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    That’s YOUR Opinion: The Loss of Objectivity

    April 13, 2016 by Brandy Vencel

    I recently started reading Awakening Wonder: A Classical Guide to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. (I just added the Oxford comma to the title. Because, hello? I’m pretty sure the same people dispensing with morality are the ones dispensing with the Oxford comma.)

    I had told myself I was not, not, not going to start another Classical Academic Press book until I finished the one I was already reading on John Milton. But then Ashley went and told me that Awakening Wonder talked a lot about the objectivity of beauty.

    Swoon!

    In reading Awakening Wonder by Stephen Turley, I discovered that Beauty is objective, just like its sisters, Goodness and Truth.

    The subject of the objectivity of beauty was first drawn to my attention in C.S. Lewis’ collection of essays, The Abolition of Man. I accepted that Lewis was right because he was ten million times smarter and wiser than me.

    But.

    I could never fully grasp it.

    I was like that kid trying to catch the fly ball in the outfield.

    I got it! I got it!

    Oops.

    I don’t got it.

    Or something.

    So when I heard that this book was going to help me win an ongoing debate with my husband understand the objectivity of beauty, I had a lot more trouble resisting it as it called to me from my teetering book pile.

    The only way to justify this level of promiscuous book reading is to blog my way through the book. Hence this post.

    Yesterday, when we were doing school at the park, I got a chance to read the first chapter. It was a lot to take in, so I read it again, and then later I read a few parts aloud to myself to see if that helped.

    There are a number of ideas that have helped me a bit. First is the proper way of thinking about objectivity. It isn’t a reference to that cold disinterestedness that is so highly valued in scientists, newspaper reporters, and others who are expected to act as if they had no soul. It is, instead, the sense of there being a created order that preexists me  — even preexists the world. My personal feelings or responses to Truth, Goodness, or Beauty have no bearing on their reality.

    Another is the idea that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are a trinity — they go together. As a Christian, it is fairly easy for me to say that Truth is objective. (Please note that this doesn’t mean that I think I can even come close to understanding it perfectly — I’m only saying here that it exists objectively.) Likewise, it is pretty easy for me to accept that Goodness is objective — that it is the character of God, who is Good, that defines what Goodness is.

    But somehow, even though I know that God is Beautiful, it has been very hard for me to grasp exactly why that makes Beauty objective. Maybe I consumed a few too many of those teen magazines that made statements about beauty being in the eye of the beholder? Is the ubiquity of that statement not evidence enough that as a culture we have swallowed whole a subjective, personal standard for beauty?

    Tying Beauty back up into its trinity, rather than isolating it, has helped quite a bit.

    Another thing that helped was taking the idea of subjective beauty to its logical conclusion. Turley does this when he says:

    [W]e cannot relegate Beauty to personal preference and then feign shock when we encounter a urinal as part of an art exhibit.

    It’s true — I find urinal art distasteful (shock!), and my rejection of it feels something like morality. So I see that deep down inside myself, I must have some objective standards for Beauty, even if they are simply Lines Which Art Must Not Cross.

    The last idea is that, historically speaking, we’re the anomaly. Even the Christless Greeks, says Turley, believed in a world in which there was a divinely ordained reality to which it was humanity’s duty to conform. Turley calls this “cosmic piety”:

    For the Greeks, there was a profound sense that one was truly human only to the extent that one lived in a harmonious relationship with the cosmos.

    I think it’s easy for us to think that “living harmoniously with the cosmos” is something akin to hugging trees and singing Kumbayah. But he goes on to explain that this is a form of morality (which is why he called it piety before) — humans were obligated to submit to the created moral order. Of course, when Christ came, this doctrine was refined in light of the Truth that the Word had become flesh, and all that this implied.

    Turley reminds us that we’ve allowed all three — Truth, Goodness, and Beauty — to become subjectively defined. And then he says this amazing thing: that Jesus is the answer to the problem. That the Incarnation is how these objective transcendentals that exist somewhere out there become real in this world.

    But before we try to restore what has been lost, I think it’s good to go where Turley take us, which is the recognition that something has been lost.

    And apparently we can blame science. And also math.

    Truth, Goodness, and Beauty cannot be proven using the scientific method. There is no algorithm that will tell us about them. And since we have allowed those things to become the standards of what is real, Truth, Goodness, and Beauty have become unreal to us. They’ve been privatized. Two and two may make four, but the idea that murder is always wrong has become a personal value of my society that was invented in order to help it survive — it’s personal and local, not objective and universal.

