In a Faraday Institute interview published in February 2022, Ruth Bancewicz asked Professor Alister McGrath (the Andreas Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford) to speculate on the sorts of questions he might be asking in future decades; what questions might be raised by future scientific discoveries. I find his response to be particularly pithy in terms of worldview- a worldview that is at once Christian, and yet also open as a way of thinking that can be offered to those without such commitments, whether scientists or otherwise.
I don’t know! I often find myself circling old questions, gradually giving better answers than those I found ten or twenty years ago. I have no doubt that new questions will arise about human nature and destiny, and our place within the natural world – questions that we need to engage, rather than to avoid or hope that they will just go away. But I am confident that Christianity will be able to offer us ways of engaging these new questions, and helping us to think them through.Alister McGrath
McGrath began by saying, very straightforwardly, that he doesn’t know what questions the future may hold, which is clearly the only correct answer to give to such a cheeky question. But then again, this is too simplistic. Subtly and gently, I think, he then implies that the important questions are already known- at least in broad brush- and so it is less likely there will be really new types of questions. He puts these enduring questions somewhat like this: What is the nature of being human? What is our place in the natural world? What is our destiny as humans in the cosmos? Without fixing these down rigidly in a sequence on a timeline, nevertheless we might take these as (i) ‘what were we, as humans?’ (ii) ‘where do we find ourselves now?’ and (iii) ‘where are we going?’ or perhaps, ‘what are we becoming?’ Having engaged in such a clumsy deconstructive analysis, you too may appreciate the poetry of McGrath’s answer rather more than at first reading. And to continue: for McGrath, such a continuing ‘inquisition’ is exciting, because while questioning is the core of science, it is no enemy of faith, properly understood. McGrath knows that many Christian folk consider certain questions, particularly those stemming from scientific discoveries, to be unwelcome in their life of faith, but there is truly no grounds for such fearfulness. McGrath takes the contrary and very positive view, because he has learned that human flourishing emerges from a robust interaction between his Christian faith and science. As I wrote in my last post, atheists Carl Sagan and Richard Dawkins choose to look back at the vastness of the cosmos from the perspective of our diminutive human scale and short lifespan, drawing only pessimistic conclusions. Alistair McGrath left that intellectual workhouse long ago, as he found that the Christian worldview embraces all the demonstrated facts of science, and enriches them. Hope, not despair, this way lies! So I note that Ruth Bancewicz’s question proved rather fruitful, against my expectations.
Long ago did the gallery of ‘Christian Art’ burst at the seams, at least if you insist on counting up all the depictions of the Annunciation, Nativity, the events of Holy Week and especially the Crucifixion. It is the stuff of orthodoxy to esteem the central place of these key episodes in the gospel accounts, and quite proper that our meditation on them ought to be spiritually enriching. By far the majority of well known examples, the principal exhibits in the canon of art for which the Masters are rightly famed, have a visual quality that is less-of-this-world, saints adorned with prominent shiny halos, the figures over-stylised , depicted in idealised and romanticised settings, while too often chubby cherubs gambol around in the skies above tugging at modesty cloths like puppies with very strong toilet roll. It’s not very realistic, is it?! The solution to one problem, viz: how to make the picture sufficiently epic that it does justice to the great claims made in the scenes of conversation between angels and mortals, the birth of God, or the death of the God-man Jesus Christ, then becomes the cause of a new problem. Now the image is so abnormal that it has little of the appeal of normality about it- it has transported us to another world, perhaps very effectively, but to such an extent that we have left this world completely behind. Some maintain this is the point, for eschatologically, that is a key aspect of the hope that Christianity offers. However, if the world that Science wonders at, is awestruck by and seeks to interrogate in order to know it better, to know it well, and to savour it, is lost by such a transport, then this is no longer Christianity, for the Nativity profoundly speaks of Incarnation. The God who Christians claim to know in Christ came into this world. There may be a place for art that is other-worldly, ethereal and evocative of the spiritual, High Art that takes our imagination to the heavenlies, but at this point we might heed the Jewish sanction against idols and images of the Divine. They are likely to be a distraction from the real God and the sort of world that God made, and thus, quite simply, heretical.
