25. Knowing God’s Beauty Through Correspondent Love

What can we conclude about God’s beauty and how to perceive it?

1) God’s beauty is his own consent, love, or affection for his holy being.
2) Loving this beauty, and necessarily, its object-God’s being simply considered-is the means of perceiving this beauty. Loving God is the analogue of God’s beauty in the creature: a creature participates and shares (and thereby perceives) God’s beauty, when loving it and God as God does.
3) The kind of love that perceives this beauty is of a particular kind: containing humility, faith, discernment, benevolence, submission, and union.

Here then, is my simple proposal: a certain kind of love for God will enable, and is identical to, the apprehension of God’s beauty. Loving God and his cosmos as God does, is both beholding beauty, and becoming beautiful. The perception of God’s beauty is an experience known through participative love.

This love must be carefully defined and qualified. This love must be humbly receptive and teachable. It must rightly imagine God as revealed in Scripture. It must guard against self-love, narcissism, and sentimentalism. It must possess sound judgement and exhibit maturity, having been shaped by the best in Christian culture. It must exist within an ontological and dispositional union with God. In other words, not merely any love for God will result in perceiving God’s beauty.

A term for distinguishing this love from counterfeit forms is the term correspondent love. Here, the word correspondent is used adjectivally, to describe and modify the noun love. Correspondent love refers to love for God that corresponds in degree and kind to God’s own love.

How can we discover what kind of love God has for Himself? Some theologians have cautioned that intra-trinitarian love is not a perfect analogue for the believer’s love for God. The perfect love of God for God is unique and infinite – and probably unknowable, in the truest sense, to a creature.

Though the creature cannot love infinitely as God does, creaturely love may still be rightly ordered, in terms of its hierarchy of loves and in terms of the nature of the love, to be conformed to the kind of love that perceives God’s beauty through submissive participation. When it is rightly ordered (or ordinate, to use the archaic term), it will correspond to God’s own love, in creaturely fashion. The degree or quantity, and the kind or quality of the love must be rooted in the nature of things: in this case, the being of God and his own love for himself.

What is love? In contrast to the modern idea of love as “emotion”, premodern Christianity understood love as a voluntary, rational inclination of the soul towards what it sees as beautiful. On this definition, love may include feelings, but it is not itself an involuntary feeling. Love is rational desire that moves towards union. Love is moved by beauty. When the soul is pure, it loves what is beautiful; when otherwise, it loves what is base. The love corresponds to the object.

Henry Scougal (1650–1678) put it this way: “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love” (The Life of God, 70). Lewis, in Surprised By Joy, similarly writes, “The form of the desired is in the desire. It is the object which makes the desire harsh or sweet, coarse or choice, ‘high’ or ‘low.’ It is the object that makes the desire itself desirable or hateful”. In other words, love is appropriate and correspondent to the degree that its object is truly God, and his beauty is properly seen and understood.

Love is rational desire towards what a person sees as good and beautiful. What does love desire in the perceived beauty? As creatures, humans may go toward the object of their love either in the form of need or in the form of gift. Lewis classifies these as Need-loves and Gift-loves. Need-love looks to the good or beautiful in the Beloved to meet a need in oneself; gift-love seeks to enjoy the good or beautiful in the Beloved for itself, or to beautify it further. In the case of perfection, beautify does not mean improve; it means simply display, magnify, communicate that perfection so that it is more widely shown.

In his essay “The Weight of Glory”, Lewis objects to the idea that love is primarily the negative ideal of unselfishness. For Lewis, love is positive desire. When accused by Kantians of mercenary motives in such love, Lewis answers that when the reward that a desire seeks is foreign to the activity, the mercenary accusation may be valid. But when the reward is the activity itself in consummation, such as marriage being the sought reward of love, such love cannot be accused of selfishness, except if one is beholden to Stoic or Kantian ideas.

Correspondent love pursues the good of all that God is; it pursues the pleasure of God himself. Christians love God because of what God is for them, and because of what God is. They love his need-meeting ability, and they love his excellence.

Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661) helps one find balance: “You object that the truly regenerate should love God for himself: and you fear that you love him more for his benefits, as incitements and motives to love him, than for himself. I answer: to love God himself as the last end, and also for his benefits, as incitements and motives to love him, may stand well together; as a son loveth his mother, because she is his mother, howbeit she is poor; and he loveth her for anapple also. I hope that you will not say that benefits are the only reason and bottom of your love; it seemeth there is a better foundation for it” (Letters, 49/To James Bautie).

Correspondent love is then the inclination of the will (or desire) towards God for all that he is, both in himself and for one’s good. When God is rightly known and desired, the desire will be correspondingly holy.

2020 Reading

 

The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot
The Conservative Mind: From Burke to Eliot
Kirk, Russell
5/5. Encyclopaedic history of conservative thought.

 

Commonwealth Theology
Commonwealth Theology
Krieger, Douglas W.
3/5. Interesting alternative to Covenant Theology and Dispensationalism.
Black Rednecks and White Liberals
Black Rednecks and White Liberals
Sowell, Thomas
5/5. Masterful telling of history of slavery and racial conflict.

 

Demons: What the Bible Really Says about the Powers of Darkness
Demons: What the Bible Really Says about the Powers of Darkness
Heiser, Michael S.
3/5. Fairly well-argued case for demons being disembodied spirits of Nephilim.
Middle Knowledge: Human Freedom in Divine Sovereignty
Middle Knowledge: Human Freedom in Divine Sovereignty
Laing, John D
4/5. Careful study of the Molinist view of foreknowledge, election and free-will.

 

The Infinite Variety of Music
The Infinite Variety of Music
Bernstein, Leonard
4/5. Great, but difficult to follow if the printed music is not played for you.

 

The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, #1)
The Eye of the World (The Wheel of Time, #1)
Jordan, Robert
4/5. Surprisingly rich world with clear allusions to a biblical cosmology.
My Life among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority (Sacred Order/Social Order, #1)
My Life among the Deathworks: Illustrations of the Aesthetics of Authority (Sacred Order/Social Order, #1)
Rieff, Philip
3/5. Poetic philosophy but impenetrable to a dunderhead like me.

 

What to Listen for in Music
What to Listen for in Music
Copland, Aaron
4/5. Excellent introduction.

 

The Body: A Guide for Occupants
The Body: A Guide for Occupants
Bryson, Bill
4/5. A page-turner, and always delightful to see a Darwinist express wonder, gratitude and awe, and have no one to thank.

 

A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society
A Long Obedience in the Same Direction: Discipleship in an Instant Society
Peterson, Eugene H.
3/5. Worthy, but not outstanding, comments on the Songs of Ascent.
The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great
The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great
Merkle, Benjamin R.
5/5. Warm, gripping and interesting telling of perhaps England’s greatest king.
J-Curve: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday Life
J-Curve: Dying and Rising with Jesus in Everyday Life
Miller, Paul E.

5/5. Excellent, excellent telling of one of the great themes of Scripture and central themes of Philippians.

The Warden and the Wolf King (The Wingfeather Saga #4)
The Warden and the Wolf King (The Wingfeather Saga #4)
Peterson, Andrew
The final book of a wonderful series read to my children.
Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth
Unfinished Tales of Númenor and Middle-Earth
Tolkien, J.R.R.
5/5/. Some gems and jewels for lovers of Middle-Earth.
Fool's Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion
Fool’s Talk: Recovering the Art of Christian Persuasion
Guinness, Os
4/5. Unorthodox but wise retelling of apologetic methodology.
Practicing Affirmation: God-Centered Praise of Those Who Are Not God
Practicing Affirmation: God-Centered Praise of Those Who Are Not God
Crabtree, Sam
3/5. Simple reminder to affirm and praise those in our lives we lead and serve.

 

Modern Physics and Ancient Faith
Modern Physics and Ancient Faith
Barr, Stephen M.
4/5. Heavily scientific explanations of God’s glory in cosmology and physics.
Christianity's Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution: A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First
Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution: A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First
McGrath, Alister
4/5. Self-attesting Scripture leads to the principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture, which led to the Reformation and modern Protestantism

 

Narrative Apologetics: Sharing the Relevance, Joy, and Wonder of the Christian Faith
Narrative Apologetics: Sharing the Relevance, Joy, and Wonder of the Christian Faith
McGrath, Alister
3/5. Good introduction to the importance of story and mythos for overall worldview and perspective.

