The Kuyperian Commentary

Politics, Economics, Culture, and Theology with a Biblical Viewpoint

Archive for the tag “Epistemology”

Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?


We have often heard it said that, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” This is often said in response to a disagreement in artistic preference and does help maintain a sense of “agreeing to disagree.”  Being able to look past disagreements and maintain civilized, social order is a habit that many of us would do well to nurture, but is there any truth to the old adage?  Is beauty indeed in the eye of the beholder?  Is there any such thing as objective beauty?  Something that’s beautiful even if no human had ever said, “Wow. Pretty.”

One way to pursue an answer to this question is by studying patterns in philosophical thought.  The three major branches of philosophy are: Metaphysics (the study of stuff and its origin, whether physical, spiritual or otherwise), Epistemology (the study of knowledge and how mankind comes to acquire knowledge), and Ethics (the study of the evaluation of human conduct).  Theologian John Frame makes a wise assessment when he generalizes this third branch into “Value Theory” instead of just “Ethics”.  Value theory steps beck from merely assessing rules and codes of conduct to encompass traditional descriptive, normative and applied ethics, as well as aesthetics (the study of beauty) and economics.  Aesthetics fits nicely as a sub-category of “value theory” but might be a tight fit under the category of “ethics”, or would it?

adolf hitler eyes

Here’s what I mean by patterns in philosophical thought. As Christians, when it comes to metaphysics, we do not leave the answers to the big questions about reality, existence, minds, bodies, God, space, time, causality, etc., up to the one asking the questions.  If someone says, “what’s true for you is true for you.  As for me, reality is in the eye of the beholder.”  That’s not an answer that receives much support from orthodox Christianity.  In fact, most folks would scoff, right before questioning the person’s sanity.

Stalin eyes

And what about epistemology?  How can I have knowledge of myself, the external world, and God? As Christians, is there some other point of beginning for knowledge and wisdom besides the revealed Word of God?  If God has said, “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”, do we allow for some neutral zone where people can acquire knowledge on their own terms?  How is it that we have the possibility of knowledge?  Should we be rationalists or empiricists, or both, or neither?  Tertium quid, anyone? Anyone? Bueller?

What about ethics?  Is moral human conduct up to the individual?  Is it a social contract?  Is it the greatest good for the greatest number of people?  Is the greatest good even recognizable?  When it comes to ethics, Christians are famous, if not notorious, for not allowing ethics to remain in the eye of the beholder.  We have the ten commandments, the two greatest commandments, Psalm 119, which is a really long song about loving the law, the entire Pentateuch, the law of God written on our hearts, etc.  The answer to this question of value theory rests in the revealed Word of God which contains His Law.  No eyes of any beholders here.

mao zedong face

So, I mentioned a pattern earlier.  Metaphysical questions?  Objective answers revealed by God.  Epistemological questions?  Objective standards revealed by God.  Ethical questions?  Ditto.  What about questions about beauty, another branch of value theory?  Does God have an opinion on what is beautiful and what isn’t?  Does He delight in some things and find others detestable?  If ever there was an opportunity to say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, this is it.  God sees.  God assesses.  God beholds and declares beautiful or ugly.  God weighs in the balances and finds some things wanting.

Pol Pot eyes

Once we’ve rejected the myth that all beauty is subjective, we can make some real progress towards a Christian aesthetic. So where do we begin?  There is the difference between “beauty” and “preference” to consider.  The smell of anchovies or the texture of sushi may come up in the conversation about preferences.  There is the fact that everything that God finds beautiful may not tickle our fancy. Author Nate Wilson commends us to the reproductive patterns of the leopard slug, if we want to expand our horizons of aesthetic study.  God created leopard slugs with all their mucous and odd protrusions, and God created bunnies and kittens.  However, we often see bunnies and kittens on posters containing bible verses, but we never see posters with leopard slugs reproducing.  Is there a verse somewhere in the Bible that extols the blessings of bunnies and kittens while condemning leopard slugs to eternal perdition?  Maybe we do not yet see creation through the new eyes that we have been given.

Are questions concerning objective beauty the easiest questions to answer?  Obviously not.  Does the present author have an entire system of biblical aesthetics worked out?  Uhhhh, nope.  Is beauty one of those square inches of creation about which Jesus Christ says with great affection, “Mine!”?  Yep. So, for those interested in embarking on the journey of Christian aesthetics, there’s a great article by Justin Hawkins over at FareForward.  Here’s a sample…

In the Christian understanding, humanity was made for the contemplation and enjoyment of God, and since the beauty of creation is the shadow of the radiance of the divine beauty, it is no mystery that we are attracted to it as to the echo of a lover’s voice.  In the beauty of creation, our Creator is speaking to us, and that is why we love beautiful things.

