Encountering Strangeness from Different Directions
“I come across a person who isn’t just a stranger but maybe represents a strangeness to me that initially I might feel very alienated from that person. And then to think, this is a work of art by the God whom I worship — that God created that person. And it’s something like art appreciation. It doesn’t come easy. I’m kind of aesthetically deprived and so I have to work at it. But it’s a very important exercise to engage in.”
Listening to Richard Mouw describe his idea of “divine art appreciation,” I was surprised to find myself thinking of biologist and neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky. On paper, the two couldn’t be more different. Mouw is an Evangelical theologian who heads up one of the largest multi-denominational seminaries in the world. Sapolsky is a self-described “strident atheist” who studies what we can learn about stress by studying the social behaviors of baboons. Both are interested in how humans respond to strangeness and difference; they just come at these questions from different directions.
In the late 1990s, Sapolsky published a delightful essay in The New Yorker exploring our resistance to novelty in music, fashion, and food as we age. He doesn’t land on a scientific reason for this phenomenon, but he does reflect on its consequences:
“When I see the finest of my students ready to run off to the Peace Corps and minister to lepers in the Congo—or teach some kid in the barrio just outside the university how to read—I remember that, once, it was easier to be that way. An open mind is a prerequisite to an open heart… Whatever it is that fends us off from novelty, I figure maybe it’s worth putting up a bit of a fight even if it means forgoing Bob Marley’s greatest hits every now and then.”