22. Judging Beauty in Creation

The two domains of God’s revelation are general revelation and special revelation. God has revealed Himself to all men generally through the created order, and God has revealed Himself specifically to some through His Word, mediated through various agents. If we wish to perceive the beauty of God, we will find it in both domains, though they will differ in the specificity of that beauty.

God’s beauty will not be of different kinds, for God is always God. But what can be perceived of God in nature, the human conscience, human culture, and human art will not be as clear or concrete as what can be perceived through language conveyed through angels, prophets, and apostles.

We should also expect that the approach to perceiving God’s beauty in creation will bear great resemblance to perceiving it in Scripture. And on close examination, we find it is just so. Many of the approaches to perceiving beauty in art find nearly exact counterparts in Christian worship and discipleship. In other words, the pagan who perceived true beauty in creation did so because he adopted a posture that mimics something found in Christian virtue. He did not know it, but he submitted to a pattern found within the Triune Godhead, and in doing so, he saw some of that glory.

To put it another way, true beauty always requires it perceivers to be in some kind of union with it. They must humble themselves, pursue it, see it for what it is, and judge it with complete honesty. This kind of act is very close to self-giving love, as we’ll see. The pursuers of beauty, even if they are not regenerate, must get themselves out of the way, receive the beauty of a thing, and judge it fairly. By this act, the common grace of God allows the unsaved to know and experience the echoes of His glory in general revelation. Indeed, were the unsaved to keep using that approach to all of life, they would pretty soon bump up against the gospel and the claims of Christ. As we saw in the last post, most will flee before the light becomes that intense.

What is the procedure for seeing beauty in general revelation? John Witvliet summarises the approach as occurring in four stages: 1) perception, 2) immediate response, 3) interpretation, and 4) evaluation. We’ll take these in turn.

Perception

Perceiving beauty is the beginning of the encounter. Both Christian and no-Christian writers have been concerned to point out that true pursuer of beauty must have the quality of receptivity.
C. S. Lewis wrote incisively of this in An Experiment in Criticism. Lewis suggested that to receive a work, the subject must exert his or her senses to conform to the pattern created by the artist. Conversely, using a work of art is treating it as a mere aid to selfish activities. When art is used, it cannot introduce one to new worlds or transform; it can only brighten, relieve, or palliate one’s life. When one uses art for one’s own ends, a work of art has no chance to work on a person, meaning one meets only oneself in the work. Consumers of art do not lay themselves open to what the work in its totality might do to them; they merely treat it as a means to their own selfish ends.
True receptivity begins by laying aside individual preconceptions, interests, and associations. Positively, one must then look, listen, read, or feel, as the case may be. The seeker must go on perceiving until he or she has perceived what is there. This is essentially a form of surrender. Lewis writes, “Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out)”.

This kind of receptivity is contemplation, to be distinguished sharply from distraction. Roger Scruton, in Beauty, distinguishes the true work of art from the false by distinguishing the experience of the one from the other. In the true work of art, it is not one’s own reactions that are interesting, but the meaning and content of the work. Entertainment is not interested in cause, but only in effect—whether the work had pleasant effects on oneself. Though true art also entertains, it does so by creating a distance between oneself and what it portrays, allowing a disinterested sympathy for its subject matter, rather than evoking vicarious emotions of one’s own. This distance is what enables receptivity and contemplation. “The purpose of this distance is not to prevent emotion, but to focus in it, by directing attention towards the imaginary other, rather than the present self” (p. 104).

Contemplation is an act of attention that receives the artwork, or the thing in nature, or whatever the manifestation of beauty as a gift, not an object to be used, but as something to be meditated upon and lived with.

As you can see, the moral qualities of the beholder influence whether beauty is seen or missed altogether.

21. Beauty’s Description

Beauty defined may be abstract and remote; beauty described should be concrete. What does beauty look like? For that matter, since beauty is not only (or even primarily) visual, what does beauty sound like, feel like, or seem like? When we have encountered or experienced beauty, what is that experience?

