Friday, November 18, 2005

the art of miracles?

"modern people have an almost aesthetic dislike of miracles. admitting that God can, they doubt if he would..." (c.s. lewis)

recently, a friend asked me about this quote. i had used it to reinforce a talk about miracles and faith. as i read c.s. lewis' words again, it seemed to me that the only word seeming a bit odd in its usage was 'aesthetic.'

typically we use this word to describe that je ne sais quoi of art that causes us to feel something in response to something someone has created. aesthetics is defined by somebody named webster...

(let's face it, all webster dictionaries are not equal; it is a misnomer much like saying you are taking a ride on a ski-doo when you are really riding a 'snowmobile' and then stemming the resulting post-nasal tide with a kleenex when what you are really using is a 'tissue'. apparently anyone can publish a webster's dictionary... at least that's what i was taught during my stint at university- but that's a whole nother blog)

... as 'the philosophy of beauty and the fine arts.'

okay, so what c.s. lewis appears to be saying, then, is that a modern person's emotional response to the idea of miracles is comparable to that person's emotional response to certain arts expressions... particularly (in my view) the ones that they don't understand. their personal philosophy of beauty or art (or, in their personal theology of miracles, possibility or truth) informs this response and the response informs the art/miracle to some degree- rendering the art/miracle as either valid or ridiculous in the world being conceptually framed by the assimilation of these personal experiences.

recently there was a very simple post on icarus' blog... it had three components: a picture, a price and a pronouncement. the picture? an abstract expressionist piece (above) by mark rothko. the price? $22.4 million u.s. the pronouncement? 'disgusting.' (later, another piece and another price was also added. however, the pronouncement remained unchanged...)

when prompted (or provoked- sometimes it's a thin line) further as to what was disgusting about it, a great discussion opened up once again on icarus' blog, this time concerning

'what has the right to be called art anyway?'

totally fun to read. the fact that everyone in the discussion seemed to feel so strongly about something that is often seen as merely ornamental rather than essential underscores the importance of arts expressions in our world- if for no other reason than to unify people in nonsupport of something that is a direct result of something that they are so vehemently in support of... freedom of expression.

about ten years ago when a comparable mark rothko painting was bought by the canadian national gallery for $1.75m (a huge price at the time but about 1/10 of its value now, for the economists in the crowd) much of the canadian public was outraged, yet the story was relegated to two opinion columns and a cartoon on page 16 in our local paper. one of the opinion columns was quite funny as the writer, ron petrie, explored the idea of selling some of his yard sale junk as art nouveau...

"(for sale) one souvenir snow orb, a water-filled bubble that depicts a wintry street scene in banff whenever you shake it up or down. only we don't call it a snow orb. heavens no. for the purpose of government appraisal, it's a kinetic exploration of the interaction between the human spirit and the natural environment, embracing not only the apparent dichotomy between the two essential elements, but also a surreal sense of their inseparability...

(now for the punchline- jb)

the orb is priced at 50 cents. the gobbledegook is an additional $1.9 million."

often the modern art question, and modern artists in general are seen by realists as simply a really good example of the swindling tailors in 'the emperor's new clothes.'

for anyone who likes delving into the dark side of this topic (that is, the alternative to slam-dancing on the work of pollock, kline, rothko, newman and other abstract expressionists) i would recommend reading 'bluebeard' by kurt vonnegut. it's good ironic fun.

but what of miracles?

well, it appears to me that c.s. lewis might be suggesting that people struggle with the same emotionally-loaded resistence to the idea that things happen in our world which they cannot comprehend as they do with the ever-enigmatic, ever-controversial subject of modern art.

perhaps God's greatest miracles have much in common with some of our modern artist's strongest challenges to our perspective. when we are ready to default to dismissal, perhaps that is the moment requiring the greatest faith which will lead to the greatest growth in ourselves as spiritually experienced people. considering possibilities rather than impossibilities requires a commitment to exploring new things rather than simply concluding that the sum total of one's own experience to date is all that there is to existence.

furthermore, it may very well be that our inability to comprehend the truth about miracles has more to do with the willingness of our hearts to consider this possible truth than it does with the actual event in question.

is the painting above simply a bunch of no-talent blobs and smears done on a huge canvas by a lunatic or a charlatan, or is it an open window into another world?

who can say?

