Monthly Archives: September 2020

17. Beauty’s Definition

Defining beauty is no easy task. A definition of beauty or the beautiful has eluded the grasp of those who wish a definition with mathematical precision. This more than two-millennia-old discussion remains open, and no definition has satisfied its perennial participants or become the final word.

Among those who venture to define it, we can find roughly four kinds of definitions: classical, transcendental, subjective, and theological definitions.

Classical Definitions
Classical definitions use some form of the classical theory of beauty, which originated in Pythagoras and was developed by Plato, and later Platonists. Christians influenced by Plato developed similar versions of the same idea. Classical theories define beauty as essentially proportion. At the heart of this theory is the idea that the distinctive pleasure of beauty is the harmony of parts to a whole. Beauty is symmetry between composite parts or elegant relationships between parts that combine to make a unified, whole form. This symmetry is what provokes pleasure in the human who encounters it. Whether it is visual symmetry, or musical harmony, or mathematical elegance, this theory identifies the heart of beauty in a human’s desire for order, patterns, symmetry, unity and equality.

Transcendental Definitions
The triad of transcendentals is “truth, goodness, and beauty”. Transcendental definitions of beauty define beauty in relation to the unseen and ultimate qualities of truth and goodness, or as some combination of these. If truth is what corresponds to reality, and goodness is how reality ought to be loved, then beauty is some combination of these. It is truth and goodness radiating out or proclaimed. It is either a synonym for what is good and true, or the result of their synthesis. The transcendental theory has the power of explaining why beauty seems to have much to do with fittingness, and excellence. The overlap between goodness, which is to say, what ought to be, and beauty, shows that beauty must have a strong relationship to truth and goodness. This was well understood by the Greeks who fused the two concepts of goodness and beauty and coined a term which embraces both: kalokagathía, or beauty-goodness. Transcendental definitions emphasise that beauty has to do with reality and morality: what truly is, and what it deserves.

Subjective Definitions
Some definitions define beauty almost entirely as its effects or experience within the perceiving subject. These definitions expound beauty in terms of the peculiar aesthetic pleasure, or its ethical effect upon the subject. Of course, it raises the question: what are the attributes outside of the observer that provoke the response of pleasure? To be clear, proponents of this definition do not necessarily deny that objects of beauty have outward qualities that might be construed as beautiful. Rather, their claim is that beauty itself must be defined as the subject’s response to these qualities, not as something that exists entirely independently of observation or inherently in the unperceived object. Perhaps one might summarise the valid insight of this definition thus: what is experienced as beauty may exist separately from a perceiving subject, but it does not truly exist without a perceiving subject. That is, while beauty is not merely the inner experience of perceiving subjects, something’s beauty is impossible to speak of without perceiving subjects.

Theological Definitions
Theological definitions take God himself as the foundation of beauty, or as the ultimate instantiation of it. In these definitions, beauty is either an attribute of God, or a way of speaking of God’s being or relations. Importantly, theological definitions insist upon defining beauty with God’s revelation in Scripture, not primarily with philosophy or aesthetics.

This takes a few forms. One is to define beauty as being, or existence. Understanding beauty as being, and God’s being as the ground of all being, makes beauty equivalent to God. The idea of beauty as being prevailed in medieval Christendom.

A second is that beauty is the glory of God. Karl Barth saw the beauty of God as the more precise designation of the glory of God, “the sum total of the divine perfection in irresistible self-manifestation”. Beauty is the nature, character and will of God.

A third form of theological definition of beauty focuses on the Tri-une nature of God: seeing in the unity and harmony of persons in the Godhead the ultimate instantiation of harmony and symmetry.

A fourth form suggests that it is the relations within the Trinity that define beauty. Here, proportion, radiance, perfection, and pleasure can be united in light of the reciprocal love of the Godhead. In The Beauty of the Infinite, David Hart argues that “true beauty is not the idea of the beautiful, a static archetype in the mind of God, but is an infinite music, drama, art, completed in but never bounded by the termless dynamism of the Trinity’s life”.

Theological definitions then insist that beauty is defined derivatively from what God is: his being, attributes, or relations. Beauty cannot be a concept to which God conforms; the very concept must be derived from the perfection within God.

All of this presents us with a bewildering array of options. How shall we decide between them? With Scripture as our final judge, and the intellectual and Christian tradition to draw on, we can suggest a definition which seems to unite these ideas in one. We’ll consider that next.

Tattoos: To Do or Eschew?

The Christian life is meant to be a life of obedience grounded in discernment. “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21) Such discernment is not simply an inner sense of confidence, or a feeling of sagacity, but an active judging of all things for their meaning. The pursuit of meaning is the only way to obey in a world where meaning itself changes. A good test case for what this looks like is the question of tattoos.