The best approach is to start from the deepest reality and work outwards. If beauty is the ultimate ground of reality, the self-giving love of the Godhead to one another, then beauty in the created order will be a form, or an echo of that primary beauty.

Among rational, sentient beings, this beauty is seen in self-giving love. When free beings choose to willingly unite their wills with the good of others, this is the closest echo of Trinitarian beauty. Symmetry of wills is the greatest symmetry of all. No wonder that the Greatest Commandment is to love God wholeheartedly (unite our wills entirely with His glory), and the Second is like it, to love our neighbour as oneself (unite our wills with what will beautify and bless our neighbour). Those who live in this kind of love are simultaneously growing in knowledge of truth and goodness (Phil. 1:9-11). Furthermore, the more they pursue this beauty, the more they are “beautified” by it, and become rooted and grounded in, enabling even further knowledge of it (Ephesians 3:16-19).  And when this is the case, the soul being shaped into the beauty of God finds ultimate pleasure and joy in knowing and loving God (Ps 34:4). Harmony, symmetry, pleasure, truth and goodness (all the suggested definitions of love) find their manifestation in God’s love, considered objectively or subjectively.

When we move out from sentient beings to created material, beauty continues to be seen when it represents the harmony of wills. Whether it is the arrangement of sound, colour, shapes, numbers, words, or ideas, beauty is found in the combination and arrangement of disparate parts to make a unified whole. Whether found naturally, or re-shaped by God’s image-bearers, created beauty is a re-enactment of Genesis 1:2-3: order, harmony, equality is brought to bear upon what is without form and void, so that we can make the evaluation: “it is good”. Of course, that description of created beauty would need a lot of nuancing and explaining, given the complexity and variety in the created order. But it appears “approving what is excellent” is precisely part of the task of the righteous in this age.

But here’s the rub. Since beauty is ultimately an echo of holy love, the moral state of the beholder influences the perception of beauty. If evil is a distortion of God’s love, then those who love to do evil have come to find pleasure in what God calls ugly. Or to put it another way, for evildoers, beautiful has become ugly, and ugly has become beautiful (Is. 5:20). This explains why Jesus says the real condemnation of man is not his ignorance, but his deliberate avoidance of God’s beauty and the contrast it will make with man’s ugliness (John 3:19-21). By contrast, the first mark of regeneration is a taste or relish for God’s beauty. Sanctification is a steady process of learning to hate what is unlovely to God, and love what God loves.

This does not mean that unbelievers cannot perceive or create beauty. As image-bearers, they can perceive truth, goodness, and beauty. They can find pleasure in it, depending on how much free reign they have given to their depravity (few reach the place of total demonic hatred of all that is good). And to the degree that they mimic (wittingly or unwittingly) the self-giving nature of love, they may both make beautiful things, and recognise beautiful things.

But as the beautiful thing begins to bear a more recognisable resemblance to God, conviction sets in, and the unbeliever will wish to flee. Only the overcoming grace of God will infallibly persuade and bring the fleeing unbeliever to finally embrace the source of beauty: God in Christ.

Should We Pronounce the Divine Name?

Most Christians know that in English translations of the Bible, the capitalised “LORD” stands in for the Tetragrammaton, the divine name, YHWH. Actually, the Hebrew people regularly pronounced the name until the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C. This is seen in the Lachish Letters, which were written before the Temple’s destruction, and contain the Tetragrammaton.

After the destruction of the Temple, and the end of the exile, Jews from about the third century BC began using the substitute Hebrew word for master or Lord, Adonai, when they read YHWH. Later Masoretic scribes took the vowels from Adonai, and placed them within the divine name to remind readers to reverently say “Adonai” instead of the divine name. This ended up looking like YeHoWaH to later medieval Christian scholars, who did not understand what this meant, and introduced the hybrid name “Jehovah”.

