The Fallen Designer: What Good Can Come from a Shipwrecked Soul?

January 14th, 2009 in Web Design Worldview

by: Matthew Griffin

The question of the current state of humanity is one which penetrates to the heart of a person's worldview. Understand, when I say "current state of humanity" I'm not referring to of the current state of human affairs in time (who's fighting who, the world economy, etc.); rather I'm speaking of the natural condition into which all humans are born. Our understanding of this state is inextricably tied to the second of three foundational worldview questions: how did we get here? what went wrong? and how do we fix it? In this article I'm going to deal primarily with the question "what went wrong?" and explain how the fallen state of humanity affects designers today. Of course, I'll be focusing primarily on the the classic Christian perspective on this topic, but along the way I'll briefly discuss some other views from pop culture for the purpose of contrast.

You Are Here

Without understanding where we are, it's impossible to know where we're going—we're lost. We understand well what it means to be lost in a geographical sense, but what does it mean to lost as a whole being? The humanist says that man is the measure of all things and, therefore, is never lost. He has only to look inside himself to discover where he is and who he is. But, as Jean Paul Sartre pointed out, a finite point without an infinite reference point is absurd. Man, of course, is a finite point, having a beginning, an end, and a limit to all he says, thinks, and does. We can listen to what he has to say about the state of himself, but as he is little more than a self-referential, finite point, how can we ever trust what he has to say? He is like a sailor who suddenly awakes to find himself in a rowboat drifting in a sea the size of the universe. He has no stars to guide him, no compass to point the way; there is no sun to call out east or west, and no moon to light the path. Even if he did know his destination, he has no idea where he is. Any attempt to row would be optimistic futility. How can we trust this sailor when he implores us to follow him? As awkward as it may sound to modern ears, this is why I could never trust a voice which does not claim deity.

...if you don't have a North Star, don't bother.

I don't mean this so much as an apologetic for Christianity as an attack against humanism. I mean to say, if you don't have a North Star, don't bother. In order to locate ourselves, we need a "your are here" map—a guiding star, and we need one that comes from an eternally fixed reference point. This, of course, brings us to Christianity and the infinite personal reference point that is the true God. The Christian understanding of the current state of man coincidentally finds its symbol in the proclamatory star announcing the birth of Christ. This star points us to Christ—the God-man in whom no evil is found. And, although he is fully God, it is his glorious humanity which shines out as reminder of the high state from which we have fallen. It points us back to the creation of mankind and the historical Christian doctrine of original sin.

Original Sin and the Depravity of Man

It says that evil is always the result of internal forces pushing out.

Original sin is a commonly misunderstood term. It doesn't mean that each of us commits a "first sin" that taints our soul, and it doesn't refer to a "unique" sin. It means that mankind sinned at his origin (the first man) and subsequent generations have thereby been infected by evil—that all humans are born into evil. This is a radical notion in a postmodern world where evil is always imagined to be the result of external forces pressing in on "essentially good" humans. Christianity turns that perspective completely on its head. It says that evil is always the result of internal forces pushing out. This intrinsic evil leaves us in a depraved state in which, left to ourselves, we would never do any good. It's important to note here that this depravity does not mean that we are all as bad a we possibly could be. Surely we can imagine a world in which people are much more violent, or much more unjust than they are in this world. But in order for a person to do true good, it must be done under the rule of Christ and to the glory of God. The civil virtue displayed by people who are otherwise in rebellion against God is not true good.

So here we are, born with shipwrecked souls, utterly hopeless and in rebellion against the rightful ruler of creation, destined to spin our wheels churning out meaningless mush until we return to mush. I admit it's a bleak picture. But that's not the end of the story; fortunately for us there is grace. By definition "grace" is gratuitous. It cannot be earned; it cannot be bought. It's grace! But there is more than one kind of grace given to humanity by God. First, there is special grace, extended to the Christian believer, purchased by Christ's atoning work to regenerate man's soul and return him to his original purpose under God. But this isn't the grace we are most concerned with here. Since the title of the article is "The Fallen Designer" special grace will have to be saved for another article. It's the second kind of grace that we need to look into more deeply—the common grace.

What Good Can Come from a Fallen Designer?

Common grace is that grace which God extends to a greater or lesser extent to every human. It's the grace that holds back the evil inside each depraved individual. It's the grace that allows mankind, by and large, to participate in God's creation through design, art, science, childrearing, and all the other activities common to humans. It's because of common grace that we can admire the work of Christian and non-Christian designers alike.

But while common grace is a biblically and historically grounded Christian doctrine, many Christians (especially in modern times) have used it to justify evil art and design. Common grace does not mean that all design is excellent and moral. It simply means that non-Christians have been given the ability to produce technically excellent, and even outwardly moral work. To blindly accept all design as good before analyzing it through the Christian worldview lens, is to be careless with the special grace at work in our hearts and minds. For more on this topic, I recommend reading Analyzing Web Design Through the Christian Worldview Lens.

