March 17, 2021
Modern science has uncovered breathtaking evidence of design in nature — in the exquisite nano-technology of even the tiniest single-celled organisms, in the delicate fine-tuning of the cosmos (without which organic life would be impossible), and at countless points in between. Celebrating this growing evidence of intelligent design (ID) can help rescue the arts from the nihilism and ugliness they have descended into in many quarters.
ID does so in part by reopening the door into theism, to belief in a transcendent maker of heaven and earth. If you recognize, for instance, that the eye was fashioned by a master designer rather than by blind evolution, you’re likely to be more open to theism. And that openness has some distinct advantages vis-à-vis the arts:
First, under theism, art isn’t a postmodern babel of competing interpretations without foundation. Theism makes it easier to see reality, and art, as an ordered, meaningful landscape that we have some chance of understanding.
Second, under theism, author and audience are free to explore narrative struggles between moral darkness and light as something more than empty moral posturing. The way is cleared to rightly regard great literature and film as an authentic wrestling with real and universal moral principles.
And third, with ID restoring the possibility of the transcendent and the divine, the sublime in literature, film, and the other arts can once again be regarded as more than a mere biochemical trick of evolutionary biology.
With that as background, let’s look at some examples of narrative art that recognize that life is a work of intelligent design, rather than merely a byproduct of mindless natural forces.
A Meditation on Shadow and Light
We’ll start with William Shakespeare (1564–1616) and his play Hamlet. Early in the drama, Prince Hamlet is dismayed that after his father, King Hamlet of Denmark, died, his mother rushed off to marry the late king’s brother, Claudius, an ignoble drunkard unworthy of Prince Hamlet’s mother or the crown.
Not long after this, what appears to be the ghost of King Hamlet appears to his son and says that Claudius poisoned him so as to seize his throne and his wife. Prince Hamlet is enraged, of course, but he can’t move on his Uncle Claudius until he can corroborate the ghost’s story. After all, for all Hamlet knows, the spirit is really a demon come to trick him into killing a man falsely accused.
So Prince Hamlet looks for a way to confirm the ghost’s claim, and, in the meantime, struggles with profound depression bordering on madness. In one of his famous speeches, he speaks to two of his friends from university who have just arrived for a visit. They notice his dark mood and ask him about it. Hamlet’s reply beautifully conveys the old truth that our lives are marked by both shadow and light, by depravity and decay but also by nobility and the sublime:
I have of late, but wherefore I know not,
lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises, and, indeed, it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
Earth, seems to me a sterile promontory; this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave o’erhanging
firmament, this majestical roof, fretted
with golden fire — why, it appeareth nothing to me
but a foul and pestilent congregation of vapors.
What a piece of work is a man, how noble in
reason, how infinite in faculties, in form and moving
how express and admirable; in action how like
an angel, in apprehension how like a god: the
beauty of the world, the paragon of animals — and
yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
The world is wondrous; the world is fallen. Man is sublime; man is a sweaty animal, doomed to die and turn to dust in the ground. The whole play, at one level, is a meditation on this theme of light and shadow, of what mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) called grandeur and misère, of the high and the low in life.
We see it in the plot and action of the play, where the lowest deeds bump up against some of the noblest. We see it in Hamlet’s meditations on life. We see it in the way the tragical and the comical are mixed, sometimes in the same scene, and in a way that strengthens rather than weakens them. (The gravedigger/funeral scene is an outstanding example.)
Opening a Door
In mingling the tragic and comic thus, Shakespeare was working out of a Judeo-Christian aesthetic tradition manifest in the great Gothic cathedrals of the Middle Ages. There, the most sublime architectural features exist side by side with comically grotesque gargoyles. This aesthetic tradition seeks to encompass, understand, and, where possible, redeem all of creation because it was created by a most good and gracious God, who promises to make all things new, and who was even willing to become flesh and have himself nailed to an ignoble Roman cross in order to accomplish that goal.
This vision of the world also inspired Europe’s scientific revolution. Under Christendom, the grubby physical realm isn’t viewed as inherently evil or ignoble, as it was by many of the ancient Greek thinkers, and so physical experimentation was encouraged.
There are other interesting conjunctions between the aesthetic tradition of Shakespeare and the medieval outlook that helped birth the scientific revolution. Here, suffice to say that the rich aesthetic and moral vision we find in Shakespeare is only possible where good and evil, nobility and treachery, the sublime and the sordid, are recognized as real, and where life is understood as far more than matter in motion.
