What is the value of my colored pencil drawing of tall thimbleweed (Anemone virginiana var. virginiana) that hangs on my living room wall? As a botanist, I can tell you it is a common plant relegated to the weedy category by gardeners and without special interest to naturalists; as the artist of the piece, I can also tell you that there is no message behind the work. The art was made to challenge myself to capture what I saw accurately and in an aesthetically pleasing way. Honestly, the value of my basic research feels about equivalent to the value of this piece of art. While one is beautiful and the other is increasing knowledge, neither are solving problems.
Basic research seeks to increase human knowledge in a field while applied research tries to solve a specific problem. Broadly speaking, for example, plant biology explores the molecular workings of plants to increase human knowledge, while applied plant science uses our knowledge of plants to improve crops. In order to receive funding today, basic research has to justify why the knowledge it will produce is interesting. In addition this knowledge often results in unforeseen applications down the road. Since the goal is knowledge, though, applications are not guaranteed. Therefore, arts and basic research share in producing abstract outputs: beauty and knowledge. In a strictly utilitarian view, these are inefficient, superfluous, and of little value.
Basic scientific research has a second strike against it: science is often seen as a rebellion against God. Near the beginning of my Ph.D. program, a fellow Christian turned to me and asked, “How are you a scientist and a Christian?” There are multiple, deeper questions that are behind this question, but, in part, he was asking whether science has become so secular that it no longer glorifies God. When we could devote our lives to full-time ministry, spending time pursuing knowledge that is secular may seem wasteful.
This leaves the question: should Christians value non-utilitarian, non-ministerial work? How does God value work? Throughout the Bible, we see that what we might consider as secular or superfluous work can be highly honoring to God.
The early pursuits of knowledge and beauty
Using the utilitarian and ministerial values proposed above and given a sentence like, "the first job of man was ___________, and the first poetry documented was about ___________," we might guess the blanks were gardening (utilitarian) and God (sacred). Instead, God called Adam to explore the world by naming the animals (Genesis 2:19-20). In this vocation, Adam was not making the garden more productive. He was increasing human knowledge and doing basic research. Similarly, the first artwork was in response to God’s work but not what we might consider a sacred work. When Adam saw Eve, he burst out into poetry of delight in her (Genesis 2:23). Even though this poetry and vocation were not particularly practical or overtly worshipful, they were valuable. Yes, knowledge and beauty, the products of the first science and poetry, were good, but, maybe more than that, these actions were right as they were Adam delighting in God’s handiwork. Either way, the pursuits of knowledge and beauty were not originally rebellion against God; instead they were delighting in and responding to God.
Either way, the pursuits of knowledge and beauty were not originally rebellion against God; instead they were delighting in and responding to God.
Sadly, that changed. At the Fall, knowledge of good and evil was sought in opposition to God and for the glory of mankind (Genesis 3:5-6). Since then, humans have been continually in danger of using knowledge and beauty to rebel against God, as an end in themselves, or for human glory. For example, Nebuchadnezzer harnessed beauty for his own glory by making a golden statue of himself (Daniel 3:1). Isaiah 10:13 foretold of Assyrian kings boasting of what they had accomplished in their own wisdom. Even beautiful things that were made in obedience to God, like the snake on the pole, were later worshiped (2 Kings 18:4). Humans corrupted what had been noble pursuits for their own ends.
Even though the pursuit of knowledge and beauty was often corrupt, God still used knowledge of the natural world, beauty, and creativity to teach about himself and about spiritual truths. When Job questioned God about why he had suffered, God pointed him to study creation. Over four chapters of the book of Job, God questioned Job about how the natural world was ordered, who controlled the natural processes, and who saw and commanded the beasts. These questions, like looking into the Grand Canyon, helped Job ponder how small he was and how much greater God must be (Job 42:1-6 and 40:3-5). God’s antidote to Job’s spiritual doubt and hurt was simply to study the natural world to realize how little he understood.
In the New Testament, Jesus repeatedly used the natural world and parables to help his listeners grasp spiritual truths. Jesus spoke of sparrows (Matthew 6:26), mustard seeds (Matthew 13:31-32), yeast (Matthew 13:33), weeds (Matthew 13:24-30) etc. on topics like worry and God’s provision (Matthew 6:26-30) and the Kingdom of Heaven (Matthew 13:24-33). Jesus called his listener to consider the beauty of the lily (Matthew 6:28-30) as a reminder of God’s faithfulness. Does this not suggest that God, as the maker and sustainer of the universe, is glorified by his people studying and imitating his art as scientists and creatives?
