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The Telos of Art and why it matters

Before writing this, I must give a disclaimer: I am very much a layman in this field, Aesthetics is not a field of philosophy I have done much research in or, until recently, had much interest in. With that being said, I will continue with my attempt to contribute to the field.

With all the important issues facing our world today, it may seem natural to question why something as trivial as “art” would merit serious consideration. Having put thought into it, I believe these qualms are mistaken on at least two points; art reflects and guides culture. Art is reflective in culture as being a type of social commentary- the values, themes, and ideologies found in art tend to reflect their societal counterparts (e.g. the rise of philosophical postmodernism corresponded to postmodern art). On the other and, art guides culture in that it has formative powers; art speaks powerfully to the heart and mind of a viewer, over a course of time, the ideological values placed within art can begin to affect the culture which it mirrors. Rather than a strict reflection, art can give a distorted reflection of cultural mores to emphasize certain facets thereof; in so doing, art can begin to guide the culture to a corresponding emphasis (Giovannelli). With this in mind, the question of whether or not art has a “telos” becomes a more significant question-one that has been debated for millennia.

Art is fundamentally experiential; and,  while different forms will be experienced differently and to different degrees, no piece of artistic endeavor is complete unless it elicits an experiential response (Morscher). This would imply that the proper function of art is, at least in part, an active response on the part of the people experiencing the art. At least one Aesthetistician (Leddy) argues that the purpose of art is to find an equilibrium of “feeling”, “action”, and “meaning”; or, more concretely, to create a synthesis of the past and the future in the present. While this may seem meaninglessly esoteric, it is actually rather profound-art seeks to give substance to the journey of life, synthesizing the path we have already walked with the destination we wish to arrive at. In other words, art has both normative and formative roles as signposts towards the person (or society) we want to be.   Goodman argues that this work is done via the exemplification of abstract ideas and concepts (e.g. emotions, states of mind, relationships, perspectives, etc.) in concrete works. Relevant to this blog, this would entail the exemplification of virtues or vices in an artist’s work. So, if we coalesce these conceptions of art’s purpose into a single statement, the telos of art appears to be the pedagogical exemplification of abstract concepts for the formation of an ideal character.

If I am correct in identifying the telos of art, what does that have to say regarding the relationship between art and ethics (which is to say, does ethical consideration affect the aesthetic quality of art)? Broadly speaking, there are three camps of viewing the relationship between these two fields: Autonomism (aestheticism), Moralism, and Ethicism. Autonomism and Moralism are polar opposites, holding that morality is irrelevant to aesthetic evaluation and aesthetic quality is wholly dependent upon morality respectively. The mediating position of Ethicism holds that “some works of art may be evaluated morally (contra radical autonomism) and that sometimes the moral defects and/or merits of a work may figure in the aesthetic evaluation of the work” (Peek). If my evaluation is accurate, radical autonomism is immediately disqualified as it would fail to embody the proper telos of aesthetic endeavor. While moralism seems to be the ultimate embodiment thereof, it also seems to be lacking… we seem to intuitively know that aesthetic qualities factor in to the value of an artistic piece; regardless of the ethics exemplified, a piece of art that I were to make would not be called “good”.  It seems the answer is the “golden mean” between two vices is the best position- aesthetic quality is influenced by, but not solely dependent upon, moral considerations.

I will seek to illustrate this  function of art by comparing the work of two authors and the manner in which they affect readers; the two have been selected due to popularity of respective works and the comparisons in popular analyses. (Also there have been a series of entertaining discussions about relative merits between myself and some misguided friends).

Over the span of 1954-1955, J.R.R. Tolkien released his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings as the culmination of 16 years of work (Doughan). Contrary to the expectations of critics and supporters alike, this monumental work was immediately a hit—widely heralded as the dawn of modern fantasy Tolkien’s epic saga has cast a wide shadow over the genre ever since. G.R.R. Martin is a contemporary author currently heralded as the “American Tolkien” best known for his bestselling series A Song of Ice and Fire, and the HBO series based thereon, A Game of Thrones, . Both the book and television series are ongoing, beginning with the publication of Game of Thrones in 1996, there have been five books published and HBO is currently airing the sixth season of the show. This blog is meant to use these two popular (and comparable) works to illustrate the telos of art- I will argue one embodies it and the other does not. At the onset, it must be emphasized that this is dealing with the objective characteristics of the works; per the scholastic proverb, De gustibus non est disputandum, subjective preferences cannot be evaluated in such a manner.