Later Jews took this even further, using Ha-Shem (“the Name”) to refer to God. For many, it is impiety to attempt to pronounce the name of God, as if it is a mystery lost in time. But the Jewish writer Louis Hartman writes in the Encyclopaedia Judaica:

“The true pronunciation of the name YHWH was never lost. Several early Greek writers of the Christian Church testify that the name was pronounced “Yahweh.” This is confirmed, at least for the vowel of the first syllable of the name, by the shorter form Yah, which is sometimes used in poetry (e.g., Ex. 15:2) and the -yahu or -yah that serves as the final syllable in very many Hebrew names.”

What then? While the name of God should be respected, it is hard to believe it was revealed so as to remain unpronounced. On good evidence, we know ancient Israelites pronounced it as Yahweh.

Because of changes in the Hebrew language too technical to go into here, we now pronounce with a v much of what was then pronounced with the sound. (That is, the letter vav in modern Hebrew was a waw in ancient Hebrew). For that reason, today we speak of the Levites, not the Lewites; King David and not King Dawid. To be consistent, today we would pronounce the Tetragrammaton as Yahveh.

20. Beauty’s Definition: What About the Cross?

If beauty is ultimately God’s self-knowledge and communicative self-delight, we can explain easily enough why other theories of beauty have defined beauty as harmony and symmetry, or truth and goodness, or pleasure and delight. For Trinitarian love is the ultimate and absolute form of harmony and unity, being a symmetry not of objects but of the will and love of the three persons. Trinitarian love is also truth and goodness: for God’s being is the ground of all reality (truth), the excellence of his being is goodness, and his knowledge and delight in himself is beauty. And as the multiple Hebrew words for beauty showed us, beauty is pleasure and delight.

For all that, there remains a wrinkle. What of ugliness? What of the disharmonious and the painful? Indeed, why should the Cross be central to the biblical message? Where does the gospel fit into a discussion of God’s beauty?

It appears that the answer may lie in the nature of triune love. Love within the Godhead is gratuitous self-giving.

Several Scriptures speak of the Father’s gifts to the Son:

All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Matt. 11:27).

The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand (John 3:35).

For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man (John 5:26–27).

Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world (John 17:24).

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name (Phil. 2:9).

Likewise, Scripture reveals the Son’s gifts to the Father:

And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them (John 17:10).

Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power (1 Cor. 15:24).

Creation itself is primarily a gift of glory from the persons of the Godhead to one another. Jonathan Wilson, in God’s Good World, describes it as follows:

“In the life of the Triune God, the Father freely gives himself to the Son, so that he is both fully and eternally the Father and the Son is fully, eternally the Son. Likewise, the Son gives himself freely as the Son to the Father, so that each is fully and eternally Son and Father. Their giving to each other is the life of the Holy Spirit, who in receiving from and giving to the Father and the Son, is fully and eternally the Spirit. Moreover, the Spirit is the very gift that the Spirit gives to the Father and the Son, desiring that the Father and the Son love each other. From this mutuality of giving and receiving, which simply is life, and which may also be named as love, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit give life to something other than God: creation.”

Further, the Fall, Redemption, and Consummation are part of a plan to return the gift increased in value and more reflective of the Godhead than even at its pristine creation.

It seems that this self-giving love is best understood with the backdrop of sin, suffering, and evil. Not only does the evil provide a contrast to the goodness of God, but it provides a stage for impossibly opposed things to be reconciled and brought back together into beautiful harmony. In Edwards’ sermon “The Excellency of Christ”, he shows how “there is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ”. That is, seemingly differing attributes such as justice and mercy, majesty and meekness, dominion and submission are found in Christ. The attributes of humility and submission seen in Jesus in particular illustrate the trinitarian love that existed in eternity past. This is part of the beauty of God: God’s self-giving glory, which the Incarnation gave spectacular shape to.