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Blogger nomi said...

As an art student we are taught to respect all types of art. But yes it can be argued..what is more important? Life or art. Movie makers spends millions of dollars producing meaningless films but we the public view them anyway, Yet there are still starving children in the world who would benefit from that money. But who gets to choose or decide what is relevant?? Critics in society, the general public? Mark Rothko and Pollack were painting in a totally differnt time period from now. It was a reaction to the Victorian era which focused on Mannerism. Also foe all you sensitive Christians ..Jesus can be considered a liberator of his time. Did he not make slight changes in the laws and morals?? The old testament and the new testament contardict eachother on mnay levels and Jesus was the reason for many of the changes. So in my opinion I think that the reign of Moderinists wasn't merely futile because it made us think and ask oursleves what we as humans truly value.

Blogger jollybeggar said...

right on, nomi!
i not only agree with the idea of the modernists' collective challenge, but also with the idea that we need to value and respect arts expressions based on their impact upon us personally, not simply because someone else pays a bunch of money for the piece.

where that breaks down a bit (and it's our role as lifelong learners to try to help others along in this area without relegating ourselves and our perspective to something that is also easy to simply categorize as 'them' and disregard) is in the openness of others to different forms of artistic expression... i mean, we're all art critics in that we have, thankfully, easy access to a lot of art. sadly, people too often limit their openness to new things in every aspect of life: rendering their personal aesthetic (or their personal spirituality) arrested and therefore powerless- arguably irrelevent in the larger picture of their life's journey. that bums me out because it feels so much like 'settling for less than all' of the growth apportioned us. still, that's freedom.

where i do need some clarification is in the area of Christ's changes to morality. i hope you're saying that the important inconsistencies between the new testament and the old have more to do with Jesus' ability to raise the bar of right and wrong, moral and immoral above a superficial series of rituals and into an actual relationship with God, resulting in a species (?) that is more in tune with what God intended when he created people in his own image and declared, before the fall of genesis3, that his created were 'very good', than anything else...

hey, thanks for stopping by this blog.
for the record: i am personally a massively huge fan of abstract expressionism- especially rothko and kline- and pop- particularly warhol and lichenstein.

so there, i said it. let the tomatoes fly where they will!

Blogger jollybeggar said...

i was thinking further about this whole pre-occupation with perceived talent from which we suffer.

my son and i were talking about bob dylan songs and a friend's apparent disdain for the fact that this poet has a career and my son observed that a lot of people seem to feel that way. then he asked why and a quotable flew out of my mouth into the room:

"talent is your innate ability to create something that i like..."

Blogger cromospotta said...

Thanks for the invite, JB ("Jim Beam", that's what confused me about your sobriquet... -- BTW what happened to your photo?)-- but I warned you, I suffer of logorrhea and prolixity is my middle name! So here I go ----

I'll concentrate on MIRACLES, since I've discussed art and religion in other areas of my many blogs (e.g., Skepticism et al...). What I usually post there is what I use in my practice as an educator and lecturer: a sort of public archive...

Yes, I do have a problem with miracles.
As you know, I'm not a Christian but I belong to JC's tribe nonetheless (you know, milah and all). From my perspective then - but not from my conviction - defining "miracle" is often crystallised as "an event brought about by the power of God that is a temporary exception to the ordinary course of nature for the purpose of showing that God has acted in history". The primary problem with this definition is that it makes recognizing an actual miracle as a miracle almost impossible. As an empirical hypothesis, the statement "x is a miracle" requires that we establish, with empirical evidence, a causal connection between the event x and this God, which in turn requires that we establish, with empirical evidence, that this God exists. That is a tough task.

Moreover, we must establish, again with empirical evidence, that God caused x for a specific purpose, which in turn requires us to be able to examine and demonstrate the intentions of God in that specific case. That can sometimes be done without interviewing the agent -- we can infer intent from the nature and context of an action, and we often engage in such reasoning in law courts, but it often isn't easy.

