What relevance does understanding beauty in general revelation of creation have for understanding the special revelation of God’s beauty? This is a perennial question asked by evangelicals. What does beauty have to do with evangelism, discipleship, sanctification or church life?
To answer that, we need only consider the many similarities between art and religion. Art, after all, is creation in general revelation: the sub-creation of humans as they make and shape the raw materials of light, paint, colour, sound, words and ideas into imaginative symbols. Consider seven similarities:
1) Art and religion both deal with ultimate realities. Art and religion are sourced in, and aim at, an explanation of ultimate reality. The term ultimate reality refers to reality beyond matter and empirical verification: the regions of truth, morality and beauty. Both art and religion are concerned with these questions.
2) Art and religion both seek to incarnate transcendent realities. Beyond pursuing ultimate realities, both religion and the arts seek to give perceptible expressions to these ultimate realities, that would remain otherwise invisible. This is particularly important for Christianity as an incarnational religion.
3) Art and religion both point to another cosmos. Man seeks a better world, a world of perfection—a redeemed world. Both art and faith call one to seek another world: perfected, idealised, or merely different. Art uses symbolic meaning that transports its audience beyond its material nature, recreating the world. Religion, too, while using words, books, food, or music, points to a world beyond this one.
4) Art and religion both seek a similar form of knowledge. The knowledge that art and religion provide is the broadest and most foundational: the very frame of perception, the locus of value. This knowledge provides the lens through which a society does its thinking and explanatory work.
5) Art and religion are both concerned with creation. Christianity gives an explanation of existence or being that is essentially an explanation of creation. Understanding the world to be made by God, Christianity explains the nature of humankind, its purpose, and the future of the created order in light of this. The arts, as material (sound, paint, words) are necessarily part of creation. Artistic work is an act of sub-creation, not creating ex nihilo as only God can, but creating by using creation.
6) Art and religion are both concerned with transformation. In giving explanations of ultimate reality, both art and religion call for a response. Both speak in ways akin to that of a prophet, calling for some kind of change.
7) Art and religion both depend on the other. Scripture is the final authority for Christians, and Scripture is itself a work of art: a work of literature that contains poetry, epistles, Gospels, wisdom, narrative, apocalyptic and other genres. The Bible being used liturgically is itself an act of aesthetic reception. Scripture commands the use of at least two forms of art: poetry (psalms, hymns and spiritual songs) and music (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16). Christian worship therefore requires art, even if restricted only to the art of the Bible, such as the exclusive use of psalmody. Art similarly requires religion, even if it borrows the themes and questions that religion claims to answer. When art fails to deal with transcendent matters, it withers into kitsch and sentimentalism or self-referential trivialities, and fails as art.
One of the unfortunate fruits of the Enlightenment is the tendency to regard the aesthetic experience as one separate from faith. In fact, the aesthetic experience has a religious character, and the religious experience is aesthetic. Art requires selfless humility, imaginative faith, and wise judgements, just as Christian spirituality requires receptivity, imagination, and good judgement. These are not disparate experiences, except if one subscribes to the notions of non-religious art or artless religion.
Indeed, the aesthetic experience is actually the mode of perceiving the broadest and most universal things in life: beauty, values, persons, and ethics. In fact, it may be the proper mode to receive any truth at all. T. S. wrote, “Esthetic sensibility must be extended into spiritual perception, and spiritual perception must be extended into esthetic sensibility and disciplined taste before we are qualified to pass judgment upon decadence or diabolism or nihilism in art. To judge a work of art by artistic or by religious standards, to judge a religion by religious or artistic standards should come in the end to the same thing.”
Pursuing God’s beauty does not require the adoption of an unfamiliar or secular aesthetic
mode of approach. It merely requires that one unite what is unjustifiably sundered by Enlightenment secularism. The Christian in pursuit of understanding God’s beauty should abandon the Enlightenment’s view of autonomous human knowledge in the pursuit of beauty, understanding that persons, beauty, and goodness cannot be discovered through mere reason, or through empirical investigation and experimentation. One need only understand that in authentic moments of worship, one has been in the “aesthetic mode” all along: humbly receptive, faithfully interpreting, and discerningly judging.