De gustibus non est disputandum, said the ancient Romans. There is no disputing over taste, meaning that in matters of personal taste and preference, there can be no profitable dispute, and therefore there ought to be none.
There’s much truth to that. If you’re a fan of murder mysteries, and have no time for fantasy, then we have no quarrel. If you’re partial to Elgar instead of Bach, then live and let live. If seafood floats your boat, and red meat turns you off, then to each his own. Jack Spratt could eat no fat, and all that.
The problem with the word taste is that it refers to more than one human experience or ability. Because we use the same word for these very different things, we run the risk of equivocation when we use the word: speaking in two voices. We may mean one thing, but seem to mean the other. We may find ourselves alternating between the two meanings in the same conversation. This not only brings confusion to discussions, it can also be manipulated by the dishonest. To heal this mangled word, we need to separate the competing or differing meanings, and find synonyms to use alongside taste.
The first meaning is the one meant in the Roman maxim. Here, taste refers to individual preference. The creation is awash in a variety of colours, tastes, fragrances, textures, sounds, shapes, words, ideas and the infinite combinations thereof. Part of the variety is the individuality of the human being, who at the earliest age begins to demonstrate preferences, likes and dislikes. Differing tastes encourage more variety, more experimentation, and more innovation. It is in this sense that the phrase “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is loosely true: individual preference finds pleasure where others do not.
Within the sphere of what is upright and pleasing to God, differing taste ought to be a source of curiosity, enjoyment and fascination. Learning what another enjoys in something I do not will either initiate me into beauties and pleasures I had not known, or at least fill me with new regard and enjoyment of another fascinating human made in God’s image. Scripture certainly encourages believers to show deference to one another’s preferences, when those preferences fall within the bounds of what is pure, true, just, upright, noble, virtuous, lovely, etc.
The second meaning was very far from the minds of the Latin creators of that maxim. Taste in this second sense was used from around the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to describe a faculty of judgement. Philosophers and aestheticians of the time were grappling with the question of the subjective and variable experience of beholders and the properties of what is beheld. The question of “good taste” and “bad taste” became an important one, even to sceptical empiricists like David Hume. Here taste does not refer to preference, but to discernment. As a trained palate can distinguish subtle flavours, so a person of good taste can distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate, beautiful and gaudy, classy and tacky, art and kitsch. The mark of one who has learned and absorbed the accumulated good judgements of thousands of people who have now already died, is that he is “civilised”, “cultured”, “a man of discrimination”, “a man of good taste”. The fact that you can already hear the watchdogs against elitism barking after that last sentence tells you all you need to know about the current attitude towards these ideas.
But in fact, Scripture has just as much to say (in fact, much more) on this second meaning of taste. It does not use the term taste (just as it does not in the first meaning). It uses the terms discernment, judgement, wisdom, understanding, and conscience. It gives rather elaborate instruction on how to cultivate this kind of taste, how to use it and not abuse it. And in fact, this kind of taste can only develop through some kind of “disputing”. Comparison of judgements, disagreement, discussion and debate is how these judgements are formed, shaped, chastened and refined. To fail to compare, criticise and communicate about these judgements is to leave them in the dark, unwatered and away from sunlight.
Our study of this word will require a few steps. First, we’ll need to understand where taste as personal preference is encouraged and protected in Scripture. Second, we’ll need to become alert to how this matter of preference is applied in illicit ways in the modern church. Third, we’ll need to understand how taste as good judgement is commanded and commended in Scripture. Fourth, we’ll need to see how good judgement is developed both in the world and in the Word.