 

Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World
Cultural Apologetics: Renewing the Christian Voice, Conscience, and Imagination in a Disenchanted World
Gould, Paul M.
5/5. Tremendous understanding of cultural perspectives that shape the reception of the Christian message.

 

Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith (Living Faith Series)
Apologetics and the Christian Imagination: An Integrated Approach to Defending the Faith
Ordway, Holly *
3/5. A good start spoiled by an overbearing and proselytising Romanism.

 

Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Really Is Believing
Apologetics Beyond Reason: Why Seeing Really Is Believing
Sire, James W.
3/5. A retired apologist reflects on the many methods beyond evidentialism
Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present
Reformation Worship: Liturgies from the Past for the Present
Gibson, Jonathan
5/5. Superb collection of all the Reformation liturgies from Luther through Westminster.

 

Theology of the Reformers
Theology of the Reformers
George, Timothy
5/5. Readable, wise, thorough historical theology.
Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians
Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with Early and Medieval Theologians
Green, Bradley G.
3/5. Several essays, of varying quality, on early ante-Nicene fathers.
The Stripping of the Altars
The Stripping of the Altars
Duffy, Eamon
3/5. Voluminous, but overwhelming study of pre-Reformation England.

 

The Scandal of Money: Why Wall Street Recovers but the Economy Never Does
The Scandal of Money: Why Wall Street Recovers but the Economy Never Does
Gilder, George
4/5. Illuminating. Money is supposed to be a measure of value, not a thing of value itself, an item to trade with, not to trade in.

 

Budgeting for a Healthy Church: Aligning Finances with Biblical Priorities for Ministry
Budgeting for a Healthy Church: Aligning Finances with Biblical Priorities for Ministry
Dunlop, Jamie
4/5. Helpful, but should be titled “Budgeting for a Healthy American Church”.

 

Lectures on Calvinism
Lectures on Calvinism
Kuyper, Abraham
4/5. Rich, but somewhat dated, lectures on why orthodox Protestantism has produced the best culture history has seen.

The Doctrine of Impeccability: A Test Case for the Hypostatic Union

During this time of Christmas, the church rightly turns its attention to the mystery of the Incarnation. That God became man, while remaining fully God, is one of the deepest biblical doctrines to plumb. Whenever there is some intersection of the human and the divine, there is a fathomless mystery at work: divine election and human freedom, divine and human authorship of Scripture, divine agency and human action. So it is with the Incarnation: the mystery of how one Person could come to have two natures, without dividing the Person or mixing the natures. Orthodoxy always seems balanced on a knife-edge: the fall into heresy is swift if one attempts to explain away the biblical data while leaning too heavily to one side or the other.

One way to illustrate the peril and the precision which is required when handling this doctrine is to consider the doctrine of impeccability. Simply put, impeccability states that Christ was not able to sin. When it is put as prosaically as that, the usual pushback is that the doctrine of impeccability makes a farce of Satan’s temptation of Jesus. Why tempt One who is immune to temptation, and unable to fall? One may as well seek to lure herbivores with red meat, or entice the deaf with a beautiful melody.

Those comparisons are flawed, as we’ll see. Before we answer the question of temptation, we should begin with the two natures of Christ, and how they affect impeccability.

Christ is fully God. God cannot sin, for sin is a violation of God’s will and nature. God cannot be other than himself. For this reason, sin is not tempting to God at all (Jas 1:13).

Christ is fully man. Born of a virgin, and through the miracle of divine conception, Jesus was born without a sin nature. Adam before the fall was able not to sin. Adam after the fall, with a sin nature, was not able not to sin. Christ’s human nature was as Adam’s pre-fall: able not to sin.

Whatever is true of the nature propagates to the Person, according to that nature.  According to His divine nature, Christ was not able to sin. According to His human nature, Christ was able not to sin.