Through the grand message of redemptive and doxological history, God’s self-giving love is understood by men and angels in ways they could not otherwise know. I’ve suggested this poetically. Humility, self-denial, the cross, begets exaltation, joy and resurrection. To know the self-giving love of the Trinity, sinners must come and die with Jesus, and so rise with him and know His beauty. At the heart of beauty, both in its nature, and it its perception is the most repeated saying of Jesus: “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Lk. 17:33). Self-giving life is the deepest reality of all.

19. Beauty’s Definition: Addenda

Jonathan Edwards combined insights from each of the theories of beauty, while being primarily theological. His theory was different from his Christian forbearers, though. Instead of resting on the medieval idea that God’s beauty was equivalent to his being, Edwards insisted that the beauty of God is God’s interaction with his being. Beauty is not a static property: it is God’s dynamic, give-and-take of pleasure and excellence in himself and all that reflects him.

Of course, for Edwards, God’s “consent”, or loving union, is not grounded on consent, for that would lead to infinite regress. God does not “love His love”. God’s love rests not on His love, but on His being itself. God’s being “simply considered”, as Edwards put it, is what God knows, loves and thus communicates. God delights in his own being in its undivided, infinite essence. Necessarily, God’s undivided essence includes God’s love. But God’s beauty is God’s “godness” in dynamic self-appraisal. Love and delight are the glory that illuminates them, as white light gives colour to objects. God’s beauty is then “the Most Lovely loving the Most Lovely”. When God delights in his being, and celebrates and radiates pleasure, this is his beauty. God’s essence irradiated in delighted self-communication is God’s beauty and God’s love.

In one sense, God’s being simply considered is precisely what finite, immanent beings can never know. Only God can know God in this way. But the result of God’s self-knowledge of the truth of His being and the goodness of His being is the love that communicates and shares. This is glory, or beauty: the radiance of all God is, but lovingly shared and communicated, first with himself, and then with creation.

This loving, harmonious sharing of himself is the pattern for all forms of created beauty. The symmetry and harmony of beauty is an analogue of God’s delighted harmony in himself. The pleasurable variety or surprising diversity in a scene, or a musical composition, or a mathematical theory simply echoes the infinite God beholding himself, communicating this in the Son, and reciprocal delight proceeding in the Spirit. The life of the Godhead is ultimate truth, goodness and beauty.

This leads us to a few unusual observations about beauty.

First, beauty is personal: it describes something persons recognise with pleasure or something in persons that is pleasurable. With Edwards, one can agree that beauty is not a static property, but a composite experience requiring both subject and object. God acting as both subject and object is possible only in the Christian expression of the Triune God. God’s delight in God is not a static property of God, but in the incomprehensibly myriad splendours of his being expressed and given to one another in the Godhead. The refulgence of his given character, and the reciprocal delight in this refulgence, constitute God’s beauty. Beauty then cannot exist outside of persons, for observers and delight are essential to its existence. God’s beauty cannot be abstracted from his person, or his personal approbation of beauty.

Second, God’s beauty is an axiomatic first principle. That which is beautiful in God is beautiful because it is in God. It cannot be referred to a standard outside and above God to which he conforms. God is beautiful because God is the object of God’s love and because God is the subject of God’s love. He is beautiful for those qualities in himself that merit his love, and he is beautiful because he loves those qualities.

Third, beauty is dynamic: a reciprocal experience of beholding, partaking, and delighting. Beauty cannot exist apart from objects that signify and subjects that parse meaning. Static, unrecognised, unknown beauty does not exist in a universe created by an omnipresent, omniscient, and triune God.

Fourth, one can say further that beautiful minds (those that recognise beauty) are simultaneously truthful and good. Simply put, who or what God is brings delighted pleasure to those pursuing goodness and truth. Beauty is inescapably moral in nature. God’s beauty, then, describes a personal, dynamic, and moral delight of God in his own excellence. God’s beauty is his radiant delight in his uncompounded being. Created or secondary beauty is all that reflects this excellence of God’s being, which beautiful beings will love.

