Charles Darwin loved his scientific studies. They were his “chief enjoyment and sole employment throughout life.” However, as the years passed, Darwin experienced a tragic atrophy. He described it near the end of his life in his autobiography:
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.
What a devastating loss. 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.
We Become What We Behold
Darwin’s increasing agnosticism during this period of his life must have contributed to his loss of wonder. Lose the Maker and we lose meaning; lose meaning and we lose marveling.
But this is not the only explanation for Darwin’s experience. A similar atrophy can occur in Christians too. We can all learn from Darwin.
The principle is this: Whatever we observe, study and contemplate most shapes our thinking and trains our affections. As John Piper says: We become what we behold. This is right from the Bible. Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18,
We all, with unveiled face, beholding as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory, just as from the Lord, the Spirit.
The more we meditate on true glory, the more true glory we will see and enjoy. The more we meditate on lesser things, the less we will see and enjoy glory. We become what we behold.
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 adds urgency to the Bible’s command that we meditate on whatever is true, just, honorable, pure, lovely, commendable, and excellent (Philippians 4:8).
Make Words Windows to Glory
In his new book, Seeing Beauty and Saying Beautifully, John Piper defines meditation as “getting glimpses of glory in the Bible or in the world and turning those glimpses around and around in your mind, looking and looking” (74). If you want to think through ways to do this, then make this book part of your summer reading. Looking through the lenses of the lives of poet George Herbert, preacher George Whitefield, and professor C.S. Lewis, Piper illustrates how,
Groping for awakening words in the darkness of our own dullness can suddenly flip a switch and shed light all around what it is that we are trying to describe — and feel. Taking hold of a fresh word for old truth can become a fresh grasp of the truth itself. Telling of beauty in new words becomes a way of tasting more of the beauty itself. (144)
We don’t have to be poets, preachers, or professors to make words windows to glory. But Herbert, Whitefield, Lewis, and Piper all inspire and instruct us to put forth “the effort to say beautifully [as] a way of seeing beautifully” (74) and point to the reward of deeper joy for those who do.
Darwin’s eye for beauty atrophied over time because of what he meditated on. Learn from him. Herbert, Whitefield, and Lewis all saw more beauty over time because of what they meditated on. And a significant way they saw more beauty was through their efforts to say beautifully. Learn from them.
Seek to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Psalm 34:8) by seeking to “[tell] of [the Lord’s] beauty in new words.”
More on seeing beauty:
Saying Beautifully As a Way of Seeing Beauty: The Life of George Herbert and His Poetic Effort (message by John Piper)
Alive to Wonder: Celebrating the Influence of C. S. Lewis (ebook by John Piper)
10 Resolutions for Mental Health (Clyde Kilby)