    And that’s frightening. Turley reminds us that C.S. Lewis tells us that in a world where this is viewed as reality, the only thing left is manipulation — there will be those who are manipulated, and those who do the manipulating, and none of that really matters because in a world where algorithms reign supreme, everything else is technically meaningless anyway.

    The good news is that the Good News is real, whether science believes it or not … which is why I look forward to reading more.

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    22 Comments

  • Reply Thoughtworthy (Car Renting, Review of The Night Gardener, and MORE!) | Afterthoughts May 14, 2019 at 7:58 pm

    […] Mmmm … that’s right! I started Awakening Wonder back then. I forgot. It was good. How is it possible it’s been so many years? I never did win that argument with my husband. […]

  • Reply Annie June 4, 2016 at 11:02 pm

    This post reminds me of a comment made by one of my professors (Dr. John Mark Reynolds) during a grad class on Christianity and Culture, where he challenged our subjective notion of beauty: “We have been brainwashed into thinking that beauty is in the eye of the beholder – yet the truth is, beauty is in the eye of God. He is our standard for what is beautiful.” OK. I might be paraphrasing. It was 20 years ago πŸ™‚ But that one lecture gave me more food for thought than all my other classes combined. And since that day, I too have gotten into many debates with my hubby on this very point. lol.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel June 5, 2016 at 12:54 pm

      What school were you at when you took this class? I’m just wondering, because Dr. Reynolds was at Biola when I was there 20 years ago! I’m wondering if we were in the same place at the same time?

      LOVE your comments. πŸ™‚ β™₯

      • Reply Annie June 6, 2016 at 12:38 pm

        Oh to funny! Yep – same place, similar time. Trying to remember what years I was there?!?!?! It’s all kind of a blur now. Send me an email and we can figure it out!

        • Reply Annie June 6, 2016 at 12:39 pm

          Oh too funny! Yep – same place, similar time. Trying to remember what years I was there?!?!?! It’s all kind of a blur now. Send me an email and we can figure it out!

  • Reply Meg April 16, 2016 at 7:28 am

    You would love the Circe lecture “Beauty: the Cinderella of the Transcendentals” from the northwest conference….

  • Reply Angelique April 16, 2016 at 5:45 am

    On a related note, First Things has a really interesting article called “Scientific Regress.”

  • Reply Hillary April 15, 2016 at 6:07 pm

    “I’m pretty sure the same people dispensing with morality are the ones dispensing with the Oxford comma.”

    Total side note here, and obviously NOT the point of your post, but did you know that some people who typically don’t use an Oxford comma are journalists trained in the use of AP (Associated Press) style, which aims to reduce the number of letters and characters in a newspaper story…aka “getting the lead out” from the days when lead was used to hold metal characters of type into the frame after it was set there? (You know, the original typesetting.) AP style’s goal is to be as clear as possible with as few characters as possible. In the days before online publishing, when space was doled out by the line or column-inch, this was a really big deal.

    The morality thing is – as far as I can tell – wholly unrelated. πŸ˜›

    Gotta be careful what you joke about these days. Retired copy editors will get on your case.

    • Reply Hillary April 20, 2016 at 4:24 am

      Ugh. I came back to apologize for letting a pet peeve of mine hijack the thoughtful comments after your intriguing post. I’m sorry! Oxford commas and journalistic standards are a sore spot for me and I let that ooze out into cyberspace despite it being Really Not A Big Deal. :/

      Thank you for adding another book to my booklist – your description reminds me vaguely of the aesthetics philosophy class I took and loved in college.

  • Reply Claire April 15, 2016 at 4:06 pm

    May I say there is something perverse about being persnickety about an Oxford Comma and then using the ‘word’ ‘preexists’ *twice* in the same article?? Not to mention using that ugly non-word in an article about Beauty. πŸ˜›

    On a more serious note, this post reminded me of those places in the Prophets where God makes Israel beautiful by washing her and dressing her in fine clothes and jewels. I’m not sure where I’m going with that, perhaps it’s just another example of the ancient idea of beauty being different from now. Then you have the comments in the NT about being beautiful from the inside, which can be objectively described…

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 15, 2016 at 4:41 pm

      Ha! Parallelism, my friend. πŸ˜‰

      Though it’s true that if I get too into this beauty thing I might have to change my writing style! Gasp!