Throughout the Bible, God encouraged delight in beauty, cultivation of creativity, and study of nature. Other than when done in rebellion, science and creativity still honored God even when they were not explicitly about God. However, the attitude towards God by many in the sciences and arts may make you wonder if this is still true.
The modern pursuit of knowledge
Science still honors God as many of the examples Jesus gave have only become more powerful with study. In John 15:1-17, Jesus describes believers as branches connected to him, the vine. That truth has become more profound as we better understand vines and grafting. It has long been known that the rootstock provides water and macronutrients from the soil, so branches cannot live without the rootstock. From recent research on grafting, we have learned more. If you graft two branches from the same plant onto two different rootstocks, the fruit will taste different and even the shape of the leaf will be different. This knowledge further unfolds our understanding of Christ’s picture of us abiding in him and being transformed. The spiritual picture Jesus conveyed has only become richer as we better understand the natural world.
The perennial results of basic research are deep beauty and transcendent truth that still point to God.
Even though many people who study science reject God, the perennial results of basic research are deep beauty and transcendent truth that still point to God. Consider the beauty of the lily again. In middle school, the readily observable beauty and diversity of plants piqued my interest. For example, the leaves of the prayer plant, sundew, and pitcher plant, which all vary drastically in shape and color, are also variations on a theme. This beauty is not just fancy icing on a chocolate cake. When we look at the cellular level, we see complex structures and processes that beautifully orchestrate the survival of the plant in its environment.
You might think it is easy being a plant, merely sitting, absorbing energy from the sun. However, a plant cannot burrow when it gets cold, cannot hide from the sun when it gets too intense, and cannot fetch water for its thirst. Instead each cell has complex regulatory pathways to deal with each of these types of stress within the plant’s environmental parameters. Within each cell of a plant (and your body) is the library of DNA with, depending on the plant species, between one inch to over 166 feet of DNA per cell (Alberts, et al., 2014; Ibarra-Laclette, et al., 2013; Pennisi, 2010). These strings of information which float in three-dimensional space are carefully packaged in order to allow access to the information necessary for manufacturing machinery while ensuring the DNA is not damaged by the sun and does not get tangled. This complexity, which I am just superficially describing, dwarfs the feats of human engineering and infrastructure. The external beauty of a plant is only magnified by understanding the deeper beauty that keeps it alive. This richness and our ability to understand it calls us to wonder and enter into delighting in the world God made.
In fact, my work in the sciences flows out of my understanding of God. When I do science, I declare that the world is rational and that I have a mind that can understand it, both of which are grounded in my belief in a rational God who made the world and my mind. Additionally, to advance science, I must cultivate wonder, the abstract idea that there is more that we do not yet know or understand. The more we discover about this world, the easier it is to wonder and worship.
Basic science and secular art have glorified God since the beginning. Even though knowledge and beauty have been pursued in rebellion against God, if we throw them out completely, we blind ourselves to the ways that beauty, truth, and wonder can lead us to worship and deepen our knowledge of God. In various economic conditions, which work can support a household versus which interests can only be pursued as hobbies may look different. But whatever I do, am I worshiping God where he has called me? Working to the glory of God can look like commercializing a technology to the betterment of mankind or studying the world which points to Someone greater, and it can look like making explicitly Christian art or like making beautiful art that whispers, this is not all there is. Work, no matter how minor, can flow out of our relationship with God and be worship. Maybe both my drawing and my work glorify God by seeking to reflect reality.
Alberts B, Johnson A, Lewis J, Morgan D, Raff M, Roberts K, Walter P. 2014. Molecular Biology of the Cell (6th ed.). New York/Abingdon: Garland Science, Taylor & Francis Group. p. 177.
English Standard Version. 2001. Crossway Bibles.
Ibarra-Laclette, E. et al. 2013. Architecture and evolution of a minute plant genome. Nature 498: 94–98.
Pennisi E. 2010. Biggest Genome Ever: Japanese Flower has 50 Times More DNA than Humans Do. Scienceshots.