18. Beauty Defined (With Some Help From Edwards)

How do we decide between these competing definitions of beauty? As Christians, we would firstly say that we cannot be satisfied with a definition of beauty abstracted from God. Beauty must be defined in relation to God. For that reason, special revelation (Scripture) must define beauty in general revelation (nature and art), not the other way around.

With this qualification in mind, we can evaluate the four definitions of beauty. Is beauty the harmony or proportion so loved by Platonic aestheticians? It certainly explains much, particularly in visual perception, in the beauty of intellectually elegant ideas (in mathematics, for example). For all that, beauty-as-harmony fails to deal adequately with the phenomenon of unitary beauty, such as light, or colour. The pleasure obtained by beauty cannot be finally reduced to admiration of symmetry, for some beauty is the beauty of the simple, or the sublime, or even the tragic—in which the disharmonious nevertheless attains a beauty in our eyes.

Is beauty equivalent to truth and goodness? Certainly beauty as some kind of ultimate value must place it into relationship with other ultimate values such as goodness or truth. Again, this definition, by itself, falls short. Beauty, as the Hebrew writers showed us, is more than a philosophical construct or abstract notion. Beauty is a reality to be known and experienced. It might do to say that apprehending God’s beauty is apprehending the truth of God’s being and the goodness of God’s being, but this only pushes the question one level back. One is still forced to ask, what is the nature of that goodness? What is the experience of apprehending the true reality of God’s being? This definition has the drawback of the dictionary’s circularity where we try to define words with words, and land up where we started.

Is beauty simply one’s pleasure in a subject? Beauty may represent a phenomenon in a perceiving subject, but that phenomenon corresponds to something outside the subject. It may be true that no beauty exists without beholders; it is equally true that beholders do not create beauty out of themselves. One must examine the subjective experience of beauty, but Christians must insist that a real phenomenon exists outside the subject, in recognisable properties in the object.

Perhaps these definitions find partial vindication in some theological definition of God’s beauty: His attributes, His glory, His being, or His trinitarian relationships.

Is beauty another name for God’s uncompounded, infinite being? To say that “Godness” equals beauty does not explain everything. Defining beauty as equivalent to God’s being creates its own problems. If beauty is God’s being simply considered, and God’s being is the ground of all being, how does one then explain ugliness in the order of things? Medieval Christianity foundered on this point.

Is God’s beauty one of his attributes, or the sum total of his will and ways? Is God’s beauty the name for when God’s glory is displayed and experienced? A tentative answer may agree that this is a generally safe assumption, since Scripture does link God’s beauty with his glory (1 Chr. 16:29; Job 40:10; Ps. 29:2). Yet to say that God’s beauty is God’s glory is merely to substitute a biblical word for a philosophical one, and merely drives one to define both more explicitly.

What of the idea that the Trinity’s life is the essence of God’s beauty? Is God’s beauty particularly related to the Trinity: the symmetry of relations, the harmony of three who are one, or the relationships of love with one another? If God’s beauty represents not merely his essence or being, but the refulgence and pleasurable splendour of this essence, then God’s delight in God would be one of the strongest contenders for a definition of God’s beauty.

This was Jonathan Edwards’ solution, when he defined beauty as “being’s cordial consent to being in general”. This consent is benevolence, union, or love: the benevolence of God toward being in general and specifically toward other benevolent beings. Here Edwards defines beauty as God’s response to his own being, agreeing with medievalists that God himself is the ground of beauty, not a concept that could be abstracted from God. Yet God’s beauty is not merely his being in some static, abstract sense. The beauty is how God dynamically responds to His own being. God’s dynamic benevolence, as inclined and expressed to himself and his works, is beauty. Trinitarian love is at the heart of what God’s beauty is. Edwards has perhaps the best theological definition of beauty, combining essence with dynamic response. Remarkably, Edwards has also assimilated the other three definitions into a theological definition.