On the opposite side of the aisle are the Christians who have rejected the idea of common grace altogether. This perspective lends itself to shoddy work and an over emphasis on the "Christianess" of the content within the work. We can see this most vividly displayed in the Christan creative sub-culture which has developed over the last fifty years (especially here in the United States). In this sub-culture, bad design and art are praised simply because they contain Christian content, while excellent secular work is ignored or even wholesale debased. For more on this topic I recommend reading Design Sub-Culture: Christians Would Rather Copy than Create.

In the book of Exodus the Egyptians give the Israelites gifts as they depart into the wilderness. In spite of all their earthly wealth and excellent craftsmanship, the Egyptians are voluntarily plundered by God's people. Many theologians have seen this as a picture of the Christian's plundering of the unbelieving culture in the arts and sciences. In a sense, this is what we do when we learn from unbelieving designers. We shouldn't assume they have nothing to offer. Still, the "plundering of the Egyptians" is not our final destination. We must lead our culture as the most creative and excellent designers. It may feel right now like the Egyptians have plundered the people of God, but that can't last forever. Ultimately, It is only the regenerate mind of the Christian designer that will be able to reach the full potential of human creativity; only the regenerate mind is directed toward its purpose: the glory of the Creator.



Posted By: Wes P on 01/14/09

Thanks for this article Matt. I think the concept of common grace is a very easy one to forget. I often over look it when I'm considering my position in live. But it is indeed because of the grace given to all man that we're even here in the first place. It's that grace that said in the garden, "Yea you messed up, but I got something better planned, so I'm going to let you hang in there." And it's that grace that extends to man the special grace of Jesus.

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 01/14/09

Thanks for the comment, Wes.

Posted By: DoctorJay on 01/27/09

Huh? I'm lost as to how you can place a moral judgment on design. Perhaps on art, but not design. Design is amoral; it's the context it's put in, or the content of its message that is immoral or moral. If you're talking about aesthetics, then, yes, there are different values. There is good and bad design. Original sin doesn't exist. We're born into an amoral state. You wouldn't say a monkey is moral or immoral. As we grow our minds develop an understanding and empathy for other humans and that is how we differentiate from animals. We build a moral foundation by realizing we should treat others as we wish to be treated, that we should not inflict pain on anyone and we should always strive to do the right thing. Why would you want to live your life thinking you have some festering evil deep inside that you must struggle to smother? Do good things, see there's a world beyond yourself and treat people with love and respect. These aren't just Christian values; these are human values.

Posted By: Matthew Grffin on 01/27/09

Jay, thanks for the comment. Can design really be divorced from its content? Can design really be divorced from the intent of the designer? Maybe for the theoretical sake of analyzing individual aspects of a design, but in reality design, designer, and content are all part of a whole. And if a designer can be moral and content can be moral, then design most certainly can be moral. Now, on your second point: "There is no original sin". I've always found this particular view of evil fascinating. It's one held almost exclusively by materialists. I'm interested to know why you think we are born into an amoral state. And why is a monkey amoral? You don't think a monkey can experience empathy? How do you know? I think your view, instead of proving that design is amoral, proves that everything is moral. When you make man an animal, you must leave him as an animal or your entire worldview becomes a contradiction. You mention on your website that you "look to art for meaning". Unless you included this because its a favorite cliche of the art community, I assume by "meaning" you mean answers or purpose. Based on your view of mankind I think the only answer you can ever possible accept is survival. Anything more transcendent than survival and you'll have to start looking for a Purposer--a Creator.

Posted By: Jau on 01/29/09

I think you can look for meaning in life without ultimately ending up thinking there is a creator. As for looking for meaning through art, there are films and books that delve deep into the human condition, on what it's like to be a thinking person in the world, without being about God per-se. Sure, some animals may feel empathy, but I don't think they have a self-awareness that allows them to make moral or immoral decisions. Or maybe they just don't have a language to express themselves. Athiests and evolutionists don't reduce life to survival, or live amoral lives. There's a great depth of philosophy about human understanding and how to live morally that don't revolve around a Creator. I agree that the link between design and its content isn't as cut a dried as I said. Probably the most cliched discussion would be of Nazi propaganda, and the swastika in particular. Is it a neutral design treatment, or is it impossible to separate it from the history and context in which it was used, therefore making it "evil"?

Posted By: Matthew Griffin on 01/29/09

Jay, you bring up some good points. I agree that atheists don't necessarily live amoral lives as far as civil virtue is concerned. But I think it's important to examine whether or not their actions actually match up with their worldview. An atheist with a completely materialistic view of life can say that life has higher meaning, but he can't logically explain why. In order to attribute a meaning other than survival he must make an irrational leap out of his purely material universe. For example, an atheist might say that love or happiness is the true meaning of life. But in a materialist worldview love and happiness are really just products of evolution that help a society survive. The atheist is forced to reduce love and happiness in this manner because any other explanation would be to admit the existence of a higher reality. The atheist generally has a hard time living out his worldview honestly. He can tell himself that his love for his wife is a survival instinct but his experience of his love for his wife will betray his view of reality. In short, he can't live his worldview. And that's probably the most important test of a worldview: can you live it?

Posted By: Ray Novicio on 02/04/09

I generally live by a simple rule. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength... Never asked the "why" but your article explains it well. Nice article.

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