Friday, May 25, 2007

No Excuses

As a former militant agnostic and devotee of scientific naturalism, I consider these verses from Paul’s letter to the Romans to be one of the most powerful passages in the Bible:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse. (Rom 1:18-20 NIV)

In a nutshell, Paul is saying that nature itself is evidence enough for God’s existence, so that no one has any excuse for denying it. Before I became a Christian it seemed to me that just the opposite was true. I believed that the supernatural realm, if it existed at all, was beyond observation. Therefore I could only give credence to natural explanations. I was steeped in a secular scientific worldview. It seemed elementary to me that our eyes only give us evidence for the natural world. Surely all belief in God is just irrational superstition! When I looked at nature I saw the glory of Science, not the glory of God.

I remember when I first became a Christian and came across this passage. I had a hard time understanding it. I was still heavily under the influence of my former way of thinking about nature. It was only with considerable effort that I was able to appreciate what Paul is saying:
  • When we see that the universe is vast beyond measure we know that the Creator is powerful beyond comprehension.
  • When we see that the universe is orderly and understandable we know that the Creator is a rational being.
  • When we see that the universe is intricate, varied, and exquisitely beautiful we know that the Creator delights in his creation.
In a recent sermon our pastor made the point that practically all cultures throughout history have shared two common ideas: belief in a god or gods and belief in life after death. The committed naturalist says evolution gave us these instincts. Is it not just as plausible that our Creator put them there? As our pastor said, we are all born to belief; it takes years of training to become an atheist.

Of course, our God-implanted instinct to worship the transcendent is not so easily eradicated. That is why even the committed secularists today tend to personify Nature, writing it with a capital “N” and speaking reverently of it. In his famous book and TV miniseries Cosmos, Carl Sagan personified and worshiped the universe in this way. His book opens with these words:
The Cosmos is all that is or ever was or ever will be. Our feeblest contemplations of the Cosmos stir us – there is a tingling in the spine, a catch in the voice, a faint sensation, as if a distant memory, of falling from a height. We know we are approaching the greatest of mysteries.
Paul warned us of this as well:
They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen. (Rom 1:25 NIV)

But the glory of the heavens speaks to us of God’s glory so that, as Paul said, we are without excuse:
The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands. Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard. Their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world. (Psalm 19:1-4 NIV)

People often ask, if God wants us to believe in him why does he hide himself? But Paul tells us that the evidence is right before our eyes. Indeed, it is written in our hearts.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Revisiting the Menil

Last week I wrote about visiting the Menil collection. I want to go again soon. It is an interesting place and I didn’t get to see everything on our first visit. One exhibit we didn’t have time for is entitled the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall. We did pick up a copy of the brochure, though. My description here is from the brochure.

Flavin was evidently a 20th century artist of some note, one of the founders of Minimalism, according to the brochure. It seems that in later years he specialized in creating artistic “situations” by arranging ordinary fluorescent lights of various colors in otherwise ordinary rooms. The Installation at Richmond Hall consists of a simple, repeating orthogonal pattern of light fixtures installed on the walls of a large, empty rectangular room. These are standard, industrial light fixtures mounted on otherwise bare walls. I can certainly see the advantage. It would be nice to know that whenever the Muse strikes you’re never very far from a Home Depot.

The brochure explains how Flavin stumbled into this convenient new medium:
In the spring of 1961, Flavin created a series of eight works, which he called “icons,” containing elements of electric light playing off painted surfaces. Two years later he attached a single eight-foot, yellow fluorescent light fixture to his studio wall, calling the work the diagonal of personal ecstasy. He renamed the work one year later the diagonal of May 25, 1963 (to Robert Rosenblum). Fluorescent light thereafter became Flavin’s signature medium in which he discovered the unexpected sensuousness and beauty of a seemingly sterile and ubiquitous material.
Help me out here. Am I the only one who snickered at the line “he attached a single eight-foot, yellow fluorescent light fixture to his studio wall, calling the work the diagonal of personal ecstasy”? I really don’t understand this kind of art. Can someone explain it to me? How does hanging a crooked light fixture on the wall qualify as art?

