30 June 2006

The Christian and Music (3): On the Beauty of Coffee Tables

This Picture Has Been Removed.

So far, we have dealt with one of the two objections raised against the understanding that no thing is morally unaffiliated. The first objection, when laid out logically would read something like this:

Major Premise: Every non-ideal thing is a morally evil thing.

Minor Premise: Every impersonal thing is a non-ideal thing [due to the fall].

Conclusion: Therefore, every impersonal thing is a morally evil thing.

If the premises are true, the conclusion is logical enough. However, all we needed to do to refute the conclusion is take a closer look at the major premise. Is it true that unless something is in its ideal state, it is morally evil? I illustrated that the major premise is false and thereby avoided the conclusion.

The second question will be even more complex: Given the moral affiliation of all things, how does one distinguish between good things and bad things? I want get to an answer, and I count myself as one who learns while he writes and writes while he learns, so here’s what I got.

I need to start by making the right connection between beauty and morality. Because we are talking about impersonal things still, not about the words of a song, but about the notes and arrangement, I am going to use my coffee table as an example of an impersonal thing. Why? Well, because it was at hand while I was typing about it.

My coffee table is part of the universe that declares God’s glory. It is part of what makes not worshipping God reprehensible and inexcusable behavior. It is made up of molecules of wood and glass which would be astounding to observe. The spatial geometry involved (or assumed) in its construction is thoroughly fascinating. Its wood grain pattern (though commonplace) could be admired for days. Yet it suffers under the curse. It’s falling apart (despite my efforts to maintain it). It was scratched and marred by the previous owners and by us as well. It has seen better days.

As we have said, this non-ideal situation does not necessarily mean that my coffee table is morally evil. But here’s what it does mean: I would be perverse, even morally wrong, to love those things about my coffee table which are not ideal as if they were. As I said in the first post on this topic, it is always morally wrong to love as beautiful that which is ugly in God’s eyes.

Where in the world do I get an idea like that?

Good question. I should be very careful about saying something is “always morally wrong.” I could only conclude that from an absolute authority like, for starters, “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable-- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy-- think about such things” (Phil 4:8).

Here’s where we can park our analogies and get back to the discussion at hand. I think this is where the discussion of music must start. It must start with the conclusion that only excellent (that is, excellent from God's perspective) should be admired. Music is, by definition, an orderly arrangement of sounds. To the extent that it reflects God’s glory as part of God’s universe, we should love and appreciate it. However, to the extent that it does not match with God’s ideal for what human music should be, shall we say, to the extent that it is not beautiful, we should withhold our appreciation.

So at the very least we can conclude, music is not an “anything goes” thing for the Christian. An objective standard of beauty exists, and God expects honest evaluation and appraisal of our music according to that standard. “Should I enjoy this music?” is a legitimate question to ask, and sometimes the answer may be negative.


T. Baylor said...

Pitts, I didn't get a chance to post on your first post, so I am lumping my response to both in this one.

Perhaps I shouldn't have let go on the moral affiliation of all things so quickly since I am returning to challenge that. I guess I have a few problems with the reasoning here:

1. You are assuming the morality of aesthetics . . . I don't think this can be substantiated on the basis of Phil. 4 since Paul probably has in mind the Christian virtues that the Philippians learned from him.

2. Toward the end of your post I think you make "excellence" equivalent to "moral," but then place excellence on a scale -- "to the extent . . .", but there cannot be a scale of morality.

3. It is not clear that a thing stands in the same moral relationship to God and man at the same time.

4. It is not clear that a thing stands in the same moral relationship to all men at the same time.

5. Simply because a thing communicates something about God, does not make it good or evil -- e.g. I communicate God exists, but I am morally evil while Jesus communicates that God exists and is morally good.