Finally, we must be able to establish that x could not have happened in "the ordinary course of nature." In other words, we must show that God is a necessary, not just a sufficient, cause of x. So the definition I cited above sets the bar almost too high for anyone, in the present world as we know it, to ever recognize a miracle. Even if a miracle happened right in front of us, we would almost never be able to establish that it was a miracle, and this difficulty only becomes exponentially greater when the miracle happened to someone else a long time ago.

If we take Lazarus as an example, his resurrection was a miracle, because it was Lazarus's nature to die in the circumstances of his illness and so his resurrection was, in the strict sense, supernatural, going beyond what was natural for him. On the other hand, if we find that some apparently wonderful event can be accounted for by some power less than the power of God, then it is not a miracle. But just what evidence or argument would suffice to convince us that the resurrection of Lazarus could be accounted for by some power less than that of God. Certainly we can account for Lazarus's resurrection as a result of natural causes, and are only prevented from proving this by our inability to access any evidence, lacking a time machine or any records, such as those of a doctor overseeing the care and burial of Lazarus (could he have been suffering from narcolepsis?)

We do not know what illness Lazarus had or whether he was really clinically dead, and so we do not what was natural for Lazarus, and almost certainly never will. Yet we know there could be a plausible natural explanation for the report we have, for history and science afford us ample evidence that this sort of thing can happen. Do we have anywhere near as much evidence that there is a god who can explain it? We do not. And even if we had better proof that God exists, then we could only offer God as a possible explanation for Lazarus's revival. Of course, at present I honestly can't even do that, having no reason at all to believe there is such a god. Yet even if I had that proof, I would still only have God as a possible explanation, not a necessary one.

In other words, even if I believed God exists, I would still not have enough evidence at hand to say that God raised Lazarus from the dead even if he did. That is because it is not enough to show that God could be a sufficient cause of this event. We must prove that God is a necessary cause, which, given the present state of the evidence, we can never do.

However, I must make one thing clear: the definition I quote at the beginning at least allows that it may be possible, in some circumstance, to prove -- even scientifically -- that a miracle has occurred. But the circumstances required would be so unusual that this is of little use to Christians, since the resurrection of Jesus, for instance, does not meet these vital circumstances and thus cannot be shown to be a miracle by that definition. We simply have no evidence that will allow us to demonstrate that God is a necessary cause of the reported resurrection of Jesus.

Remember the allegory of the "pet fish"?
I can imagine my pet fish suddenly speaking to me, telling me that God gave it the power to tell me that He loves me. As a rational person, my first hypotheses would be either that I am being tricked by someone, or that I am suffering from hallucinations - either from a brain disorder or chemical influence. Indeed, I would be running through my memory to recall if I drank anything that someone might have dropped a tab of acid in. I would then test all those hypotheses. Can others hear the fish talk? Can the fish tell me anything that I could not have learned any other way - like the name and location of a lost child? Is the sound unmistakably coming from the fish - even when I move it, and change its bowl? Can others confirm all of this? Can doctors confirm that I have no drugs in my system and no obvious brain disorder? Under these conditions, I believe I would have enough proof to call this a miracle under said definition.

Now, someone might say that even this is not enough, because this phenomenon could still conceivably be caused by demons or aliens or psychics or something equally bizarre (or an even more elaborate natural explanation, such as an extraordinarily sophisticated delusion). In other words, I still would not have enough to be certain that God was a necessary cause of the fish's ability to talk, but given what the fish is saying and what I am learning from it, and all the other details, I would have enough evidence to reasonably believe that it is God doing it, and for the requisite purpose (since the effect--the things said by the fish--allows us to infer this, even if we happen to be wrong). In such a case I would indeed convert at least to the teachings of my fish, so long as, upon interrogation, the fish's wisdom proved to be morally good and the fish could adequately prove all its assertions - and did not expect me to believe what it could not prove (since it is immoral to demand blind obedience), and so long as this theory is not refuted in the future. But all this evidence is totally lacking in every other miracle account in history. Thus, although my starting definition at least makes it possible for the "argument from miracles" to convert me to theism, I know of no real case which meets these requirements. This is, in fact, a major reason why I am an agnostic.