Ethics and aesthetics are too closely linked in value theory for one to be objectively true and the other to be left to individual preference.  The non-Christian would agree with me and say that ethics and aesthetics are very closely linked, and they both ought to be based on individual preference.  What should the Christian say?

Not Looking Over Our Shoulders

The mean God of the Old Testament asks us to take a second look at the word “mean.”

Last week I read a post from Rachel Held Evans in which she criticized Evangelicals for having a heart-less faith. By this she means that Evangelicals are quick to accept the severity of God in order to retain doctrinal ease. For many an evangelical, a doctrinal card trumps the joker of doubt that shows up when confronted with the hand of God’s judgment. Such answers, she said, “never sat right with my soul.” Some things the Bible pins on God are at least, “morally reprehensible at an intuitive level.” Don’t we know what she means?

Let’s not kid around here – we all know what she means. But is she right that there is no answer to satisfy the question? No answer that actually resolves the problem? Mrs. Evans has done well to live with the doubt rather than leaving the faith. For that I am glad. Many of us have done this. Doubt makes Christians feel guilty. If we were to actively deal with doubt we would have to admit that we are actively questioning God. So we ask the doubt to please, Pipe down!

But the monster of doubt, I believe, does not like to sit quietly in his office minding paperwork. Doubt is a debt collector – wicked and persistent. You may not open the bills. You may even drop them into the filing cabinet without a thought. But the debt collector will hunt you down. He knows where you live, and he will eventually insist that you reconcile the math.

The deficit I am describing is “cognitive dissonance.” That’s the name for when you believe two things simultaneously that logically cannot both be true. The distance between your illogical beliefs is a debt that someday must be paid if you will ever have peace of mind. Between the contradictory views you hold, one will eventually solidify and edge out the other one. But notice that it is dangerous for us to resolve this dissonance by asking our own hearts, our own minds, and our own surroundings to show us the truth. All these sources are fallen and will lead us to unfaith rather than faith. Since we have become used to allowing our hearts or our culture to trump scripture, we are set up for solidifying against scripture when we resolve the cognitive dissonance. And this means we have effectively prepared ourselves for loss of faith when doubt comes to collect. I believe a whole generation of Christians have bought a bill of goods on bad credit. Like the youngsters a decade ago who bought adjustable rate mortgages because they were cheap, we have bought the mindset of our culture because it is easy. And now, a whole generation of Christians will be surprised when life changes the rates on them, and now they owe more than they can pay, and they have to call mom and dad and say, “I just don’t believe anymore.”

As I look at the current landscape of especially Evangelicalism, I believe it is helpful to identify three lines of thought that are going to continue to drag a lot of young Christians out of the church. I intend to look at one of these lines each in three separate posts.

1) Sexual Liberty — One such belief is the belief that sexuality is personal and cannot be judged. Once we are emotionally committed to a sexual situation which the Bible calls unlawful, it becomes nearly impossible to just “snap out of it.” Sex sells. And the first good sold by unlawful sex is doubt that anyone could judge us. Especially not a God who made us with these feelings. This debt is reconciled by accepting the lie that our desires tell us what God must have really meant.

2) Contra-theistic Science — A second belief that vies for our people is the belief that the only good explanation for the data of our material makeup is evolution. A great cloud of witnesses from Richard Dawkins all the way down to Koko’s kitten will tell us verified facts about our Genome. No problem. One little adjustment will render us safe: Tada! Genesis 1-11 is now a new genre of Bible literature: “true myth.” Now we Christians have discovered that we indeed did come from a common ancestor of the chimpanzee. However, Noah’s ark and Adam’s naming of the animals is somehow “theologically true,” even if they are not intended as history. We float along accepting that the Bible is cool with evolution, and then one day we happen to read Roman 5 or Acts 17 out loud, and it hits us that the New Testament also is laboring under the delusion of Genesis as fact. The debt monster makes us pay up by forcing us to decide between a flawless Jesus and the ease of believing NPR Science Friday.

Those are really great topics, by the way, for future discussion. And before I continue without dealing with the first two areas, let me say that if you are being hauled out of the church by these issues, I am not mocking your pain. This pain is so real that if we don’t deal with it, it will overwhelm many of us, and many of our children. Our culture, and our churches need to work all that out. But the third area is the one pertinent to this post.

3) Autonomous Justice — The third belief is that morality can be had without submission to a revealed will of God. We are not splitting hairs to point out the difference between saying that Atheists act as moral beings, and saying that Atheist possess logical grounds for supporting their moral actions. But it is hardly atheists with whom I wish to argue in this moment. Christians, we ourselves have gotten so used to being shown morality apart from scripture, that we too are willing to believe that morality is defined on its own, or according to our feelings, or by any means other than the revealed word of God.