Whatever belongs to natures, Christ has two of, and whatever belongs to Persons, Christ has one of. Christ has a divine will (identical to the will of the Triune Godhead), and a human will (“not My will but Thine be done”, Jesus said in the Garden). It is impossible for the divine will to sin. It is possible for the unfallen human will not to sin. These two unite in the hypostatic union, where the Formula of Chalcedon describes the union as, “two natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He was parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ”.

Here we see the nearly unbearable weight of this doctrine upon human understanding. If we were to say that the divine nature cancelled out any ability to sin, that would be the heresy of Eutychianism, mixing the natures. If we said that he never did possess any real human inclinations but only a human body, we’d be guilty of Apollinarianism. If we claimed that “His human side” could sin, we would be guilty of Nestorianism – dividing the person into two. If we claimed that Jesus the Man could sin and only avoid sin because of God’s presence, we’d be close to Ebionism, denying the divinity of Christ.

Instead, we are left with the same kind of conundrums we have in other areas. According to His divine nature, Jesus is omnipresent; according to His human nature, Jesus is localised in a glorified body. According to His divine nature, Jesus was immortal; according to His human nature, Jesus could die. These are both true in the Person, without cancelling the other out.

In the case of impeccability, most theologians have landed on impeccability. There have been exceptions, Charles Hodge and A. W. Tozer being two notable ones. But most have decided that a nature that cannot sin, when united with a nature that is able not to sin, leads to a Person who is not able to sin. Impossibility united with mere potential seems to still result in impossibility. Natures don’t sin, persons do, and it is simply impossible that the Person who is God could sin.

This returns us to the Temptation of Christ. What was the point of tempting an impeccable Person? First, we are not sure of what Satan knew of the incarnate Christ’s peccability. If it is a mystery to us, it could certainly have been a mystery to spiritual forces of darkness. Second, the fact that Jesus could not sin is not the reason He did not sin. It is true that Jesus could not sin. But the writer of Hebrews never posits Christ’s divine nature as the reason for His perfection. Instead, we read that “He learned obedience by the things He suffered” (Heb. 5:8). In other words, Jesus did not sin because of His faith and obedience – the same tools available to us.

Bruce Ware illustrates this with a long distance open-water swimmer. Such swimmers have support boats trailing them. These make it impossible for them to drown. The support boats, however, are not the reason they do not drown. The reason they do not drown is because they keep swimming with endurance, and finish the race. Yes, Jesus had the “support boat” of His divine nature: He could not sin. But the reason He did not sink into sin was that He kept obeying, kept trusting, kept resisting Satan to the end.

Behold, the wondrous mystery: God and Man, the Word made flesh, the born child who is the Mighty God. Come, let us adore Him.

24. Beauty: the Link Between General and Special Revelation

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.

Biblical Fact-Check: 613 Commandments?

I’m not sure where it began, but someone started the tale that the Hebrew High Priest had a rope tied to his leg, so that if the sound of the bells attached to his robe stopped jingling in the Most Holy Place, the people on the other end of the rope would know he’d been struck dead and could haul him out. No one exactly knows who began this myth: it’s not in the Bible nor is it in the Talmud. Yet you’ll find it trotted out in sermons fairly regularly.

Another of those legends is the idea that there are 613 commandments in the Mosaic Law. In this case, we do know the origin of the legend: rabbinic Judaism. In fact, the number 613 was obtained through typical rabbinical logic. One way is that the numerical value of the Hebrew word Torah is 611, to which can be added the first two of the Ten Commandments. Another method was to say that there were 365 prohibitions – corresponding to the days in a year – and 248 commands – corresponding to the bones in the human body. But in fact, to obtain this number, commands or prohibitions are often counted twice, while others are subsumed. The number 613 was first suggested by a third century rabbi and mostly codified by Maimonides in the 11th century. Virtually all the commandments that Maimonides lists as commands are not explicitly in the Torah, but are rabbinic interpretations of the Torah. A later rabbi, Gersonides, counted 513. Another suggested 521. Eliezer ben Samuel listed 417 commandments. The number of 613 wasn’t really accepted until much later in rabbinic Judaism’s history.