Blogger jollybeggar said...

"The primary problem with this definition is that it makes recognizing an actual miracle as a miracle almost impossible...

So the definition I cited above sets the bar almost too high for anyone, in the present world as we know it, to ever recognize a miracle. Even if a miracle happened right in front of us, we would almost never be able to establish that it was a miracle..."

see, i knew you'd say something fun, kinkatso... and i agree with you to some degree. however, i think that the problem is not with your definition, but with our western preoccupation with empirical logic and the 'burden of proof.'

we've got this thing in our heads that says we are entitled to some sort of an A>B answer to everything. everything real must be, in some way, provable according to the rules and limitations of our five senses... as a result, we only recognize and acknowledge, as rolling stone magazine puts it:

'all the news that fits.'

now i'm a crappy logician (as icarus and matthew and a few others will laughingly attest) but it seems to me that if we use existing natural methods to prove that something unnatural or supernatural has occured, we are using the wrong tools. just by the occurance, we feel obligated to resign to the possibility that it must have somehow been within the realm of natural possibility for the said event to occur... otherwise it wouldn't have.

so off we go, searching for possible scientific phenomena to validate our nonbelief in miracles rather than simply exploring the possibility that something supernatural has taken place which is naturally unexplainable.

we struggle, in our 'causality funk' to sort out the difference between mere coincidence and co-incidence, often defaulting to the former because exploring the latter with the current perspective and instrumentation would result in frustration.

and then there's always the basic lack of sleep problem... having admitted that we don't know everything, nor have the capacity or means to ever ascend to that level, how do we sleep at night fearing that we may not be in charge of the universe after all?

Blogger curious servant said...

What a wonderful post!

I'm reminded of a secret little pleasure I have that I don't tell folks. I like Jackson Pollack.

I didn't at first. But at one point I thought I'd be a double major and have art credentials as well as Language Arts.

The death of my child prompted me to aboandon the "extra" stuff in my life, but I still carry what I learned in those 300 level art courses.

Now, to the meat of the topic... miracles. We all see what we want to see. Is it random or is it God? I think the heart is a better judge than the mind. To some it is just paint thrown at a canvas. Others see something more.


P.S.: I appreciate greatly your comments on my blog as well as the link from this blog. Your encouragement is received with gratitude.

Blogger Christopher said...

thanks for the vist at my blog the other day. it'll be fun catching up on reading your blog. the balming God post resonates; that's most of what I blog about, theodicy stuff.

Blogger jollybeggar said...

'balming God post'
hmmm... i know you meant blaming, but now i'm wondering where this idea might go...

what might soothe, heal or comfort God with its medicinal fragrance?

thinking thinking thinking

Blogger Christopher said...

Oops (LOL); I do the dyslexia-typing thing often. I too greatly enjoyed your comment on curious servant’s blog. What does an insomniac-dyslexic-agnostic do? Stays up all night wondering if there really is a DOG out there.

Blogger jollybeggar said...

ha ha
had this one happen to me once or twice myself...
concerning the whole pain thing, i am trying to expand those ideas a bit but i think i already made my most coherent (?) remarks at curious servant's place!

Blogger Cinder said...

The topic of miracles...a few months ago I would have said that miracles didn't exist in modern day...but then a friend got sick unexpectedly and in a short amount of time, it was unknown as to whether he would survive and if he did, if he would come out of the hospital able to live life as before. In a matter of a week, he went from a long recovery time to being home with his rehabilitation able to drive again. His doctors have no explanation for it...they are calling him a modern day miracle...they said his case is only seen on an autopsy table, as most cases never make it to the hospital and those which do, die while on the operating table. Was it just a coincidence of life...I don't think so...I think it was a wake up call to me and those around him...that life isn't simply a daily series of black and white issues.