We need better art, by which I mean, theologically better art, that might bring heaven and earth, and thus God and humankind, together.
Caravaggio (1571-1610) would have seen Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling (completed in 1512) in its novel glory, Exhibit Number One in my roll call of unrealistic artistic depictions of spiritually significant scenes. Caravaggio was commissioned to paint altarpieces for grand churches, and thus on the approved list of artists to produce work for traditional and sacred purposes. He was also reputed to be a bit of a rebel, which I take to mean that he didn’t necessarily paint what he was told to, or how to paint it, more to the point. Which is why we love creative types. Unpredictable, impossible to control- you just don’t know what you are going to see next. And sometimes that is exciting in the same way as science is exciting. A creative and perceptive artist can show us something that may have been there all the time, but we just hadn’t seen yet. They give us a viewpoint that is less invention and not at all fantasy, but rather discovery and description- an accurate description, exactly as prized by the scientist. This is how the world is, and how we are in it.
Which is what is going on in Caravaggio’s 1601 painting of a meal served in a public house in a Jewish village called Emmaus, just after Passover to three guys who’d just trekked across country and now need a wash, a good meal and bed. The second of those requirements is taking place before our eyes. Their cook has served a feast of bread and poultry, presented to restaurant standard, along with a bowl of fruit burdened and overspilling with figs, plums, apples, pears and others I don’t recognise. The grapes are so fresh the unwilted vine leaves are still attached, further adorning this succulent table decoration.
You may know the scene from Luke’s gospel account. The resurrection appearances of Jesus in the days following the first Easter are described in various ways- his followers are caught by surprise, in stunned amazement, shock, disbelief, and so on. In this case, Luke gives us the comic treatment. Two disciples, who are not part of the Twelve, are walking away from Jerusalem, disconsolate, on the road toward Emmaus, engrossed in their grieving, trying to come to terms with the apparent defeat and tragedy of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth. Then Jesus himself comes alongside them, for all the world seeming as a normal traveller. He is greeted and joins their conversation- yet they don’t recognise him!
13 That very day two of them were going to a village named Emmaus, about seven miles[a] from Jerusalem, 14 and they were talking with each other about all these things that had happened. 15 While they were talking and discussing together, Jesus himself drew near and went with them. 16 But their eyes were kept from recognizing him. 17 And he said to them, “What is this conversation that you are holding with each other as you walk?” And they stood still, looking sad. 18 Then one of them, named Cleopas, answered him, “Are you the only visitor to Jerusalem who does not know the things that have happened there in these days?” 19 And he said to them, “What things?” And they said to him, “Concerning Jesus of Nazareth, a man who was a prophet mighty in deed and word before God and all the people, 20 and how our chief priests and rulers delivered him up to be condemned to death, and crucified him. 21 But we had hoped that he was the one to redeem Israel. Yes, and besides all this, it is now the third day since these things happened. 22 Moreover, some women of our company amazed us. They were at the tomb early in the morning, 23 and when they did not find his body, they came back saying that they had even seen a vision of angels, who said that he was alive. 24 Some of those who were with us went to the tomb and found it just as the women had said, but him they did not see.” 25 And he said to them, “O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! 26 Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?” 27 And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.Luke 24: 13-27 ESV (28-35 below)
I can imagine that Simon and Cleopas were rather embarrassed when they told their story afterwards. They knew perfectly well what Jesus looked like- they had listened very attentively to his teaching and would have known his mannerisms well. So we have the claim that another miracle took place which explains this: ‘their eyes were kept from recognizing him’! God was hiding in plain sight before them. Not for the first time. Or the last…
The scene described at verses 30-31 is the focus of Caravaggio’s depiction:
28 So they drew near to the village to which they were going. He acted as if he were going farther, 29 but they urged him strongly, saying, “Stay with us, for it is toward evening and the day is now far spent.” So he went in to stay with them. 30 When he was at table with them, he took the bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to them. 31 And their eyes were opened, and they recognized him. And he vanished from their sight. 32 They said to each other, “Did not our hearts burn within us while he talked to us on the road, while he opened to us the Scriptures?” 33 And they rose that same hour and returned to Jerusalem. And they found the eleven and those who were with them gathered together, 34 saying, “The Lord has risen indeed, and has appeared to Simon!” 35 Then they told what had happened on the road, and how he was known to them in the breaking of the bread.