Warning: Remainder of the post will allude to numerous spoilers for works by both authors; while specifics will be avoided as much as possible, the possibility that further reading may spoil certain plot points cannot be avoided.

These two different epics are wildly popular and both have a devout fan base. Yet while one embodies the telos of art in exemplifying virtues to challenge its readers to be better, the other exemplifies a nihilistic amorality. Tolkien’s work celebrates and encourages virtues such as humility (e.g. council of Elrond deferring to Frodo or Faramir knowing he was unfit to bare the ring), self-sacrifice (e.g. Frodo taking upon himself to burden of the ring or the battle of Morannon), friendship (e.g. the fellowship), honor (Rohan answering Gondor’s call or Pippin’s submitting himself to Denethor’s authority), among numerous others. In contrast, Martin’s work shows a celebration of gratuitous violence be it physical (e.g. exploding head(s)), psychological (e.g. Ramsey and Joffrey), or sexual (e.g. numerous rapes, paedophilia, and genital mutilation); loyalties are transient with betrayals frequent and gruesome (e.g. Red Wedding), sex is used as a weapon or tool (e.g. Cersei). The only constant in A Song of Ice and Fire is the pursuit of power- to quote another author, “there is no good or evil; only power and those to weak to seek it” (Rowling, 211).

Some may argue that this is purely because A Song of Ice and Fire depict the dark side of humanity while The Lord of The Rings does not. Granting this for the sake of argument, this line of reasoning is shown to be wrong on at least two accounts: the way virtue is depicted in Martin’s work and vices are in Tolkien’s other works. Eddard Stark is depicted as a noble and honorable man and in recompense for his honor he is beheaded by a spoiled snob. The challenge of virtue does not need a positive depiction, in The Children of Hurin (a less famous but, in my opinion, better example of Tolkien’s work in Arda) Tolkien emulates the call to virtue found in its more famous counterpart by depicting the darker side of humanity- the virtue of humility is extolled when Turin’s pride causes him to kill his hosts, the virtue of honor is extolled when Hurin stands before the gates of Angband in defiance of Morgoth’s forces fighting to give his comrades a chance to escape (before being caught and tortured) and the virtue of honesty is extolled when Turin’s deceit leads to incest which in turn leads to suicide-a dark ending that would fit in with Martin’s work.

So, to give the aforementioned “telos” concrete form, why does this matter? It matters because when we read works like Tolkien’s we are challenged to be better, to embody these virtues that are exemplified in characters-these characters are better people than we are, they challenge us to become like them (our ideal self) in their virtuous nature. In contrast, works like Martin’s fail to challenge us to be better; if anything, the celebration of vice encourages us to be worse-to mimic our favorite characters in their revelry. More likely, works like Martin’s allow us to feel better about our faults- after all, we are not as bad as the we could be. The difference really is as simple as that, one shows the degradation of man and allows us to justify ourself in comparison to that, while the other depicts the glory of what man should be and challenges us to seek after it.

 


Doughan, David. “Biography.” The Tolkien Society. 2014. Accessed June 10, 2016. http://www.tolkiensociety.org/author/biography/.

Giovannelli, Alessandro. “Goodman’s Aesthetics.” Stanford University. May 27, 2010. Accessed June 14, 2016. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/goodman-aesthetics/.

Grossman, Lev. “Books: The American Tolkien.” Time, November 13, 2005.

Leddy, Tom. “Dewey’s Aesthetics.” Stanford University. February 8, 2016. Accessed June 11, 2016. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/dewey-aesthetics/.

Morscher, Edgar. “Bolzano’s Theory of Fine Arts.” Stanford University. 2013. Accessed June 14, 2016. http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/bolzano/bolzano-fine-arts.html.

Peek, Ella. “Ethical Criticism of Art.” Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy.  Accessed June 10, 2016. http://www.iep.utm.edu/art-eth/.

