Tuesday, January 22, 2019
Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2019
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Tuesday, January 22nd, 2019. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
What is beauty? The secular world is stumped when it comes to explaining beauty found in creation
In Romans chapter one, the apostle Paul speaks of a universal conspiracy of all sinful human beings to suppress the truth in unrighteousness. Keep that in mind as you consider a recent cover story in the New York Times magazine. The cover asked the question, “What is Beauty For?” The subhead, right there on the cover of the magazine, “How the Extravagant Splendor of the Animal Kingdom is Prompting Scientists to Rethink Evolution.”
The author of the article is science writer, Ferris Jabr. He begins writing about a male flame bowerbird, which he describes as a creature of incandescent beauty, the hue of his plumage, we are told, transitions seamlessly from molten red to sunshine yellow. Now, the bottom line of what Jabr is writing about here is the fact that evolution, at least the classical models of evolution, are insufficient to explain nature's extravagant beauty. That's the kind of language of the article.
Why does beauty exist? Why is nature so abundantly beautiful? Simply put, this kind of extravagant beauty appears to be incompatible with the rules of natural selection, the central doctrine of the main theory of evolution.
As Jabr writes, “Adaptations are meant to be useful. That's the whole point and the most successful creatures should be the ones best adapted to their particular environments. So what is the evolutionary justification,” he asks, “for the bowerbird's ostentatious display? Not only,” he says, “do the bowerbird's colorful feathers and elaborate constructions lack obvious value outside courtship, but they also hinder his survival and general well-being, draining precious calories and making him much more noticeable to predators.”
Now, as we are thinking about our modern times, we do have to understand that the great cleavage between the Christian worldview and the secular worldview hinges on the origins of the universe, right down to the meaning of human dignity. Or you might say, right down to the incandescent beauty of the male flame bowerbird. The question is why? What does it mean? Why does it matter? The theory of natural selection, as Jabr points out, can't explain this kind of beauty.
Jabr writes, “To reconcile such splendor with a utilitarian view of evolution, biologists have favored the idea that beauty in the animal kingdom is not mere decoration, it's a code.” He continues, “According to this theory, ornaments evolved as indicators of a potential mate's advantageous qualities, its overall health, intelligence and survival skills, plus the fact that it will pass down the genes underlying these traits to its children. Beauty,” he summarizes, “therefore, would not confound natural selection, it would be very much a part of it.”
But Jabr also points out the Charles Darwin himself disagreed with the theory that was just explained. “Although he co-discovered natural selection and devoted much of his life to demonstrating its importance,” Jabr says, “he never claimed that it could explain everything.”
Now, wait just a minute, we have to step back and understand that even if Charles Darwin is rightly described here as refusing to affirm that the theory of evolution must explain everything, the errors of Darwin have not been so reluctant. Modern evolutionists, indeed the modern scientific establishment does entirely intend to explain everything in naturalistic terms. It comprehensively claims to do so. And evolution is central to that naturalistic explanation.
Jabr writes that Darwin proposed that ornamentation and beauty, quote, evolved through a separate process he called sexual selection. Females choose the most appealing mates according to their standard of beauty and as a result, males evolve toward that standard, despite the cost. Jabr says, “Darwin did not think it was necessary to link aesthetics and survival, animals, Darwin believed could appreciate beauty for its own sake.”
Now as he brings the scientific discussion to the present, Jabr says, “A new generation of biologists is reviving Darwin's neglected brainchild, beauty, they say, does not have to be a proxy for health or advantageous genes,” as Jabr goes on to write, “sometimes beauty is the glorious but meaningless flowering of arbitrary preference. Animals simply find features, a blush of red, a feathered flourish to be appealing and that innate sense of beauty itself, he says, can become an engine of evolution, pushing animals toward aesthetic extremes. In other cases, he says, certain environmental or physiological constraints steer an animal towards an aesthetic preference that has nothing to do with survival whatsoever.”
This is a massive article. It reviews a great deal of the landscape of contemporary animal biology. But what's really interesting is the fact that this article that intends to deal with beauty, really doesn't deal with beauty at all. It not only fails to explain, as evolution must fail to explain, why animals are beauty, even to the point of extravagant beauty.
But Christians looking at this article and doing worldview analysis would have to note that the most glaring omission in this article about beauty is any understanding of what beauty really is. Beauty is simply taken for granted as a category in this article. We understand beauty to be some kind of extravagant aesthetic demonstration, whether it's the flamboyant colors of a bird's feathers or another demonstration of architectural physiological, well, any form of beauty in the larger world of nature.
