Friday, January 2, 2015

Reflections on Beauty

There are many defects of the modern mind, but surely one of the most serious is its being conditioned to prize mere functional utility at the expense of beauty. When we consider the value of something, we almost always do so in terms of its usefulness. What’s it good for?  What function does it perform?  Is it efficient?

The question we rarely seem to ask is, “Is it beautiful?” How often do we purchase something simply for the pure aesthetic delight we take in it?  Are we not inclined to think such an expense a waste of money?

Yet God has given us senses that appreciate beauty – sights, sounds, and smells that have a pleasing effect. Sadly, however, Christians often fail to cultivate their aesthetic sense. It is thought to be unspiritual to “waste time” on such things. But God’s delight in things beautiful is displayed in his handiwork. Think of the varieties of color he splashes on the sky at sunset, the thousands of hues of green in nature (with none of them clashing), the sparkling heavens at night, the smell of honeysuckle, the sound of birds singing their songs to God, the taste of a good wine. To a modern utilitarian it might seem that God wasted an awful lot of creative energy on things that serve no useful purpose other than to ravish our senses. But God was pleased not only to ensure our survival in the world by providing us with what is necessary, but also to ensure our enjoyment of it by providing us with what is beautiful and pleasing.

Created as we are in God’s image, we are drawn to the beautiful, and unless our aesthetic sense has been stifled by a crass utilitarian brain-washing, we pursue the beautiful, not merely in purely artistic pursuits like painting and sculpture, but in everyday ordinary activities, like how we dress, how we speak, how we set the table, how we worship.

Below are some quotations from various sources that might help us recover a sense of the importance of beauty.

“Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance” (Gen. 29:17).

“And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty” (Ex. 28:2).

“See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft” (Ex. 31:1-5).

“Sound theology leads always to the love of beauty. When there is no love of beauty, we may say, reasoning modus tollens, that there is no sound theology” (Douglas Wilson, Angels in the Architecture, p. 26).

“We were created to make beautiful things - in music, in stone, on canvass, in sculpted gardens and in wonderful buildings” (Douglas Wilson, Angels in the Architecture, p. 31).

“Beauty is never ‘necessary,’ ‘functional,’ or ‘useful.’  And when, expecting someone whom we love, we put a beautiful tablecloth on the table and decorate it with candles and flowers, we do all this not out of necessity, but out of love. And the Church is love, expectation and joy… As long as Christians will love the Kingdom of God, and not only discuss it, they will ‘represent’ it and signify it, in art and beauty” (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, p. 30).

Note:  Angels in the Architecture by Douglas Jones and Douglas Wilson has been instrumental in shaping my views on this subject.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

Reflections on the sin of Korah

In Numbers 16 we read about a man by the name of Korah, who along with some men from the tribe of Reuben, accused Moses of exalting himself in Israel. “They assembled themselves together against Moses and against Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all in the congregation are holy, every one of them, and the Lord is among them. Why then do you exalt yourselves above the assembly of the Lord?” (16:3) It adds an interesting twist to the story when we realize that this Korah was Moses’ cousin. Their fathers were brothers.

The charge that Korah brought against Moses and Aaron had to do with the greater access to God they enjoyed with respect to officiating in the tabernacle. Only they and Aaron’s sons were allowed to serve as priests. Because of this Korah accused them of “exalting themselves above the assembly of the Lord,” claiming that “all in the congregation are holy, every one of them.” Psalm 106 says, “Men in the camp were jealous of Moses and Aaron, the holy one of the Lord” (Psalm 106:16).

Two things might be said in response to this. First, Korah overlooked the fact that this prerogative was not something that Moses and Aaron claimed for themselves on their own initiative, but something that was given to them by God. As the writer of Hebrews says, “No one takes this honor [of the priesthood] for himself, but only when called by God, just as Aaron was” (Heb. 5:4). The priesthood was a divine arrangement. Therefore, in finding fault with Moses about this, Korah was finding fault with God.

Second, Korah himself enjoyed a highly privileged position. Not only was he from the tribe of Levi, thus possessing the right to share in the privileges of that tribe’s unique calling (Num. 1:50-54; 18:1-7, 21-32), but he was also from the clan of Kohath, and as such had greater access to God than the two other clans of Levi (Gershon and Merari). The clan of Kohath had been given the great honor of caring for the holiest items of the tabernacle in Israel’s march through the wilderness (3:31-32; 4:4-20; cf. 7:9). Korah, in fact, had everything but the priesthood. But this was not enough for him. As long as there was something to be had that was off limits to him, he would not be satisfied, especially if someone else was given access to it. Korah challenged Moses on the point of fairness. “It’s not fair that you have something I don’t have!” He was true egalitarian.

Dathan and Abriam, the sons of Eliab, and On the son of Peleth, joined Korah in his rebellion. They were from the tribe of Reuben (16:1). Reuben camped to the south of the sanctuary, the same side as Korah and the Kohathites (cf. 2:10-11; 3:29). Thus, Korah and his associates and the men of Reuben would have had “ample opportunity to commiserate” with each other in their grievances against Moses.[1]

The men of Reuben may have had an additional objection to the ordering of Israelite society. They may have objected to the fact that their tribe had not been given the traditional right of the firstborn (Gen. 49:3-4).

Moses, however, upheld God’s right to appoint whomever he pleased to the priestly office, and likewise to deny that honor to whomever he pleased.