      I hadn’t thought about that part in the Prophets, Claire! I’ll have to do that…

      • Reply Claire April 19, 2016 at 4:16 am

        No! Your writing style is truly beautiful πŸ™‚ (As long as you avoid That Word ;))

  • Reply Kimberly Mason April 14, 2016 at 9:44 pm

    I have not read this book but I have to say this post hurts my math-loving, science-loving heart. I do not think math and science are to blame, but humans’ sinful distortion of them. Hopefully at some point in the book the author makes the distinction. God’s creation is full of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty. From the velocity the planets orbit around the sun to the beaver building its dam to the mitochondria producing energy for the cell. Math and science are wonderful and beautiful and magical and good. In Luke 19, Jesus says, “the stones would immediately cry out” that “He is the King who comes in the name of the Lord.” If that ain’t truth, I don’t know what is!
    (PS I am such your fan girl! Thank you for your blog and podcasts.)

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 15, 2016 at 4:44 pm

      Don’t worry Kimberly — Turley definitely agrees with you on this. I guess I was feeling a little over the top when I wrote this post. Should have known that would get me in trouble. πŸ˜‰

      • Reply Kimberly Mason April 19, 2016 at 1:17 pm

        πŸ™‚ I figured. I feel a little over the top about science! Thank you for your reply.

  • Reply SarahD April 14, 2016 at 7:51 am

    I too enjoy Steve Turley’s writing. He has these wonderful, short videos on his blog on classical education in which he speaks about the things you’re talking about here–about beauty and what it is, and the greek concepts of logos, ethos, pathos and how they correspond to Truth, Goodness, and Beauty.

    It might be possible for you and your husband to both be right in your little debate. If you haven’t yet, check out this article. https://romanroadsmedia.com/2016/02/the-most-beautiful-woman/

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 15, 2016 at 4:45 pm

      Ooh! I look forward to reading that, Sarah. Thank you! β™₯

  • Reply Rebecca Miller April 13, 2016 at 3:31 pm

    My two cents, for what it is worth.

    I think that God gave us His standard of beauty in His creation. When you are out in nature every day observing down to the scales on the belly of an Anole, you are seeing the incredible beauty and design from the mind of God. When that is informing your perception of beauty, it is not hard to define or identify in art. We have a world of people disconnected from what God made with their eyes on what man has made and it his skewed their discernment for beauty.

  • Reply Angelique April 13, 2016 at 9:21 am

    I don’t know that I would say “blame math and science.” (But I realize you were probably using hyperbole). Blame us for making them the ultimate authority. The medievals considered theology the queen of the sciences, and I agree. Not in a ram-it-down your throat at every opportunity way, but in a keep-things-an-eternal-perspective and be humble about the limits of human understanding kind of way.

  • Reply Sharyn April 13, 2016 at 6:08 am

    Brandy,
    I wanted to comment on this tremendous post. I do not believe parents understand how pivotal our thoughts are on Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. My children have been classically(CM style) homeschooled their entire lives in a home that is actively conservative, evangelical, and following Christ. Without fail, all of my children upon reaching 17 or 18 years of age have decided there is no such thing as “the” Good or “the” Truth and “the” Beauty. My oldest is even taking a walk on the atheist, wild side. The other two are juggling these disavowals with their faith precariously, meaning- with no thought at all.
    At first I was devestated and felt like a failure. But now I see this is a BATTLE in the spiritual realm. I have always known that but now I live that. The Holy Spirit has filled me with the inspiration and desire to continue the fight until the day I take my last breath. All for the reasons mentioned. Truth is truth, beauty is beauty, and good is good. All objective. All pointing to our Heavenly Father. Of course Satan and our “reason” could turn this upside down. It is a faith battle.
    Thank you for sharing another resource we can use to fight this heinous lie!!!
    Warmly,
    Sharyn
    I wanted to add that homeschooling our children has allowed for a relationship so close with our children that they still look to us for advice, even if we have different world views. They trust us and are trying out these interesting world views knowing we will not abandon them. Our prayerful influence is a praise and may the Lord use it to His good will.

    • Reply Brandy Vencel April 15, 2016 at 4:53 pm

      Thanks, Sharyn. I will be praying for your children! That would be so hard! And yet … I always try to remind myself that we are all on a journey and there is still time enough for God to continue working — the story isn’t over yet. β™₯

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