Rowling, J.K. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Scholastic, 1997. 309. Print

 

Arminianism and Penal Substitutionary Atonement: Doctrinal Inconsistencies

It is important to think of theological beliefs as a system rather than a series of isolated doctrines, otherwise we may hold positions that logically contradict in which case one ought to rectify such a contradiction. This is important as, assuming one takes a realist position as to the nature of truth, two propositions that are logically contradictory cannot both be true as it would violate the law of non-contradiction-one of the most basic laws of thought. If it is the case, as I intend to (briefly) demonstrate, that the soteriological position of Arminianism and the Penal Substitutionary theory of Atonement are logically incompatible, then it behooves Christians who hold to both theories to drop one (or both) or modify one (or both) of the theories in order to find a more consistent theological model. Now, a brief prefatory comment before beginning to lay out the doctrines; that the two are inconsistent by no either is incorrect, or that either is correct (cards on the table, I personally adhere to neither), merely that an intellectually honest Christian cannot adhere to both. Now then, prior to any attempt to demonstrate incompatibilities, it is necessary to lay out, in brief, what the respective doctrines teach.

The Penal Substitutionary theory of Atonement is a result of the Reformers expanding Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory to correct what they saw as inadequacies. Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory teaches (in brief) that Man’s rebellion offended the divine honor of God and Christ’s sacrifice afforded a surplus of honor as His life of perfect obedience to the Father afforded an unquantifiably large sum of honor. In contrast to this concentration of divine honor, Calvin and his Reformer brethren moved the emphasis to divine Justice believing that, while Anselm’s theory was good it had an insufficient view of sin. In this theory, Christ’s sacrifice is taking the guilt of the sinners’ upon Himself and bearing their punishment and taking upon Himself the Just Wrath of God towards the sins of the redeemed releasing them from the weight of their inequities.

Arminian soteriology (at least the parts relevant to this discussion) holds that, by His Prevenient Grace, God counter-acts the detrimental affects of the Fall allowing all people the possibility of responding to the gospel. Every person receives a “call” to salvation from God, it is up to their free-will to decide whether or not they would respond positively or negatively. While God, in His foreknowledge and atemporality knows who will respond how, He does not cause any to reject the gospel; the offer is truly open to all and the choice is made by each individual.

So, Whats the big deal? Well Penal Substitutionary Atonement necessitates a “closed” atonement- the sins of each individual sinner are placed upon Christ. This means that the redeemed, and only the redeemed, are covered by the Atonement of Christ On the other hand, in order for the offer to be open to all in a meaningful way, Arminianism necessitates an “open” atonement in which anyone can partake in it. Now, as is apparent by now, the contradiction lies in the one necessitating an open atonement whereas the other necessitates a closed one. It is possible to reconcile the two by changing Penal Substitutionary view to be Christ’s substitution for the Church (corporate Atonement) or for the penalty due to Sin in general rather than sins in particular; however, as is typically articulated Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Arminianism are incompatible.

 

The Election of Israel: and what it says about Calvinism

The teachings of Calvinism can be summarized in the acronym
TULIP
T- total depravity
U- unconditional election
L- limited atonement
I- irresistible grace
P- preservation of saints

Each point is worthy of discussion, but for my purposes I will focus on “U”, unconditional election.

First, let’s define terms:

Unconditional election- the teaching that before God created the world, He chose to save some people for His own purposes apart from any conditions related to them. Or, in lay man’s terms, God chooses who is saved (“Elect”) independent of anything they do.

When discussing this topic, many self-professing Calvinists I have spoken too have made the point that Israel’s election as a chosen nation in the Old Testament foreshadows/mirrors/shows that God’s election is in fact unconditional. But was Israel’s election really unconditional? Let’s see what scripture says.

The Lord was devoted to you and chose you, not because you were more numerous then all peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. But because He loved you and kept the oath He swore to your fathers.(Deuteronomy 7:7-8a)

So, Israel’s election was conditioned on the promise God made to their father (Abraham). What was that promise?

Then the Angel of The Lord called to Abraham a second time from heaven and said, by Myself I have sworn,” this is the Lord’s declaration: “because you have done this thing and have not withheld your only son, I will indeed bless you and make your offspring as numerous as the stars in the sky and the sand on the seashore. Your offspring will possess the gates of their enemies. And all the nations of the earth will be blessed by your offspring because you have obeyed my command. (Genesis 22:15-18)

Thus, Israel’s election was not unconditional as some claim; but rather conditioned upon the oath God swore to Abraham, which itself was conditioned on the faith and obedience he had demonstrated!

