Bloom, Jon (2014) ‘Let Darwin Teach You’, published on the Desiring God blog on 9th June 2014
http://www.desiringgod.org/blog/posts/let-darwin-teach-you [last accessed 9th June 2014]
I can’t decide what I think of Jon Bloom’s article. The central premise of it is that we become what we meditate on, which is one of the main points made in John Piper’s recent book, Seeking Beauty and Saying Beautifully. The article, coming from a site that is effectively John Piper’s ministry platform, probably has as its primary function to disseminate the teaching from John Piper’s new book. If we meditate on glorious things, Bloom writes, we keep our taste for glorious things, whilst if we meditate on lesser things, we may stop being able to appreciate glorious things. Scripturally, this is undergirded by 2 Corinthians 3:18 and not much else – no doubt the rest is in Piper’s book, which is available free of charge on the website in PDF format for those with the time and the will to read it. Bloom presents the testimony of an extract from Charles Darwin’s autobiography as an initial documentary case in point of an individual who lost their sense of wonder by being consumed by their meditations on lesser things – and as a warning to Christians lest they do the same.
The mention of a scientific name popularly associated with the New Atheism movement on this conservative evangelical blog likely functions as a controversial ‘hook’ of popular interest, and to read the article with integrity, I feel that one ought not read too deeply into the conclusions made about Darwin. But for the subtler and perhaps controversial conclusions that may indirectly be drawn from Bloom’s assessment of what constitutes ‘lesser things’ – again, conclusions that Bloom might not have intended for people to draw – I’d love to be able to read the article through different eyes. I would love to read it through the eyes of a Christian who is a scientist, a Christian with a strongly analytical or systems-oriented mind, or a Christian who is a data-collecting enthusiast. And, it goes without saying, a Christian who is simultaneously in love with the God of Jesus Christ. And so I’m going to present here the extract of Darwin’s autobiography, with some of the Bloom extracts that allow controversial conclusions to be drawn – whether they are the unhappy consequence of some juxtaposed statements that Bloom didn’t really mean to insinuate, or whether there is something more deliberately meaningful in them. It is not within my power to judge whether Bloom meant these conclusions or not; far be it from me to do so, although I am aware that more politically invested individuals with Postmodernised consciences often do it by default. I am not one of those.
Jon Bloom on Darwin
Jon Bloom presents the following extract from Charles Darwin’s autobiography and then writes some evaluations that I don’t know how some people might take.
Up to the age of 30 or beyond it, poetry of many kinds … gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy I took intense delight in Shakespeare…. Formerly pictures gave me considerable, and music very great, delight. But now for many years I cannot endure to read a line of poetry: I have tried to read Shakespeare, and found it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music… I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did… My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive… The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
Bloom’s evaluations of the passage:
All that time abstracting theories from facts so conditioned Darwin’s mind for analysis that he lost his enjoyment of beauty. He lost the forest to the trees. He lost the poetry of life to the dry prose of life data. … A similar atrophy can occur in Christians too. We can all learn from Darwin.
Darwin is a warning to us that if we spend too much time meditating on lesser things, someday we may wake up to find that we have lost our ability to find glorious things delightful or even interesting.
This made me think a lot. From a personal perspective, I certainly know where Bloom is coming from and what he might be warning Christians against. I had a season where I became so obsessed with the details and categories of Reformed theology that at my worst, when I read the Bible, the only thing I would marvel at was how well it fitted into my theological paradigms, when what I needed to do was marvel at our great God in Jesus Christ. That impoverished my spiritual life. The Bible stopped being about Christ for that period, and became about whether my theology was right or not. And what is theology really, but a lens through which we view God, as per R.C. Sproul’s analogy of a car windscreen enabling us to see the view from inside a car? Divorced from its purpose, it is useless in itself. And theologians don’t come much more Reformed than Sproul. When all you see in life and the Bible is more data or evidence to either fit into or contest your own systems and theories, you sort of become the master and determiner of all you perceive. All you then perceive when you look at a thing is either something that is ‘your system/theory’ or ‘not your system/theory’, rather than what it intrinsically is. You don’t see the thing itself any more; all you see is either something you want to see, or something you wish you hadn’t seen. All you have before your eyes is then a potential acquisition for your intellectual empire, rather than a unique thing in its own right with something in it that speaks of God’s glory in manifold, delight-inspiring and richly nuanced ways. I’ve been there, done that and worn the t-shirt, and I don’t want to go back there; it’s like a prison.
All that said, maybe I’m just a wide-eyed Romantic at heart and am only seeing this in one of many ways. Maybe what’s spiritually unhealthy for me is healthy for other people, and helps them to bear good fruit and grow in a lively, intimate affection for the Lord and the things of the Lord. The Myers-Briggs personality test decided that I’m an INFP. I take it as a handy descriptive tool, not as a prescriber of my identity. Sit me in a garden and my first inclination would not be to weed it, make daisy chains, test whether my memory of botanical taxonomies is up to scratch and try to mentally classify all of the plants; go looking for berries, eye up the conservatory and make casual plans for my next house extension, or wonder if I ought to be somewhere else doing something more productive and anxiously wave my mobile phone around to try and get some signal. Instead I would probably stay quite still and just marvel delightedly, and wonder – like Jon Bloom – at how sad it is that some people’s greatest delight in observing such a garden lies in the fact that they’re able to reel off all the species names and care instructions, and don’t even look for the Christ-inspired beauty in the flowers themselves. And then perhaps I’d jot down a few lines of poetry or music if some inspiration comes… or an outline for my next blog entry. But some people’s first inclinations would be to do such things, and because such people can be and are children of God in Christ Jesus, then that makes all the difference. We’re a neurologically diverse church. We perceive things, and the importance in things, differently. Jon Bloom and John Piper could just be two of a kind – but then again, that might be a kind that has a greater bent towards spiritual things and wonder-inspiring things than other kinds, and that consequently has a lot to teach these other kinds.
Questions From the Floor
Is Jon Bloom then marginalizing people who don’t share his mindset? Who knows? Is awe-filled wonder at God’s glory in Scripture and things something that different people feel differently, or is the experience much more specific than that, so that it happens that some people are more predisposed to seek it out and thrive on it than others? As a humanities student this article made me wonder what scientists/medics/mathematicians who are Christians – or perhaps just people with fixations on systems and fact-collecting – might think of this article. We don’t all think/feel/perceive in the same way. Are data and theoretical systems really ‘lesser things’ to meditate on than “glimpses of glory in the Bible or in the world”? Are these things even incompatible with each other? Is this article actually saying that people who obsess over systems of knowledge and collections of facts tend to be at a spiritual disadvantage, or am I setting up a bit of a straw man there that needs further qualifying? Is Bloom even saying something more nuanced? Political correctness aside, is the statement that people like Darwin are spiritually disadvantaged by their mindset, actually true in itself?