When this happens, there is a funny game that happens. It’s kind of like when a dog runs in circles, trying to catch its own tail: we start with what we think the bible says, and let a partial reading of the bible to judge the actual rest of the bible as wicked. We say we accept the Bible, but we limit our knowledge of what the Bible means to a few feel-good prooftexts from Jesus. We come to the conclusion that Jesus was about being nice, and about “not-judging.” Because we are sure we know how Jesus was a pacifist and a sweetie, we form a view of what Christianity ought to be like, and how God would act if he were true to form, and this solidifies in our heads.

But then we read Psalm 58. We read the command to sacrifice Isaac. We read Psalm 137. Let’s not kid around here, we all know what I’m talking about. God is bloody and judgmental, and very unlike Jesus.  Right? At least, we are starting to have trouble after reading that “Samuel hacked Agag to pieces before the Lord at Gilgal” (1 Sam 15.33). And that is how the doubt sets in. But let us look at this situation again and realize that this doubt is produced by fallen judgment,  by our lack of knowledge of Jesus, and our lack of submission to the text as a whole. And especially it is produced by our inability to see ourselves as fallen. We are unable to be good judges without the transformation of God’s word.

Is Jesus a nicey? If we really read the Gospels, we would here: “Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword,” (Matt 10.34). If we listened to Jesus we would hear: “I came to cast fire on the earth, and would that it were already kindled!” (Lk 12.49) That’s from the mouth of Jesus.

Are we submissive to the word we confess to believe? If we really used the Old Testament, and did not just read it, but if we really used it like we should, we would be singing Psalms. Psalm singers don’t just see vast portions of the Old Testament, but they actually confess the content of the Psalms as articles of faith. They confess that Yhwh is a warrior. They confess that God extracts vengeance. They confess that God is angry every day. They believe that God abhors the wicked. And not least – they believe that God is good and just.

Is all that blood and judgment talk making us queasy? Is it solidifying our doubt on the side that there just can’t be a God because all this uncomfortable stuff is so obviously bad? Is the supposed God of the Bible really a description of a being who would be vile if he did exist?

Here’s the trouble with that – You can’t judge the standard to be false while using the standard to judge. God can’t judge sin by his own authority and then be judged as a sinner by the authority of the sinners. If God is the standard, then God is also righteous. If there is no God for a standard, then nothing is wrong at all. ABSOLUTELY NOTHING could actually be wicked. Since God’s standard judges wickedness, we need to allow God to be a lethal God, and still call him righteous.

But we can’t easily hear that news…. because we are fallen in all our parts. We are fallen in our own ability to judge. Which is precisely why when our own sensibilities come screaming out against scripture, we had better ask God to change us. If you don’t believe the Bible already, that’s different. But if you do, then you need to recognize that the God who raised Jesus from the dead is also the God who damns the unrepentant.

Here’s a final review of the logic in short, starting with a presupposition that we have all already admitted, that evil exists:

There is evil. I participate in evil, and am affected by it (internally and externally). While I can sense that there is a difference between good and evil, I may not claim personal superiority, because I am part of it. There is a standard, and it sits over me, not I over it.

If I say there is evil, I admit the presence of a standard. I admit that the standard is real (otherwise evil is not evil), and that the standard is universal (or it is not “true”). So if we suppose good and evil are real, then there is necessarily a universal and always true goodness. We are saying then, that we believe in God. That we think the standard is real.

And as one of the billions of people in the world who are able to sense the difference between good and evil, I am also one of the people who can quite simply tell that I am part of the problem. I am a sinner, and it reaches as far as my heart. What Jeremiah says, I can sense to be consistent with my experience: “The heart is deceitful above all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it?” (Jer 17.9)

Guilt, then, is a very true friend. It tells me both that there is a God, and that I am not him.

I have a conscience – sensing evil, but my conscience is flawed – “desperately sick” because I am part of the evil I sense in the world. There must be a God who universally and really arbitrates good and evil, because he is the sole cause of the standard, and he himself is good. If I am ever to have true wisdom, rising above my sinfully flawed conscience, I must ask God for that wisdom. I must submit to the word of his wisdom if I hope to overcome the desperately sick heart I have inherited. He must defeat me.

The very fact that humans make and enforce laws is imitative of the presence of the God we all naturally know to be present. I am not, of course, saying that no one is convinced otherwise, but rather that even the lawful atheist has a conscience. He knows good and evil are real. He therefore admits that a universal standard of goodness is present – even if he says he doesn’t.

Now, there are atheists who say there is no standard but who want to enforce one anyway, and there are also Christians who say that there is a standard, but they have decided the human conscience is a higher arbiter of truth than the word of the God they believe to be the source of that wisdom. These two share a bodyless soul: a conscience that has no source.

And that disembodied conscience is what our culture and our politics reflect. A conscience that still bothers us because of God, but a people who can’t be bothered to look at him. We want the “values,” but we want to have values in a world without specifics. Without historic realities. And most importantly in a world where Jesus himself is not looking over our shoulders.

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