Remember that the naturalistic worldview has to explain everything, simply in natural terms. But what is, as Jabr recognizes, the enigma of beauty? The biggest question of course is why anything would be considered beautiful. Not only is there the question that evolutionists are evidently trying to answer in purely evolutionary terms, indeed, two competing arguments, coming from two different groups of evolutionists about beauty. But we have to ask the question why is the word beauty even meaningful here? What does beauty mean?
This is where Christians must understand that our understanding of beauty is the fact that beauty meets an objective external reality. It's beautiful because it really is beautiful, it's beautiful because it corresponds with beauty, it is beautiful, the biblical worldview reminds us, because it is good and it is true. It is beautiful ultimately, because the infinitely beautiful one created every single creature, every single atom and molecule of creation for his glory. He made it beautiful, he invested his creation with beauty as a reflection of his own beauty. The beauty of the world is derivative of the beauty of the self-existent creator, God.
“Darwin,” Jabr reminds us, “simply explained that some animals ‘have been rendered beautiful for beauty's sake.’” But what does that mean? If you are operating from a materialist or a naturalistic worldview, then what does beauty mean? Who observes the beauty? Who decides that X is beautiful and Y is not? Who decides that D is more beautiful than E? Who explains why anything is preferable to us aesthetically? Why are our eyes attracted to this and not to that? To this more than that?
This is where Christians understand that the biblical worldview answers these questions in what is called theologically, the unity of the transcendentals. That may sound like very obtuse theological language, but I assure you, it is not. It's very simple to understand. The Christian understanding of all of these things is grounded in the being of God, the God who is himself infinitely beautiful, infinitely true and infinitely good. Thus, the Christian worldview understands that nothing can be beautiful that isn't true, that isn't good. Nothing good fails to be true and fails to beautiful.
As I often try to explain, this is why Christians understand that true beauty is infinitely more valuable than something that is merely pretty. Our eyes may be attracted to something as fallen human beings that isn't actually beautiful. In the prophet Isaiah, we are told of our Savior, that he was not physically beautiful. Indeed, human beings in sinful condition, turned their eyes from him. Of course, in context, that's a reference not only to his physical appearance but more importantly, to his substitutionary atonement, to his death on the cross. The shedding of his blood, for the remission, the payment of full penalty of sin.
And this is why, for example, Christian hymnody refers to Jesus as beautiful Savior, not beauty here as something that is merely pretty. The gospel affirms that the cross isn't pretty, but it is beautiful. It is not aesthetic, it is saving and thus, as we understand the fact that the good, the beautiful and the true are the same thing, we know that nothing that is a lie can truly be beautiful and nothing that is evil can ever beautiful. It may appear as pretty, but it cannot be beautiful. So when Darwin speaks of an animal being beautiful for beauty's sake, we come to understand that's a circular argument. What does beautiful for beauty's sake even mean?
Jabr's article talks about the debates among contemporary evolutionists, for example, Richard Prum, who's an evolutionary ornithologist at Yale University, proponent of a theory he calls aesthetic evolution. Another is Michael Ryan, identified as a professor of zoology, who's the author of the recent book, A Taste for the Beautiful and yet a third, is Gil Rosenthal, an evolutionary biologist at Texas A&M University. He's the author of the new scholarly book entitled, Make Choice.
Rosenthal says, “Beauty is something that arises from a host of different mechanisms.” Jabr concludes the article, “If there is a universal truth about beauty, some concise and elegant concept that encompasses every variety of charm and grace in existence, we do not yet understand enough about nature to articulate it. What we call beauty,” he writes, “is not simply one thing or another, neither wholly purposeful, nor entirely random, neither merely a property, nor a feeling. Instead,” he concludes, “beauty is a dialogue between perceiver and perceived. Beauty is the world's answer to the audacity of a flower, it is the way a bee spills across the lip of a yawning buttercup, it is the care with which a satin bowerbird selects a hibiscus bloom, it is the impulse to recreate water lilies with oil and canvas, it is the need to place roses on a grave.”
Now there's a lot there in that single paragraph, but it's not just notable what's there, it's even more important to notice what's not there. It's one thing to say that if there is a universal truth about beauty, we do not yet understand enough about nature to articulate it. Now notice what's there, what's there is the open assertion that if there is to be an understanding of a universal truth about beauty, it's going to be by understanding enough about nature to articulate it. And then he goes on, he actually argues about beauty, saying that it's the world's answer to the audacity of a flower.
But that just about says it all, doesn't it? If we can only describe the beauty of a flower as audacity, what does that even really mean? The secular worldview has to take some account of beauty, but it can't explain where it comes from, it has no argument of what it corresponds to, there is no moral relationship between beauty and truth and goodness.