There are a few lazy ways that Christians could attempt to shortcut the process of scrutinising the meaning of tattoos. They could ask the loaded question, “Would Jesus have worn a tattoo?” This hardly helps, because it trades on whatever mental pictures we have of Jesus, which usually excludes tattoos. The very foreignness of the idea excludes a positive answer, and ends the debate unfairly.

They could also simply quote Leviticus 19:28 : “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.” Note, I do not mean it is lazy to quote this verse, as if it is meaningless or inconsequential to the debate. I mean it would be lazy to quote this verse as if it settles the debate. The use of a verse from Israel’s law brings with it a host of interpretive questions: what commands to Old Testament Israel apply to the New Testament Christian in the same sense? Just one verse earlier, Israelite men were told not to trim the edges of their beards or shave around the sides of their head. Does that apply? For that matter, all Israelites were to wear tassels with a blue cord on all of their clothes (Num 15:38). Are these laws fulfilled in Christ or not? Are these “moral” laws or ceremonial laws? Leviticus 19:28 is not a smack-down prohibition against tattoos. On the other hand, the burden of proof lands on those Christians who favour tattoos to explain why God did not want the Israelites to mimic the Canaanite practice, if the whole thing is amoral. Before you get a tattoo, you should have a pretty robust theology of how Leviticus 19:28 relates to the New Testament Christian.

Thirdly, lazy people could also quote Romans 14 and say “this is a matter of liberty and preference”. Says who? How is that determined? If a man wears a Speedo swimsuit to church, is that a matter of liberty and preference? If a member smokes legal cannabis outside the building prior to the Lord’s Supper, is that a matter of liberty and preference? We would have to say that even if such things are, they are more than that. They involve questions of wisdom, prudence, love for neighbour, and appropriateness. In other words, questions of meaning again surface.  Indeed, all matters of conscience and preference remain matters to be judged for their meaning. Saying tattoos are matter of liberty or preference does not exempt us from doing the hard work of discernment; it actually makes it all the more urgent. To properly answer the question of tattoos, we have to ask, what do tattoos mean?

On the most superficial level, tattoos mean what their wearers say they mean: a quote, a name, a Bible verse, a symbol of identification, or simply an adornment they find attractive or enhancing to their appearance. Wearers decide on what they want the tattoo to say or symbolise.

On a deeper level, tattoos mean what they do. Tattoos are a mark of identification. Tattoos have been used for centuries as a visible sign of tribal membership. To get a tattoo is to get a permanent, public symbol of belonging. Here, the Christian should ask, “belonging to what?” A hundred years ago, almost no Christian would be found volunteering for a tattoo. What has changed? It has become cool, which is to say, fashionable. Christians may or may not adopt some of the world’s fashions, and will eschew others. The difference between being attractive in a modern world and being worldly is an important distinction. We must ask, when does the belonging identify you with an entire system devoted to the superficial, the sensual, and the self-glorifying (1 John 2:15-17)? We should always be careful of identifying with something which is passing away (1 Cor 7:31). The multi-million dollar industry of tattoo removal is testimony to how perspectives change when people reach a certain age and realise that they no longer want a permanent mark. Christians are marked by baptism, which is interestingly not a permanent, outwardly visible mark.

On a third (and related) level, tattoos mean what they are associated with. Associations do change with use, but that change is never overnight. For many years, tattoos would have associated you with Maori tribesmen or the counter-culture rebellion of the 60s and the decades that followed. In other words, the cultures that produced tattoos typically did not live under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Granted, evangelical copycatism is absorbing something associated with unbelief into the world of the church, so the association is no longer a clear violation of Ephesians 5:11 or 1 Thessalonians 5:22. But it is at least ambiguous. Those Christians who are prone to be early-adopters should ask if the association has genuinely changed so that their tattoo does not associate them with unbelief, and thereby confuse the conscience of either believer (1 Corinthians 8:10; 10:28).

On the fourth and deepest level, tattoos have an intrinsic meaning. This is the hardest meaning to discern, but yet it is the most universal across cultures, because it has to do with the very nature of a thing in God’s world. The meaning of colours, facial expressions, tones of voice are examples of intrinsic, natural meaning. Here we have to ask, what does it mean to permanently mark the human body? A theology of the body includes questions of modesty in dress, food and drink, sexuality, burial vs. cremation, rest and work, and embodied living. When it comes to marking the body permanently, we should ask, is this mark adornment or defacement? Does it consecrate the body to God or desecrate the appearance of an image-bearer? One way to ask this is to consider: will God raise our bodies up with the tattoos on them, or will He erase them? If God will erase them, what is meant by a permanent mark that will be erased by resurrection? Are we are cross-purposes when we make permanent what God will erase?