Blogger jollybeggar said...

yeah, a few years ago, friend of mine was thrown off of a third story platform on a construction site, breaking his back. miraculously, he walked into church the following sunday.

another friend had an aneurism this past fall, and the surgery that followed was successful, but triggered a stroke. many people prayed and in two days he miraculously walked out of the hospital and went home.

i think that it must be a real relief to doctors to see that someone 'higher up' than the head surgeon, or the hospital administrator or the chairman of the board of directors is in charge and can supercede the chain of command at any time.

having said all of this, however, curious servant's friend bobC passed away on monday, 'in spite' of all our prayers.

this disappointing 'no' answer to a pile of faithfully placed petitions takes me (i confess- once again) into the land of faith versus reason. this time i'm trying to figure out in my own mind whether there is any point to praying for life and healing in the case of terminal illness. i mean, living on fallen planet earth means dying here too.

do we keep praying for immortality in the face of physical illness, being fully aware that eventually everyone dies anyway?

we are told to pray without ceasing, but sometimes i know i become mildly superstitious... fearing to pray one of those 'give us the strength to deal with the loss of our friend' prayers because of its clear lack of faith in a miraculous healing. does having these thoughts in my heart and choosing to disregard them constitute faith or denial?

so many questions for little small brains dealing with the wages of original sin...

Blogger Cinder said...

It was very disappointing to hear about does cause you to question the whole point of praying in terminal cases...I don't think we ever should pray for immortality in terms of physical illness, being that we do know that everyone will die eventually. In a terminal illness, we pray for peace...the peace to accept what even though we know will happen, we don't always want to face. We pray to bring people around not only them, but their family, who will still be here when they aren't...we pray that something will come from it...bobC may have passed away, but I believe he's going to touch people from heaven, because of his demostrated faith, love of his family and friends, his ministries, etc.

Your friend who walked out of the hospital and went home...he didn't walk out the same as he went in...he has a long road ahead of him and may never be the person we knew before...that sucks in the light of what's being deemed a miracle!! But the testimony he carries with him...his friends who surrounded him and his family during this fall will NEVER be the same...the people who surrounded bobC and his family and will continue to surround his family will NEVER be the same either.

There's nothing to fear about praying the 'give us the strength to deal with the loss of our friend'...doesn't God expect this? Is it fair to abandon people in their time of illness? Shouldn't we be by their sides even if it does seem an impossible hurdle to that might not be overcome? I think we are called to be with them and their love them how Jesus would they know there are people they can turn to when they're ready!

But that's just my thoughts as I rant you said, so many questions, when dealing with the wages of sin...they'll always be there no matter how much we hash them!

Blogger jollybeggar said...

yep- the hash and rehash of the same old questions just further defines the limits of our fallen perspective, being subject to the things that God is master over: time, mortality, space...

i agree that we are to continually talk with the father about the things that concern our hearts. just as i listen intently to my sons' questions on life, the universe and everything, the father listens to ours. just as i let them speak through it, sorting out what they believe as they struggle to articulate it, so the father allows me the same freedoms.

the awesome hope in all the mysteries of life is that God is good and he does the right thing because he is holy. anything that calls the character of God into question is a theological fallacy- faulty application of causality, implication and logic based on limited access to truth and perspective. defaulting to 'God is good and he does the right thing because he is holy' buys us some time to sort out our questions freely without losing sight of who he is in the process.

i think that most of the hard questions people ask about God can be more completely answered if the answer begins with this notion, rather than with some blasphemous lie of hell that somehow God is like us. that's a one way street... we were created in the image of God, but God is not like us.

thank God for that!

Blogger Cinder said...

right on jb!

Blogger ezekiel said...

we have to understand that no matter what happens it is all in god's plan. god's plan is perfect. we cant fully comprehend it but even when those we love die it is perfect and good. when a believer dies, of course we will miss them, but we should be happy for them. the day a believer dies is the best day of his life.