When Moses heard it, he fell on his face, and he said to Korah and all his company, “In the morning the Lord will show who is his, and who is holy, and will bring him near to him. The one whom he chooses he will bring near to him… You have gone too far, sons of Levi!” (16:4, 7)

Moses turns the charge around. It was not he who had gone too far, but Korah.

Hear now, you sons of Levi:  is it too small a thing for you that the God of Israel has separated you from the congregation of Israel, to bring you near to himself, to do service in the tabernacle of the Lord and stand before the congregation to minister to them, and that he has brought you near him and all your brothers the sons of Levi with you? And would you seek the priesthood also? (vv. 8-10)

Korah was ungrateful for the high honor the Lord had been pleased to confer upon him. He considered it “too small a thing” and grasped for more than what God was pleased to give.[2] This is very instructive. It could be said to be the essence of all sin. Consider Adam and Eve. They had been blessed beyond measure:  created in the image of God, called into his fellowship, enjoying the delights of Paradise. One thing only was prohibited to them—eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They could eat from all the other trees in the garden except from it. And this is where the devil focused his attention. He aroused their discontent so that they overstepped their bounds and reached for a position which God had denied to them. 

This was the great sin of the king of Babylon, too, who said, “I will ascend to heaven; I will sit on the mount of the assembly in the far reaches of the north; I will ascend above the heights of the clouds; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isa. 14:12-14).

Jealousy is an insidious evil which can manifest itself both personally and politically. (Think the Occupy Wall Street movement or Progressivism generally.) Envy of the success or privilege of others is base, although it has the advantage of appearing virtuous when indulged in in the name of fairness or equality.

We should do our best, with God’s help, to cultivate a spirit of thankfulness and contentment for all the good we enjoy, even if it is not as abundant as we might wish (Phil. 4:12) or as abundant as what others enjoy. Rather than being jealous of their good fortune, we should rejoice with them in it (Rom. 12:15). Not everyone is called to be rich. Not everyone is called to positions of great influence. God distributes his gifts as he sees fit (1 Cor. 12:4-6).  

For not from the east or from the west
      and not from the wilderness comes lifting up,
but it is God who executes judgment,
      putting down one and lifting up another (Ps. 75:6-7)

This is not an excuse for passivity but rather a call to beware of envy and to seek contentment in God’s providence. 

[1] Timothy R. Ashley, The Book of Numbers in NICOT (Grand Rapids, MI:  William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1993), p. 303
[2] Later Uzziah would fall into the same transgression. Though he had the great honor of being king, he was discontent that he did not also possess the priesthood and suffered the terrible consequences of his envy (2 Chron. 26:16-21).

"Why don't they teach logic at these schools?"

“Logic!” said the Professor half to himself.
“Why don’t they teach logic at these schools?”
- C. S. Lewis, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe -

I recently came across this picture, which seems to be making the rounds on social media in one form or another. What do you suppose is its purpose, its intended meaning? What conclusion does its creator wish us to draw? Is it simply that blacks, whites, gays, straights, religious people, and atheists all have the same basic skeletal structure? This is true enough, of course, but also so obvious as to scarcely need pointing out.

So what is its meaning? Given the social and political climate of the day, it seems to be this:  that blacks, whites, gays, straights, religious people, and atheists are all morally equivalent. The picture contains an argument that might be expressed in the following syllogism:

People who have the same skeletal structure are morally equivalent.

Blacks, whites, gays, straights, religious people, and atheists have the same skeletal structure.

Therefore, blacks, whites, gays, straights, religious people, and atheists are morally equivalent.

So what are we to think of the logical value of this argument? Is it valid? That is, does the conclusion follow from the premises? Yes. If it is true that people with the same skeletal structure are morally equivalent; and if it is true that blacks, whites, gays, straights, religious people, and atheists have the same skeletal structure, then it is necessarily true that such people are morally equivalent.

However, while the argument is valid, it is not sound. Let us pause for a moment and remind ourselves of the difference between validity and soundness. A valid argument is one in which the conclusion necessarily follows from the premises, regardless of whether or not the premises are true. Consider an example:

All men have beards.
Doug Enick is a man.
Therefore, Doug Enick has a beard.

This argument is valid (the conclusion—which also happens to be true—necessarily follows from the premises), but it is not sound because one of the premises (the first) is false.[1] Soundness is stronger than validity. To say an argument is valid is to say that its conclusion follows from its premises. To say that an argument is sound is to say not only that its conclusion follows from its premises, but also that its premises are true.

The argument implied in the picture above, though valid, is not sound because the first premise (“People who have the same skeletal structure are morally equivalent”) is false. What does skeletal structure have to do with morality? This point might become clearer if we add a couple skeletons to the picture. Label one, Hitler, and the other, Mother Theresa. They have the same basic skeletal structure. Shall we therefore conclude they are morally equivalent?

We should further observe that the minor term (“blacks, whites, gays, straights, religious people, and atheists”)[2] compares apples and oranges. The color of one’s skin is an immutable physical characteristic and has no moral bearing. Sexual behavior, on the other hand, is…well, behavior, and as such has moral implications. The same can be said with respect to acknowledging or refusing to acknowledge God (religious people and atheists).

The implied argument, then, clearly fails. The most the picture “proves” is that all people, regardless of skin color, sexual behavior, or religious viewpoint, have the same skeletal structure. But then again we already knew that.

[1] Some uncharitable readers might think the second premise false also!
[2] The minor term of a syllogism is the subject of the conclusion. The minor premise is the premise that contains the minor term.