than skin deep.