Update from Oxford: Part 2
Things are going extremely well here at Oxbridge, as the Oxford portion of the conference comes to an end tomorrow (Cambridge starts on Sunday). A few highlights and thoughts from the last few days:
- Dr. Francis Collins, the Director of the National Human Genome Project and author of The Language of God, spoke in a plenary address on Wednesday. If you haven’t heard of him or read his book, you should check him out. He presents a convincing case for why evolution and Christian faith are NOT incompatible, and how an appreciation for science does not mean we have to check religion (or theism) at the door. Collins is also a great musician and led the whole group in singing hymns and Christian folk songs. How great it was to sing such songs as “Hallelujah, the Great Storm is Over” with one of the world’s most preeminent geneticists. Oh, and during his address he showed a clip from when he was on the Colbert Report. Totally awesome.
- Thursday night, at Great St. Mary the Virgin church in Oxford (the ancient church where Thomas Cranmer was tried as a martyr), there was a fantastic “evening of poetry and song” which featured poetry recited by Dana Gioia (the current Chairman for the National Endowment for the Arts), piano played by Paul Barnes (including amazing Liszt and Philip Glass pieces), and poems sung by mezzo-soprano Kate Butler. One of the highlights, however, was an emotional reading of the poem “As the Ruin Falls” by C.S. Lewis. Lewis, of course, was never hailed as a great poet, but this poem–which he wrote after the death of his beloved wife Joy Davidman–is achingly beautiful:
All this is flashy rhetoric about loving you.
I never had a selfless thought since I was born.
I am mercenary and self-seeking through and through:
I want God, you, all friends, merely to serve my turn.
Peace, re-assurance, pleasure, are the goals I seek,
I cannot crawl one inch outside my proper skin:
I talk of love –a scholar’s parrot may talk Greek–
But, self-imprisoned, always end where I begin.
Only that now you have taught me (but how late) my lack.
I see the chasm. And everything you are was making
My heart into a bridge by which I might get back
From exile, and grow man. And now the bridge is breaking.
For this I bless you as the ruin falls. The pains
You give me are more precious than all other gains.
- Today’s plenary address from Dana Gioia was absolutely wonderful. It was provocative and beautiful and challening, posing the rather large question: What is the human purpose of beauty? Of art? What are the existential purposes of art? Gioia proposed that art is crucial to existence because it shows us what is truly human; beauty synthesizes the unknowable truths and transcendent complexities of the world. It’s not just about pretty decor but rather about seeing into the nature of reality and seeing the order of things, the terrifying and dizzying sublime of which art is uniquely capable of distilling. Gioia made statements like this, which doubtless ruffled some feathers: “Michelangelo, Mozart, and Dante have brought more souls to Christ than any minister.” Of course he IS the head of an arts endowment, so of course he should say things like this. But I actually might agree with him. “Art,” says Gioia, “awakes us to the full potential of humanity. It leads us to truth, the secrets of being.” In this way you might see it as the ultimate evangelism–though I think Gioia would point out that we don’t use art and beauty as much as it uses us. Beauty is not something we make, it’s something we participate in. For Gioia (a very Catholic aesthetician), beauty is bound up in the world already in its materials and forms and presences. We only need to thoughtfully re-connect with it and frame it to become artists. As Psalm 19 reminds us, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.” Beauty is out there–we just have to find it and make it more manageable (whether on a canvas, in a sonnet or a story, etc).
More updates to come from Cambridge next week!