If you do try to explain this stuff to me, please remember to use layman’s language. When I read the descriptions of the art critics they don’t seem to have any connection to the artwork itself. I wonder if they really are looking at what I’m looking at. For instance, last week I wrote about visiting the Rothko Chapel. You will recall that it is an octagonal structure adorned only with featureless monochromatic paintings. As I was Googling for it I came across a book on titled The Rothko Chapel Paintings: Origins, Structures, Meanings (Sales Rank 1,012,518). The publisher’s note states:

No painting in the set could be understood in isolation from the rest or apart from its place in the architectural setting. The Rothko Chapel Paintings explores this interdependence of paintings and place. As viewers move about the Chapel's octagonal enclosure, over whose walls the fourteen panels are continuously distributed, they discover systems of pictorial interactions which become the terms or characters of a cosmological drama in which the viewer is a necessary participant. In the act of vision, the embodied viewer is prompted not merely to witness but also to reenact that questioning of human destiny which has preoccupied the Western spiritual tradition.
Wow! I have to admit I didn’t notice all that when I saw the paintings. I thought they were dust covers! This seems like a complete fabrication to me, but it is perfectly postmodern. Meaning is in the eye of the beholder, and evidently the beholder does not feel terribly constrained by the actual appearance of the piece.

Clearly I need to go back and take a second look at those dust covers. I also can’t wait to see the Dan Flavin Installation at Richmond Hall. But if time doesn’t permit, we’ll just swing by the lighting department at Home Depot.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Doughnut Souls

This past weekend my wife and I visited The Menil Collection. This museum houses the art collection of the late John and Dominique de Menil, prominent Houston philanthropists and art patrons. I am somewhat embarrassed to confess that although it has been open for nearly 20 years, this is the first time I had visited it.

Before we visited the main collection we took a walk around the grounds. There are two “chapels” on the campus of The Menil Collection. We visited the Rothko Chapel first. It is a windowless octagonal structure with stone walls and a stone floor. On the walls hang large abstract paintings by Mark Rothko. They are dark, monochromatic and nearly featureless. When I first walked into the dim light I thought the paintings must have been covered for protection. Then I realized those were the paintings. There is no other adornment and scarcely any furniture, just a few severe wooden benches and a couple of cushions for those who prefer to sit on the floor as they meditate. This space seems designed for meditation. Yet I almost felt as though my very presence was an intrusion into the silence and emptiness.

We stayed in the Rothko Chapel only a minute or two and were glad to be outside again. It seemed oppressive. We had been there once before several years ago when we attended a memorial service for a good friend’s son who had died of AIDS. My memories of the chapel itself were dim. I guess I was much more focused on the people and the service that day. Seeing it again, I reflected on what a fitting location it was for such a somber and sorrowful occasion. It occurred to me that the Rothko Chapel is the perfect metaphor for the emptiness of the modern soul. In such a chapel there is no God, no meaning, and no message from God to man – no content at all. The Rothko Chapel evokes the Eastern ideal of the extinction of self. In contrast, when we go into a Christian church there is light and music and words of hope, and most of all a community of believers gathered together to worship God.

After we visited the Rothko Chapel we walked over to see the Byzantine Fresco Chapel. It is quite different. This chapel was built to house two 13th century frescoes which had been stolen from a small church in Cyprus. The Menil Foundation rescued these pieces, restored them, and built the chapel to house them. The outer walls of bare concrete surround an inner steel box, painted flat black and suspended from above. Within the black box is a tiny chapel in the traditional cross-shaped arrangement, made from panels of frosted glass. The glass panels do not touch each other but are held by black steel supports, so that the whole effect is like one of those “exploded” diagrams you see in the assembly instructions for some machine. The frescoes themselves are suspended above this structure in the locations they would have occupied in the original medieval church.

This place seemed much friendlier and more accessible than the Rothko Chapel, and to my mind more beautiful as well. But in its own way, it too reflects the impoverished worldview of the postmodern society. The exploded structure reminded me of the disconnect in modern thinking Francis Schaeffer discusses in his book How Should We Then Live? He describes how in the Renaissance modern man decided to make himself the central reference point for all meaning and truth, rather than God. But without the transcendent to give his life meaning, man finds that he is nothing but a machine. To avoid giving into despair, Western thinkers began to split their view of reality into two realms, which Schaeffer illustrated as the upper and lower stories in a house. In the lower story is rational scientific thinking, which deals with facts and figures and has no room for value or meaning. In the upper story is irrational faith, which gives meaning and significance, but which has no factual content or objective truth. The two stories are entirely separate.

The Byzantine Fresco Chapel is the perfect picture of this philosophy. Here is this modern structure, all steel and glass. And above it floats these ethereal medieval symbols of faith, devotion and transcendence. Though they reside together in one box there is no connection between the two. Our heads have become disconnected from our hearts, so to speak. We stand amidst the glass and steel and look up wistfully at the beautiful images above. It makes me pity those whose hearts are so empty. They have doughnut souls – there’s a hole in the middle where God should be.