In so many ways this encounter takes place at the threshold of reality and experience. The two men think their friend and Lord is dead, but he is very much alive and with them, in the extended moment of their journey. They can see Jesus, and yet they can’t see Who it is at all. They think they know what has happened with Him in recent days, and yet there is so much they do not know. They thought that they knew the scriptures- what the meaning of the teaching and the prophecy was- yet their mysterious companion shows that they still hadn’t got the half of it. What they thought it was to be a member of God’s family community, and what that might become- so much of their understanding proves to be, so near and yet so far- a misunderstanding. And yet they come to understand at last, as the One of whom those scriptures speaks, and to Whom that tradition points, showed them Himself, in person. All this realisation and revelation comes to them in the flesh and blood encounter of a regular walking trip to an otherwise unknown village a few hours walk from Jerusalem, and is rounded out at an unremarkable meal table with bread and water and the other common fare that would have been served to passing folk, day in and day out.
Not that that is how Caravaggio does it. He embellishes the details for aesthetic effect, and to make full boast of his painterly prowess. He deploys the full range of his artistry to do justice to the scene and the climactic moment when the two disciples’ eyes are opened, but what our painter-guide shows us is still absolutely real.
Caravaggio transports us to a much more luxurious setting, where the table is covered by a richly woven cloth, itself overlain with a pristine white covering, on which delicate glasses, an exotic pitcher and a highly decorated plate hold the provender. The woven fruit basket has a delicate bowed handle, far too small to be of practical use if to be carried when filled. The chair we can see is a particularly fine example of carpentry, its depiction a work of graphic genius. The clothing of the four figures samples the range of adornments typical of the various classes that reflect the whole of society- well, male society, anyway. Jesus is nobly enrobed in scarlet and cream, while the man seated on the left has a prominent and suggestively working class hole at the elbow of his still-prized green coat. The other disciple and their cook both sport finely cut short leather jackets. There is no sign of the dust and dirt that we might imagine – that has been banished at this moment of making new. Illumination- light!- is everywhere in the picture, and not at all limited to the face of Jesus, on whom the three are fixed at this Eureka moment. Light is falling from above, and yet reflects as luminously from cloth and clothing all around the picture. The message of the picture is not only the revelation of the light of the world. The life of Jesus bursts forth from his person, and all is alive as a result. As he reaches forward over the bread toward us, all that was static surges into motion. Is it Cleopas on our left? He thrusts back toward us in his chair with surprised delight. Opposite, Simon throws his arms aside, his left hand reaching out to include the viewer, his gesture caught in fine focus, while his right reaches out to grasp his Lord with an out of focus but strangely enlarged right hand- as though to get a better hold of what he had thought he had lost. Even the fruit basket is now tottering toward us over the table edge, as perhaps Simon has knocked it forward as he reacts – another comic detail.
By all these means, and more subtleties I have not noticed, there is transformation and transubstantiation depicted in this wonderful painting. And this is the point- the wonder is filling the painting- it is not elsewhere, in some different place. The eucharist that is taking place is transforming what was earlier perceived only as the body of a mere man into the God-man Jesus. If the bread and wine are transformed it is only because Jesus is present with them; with us. The light is the same light that illuminates our lives, and now we see the Light of the World, which is the empowering, the dunamis, of all Being and Life. And yet in Caravaggio’s handling, everything that was in the world before this ‘revelation’ is still there now, but all is enobled. The textiles and garments, the foodstuffs, the collected crafts and artistry of humanity, and the bounty of the natural world- all are celebrated and now are in praise of the One who is Alive and gives Life to all. This whole world is charged by Caravaggio’s brush with the grandeur of God, while the gaze of the cook, Cleopas and Simon all command us to attend to the outstretched hand of Invitation, even as our shared foodstuffs are blessed at the common table. As Jesus’ own glance is directed downward to the stuff on which His blessing rests, the whole scene speaks to us, material, men and Master, all.