Blogger jollybeggar said...

ezekiel, i struggle a bit with the easiness of these defaults. i'm glad that you are at peace with them, but my 'santa' post elaborates on how and why i wrestle a bit with this interpretation of God's plan...


our problem is one of basic selfishness... not in the negative sense- just in the pragmatic sense. when someone we love dies, it is with mixed emotion that we deal with it.

on the one hand, we 'rejoice' because they have been released- a friend of mine lost a dear uncle to her just yesterday and she was commenting on how this was an example of the mercy of God ie: her uncle only had two weeks of suffering after going 'terminal.' however, listening to her, one can tell that, on the other hand, she is working hard at believing that this is a good thing because the reality is that she wishes she could be with her uncle longer.

it is an ageold dilemma... we see the 'mercy' in it and work at putting that in front of our feelings of loss. yet we can fall into great depression because it feels like it will be forever until we see them again. it's selfishness in a good way- the dominant emotion has to do with ourselves and how our world is different now without that person in it, not the dearly departed.

a not-so-gloomy example:
when i went on my mission trip last summer to sri lanka, i had to go to a stall in the airport washroom of my home town and have a cry (sounds wimpy, but the emotional heaviness of the moment just caught me completely by surprise) immediately after saying goodbye to my wife and kids...
-more details of this journey at
...because it felt like i was NEVER going to see them again. in fact, it would only be two weeks, but because of the way time seems to work, the moment of goodbye carries with it arguably the greatest emotional weight. at the moment of farewell, the waiting time until we meet again is longest. in my view, that's why our mourning can be so painful-especially at the beginning...

it is not that later on we 'get used to it' (because if you've ever lost someone really close, you know that you never really do) it is that the wait until you meet again becomes shorter with each passing day.

there is some comfort in that.

Blogger Cinder said...

jollybeggar, i agree with you in the fact that you never 'get used to the loss of someone really close' and that 'if' they are a believer you do take comfort in the fact that the wait until you'll see them again gets shorter each day.

the thing i struggle with is when you lose someone close to you who's not a believer. last fall i lost an uncle to terminal cancer...he was so far away from god...i had a lot of friends who said that i should take comfort in the fact he wasn't in pain...that everything happens in god's plan. the wait until i see him isn't ever going to get shorter...i guess part of my struggle is probably a selfish one...we're human...but another part is knowing that i won't see some family members and having to still find peace in that.

Blogger jollybeggar said...

here's a couple things that i believe to be true:

first- God is good- he will do the right thing because he is holy and just. i don't have an inside track as to what that is- i only know that calling it unfair or unjust will be impossible in the final day when all of the facts are in.

second- 1peter3.19-20 speaks of Jesus descending into 'prison' and preaching to the captives who had been held there since refusing God's grace prior to the flood. it is my belief that this 'prison' is outside of time... that time per se is an affliction of mortal life... it is a constraint that keeps us from going back to the garden. so mildly logically, if Jesus was preaching to the lost of the past then it is conceivable that he was also preaching to the lost of the future. something to think about anyway.

whatever the speculation about second chances beyond the grave (that's a pretty slippery slope... wouldn't wanna build my summer home there!) the sure thing is that we know we have time now, and that the impact of what we do and say now rings to some degree on into eternity.

i awakened this morning praying for my brothers who are comfortably agnostic right now. i pray for them a lot, but i should pray for them even more.

how are your other uncles?

Blogger Cinder said...

i'm like a needle in a are my other uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents, prayer list is a long one. i'm more aware than ever about my actions and words...i'm under a constant microscope...some just waiting to see me slip up, so they can slam my faith and the church yet again.

i need to pray...i need to pray for them a lot more.

i would never call it unfair or unjust...i know where my uncle's heart was a month before he died, but i don't know where it was when he died...God doesn't want me to sit and speculate it either...i'll find that out when all of the facts are in on that final day...for now i concentrate on the rest of my family and concentrate on living and being the best example i can be right now!

Blogger jollybeggar said...

yep- that was where my comments were headed...

Blogger Cinder said...

knowing you have to try and live for God and set the best example you can is one thing...actually doing it sometimes is SO hard.

in some seasons of life it seems like you slip up more than you actually walk a good walk...your actions and words stink...the more you try, the worst it gets...a perfect reason for them to slam faith and the get to a point of exhaustion and emptiness and feel so inadequate to be that needle in the haystack.

in his grip no matter how bad the season seems.


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