6. I think that 1 Tim. 4:4-6 is a more appropriate context since Paul clearly has involvement with impersonal objects or things in mind. Here it seems he treats all impersonal objects as morally good when we receive it in a Godly manner -- this is partly where I build my concept of relational morality (I think Paul's treatment of the idol issue in 1 Cor. 10 points the same direction . . . not the thing itself is evil, but the manner in which the thing is used by a morally evil person).

7. Just out of curiosity, could you give me an example of an impersonal thing that is morally evil, other than our present conversation? I am thinking this will help me understand your reasoning.

T. Baylor said...

Sorry my above comment was so long . . . don't feel like you have to answer all of the parts . . . I hate bogging for this reason, it is hard to get anything done.

Jeremy Pittsley said...

No problem with the comment length; I love the interaction.

I was trying to think of any thing that is absolutely morally evil. Based on the definitions I have provided, I'm stumped. I don't know of any impersonal thing that is so twisted that it no longer reflects God's glory in any way. And I cannot understand how something that reflects God's glory could be morally neutral.

On Phil 4:8, I don't know how you would get around a connection between aesthetics and morality. Even if Paul is referring only to his moral conduct, he is using aesthetic terms to describe it, and this suggests that he connected the two in his mind. Indeed goodness and beauty are tied to each other throughout the Scriptures, from my vantage point. Do you really think of them as mutually exclusive categories?

Well there's more to say, but for this moment I actually have something of a social life for once, so I gotta go.

T. Baylor said...

Unfortunately for you, I have nothing else to do this weekend, and so I can devote all of my time to this blog . . . wow . . . I've lost the will to live.

At any rate, with regard to aesthetics and morality, I do see a separation. I don't think we can treat aesthetics with the same certainty that we can treat ethics. There is a tremendous dearth of data in the Bible that deals explicitly with aesthetic philosophy . . . in fact, much of the language of aesthetics is frequently used to divert attention away from aesthetics proper, and redirected toward ethics (e.g. 1 Peter 3:1-6). I don't think that the use of aesthetic language necessarily implies a philosophical connection between morality and aesthetics; it seems more likely to me that the authors are borrowing aesthetic language to describe God's pleasure in proper ethical living.

On a different note with regard to an illustration of an impersonal object which is evil, I could not think of one either. I think this ought to call the paradigm into question.
If everything is inherently moral via its creation, and if we cannot stratify morality (as I have argued above in # 2), then every created thing must possess either inherent moral evil or inherent moral good. If moral evil does exist in created things, and moral evil cannot be stratified, then there must be some created things which are morally evil. If we cannot think of any, perhaps we ought to call the premises into question.

I would suggest, as I said before, a general neutrality of impersonal things with regard to morality and that morality is a property of personal beings who come in contact, use, and manipulate impersonal objects. Impersonal objects temporarily "borrow" the morality of their user - thus an eye is morally good when used by a worshipper to look on God's creation, but morally bad when looking upon someone's nakedness; but even in these instances where an object is considered evil, it is only by virtue of the fact that its personal, moral user is using it immorally. I think we can test this by taking any given impersonal object and asking 2 questions: 1) can this be used for evil by a moral agent? 2) can this be used for good by a moral agent?

Thus, in my understanding, no impersonal object is absolutely and necessarily morally affiliated, but all testify to God's glory and are able to manifest human depravity.

Interested in your thoughts. Did I hear Jenny was expecting again?

Jeremy Pittsley said...

To say that a thing is morally neutral is to say that it can be abstracted away from its createdness and considered as though it were not related to God. It is inherently related to God. The moment it ceases to be related to God, it ceases to exist forever by definition. Relating it to your 2 questions, it is inherently and always being used for good by The Moral Agent. That's what I mean when I say it is not morally neutral. It cannot even be legitimately imagined outside of its connection to morality. There is no such thing as neutral thing.

At least one problem here is the premise "if moral evil does exist in impersonal things." I thought we were tentatively agreed that it doesn't.

Another is the premise that you cannot stratify morality. I'm not sure I understand what this means. But I am sure don't like the way you are using against me ;) Seeing as you have all weekend, could you elaborate?( If you want to post that on your own blog, I'm game. Or we can continue here, whatever.)