To be clear, the intelligent design manifest in biology alone doesn’t get you to theism, much less to the great Gothic cathedrals or to Shakespeare. The design in life, by itself, doesn’t tell us who the designer was. It just identifies certain things in nature as intelligently designed. But it does open a door that Darwinian materialism wants to keep shut. And through that open doorway we can reach something like the aesthetic and moral landscape that Shakespeare and the makers of those great cathedrals inhabited.
Dostoevsky Against Nihilism
Shakespeare, though, lived long before Charles Darwin (1809–1882). How might an author who rejects materialism respond to a cultural landscape ravaged by Darwinism and its fellow travelers — Hegelianism, hyper-rationalism, logical positivism, Marxism, nihilism?
We have an answer in the Russian novelist Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821–1881). Shortly after Darwin’s On the Origin of Species first appeared, and when various strands of nihilistic radicalism were threading their way through Europe, Dostoevsky published one of his masterpieces, Crime and Punishment. In the novel, the young man at the center of the story decides he should rob and murder an old woman to escape poverty, free himself from the moral order, and set himself on the path to greatness — a Nietzschean superman in the making.
The novel is, among other things, a critique of lawless nihilism. But rather than deploy two-dimensional villains to discredit nihilism, Dostoevsky creates richly complex characters to explore what is attractive about it, even as he depicts a protagonist all but destroyed by its intoxicating ideas. The novel also explores how a contrasting set of ideas and examples — Christian theism — have the power to redeem.
The work is an excellent model for any aspiring novelist who wants to take on those pernicious ideas that laid the philosophical foundations for Darwinism and that Darwinism reinforced.
Ambushed by Wells
Jump forward another century, and we have a short story by the Pulitzer Prize-winning American author John Updike (1932–2009) that confronts materialistic thinking and answers it with an explicit design argument.
The story, “Pigeon Feathers,” is about a boy in a small town who has begun to grow conscious of his own mortality, and who wrestles with doubts about life after death and his Christian faith.
The boy, David, likes to read and has consumed everything from the humorous stories of P. G. Wodehouse to The Time Machine by H. G. Wells, with its foreboding depiction of a dying universe far in the future. In the barn on his family’s property, David comes across more books. One of them is another work by H. G. Wells, a history of the world. The boy flips to the part about Jesus. There Wells provides a completely naturalistic reading of the life of Jesus, no miracles allowed. No resurrection. David feels ambushed by Wells’s flippant dismissal of Jesus as a mere man. The narrator tells us that he soon
lost his appetite for reading. He was afraid of being ambushed again. In mystery novels people died like dolls being discarded; in science fiction enormities of space and time conspired to crush the humans; and even in P. G. Wodehouse he felt a hollowness, a turning away from reality that was implicitly bitter, and became explicit in the comic figures of futile clergymen. All gaiety seemed minced out on the skin of a void.
The boy talks with his church’s pastor about death and the afterlife. The young pastor tells him that Abraham Lincoln lives on after his death only in the good deeds he did.
David finds no consolation in this. If you’re dead as a stone, what good does it do you for people to fondly remember you? The boy doesn’t want to die and have the lights just go out — whoosh — nothingness. He wants to live.
He asks his mom about it, sure that she will be horrified by the pastor’s betrayal of Christianity. But no. She defends the pastor and tries to pacify her son. She says it’s greedy to desire eternal life after death; just enjoy each day you have.
David isn’t sure what to believe. Maybe the pastor and his mom are right. He realizes that just because he wants to live eternally doesn’t make it so. Maybe it’s true that when you die, that’s the end.
A Design Argument & More
He goes back to the barn. One of his chores is to kill the pigeons that roost there. He shoots six of them, and the story ends with a description of him going outside to bury them:
He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. He lost himself in the geometrical tides as the feathers now broadened and stiffened to make an edge for flight, now softened and constricted to cup warmth around the mute flesh. And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike, designs executed, it seemed in the controlled creature, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him. Yet these birds bred in the millions and were exterminated as pests.
Into the fragrant open earth he dropped one broadly banded in slate shades of blue, and on top of it another, mottled all over in rhythms of lilac and gray. The next was almost wholly white, but for a salmon glaze at its throat. As he fitted the last two, still pliant, on the top, and stood up, crusty coverings were lifted from him, and with a feminine, slipping sensation along his nerves that seemed to give the air hands, he was robed in this certainty: that the God who had lavished such craft upon these worthless birds would not destroy His whole creation by refusing to let David live forever.
Updike gives us a design argument here, and more. We can infer a designing intelligence behind the astonishing artistry of the pigeons’ feathers; and from this we can infer something about the designer: here is an artist who cares deeply about his creation.
In this story Updike has offered not only evidence of a caring Creator, but also a model of excellence — the model par excellence — for the human artist to emulate.
MAIN IMAGE SOURCE: Max Berger via Unsplash