Jonathan L. Friedmann, Ph.D.
The second half of the Book of Exodus concerns itself mostly with the construction of the Tabernacle: the portable sanctuary the Israelites reportedly used during their journey from Egypt to Canaan. As the Bible tells it, the structure was built according to meticulous specifications revealed to Moses on Mount Sinai. “Exactly as I show you,” God commands Moses, “the pattern of the Tabernacle and the pattern of all its furnishing—so shall you make it” (Exod. 25:9). An array of artistic skills are needed for fashioning the extensive and minute details of the glorious tent, from architecture to embroidery to interior design. We read excruciating particulars about different woods, fabrics, dyes, precious metals and lustrous stones. There are instructions regarding materials needed for the Ark (ch. 25), partitions (ch. 26), copper altar (ch. 27), priestly vestments (ch. 28), anointing oils (ch. 30) and on and on. Adding to the ploddingness, there is enormous repetition throughout these punctilious verses, which amount to the largest and most exhausted single subject in the entire Pentateuch.
Contrast this with the Bible’s crudeness and over-simplicity when addressing the ways of nature. Biblical apologists usually paint these childlike passages as reflective of the intellectual and technological development of people at the time, not the knowledge of the heavenly creator. Stories of the origins of life, the positioning of celestial bodies, the mechanisms of earthquakes and the like are presented in imagery and terminology the Israelites could understand. Thus, palpability of information was an act of divine wisdom and compassion rather than an indication of naiveté.
Underlying this comparison is a still-pervasive reality: we are open and critical when discussing art, yet we freely concede ignorance when science becomes too complex. Works of art, like the Tabernacle, are designed to have a visceral and instant impact upon us. That is why sacred spaces from ancient days to the present are regularly adorned with eye-catching features. Scientific explanations, like those absent from the Bible, often exceed the average person’s ability to comprehend. That is why scientific inquiry is the domain of a highly intelligent, highly trained and highly specialized few. While art is for immediate human consumption, science seeks the best explanations for complicated phenomena, however unapproachable the methods or outcomes might be.
One result is that we fancy ourselves qualified to judge artistic creations, and do so impulsively. The reason the Tabernacle had to be made a certain way is the same reason we like art to look or sound a certain way: aesthetic preference. Our natural response to scientific work is essentially the opposite. When we come across scientific data, we tend to throw up our hands in a gesture simultaneously signaling ignorance and awe.
Bertrand Russell described these reactions in The Conquest of Happiness. “When the public cannot understand a picture or a poem,” he wrote, “they conclude that it is a bad picture or a bad poem. When they cannot understand the theory of relativity they conclude (rightly) that their education has been insufficient. Consequently Einstein is honored while the best painters are (or at least were) left to starve in garrets, and Einstein is happy while the painters are unhappy.”
Partly because of his awareness of this human tendency and partly because of his professed ignorance of art, Russell, when asked “What is your attitude toward art today?” replied, “I have no view about art today.” He elaborated in another interview: “You ask why I have never written on the subject of painting. The chief reason is that I suffer from an inadequate appreciation of pictures. I get very great delight from music and also from architecture, but for some reason I get much less from painting and sculpture. This inability makes we unable to form any judgment from the reproduction of the picture . . .”
Russell’s responsible remarks are far from the norm. Most of us are quick to voice our opinions on paintings, buildings, sculptures, poems and music, usually blurting out the unsophisticated (and basically meaningless) words “good” and “bad.” As Russell noted, our assessments hinge mainly on whether or not we understand the art work. But when it comes to science, the less comprehensible the theory or concept, the more impressive it is.
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