Overlapping worldviews

One of the most difficult things to get into our modern minds is that ancient worldviews were not less informed than ours, so much as simply concerned with completely different things. A statement such as “we now know life derives from a common ancestor” actually contains the unstated assumption, “We are now bothered about the ancestry of life-forms.”
The most important instance of this in science-faith discussion is, of course, the early part of the Book of Genesis in the light of John H Walton’s work, but it’s equally true of mediaeval natural philosophy, which we find almost impossible to understand in terms other than “bad science”.

I experienced an interesting contemporary interaction of such divergent worldviews this weekend. An old friend of my wife and myself from college days stopped overnight at our place. She became a Christian whilst at college, but our spiritual lives have gone in somewhat different directions, partly because she was very much an arty person, into touchy-feely pottery as well as touchy-feely interactions with others, and with God. So she stopped here, perhaps predictably, on her way to a spiritual dance weekend rather than a science or theology conference.

We have a steep hill on our spread, equipped with a teak bench, which overlooks the Devon landscape and is a great place to sit and encounter nature. Our friend enthused about it too, saying that an hour or so spent up there was a high spot of her last visit. She explained that she loves to reflect on the wild birds; for example seeing them working so hard at building their nests, she said, is a lesson from God to her about the need to persevere and not become lazy in God’s work. Now when I sit and watch the birds, I certainly appreciate the wonder of God’s creative touch, but am more inclined to reflect on the relatedness of different species, or their ecological significance, rather than on spiritual lessons.

Yet when our friend said this, it immediately reminded me of a programme I watched last week called “Inside the Mediaeval Mind“. This episode was examining a mediaeval bestiary text, which listed and illustrated all the species known at the time – a great work of natural philosophy. And yet the importance of each species, in the mediaeval world, was the spiritual teaching that God has implanted in each species. The text would explain that if you beach your boat on a whale’s back thinking it to be an island, and it dives, it’s a reminder of the uncertainty of material life and the wiles of the devil. The pelican’s pecking its own breast to provide blood to feed its young is a type of Christ’s passion (incidentally a very confusing one to a Catholic friend I had, who sang “O blessed pelican” in church without a clue as to its meaning).

You may say some of these attributes are untrue – in some cases even the beast is fabulous, like the phoenix which gives its life to the flames so its offspring can emerge. But that’s not the point – much in natural history books also turns out to be erroneous, and it doesn’t alter the fact that the aim of our books is to do with ecology, evolution and so on – and nothing at all to do with moral or spiritual lessons. Indeed, David Attenborough, and others, can be justly criticised for anthropomorphising their subjects. Producing an accurately observed bestiary could be a genuine scientific project, yet with the completely unscientific (to us) aim of teaching us how to live better.

The mediaeval worldview presupposes that the Universe was made for our benefit, and that everything in it can therefore teach us how God wants us to live and come closer to him. The modern worldview presupposes that patterns in nature are an end in themselves, and that we are fortuitously able to observe, and amuse ourselves, with patterns that ultimately mean nothing. The weekend showed me that the eralier worldview alive and well amongst Charismatics in 21st century Britain.

One of the apologetics for materialistic science is its “success”. But if one compares the worldview of the bestiary, and of our artistic Christian friend, with the worldview of the natural history film and my quasi-scientific reflections with a beer on my bench on the hill, which is actually of more utility in helping anyone lead a better life? Is it more useful to be able to distinguish a chiff-chaff from other olive-brown birds, or to observe that its humble plumage protects it from the mishaps into which ostentatious pride can lead us? Is it more useful to know that goldcrests and firecrests share a common ancestor and were at some stage probably geographically isolated, or that their boldness, despite their tiny size, is a reminder of David’s victory over Goliath?

There are actually more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in either philosophy alone.

Jon Garvey

About Jon Garvey

Training in medicine (which was my career), social psychology and theology. Interests in most things, but especially the science-faith interface. The rest of my time, though, is spent writing, playing and recording music.
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