By using the word “consent”, Edwards is nodding to the idea of harmony and symmetry. Edwards also assimilates the transcendental definition by combining truth, goodness and beauty by defining beauty as “true virtue”, i.e., true goodness. Finally, Edwards makes room for the subjective definition, for he defines true virtue—subjective love of God’s beauty, or holy affections—as the beauty of God, the saints, and the angels. When a moral being finds pleasure in God’s beauty, that pleasure and desire constitutes his or her spiritual beauty. God is ultimately beautiful because of what he loves and because of what he is. He is the Most Lovely Perfectly Loving the Most Lovely.

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.

15. Beauty’s Difficulties: The Problem of Taste

After more than a century of grappling with Descartes’ division of knowledge into “subjective” and “objective”, eighteenth-century thinkers developed a way to rescue the concept of beauty. The conversation about beauty moved away from a discussion of harmony, proportion, or unity and towards the idea of taste. In fact, at this early stage, the attention to taste as a theme in the discussion of beauty was an attempt to prevent the complete subjectivisation of beauty, and to retain some level of objectivity by defining standards of taste. Even David Hume argued for refined taste: “In many orders of beauty, particularly those of the finer arts”, Hume writes in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, “it is requisite to employ much reasoning in order to feel the proper sentiment; and a false relish may frequently be corrected by argument and reflection”.

Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–1762) seems to have coined the term aesthetics. Baumgarten used the term to refer to judgement of good and bad taste, defining taste in his Metaphysica (1739) as the ability to judge using the senses and not the intellect. For Baumgarten, beauty was nothing less than perfect sense knowledge.

Though it had its opponents (notably the Earl of Shaftesbury), the Enlightenment departed from the classical and traditional Christian notions of beauty as being or as a property of God. A growing sense of the individual’s subjective consciousness and a growing awareness of cultural diversity further challenged simplistic ideas of equality, symmetry and harmony as the sum total of beauty. An increasingly secularised intellectual world was now struggling to account for taste apart from any theological moorings. The newly-coined term aesthetics was to become a distinct discipline within philosophy, focused mostly on the beaux arts, rather than a basis for ethics, or as one of three transcendentals that explained immanent reality.

This non-religious aesthetic form of art was soon to become valued for itself, creating “art for art’s sake”. Art was now on its way to becoming an autonomous entity, divorced from worship, ethics, or religiously useful effects on the head and heart. Instead, these works of art were valued as badges of social status, goods to be marketed or components of a growing “culture industry”.

Indeed, the avant-garde averred that taste for this new form of autonomous art would be contaminated by religious or moral interests. The taste for art was divorced from the spiritual taste that had been spoken of by believers for centuries.

In the same century, Edmund Burke defined taste in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful as a complex of three factors: sensory perception, the pleasures of imagination, and the conclusions of the reasoning faculty.  Taste is the ability to rightly discern and respond to aesthetic qualities. He wrote,  “[I]t has three elements or facets: perceiving, enjoying, and judging”. Burke’s view assumes that there is a true beauty outside the observer that can be known.

If this is true, it is possible for taste to be better or worse, more discerning or less, acute or dull.  Aesthetic taste is a discipline that must be cultivated like any other. Taste goes beyond preference, for to call something beautiful is to say more than just, “I like it”, but to make that claim public, and expect agreement.

A difference in taste is more than a difference in preference. A difference in preference represents the symptom of differing taste, not its very essence. Differing taste produces differing preferences, but those preferences are not the sum and substance of differing taste. Differing tastes may, in the end, correspond to the difference between two sorts of beauty which themselves differ in kind. That is, bad taste is a taste for bad things, the love of what ought not to be loved.

This is a controversial claim. How do we account for widely differing tastes? Our next post will make some suggestions.