Beauty is instead reduced simply to something that must be a matter of accidental attractiveness. For Christians perhaps, the most important realization in the face of a cover story like this in the New York Times magazine is a deep thankfulness for the fact that we do have an explanation for beauty. It's in the very knowledge of creation, in the revelation the creator made of his own being in the creation that he has made of creation as the reflection of the creator's own beauty and as human beings, the only beings made in God's image who can observe beauty and ask questions about it.
At the end of the day, we can simply summarize that beauty turns out to be one of the most powerful apologetics, one of those powerful arguments for the truth of Christianity. Because Christianity actually can, on the basis of Biblical authority in God's revelation, explain beauty, explain beauty as something real, not merely accidentally audacious.
Beauty meets identity politics: The danger of contemporary politics being inserted into our art museums
But next while we're talking about beauty, we have to look at the intersection of beauty and contemporary politics. There's no better guide to this than Roger Kimball, who is the editor and publisher of the New Criterion. In an article published recently in the Wall Street Journal entitled, “The National Gallery of Identity Politics,” Kimball points out how beauty–or at least aesthetics or a secular understanding of art–is now horribly contorted in a highly ideological and politicized age.
Kimball writes, “Once upon a time and it wasn't that long ago, universities were what they claimed to be institutions dedicated to the preservation and transmission of civilization's highest values. Now they are bastions of political correctness, intersectionality and identity politics.”
But Kimball continues, “Something similar can be said of art museums, although barely 200 years old as an institution, the art museum until recently existed primarily to preserve and nurture a love of art. Today,” he says, “many art museums serve as fronts in battles that have little or nothing to do with art. Entertainment, yes, snobbery and money, of course and politics, politics, politics.”
Alarmingly, he goes on to tell us the latest example of this trend is particularly egregious in his terms, because it involves one of America's premier institutions, the National Gallery of Art in Washington. We need to remember that the National Gallery was originally established and endowed by Andrew Mellon in 1937, but it is now a part of the United States. The ownership is the people of the United States.
As Kimball explains, in terms of the breadth, depth and excellence of its collection, its only real rival is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, located right there in Washington DC. It receives about $140 million dollars of its $119 million budget from the U.S. taxpayers and as Kimball says, the National Gallery occupies a singular place in the metabolism of America's cultural life.
But he goes on to say that the big problem is the fact that Kaywin Feldman, currently director and president of the Minneapolis Institute of Art, has now been elected to take the helm of the National Gallery of Art. Kimball raises the alarm that Ms. Feldman is noted for “her slavish devotion to transforming the museum into a left-wing political readout.”
Kimball then directs attention to an article written by Ms. Feldman last May in a magazine called Apollo. As Kimball says, “She began by establishing her anti-Trump bona fides, bemoaning the psychological toll that his presidency is taking on our collective psyche.” Kimball says she proceeded to assure us that art museums are, in her words, “intensely political organizations.” “Adducing,” says Kimball, “not only such global themes as love, death and religion, but also imperialism, colonialism, war, oppression, discrimination, slavery, misogyny, rape and more.”
What Kimball is telling us is that the individual soon to take leadership of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC is deeply committed to identity politics and to injecting identity politics into the work of America's premier art museum. As he writes, “The list of issues she believes an art museum must tackle reads like a far left manifesto, gender equality, naturally, diversity, inclusion, equity and access, but also what she identifies as social justice, global understanding, liberal education for all.”
Now to be clear, the American taxpayer should not choose the director of the National Gallery of Art based upon political position or partisan identification, but that can only be true if the director in the museum does not inject those partisan and political, ideological agendas into the stewardship of one of America's most important cultural institutions.
Roger Kimball is here pointing out the Kaywin Feldman, soon to take responsibility for the National Gallery of Art, has announced ahead of time that she intends to politicize virtually every dimension of the museum's work. He points to Feldman's essay in which she asked, “What more important role could a museum have today than in attempting to ease people's pain and bring them together in a safe place for difficult conversations?”
Kimball says, “The day before yesterday, one might have answered, a more important role for the art museum is to preserve the artistic treasures of the past.” Now, Kimball's one of the most sophisticated observers of America's cultural scene and he understands and acknowledges in this article that the politicization of museums has been going on for some time. But the overt, announced in advance politicization of the National Gallery of Art, as Kimball says, into the national gallery of identity politics, should have the concern of every American.
As he concludes, “This appointment to run the National Gallery of Art is the latest stop on an express train, whose destination is the subordination of art to politics.” That's exactly the point, only the naive would argue that politics has nothing to do with art or that art has nothing to do with politics.
But amongst so many in cultural leadership today, politics is everything and we should know not just politics, but one form of politics, one side of the political argument. This story takes on an increased and deeper significance when we place it in the context of our first story, understanding the conflict between a Christian understanding of beauty and what is now the secular conception of beauty, in an inherently politicized age.