I aim to post on the relationship between aesthetics and ethics on Monday.

T. Baylor said...

"At least one problem here is the premise "if moral evil does exist in impersonal things." I thought we were tentatively agreed that it doesn't." Perhaps I missed something, but I thought you were arguing for the inherent morality of a thing. This latest comments sounds as though you are arguing that a thing's morality comes from its relationship to/use by God alone . . . would also argue that the same object is morally evil when used by an evil person to express evil intentions? Can we only consider a thing's relationship to God when considering its morality? Do we always bear the same moral relationship to a thing that God does?

When i say that we cannot stratify morality, I mean that something is either morally good, morally bad, or amoral. The locus of what makes a thing one of these three options may vary, but if some thing is moral, it is either morally good or morally evil. There are no other options.

Jeremy Pittsley said...

Ok. At some level of atomization, it is true that an act is either moral or immoral. You must admit, however, that there is a complexity of motives in the actions of responsible people, and that, as believers, at least some of our actions have mixed moral quality. I'm not sure how this anti-stratification applies to impersonal things. You may be right, but I don't see why, and I am still not sure what you are getting at. Can a thing only be related to one thing at a time?

With respect to things, do you think that an impersonal thing can ever be legitimately considered apart from its relationship to God?

I am not saying that impersonal things do not come into relationships with immoral responsible persons. For instance, demonic influence could use material possessions (let's say, a nice red Ferrari) to (further) blind and harden unbelievers. In these cases the red Ferrari has a relative evil for both the agent and the object of temptation. Thing thing is related to at least two persons and to both as a relative evil.

However, the Ferrari can be considered apart from those demonic and human relationships. It can never be considered apart from its relationship to God. It is not a self-created, autonomous Ferrari; no such thing exists. It is not a neutral Ferrari; it is a Ferrari in God's universe, a Ferrari under God's control. It is a Ferrari which is inherently and always being used by The Moral Agent for his moral purposes. Part of the definition of Ferrari is thing-in-God's-universe. To consider it apart from it's relationship to God is to deny (part of) its essence.

So creation has an intrisic relationship to the Creator. It relates to the Creator in a way that it relates to no finite being. Its relationship to finite being is relative; its relationship to God is inherent, determinative, definitional, essential, and intrinsic.

T. Baylor said...

Ok this was good. No I am not saying an object can be considered apart from its relationship to God, but I am saying that it must also be considered in relationship to other moral beings (e.g. spirits and humans as in your illustration). This returns to what I was arguing before, namely that any impersonal object gains its morality "temporarily borrows" its morality by the use of the moral person involved -- this is a necessary corrolary to the fact that things are not moral in themselves, but only in regards to their relationships with moral beings (God, man, spirits).

I do not doubt that humans are complex, and that their moral position, at any given point when considered as a whole, is also complex. However, this is not the case when we consider things inherently. Either a thing is inherently evil or inherently good or inherently amoral -- I would argue practically for the latter since I believe that morality is "communicated" to a thing by virture of the moral user.

Jeremy Pittsley said...

I imagine we are pretty close then. The next step is relationship between moral good and beauty, but that is still to come.

Tim Barker said...

sorry for being absent on most of this discussion I guess I have a social life of sorts and a job so here I am late. I've read the discussion and I guess I agree with the inanimate object picking up its morality for the agent using it.

I appreciate Pittsley's reference point of God in the whole discussion. I think a needed correction for all to state this point. Though as I see the discussion has taken the turn to mainly argue for the human moral user vantage point that matters, I think here rubber meets the road.

I look forward to hearing a potential connection of morality and beauty. I struggle to see how any created inanimate object can be "ugly" (deficient in beauty) if coming from the creator's objects. I think I could potentially go for a human moral agent's ability to mar beauty (akin to the moral evilness man is capable of).

I'll be in and out on the discussion but good topic Pitts.