Talking with Mako Fujimura about Art, Science, Beauty, and Justice

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I met world renowned painter Mako Fujimura sometime in the late 1990s when I was a pastor at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City. He participated in a faith and culture series at the church, and that’s when I began to realize he is a gifted and unique artist and a profoundly thoughtful Christian theologian. After hearing an interview with Mark Labberton about his book, Art + Faith: A Theology of Making, I set up this interview on beauty, art, justice, and science. Below are highlights from our hour-long conversation, interspersed with some key SftC principles.

Culture Care

One of the key concepts in your work is culture. It’s also a concept that connects with our mission, “cultivating a stronger church through meaningful dialogue with mainstream science.” The words “cultivate” and “culture” share the same root, which speaks to why our mission relates directly with your work of “culture care.” More specifically, we see science and faith as collaborators instead of opposing sides in the culture wars.

Culture care is the nonviolent resistance to culture wars. It changes the metaphor from culture as a battleground—which is very toxic to everyone—to culture as an ecosystem, as a garden to steward. The problem is that the church is seen as the birthplace of culture wars. Look at Galatians 5 and all that Paul describes as a fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.” If we ask ourselves, “How have we done? Are we seen as people of love? As people of peace? As people of joy?” The answer is no. The world doesn’t see us that way. In fact, if you read the previous sentence where Paul writes about “the works of the flesh,” it seems to describe the church very well.

Mako’s Father, the Scientist

Tell me about your father, who often referred to art and science as “sisters.”

My father was a research scientist, pioneering acoustics research as he was doing his postdoc with Noam Chomsky. He is a pure science researcher, and my mother was an educator. I was brought up in this world of integration. Even though they had no religious concept, I was drawn to Christ because of the possibility of integration—that divine love can bring understanding. Reading Dante, I found there’s a force behind everything, that love holds the universe together, as we read in the Bible, in Colossians 1.

That’s how I got to where I am. I began to understand the infinity of God’s love. It was through literature mostly, and yet I was brought up in the forefront of scientific research. My father was at Bell Labs in Murray Hill, NJ—the famed research facility—and many of my friends are children of scientists and became remarkable leaders themselves. I was brought up in an environment in which this understanding of integration through technology was happening right in front of me.

And so you might ask, “Why did you become an artist?” I think it’s connected. Art and science are deeply connected. My father always said that, and I believe that. He would sit in front of my paintings for two hours and tell me what he was sensing.

My upbringing allowed me to think that such integration was possible, and it set me up for an understanding of faith (as I talk about in my book) that is about the creation of something new.

On Beauty and Justice

For several years, I’ve been working on beauty as a nexus for science and theology. “Beauty occurs when we perceive reality rightly. It arises for both theologians and scientists through rightly grasping and theorizing about their objects of study. Beauty thus leads to truth, and beauty provides a lure for study. For theologians, it means grasping God’s true nature, God’s creation, and our ethical life. For scientists, it is rightly perceiving, and theorizing about, nature.” In addition, at Science for the Church, we’ve seen that scientific research also speaks to key contemporary justice issues like racism and climate change. But, as you point out, beauty, justice, and mercy don’t fit into the strictly mechanistic form of Darwinian thinking.

I’ve thought a lot recently about the connection between beauty and mercy and beauty and justice. I’m married to Haejin, who is an attorney and an international advocate for the oppressed, and it occurred to me while writing this book that the strict Darwinian universe really can’t handle beauty and mercy. There are many recent books written in a Darwinian framework that speak of beauty as a Darwinian survival mechanism. But they don’t really work; they rely on something other than the materialist closed universe to justify its transcendence. The experience is transcendent. Therefore, it has to fit into the paradigm of a Darwinian universe. But that’s not a good, working presupposition.

Mercy certainly doesn’t make sense. Why would you care for a homeless person during the time of COVID? Why would you vaccinate the elderly? But we do it because these are acts of love. We do it because these are human things to do.

A Message for the Church

Is your message that the church needs to enter into places of beauty and justice?

Become makers again and provide mercy to the world that is so in need of people who are willing to sacrifice their own status, and some of their own well-being, in order to break the cycle. Even in a small way, when we start to speak to somebody who does not add to our resume—let’s say—then the Holy Spirit uses that moment in us. And that opens the door for transcendence and mystery to break into our lives, which is exactly what artists are trying to do with their work.

Even an atheist artist creating something beautiful is breaking the cycle, and that’s why Christians need to be there to support that artist. Be with them in theaters where they experience art as transcendence. Come backstage, where they weep because they can’t explain it.

We Christians should be culture care-ers and stewards of culture helping the nonbelieving world, who has lost hope, to hope again. Because it is connected and what they experience is real. It’s more real than we can realize in the Darwinian universe—that’s why they hunger for it. That’s why I want to create beauty, because I long for that kind of world.

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