Why there is no independent, politically-neutral ground on which anyone, fact-checker or otherwise, can stand
Speaking of politics, Elizabeth Bruenig wrote a very important article that was published at the Washington Post, the title of the article, “The Morals Behind Fact Checks.” The importance of this article is that Elisabeth Bruenig is writing about the fact that, as is so often the case, Orwell reminded us, someone will have to watch the watchers, someone will have to fact check the fact checkers.
One of Bruenig's points is that as she writes, “Anyone who learned to distinguish fact from opinion in elementary school would have good reason to assume that the two can't be as neatly broken up in the realm of politics, with the factual information subjected to universal standards of historical and mathematical rigor and then labeled true or false,” as she says, “but fact checks in politics, even in normal times, are not as uncomplicated as they might initially seem. In politics, information is always marshaled to the cause of some course of action or thought and there, the line between simple facts and moral claims can blur.” And as she rightly concludes, “These are not normal times.” She then takes the reader through several case studies, one from The Associated Press, one from the New York Times and she points out the fact, specifically with the AP tweet, that it was “an unwitting mixture of factual and moral claims.”
That's really important. When we are looking at what's presented in the media as fact checking, it actually might not be checking a fact, it might be calling something a fact, that is really an opinion. It might be inserting one opinion for another opinion and claiming it to be a fact that is correcting something that was factually wrong.
That's not to say the fact checking isn't important and in some cases, isn't appropriate. There are certain realities, truth claims that are indeed facts, that might be checked by other facts, affirmed by a fact checker. But one of the points Christians need to make, even going beyond this argument by Elizabeth Bruenig is that every fact checker, like everyone who made the initial statement, which is going to be fact checked, is operating from some kind of worldview.
There is no position of absolute neutrality and objectivity and there is no ability to separate and this is where Bruenig is exactly right, there's no way to celebrate in the world of politics every single fact that might be marshaled for an argument because there is a mixture of the factual and the political and the moral, in almost every kind of political statement, much less any kind of substantial political speech.
In an interesting turn in the article, Bruenig goes on to write, “Fact checking itself also requires a certain limitation of scope.” That's to say a fact checker is not checking every single fact or assertion or argument or proposition from a politician's statement, but is instead choosing which facts are going to be supposedly checked.
But in choosing those facts, rather than other facts, that point of an argument, rather than another point, there's a certain arbitrary demonstration of worldview even in that exercise. I like the way she concludes, she says, “None of which is to say that fact checking ought not be done or that it's never useful or even imperative to correct public lies. It's only,” she says, “to point out that politics will never be a safe place where correcting falsehoods is a simple or straightforward exercise, much less one that is free of moral judgments.”
“There is,” she says, “perhaps a widespread longing for politics that are decided on the grounds of simple truths. A world in which reasonable people all come to the same rational decisions, when finally presented with the real facts. But politics,” she says, “has always been and will always be a battlefield for moral reasoning that requires more than spot-checking of facts.”
It is important that Elizabeth Bruenig wrote this article. It's also important that the Washington Post ran it. It's a very important argument about the fact that worldview is always behind analysis. There is no independent, absolutely objective, politically neutral ground on which anyone, the fact checker or otherwise, can stand.
Christians understand, based upon a biblical affirmation of truth, that facts meaning truths, really do matter. But we also understand that what is identified as a fact is not always factually a fact. And as we said at the beginning, if we are going to have fact checkers, then someone is going to have to check the fact checkers. And then someone will have to check the one who checks the fact checkers. That's just life in a fallen world. But this is where Christians understand that truth matters, it always matters, but truth is never uncontroversial.
‘Global flood’ in the news: Why Christians ought not to miss this headline
Finally, I want to draw attention to a recent story that appeared on the front page of USA Today. The article is by Doyle Rice. The headline is this, “Global Warming Could Trigger Worldwide Flood.” Rice is reporting on research announced at a recent meeting of the American Geophysical Union in Washington DC. It's a story that is primarily about climate change, you'll notice the headline here reverted to the previous terminology of global warming. But I simply have to note the fact that all of a sudden, the term worldwide flood appeared in the headlines of USA Today.
The article also tells us about geophysical research, indicating it is claimed that there was a universal flood due to the melting of an ice sheet about 125,000 years ago. The big issue here is to understand that there is plenty of evidence in the geophysical record of a worldwide flood.
Note that many people today, operating from a secular worldview, dismissed the very idea of the possibility of a worldwide flood. But here, it shows up in the headlines on the front page of USA Today. It's an odd testimony, but one we should not miss, because our understanding of a universal flood doesn't come from the American Geophysical Union in Washington DC. It comes from the book of Genesis. But when USA Today runs a headline with the words, worldwide flood, Christians ought not to miss it.