Now, this doesn’t disprove unconditional election, but it does provide support for the idea that God’s election is predicated upon our faith.

Continue reading The Election of Israel: and what it says about Calvinism

Preach always… And when neccisary use words

So, I haven’t been blogging much and I don’t see that changing anytime soon due to busy schedule. For those of you who don’t know, I am on a summer internship/mission trip through NAMB (North American Mission Board).

Today I went with a fellow intern, the pastor of church we are interning at and a couple members of his church to work with the BGC (Baptist General Convention) disaster relief program in working to rebuild a town after it was destroyed by flooding And decided to share experience.

The area I am in is extremely liberal and “post christian”, many grew up in church and left it for Buddhism, new age beliefs, humanism etc. and are jaded with Christianity (back ground knowledge… Now for experience). We got up early and drove about an hour to “ground zero” of flooding. After arriving we split into two teams, my team set up and began tearing out molded sheet rock and floor boards so the walls could be cleaned, mold eradicated, and new sheet rock put in. We were serving God by serving others and it felt great, exhausting but great. In the midst of this disaster relief effort these people so jaded with Christianity saw the love of God in action and relationships were built. Several people ended up coming to Christ… And for the first time in my life I understood the expression “preach always and when neccisary use words. We did more good serving them in an afternoon then could have been done in months of preaching.

My take away: ministry doesn’t always have to be verbal. Serve people, demonstrate the love of God, build relationships and then when it is time preach. People are tired of fake Christians… Show them the real thing and be a lamp through which the light of Christ can shine.

Shout out to the Mennonite disaster relief team that was also there demonstrating Christ.

Morality: absolute?

If you were to poll a congregation of Christians as to the nature of morality the most prevalent answer would be misunderstanding. Refine that poll to Christians who know what terms mean and you will get statements like
“Objective” or “absolute” often used interchangeably. Are they interchangeable?

Objective morality postulates morals are dictated by an outside judge, in our case God, who decides what is right and wrong and all things must measure up to that standard. Absolute morality postulates something is either always right, or always wrong no matter the circumstances.

So what’s the difference?

Well modern evangelical Christianity teaches lying is wrong so I will use it as an example. If morality is absolute then it sinful to lie. Therefore, those who lied about Jews hiding when nazi’s came and asked were engaging in sinful activities. On the other hand, if morality is objective those hiding Jews could appeal to the sanctity of life which superseded the obligation to tell the truth an would therefore be sinning if they gave up the Jews. Intuitively we know the second scenario to be correct.

This is why issues such as abortion get muddled. Pro-choice people are correct in asserting women have a right of autonomy, that is an objective right given by God. In an absolute morality that is final; in an objective morality it’s not. The sanctity of life also comes into play… Which right is greater?

Axiology is the philosophical study of values, which seeks to create a hierarchy of values, or what is worth more. In an objective morality this is vital, going back to abortion which right is higher autonomy or life? I think we intuitively recognize life to be the greater right but that isn’t my point.

My point is within a system of absolute morality axiological “rankings” are redundant, a right is always right and a wrong is always wrong. We live in a world with shades of grey, meaning absolute morality is useless- almost every ethical issue is when two so called “rights” conflict (for example: life vs. autonomy). In this type of world appealing to absolute morality is senseless.

Morality is objectively governed by God, it is not however absolute. God Himself instructed Moses to lie to pharaoh, which according to absolute morality is sinful. Luckily, we live under an objective morality in which the greater good (or lesser evil) is correct.

Genesis 2-3: Adam and Original Sin

The Love Of Knowledge

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I wrote a post a while back on Adam and the significance of his character in biblical history. In this post, I want to go a little bit deeper into who Adam is. I was reading a book a while back entitled Four Views on the Historical Adam. To some, a book like this may be crazy. Many may see Adam as a necessary being for the Bible to function properly as a whole. However, I would make the claim otherwise. One of the contributors to this book, Denis Lamoureux, argued for a non-historical Adam. In the book, he makes a very profound statement:

 

“Adam [and Eve] never existed, and this fact has no impact whatsoever on the foundational beliefs of Christianity.”

 

Now, I am unwilling to make this much of a profound statement. Why? Because I am unsure if I agree with the first part…

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