Don’t get me wrong now. In common with other resurrection appearances, something very much out of our ordinary will take place. Jesus is about to vanish right before the wondering disciples at their table eucharist. Nothing ‘this worldly’ about that, you might say. But that event conveys the meaning that Sagan and Dawkins do not see. Science creates a view of the cosmos that is defined by two aspects only: (i) us as human observers, and (ii) the natural world of which we are part and which we inhabit. But what is dismissed as fancy by the atheist may yet be true, and this is the claim evidenced in Christ. Therefore the Christian worldview is in three aspects:
So the crucial difference is thus. God is, and furthermore, God choses to be in the world, and to interact with it, and with us. So the scientist who insists on describing and admitting only what is evidenced by repeatable sense perceptions is, by unjustifiable assumption, excluding a crucial part of what is in fact reality, and denying experience, at least of some witnesses. If we are investigating the behaviour of a falling bowl of fruit, the momentum of a shifting chair, or the reflected gleam of coloured light from a rinsed bunch of grapes, then science is up to those tasks. But if this world is in fact God’s world, the cosmos of God’s own and entire creation, then there must likely be data and realities and experience that lie beyond the purview of the scientist, but within the reach of the theologian, and it is not nonsensical to say, within the grasp of the scientist-theologian, who looks with more eyes than the materialist, and may see things that would otherwise be missed. And some things that God does in God’s world have not happened before, which breaks no rules at all, least of all the so-called rules of science. Jesus came back from death in physical, not incorporeal form. So testify Simon and Cleopas and the rest. And then he also transcended simply human form, they also testify, as he ‘vanished from their sight.’ Similar repeated temporary appearances testified to in the gospels address our collective rational concerns: was this a one-off phenomenon? It would surely be suspect if it was. No, proclaim the collected witnesses. And so the apostles go on to assert by the inspiration of God’s Spirit amongst us: We shall all be raised incorruptible.
So there are undoubtedly new questions to face across the boundary of science and religion/theology, but these are perhaps more likely to be inspired by grappling with the worldview of the Christian faith, taking it as the source of inspiration, rather than from the disciplines of the sciences, in their pure forms. It’s not so much the new data from the progress of science per se that we should be looking out for (surely an implicit acceptance of the god-of-the-gaps fallacy), but the excluded and forbidden data from the testimonies and experience of those who journey with the God who invites us to live with Him by faith. And we can be confident that this will not destroy any proper science, though we may appreciate it more, being properly grounded in both awe and humility, and then go on to demonstrate consistency in the claim that it is the same God who makes light to shine in the world and Light to shine in our hearts. And I think Caravaggio would be pleased to join us on that adventure.
(c) 2022 Stephen Thompson
- Alister McGrath, interviewed by Ruth Bancewicz for Faraday Churches, Feb 2022, at https://www.faraday.cam.ac.uk/churches/church-resources/posts/wonders-of-the-living-world-alister-mcgrath-exploring-the-landscape/
- For a very brief and popular primer on Caravaggio, perhaps this: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/italy/articles/10-artworks-by-caravaggio-you-should-know/
- https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4d/1602-3_Caravaggio%2CSupper_at_Emmaus_National_Gallery%2C_London.jpg Public Domain File:1602-3 Caravaggio, Supper at Emmaus National Gallery, London.jpg Created: circa 1601 date QS:P571,+1601-00-00T00:00:00Z/9,P1480,Q5727902
- Painting the Word, Christian Pictures and their Meanings. 1999. John Drury. Yale University Press and The National Gallery. p121
- Dunamis (Ancient Greek: δύναμις) is a Greek philosophical concept meaning “power”, “potential” or “ability”, and is central to the Aristotelian idea of potentiality and actuality.
- 1 Cor 15:52 https://biblehub.com/1_corinthians/15-52.htm