Friday, October 21, 2005

Black and White, and Shades of Gray

This is an Adobe Photoshop color swatch toolbox. As a child, we were led to believe that there were only seven colors. Later that collection of colors was extended, first to sixteen, then to thirty-two, then to sixty-four (for those fortunate enough to afford those boxed Crayola sets), and then even later we were told that there were only, really, just three colors. Of course, sky blue, perriwinkle and dodge blue are very different colors and, for the longest time I didn't know what made them different from each other and all the other types of blue. And that's just the color blue.

Later on, when I learned about "computer" colors in my programming language class, I found that there are, actually, different sets of primary colors. I had always thought that it was Blue, Yellow and Red; now I was being told that it was actually either Red, Green and Blue, or Cyan, Magenta and Yellow. We learned to look at long color charts for the numerical equivalents of displaying colors properly; we also learned that different machines will display the "same" color differently. As a consequence, we learned to "cheat" our displays so that we can actually come up with the color we actually want, regardless of what the color chart says it really is. For instance, when Pink doesn't look pink enough, we use a light shade of some violet/purple color.

And, at around that time, I learned how to use, first of all, MS Paint and then Adobe Photoshop. And this box over there at the top of this post (which is an Adobe Photoshop color swatch toolbox) became very familiar. But, for some reason, we always knew that blue was blue, red was red, yellow was yellow, etc. etc.

About two years ago, my wife (then my girl friend) found a way to enroll me into an art class. She knew that I always dreamed, wished and fantasized about doing my own paintings and, thanks to Chords and Canvas (a project she was working on at that time) she found where I can finally realize my dream, wish and fantasies (all in that order).

It was during the art workshops that I was finally able to put my finger on what I knew I already knew about colors but couldn't put into words. I learned that no matter where one turns, no matter how many colors there are, there will always be black and white and various shades of gray. However, the something new I learned was that it was the existence of black and white, and those various shades of gray that made possible the literally endless varieties of color. Take a look at the figure below.
Notice that there are several versions of a particular color, but there is one and only one version of both black and white. We learned that quite quickly back in programming class and reinforced in art class. There is no such thing as "dark white" or "light black"— there is, of course, this famous Colgate commercial: a young kindergarten teacher is asking a group of kids what color her teeth were after getting "simple" color answers from her kids (sky is blue, roses are red, etc., that sort of thing); suddenly the kids are undecided, quoting several "varieties" of white, like stucco, beige, off-white and mother-of-pearl.

Of course, it meant that her teeth weren't really white and needed Colgate with whitening to make it really white. So, there is just one kind of white then, and only one, just as there is only one kind of black.
One should also notice that there exists, along with the white and the black, several shades of gray. Of course, the shades of gray depicted here are shown in gradients of 5% apart, that is, they are so named by the "amount" of black in the white. 10% gray is differnent from 15% gray, and so on. And then there are those colors all around, all changing subtly by how much "white" or "black" is added (actually, shades of gray) or how much another color is added.

Well, I can go on and on over what I learned in both programming class and art class but to cut a long story short my point is this: for a long time, in morality, there have been two opposing views. Either there is black and white morality, or there are only shades of gray. I think my position is obvious: I believe that both positions are wrong.

First, there obviously are shades of gray, not only in color theory but in morality. Second, there exists, much less obviously, a real black and white. I believe that both deal in moral absolutes (yes, even the shades-of-gray morality) that are mutually exclusive and do not describe the real world at all.

Of course, it would be a mistake to say that only the religious would take the black-and-white morality stance; there are those who are deeply religious that holds the shades-of-gray morality as their creed. And, of course, vice versa. But these are humans thinking and I, for one, admit that I have gone both ways at various times.

But I believe that God is the only one that sees the entire spectrum of morality, not just the visible aspects of color, black and white, and shades of gray, but even those that are beyond the visible spectrum of humans. I also believe that He is a master of the use of color without breaking any of the rules. I trust God, for instance, when he would condone genocide during Joshua's time and then condemn it later in human history in the same way I would trust a master artist when he would make liberal use of blue in one painting, then use it sparingly in another.

What I'm not trying to say is that morality is actually as arbitrary as color choice; nothing could be further from the truth. There are right and wrong ways to do things, it just so happens that white can be right in one instance and wrong in another. As an Arminian in the Wesleyan tradition, I see this as the proof of the real sovereignty of God inspite of the freedom of will that he has bestowed on us. He creates our predestinations, heaven or 2nd death, but we choose which one we'd rather go to.

Atheists and agnostics who have a bone to pick with religious people, especially Christians, would ask questions like "Why would a good God allow so much suffering?" and then go on to say that, since such a good God cannot exist, then morality is therefore arbitrary. Yet the nature of their complaint gives them away... they know that suffering is bad and that God is good, which seems like an absolute statement. If they truly believed in the arbitrariness of morality, that is, that only shades of gray exist, why would a good God allowing bad suffering be contradictory? Because, they say, we Christians claim that our God doesn't want us to suffer.

Which is true, of course. However, when we come to talk of right and wrong, and then good and bad, we see that right does not always necessarily mean good all the time and wrong doesn't always necessarily mean bad all the time. Desire for the opposite sex is right and good, but becomes wrong while still being good if it is outside the bounds of fidelity and marriage. That is wrong but "good"? you may object; yes, especially when contrasted with desire for one's own sex. Red becomes really red when it is contrasted with green, as with all colors. There are things that can be right and good, right but bad (pain and punishment, for instance, is bad but becomes right when done to those who deserve it or who needs it), then wrong but good (like sex outside marriage), and finally wrong and bad.

Just like colors, there are endless varieties, and (as Obi-wan Kenobi so aptly put it) it all depends on one's point of view. However, as I believe that God is the only one who sees truly, his point of view is superior to ours, and things that seem to us good may actually be wrong for us, and what may seem bad may actually turn out for the better (I'd use the word "righter" but that's not a real word). Nevertheless, there is a black and white, a right and wrong and, as all artists would agree, one ignores that at one's own peril.
8"My thoughts are not like your thoughts.
And your ways are not like my ways,"
announces the Lord.
9"The heavens are higher than the earth.
And my ways are higher than your ways.
My thoughts are higher than your thoughts.
Isaiah 55:8-9 (NIrV)

Lord, please help me and all of us to do no wrong.