In eternity, there will be only one resurrected person who will permanently bear the marks of a body pierced: Jesus Christ. Memorials of His wounds will remain forever, so that we, His perfected people will rejoice and weep and give thanks. Through His eternal marring, our bodies will be eternally perfect. In other words, only one Person on heaven will have scars. We’d do well to ask if scarring our bodies with ink represents this pattern.

For the Christian who got a tattoo before salvation or during a time of immaturity, there is no condemnation in Christ. God receives you in His Son, and takes you as you are. Heaven will perfect our souls and bodies. But for those still considering it, you would be wise to ask questions of meaning. What does a tattoo mean stipulatively, conventionally, associatively, and intrinsically?

16. Beauty’s Difficulties: Accounting for Taste

How can beauty be a real property if the question of “taste” enters in? If so many people find so many different things beautiful, then surely beauty is just a synonym for what people like.

One of the obstacles to understanding the question of taste is common view that art is to be a matter of spontaneous pleasure and immediate delight. The idea that one’s ability to discern beauty is a discipline that can be practiced is unfamiliar to many Christians.

This has not always been the case. Frank Burch Brown writes: “Christian theologians were once well acquainted with the idea that the best art often delights only with difficulty, and through difficulty. Jonathan Edwards wrote, “Hidden beauties are commonly by far the greatest, because the more complex a beauty is, the more hidden is it.” Augustine, likewise, in The Trinity and On Christian Teaching, celebrated the aesthetic rewards of difficult art, including sacred allegory and scripture, whose veiled meanings in the harder passages both ward off the undisciplined and attract the devoted”

The idea that art should be immediately accessible, familiar, and gratifying partly comes from enculturation in an age of commodified entertainment and pervasive amusements. Such enculturation, however, does not change reality: beauty is to be discerned, and discernment can be developed.

Even David Hume, as radical a critic as he was of moral or aesthetic theory not grounded in empiricism, spoke of the need for qualified critics who could find general principals of approbation or blame. Hume writes in Of the Standard of Taste (1757) that, “though the principles of taste be universal, and, nearly, if not entirely the same in all men; yet few are qualified to give judgment on any work of art, or establish their own sentiment as the standard of beauty”. What kind of person is “qualified”? Hume answers, “Strong sense, united to delicate sentiment, improved by practice, perfected by comparison, and cleared of all prejudice, can alone entitle critics to this valuable character; and the joint verdict of such, wherever they are to be found, is the true standard of taste and beauty”.

Of course, only people with good taste could recognise judges of good taste, so how does one escape circularity? Hume suggested that such people “are easily to be distinguished in society, by the soundness of their understanding and the superiority of their faculties” . Of course, Hume meant the polite, literate, civilised, and financially at ease of his day. But even so, Hume believed the views of the aesthetic elite must be corroborated by a group of peers; their verdicts must be joint. All this shows that even an empiricist such as Hume recognised that much in the debate over taste came down to
expertise, not mere preference.

Edmund Burke saw the cause of bad taste as a defect of judgment due to lack of natural intelligence, or a lack of training and exercise in judgement. He added that ignorance, inattention, prejudice, rashness, levity, obstinacy, and all other passions that pervert the judgement, will pervert the ability to perceive beauty. Taste, according to Burke, improves as judgement improves, by growth in knowledge, and better attention to the object, and by frequent exercise.

These writers take it for granted that taste can be developed, improved, and refined. By frequent practice, regular comparison, and by hearing the views of critics, one can grow in aesthetic sensitivity, and thereby mature aesthetically. This growth produces the very circularity that Hume speaks of. Beauty is “what the reliable critic discerns, and the reliable critic is the one who discerns what is beautiful”, according to Roger Scruton.

Taste engages much of the human soul. It perceives, appreciates, and appraises. Because it requires “thought and imagination, sense and sensibility, it is an integral part of our humanness, our loves, our existence as embodied and living souls”, according to Brown. If so, aesthetic maturity must be closely related to other dimensions of morality and maturity, including responsiveness, wisdom, love, and discernment. An overall maturity of character is related to aesthetic maturity, and the corollary is that aesthetic immaturity is a defect in one’s overall maturity.

Some differences in taste can be ascribed to the aesthetic maturity or immaturity of the subjects who are viewing the objects of art. If, as the Greeks said, Beautiful things are hard (Republic, IV, 435c), one would expect the mature to be able to patiently and carefully discern such beauties, whereas the immature and impatient will pass them over.

Taste is also shaped by modern mass culture (with its predilections towards narcissism and sentimentalism), and of course, by natural preference. However, this is a far cry from saying that taste is merely an arbitrary personal choice. On the contrary, the fact that taste is shaped should make us all the more alert to the possibility of acquiring a taste for what is ugly, and losing pleasure in what is genuinely beautiful.