However, you’ll find Christian teachers readily throwing out the number 613, as if it is as biblically codified as the Ten Commandments (Ex. 34:28, Deut. 4:13). I’m sure I used the number myself, simply assuming that someone else counted correctly.

In fact, I haven’t come across a Christian teacher who has meticulously enumerated the commandments in the Law (without simply hijacking or modifying Maimonides’ list). And no wonder: it would be an elusive goal. You’d have to decide whether to count repeated commands in Deuteronomy twice. You’d have to determine if a sentence that commands three actions counts as one command or three. You’d have to determine whether a ritual command contains a moral imperative. And if you made the effort, you would almost certainly not land on the number 613, unless you had set it as a target before beginning.

Yes, it’s easier to take the rabbis’ word for it. But since they are often wrong about a great many things, I’d suggest saying “all the commandments of the Law” or “the entire Torah” or “every law of Moses”.

23. Judging Beauty in Creation (2)

We continue with the next three aspects of judging beauty in creation.

Immediate Response

After contemplating beauty receptively, we experience an immediate response, which is usually unpremeditated and almost instinctive. This immediate response is not the final judgement of the soul upon what it is encountering, only its initial reaction. To take this superficial reaction as determinative of something’s beauty or value is the mistake of the immature, untrained, or even obtuse. Immediate responses are not carefully planned responses, and are therefore indicative of the already-formed character. When Christlike character is present, the more or less immediate responses are those that love what God loves and hate what God hates.

After perception and immediate response, the process of interpretation begins.

Interpretation

Beauty communicates meaning, and meaning must be interpreted. That meaning is discerned and understood by the faculty we call imagination. Through imagination, we understand patterns, metaphors, analogies, symmetries and the like. We are able to interpret what the beauty signifies. This step leads to the final step.

Evaluation

Judgement is necessary once one has interpreted the meaning of something supposedly beautiful. Since meaning is always present, an interpretation of meaning must necessarily lead to an evaluation. Is it true? It is false? Is it trivial? Is it banal? Is it misleading? Is it manipulative? Is it ennobling? Is it transformative? In short, is it good and beautiful? To refer to an object as beautiful or ugly is to refer to the quality of the object, while also expressing a positive or negative response to it and suggesting that others ought to respond in the same way.

Judgement is important to a Christian because it is sin that prefers the epistemological, moral and aesthetic relativism that nullifies judgement. If humans are indeed fallen, then they may be prone to deceive themselves about pleasure. Humans may like what they should not like, and hate what they should love.

T. S. Eliot reminds those desirous of good literary judgement that they need to be acutely aware of two things at once: “what we like,” and “what we ought to like”. These two levels of evaluation are crucial to distinguish. The first level has to do with a subject’s preferences. The second level has to do with the merits of a work. It is not inherently elitist to believe that some aesthetic judgements are better than others. Indeed, every artist, in striving for excellence, makes that assumption. An honest evaluation may recognise that a work of art is good, even though the subject finds no personal pleasure in it. This honest assessment allows those experiencing beauty to admit where their own preferences are perhaps immature or deformed, where some beauty appeals to parts of people that are underdeveloped in them.

Once this distinction is made, it follows that aesthetic discernment is something that can be learnt through diligent study, and even repentance. Just as no one is born wise, so no one is naturally aesthetically wise. Failing to see the necessity of growth in aesthetic discernment will keep people intractably committed to personal preferences, defending their likes and dislikes as if they are essential to their very identities. This explains why so many Christians have taught on the need for receptive perception, as discussed in the previous post. Without surrender to an artwork or a thing of beauty, one cannot see its merits; one sees only oneself and one’s own reactions. If those reactions are immature, one may prevent oneself from moving towards greater and more profound beauties, confusing superficial responses with the intrinsic truth, goodness, or beauty of a work (or lack thereof).

Island Culture

Le Mont-Saint-Michel is a tidal island off Normandy, France. Water levels have varied over the centuries, but at its highest, the island would be completely cut off from the mainland, and at low tide, foot traffic could recommence.
The tidal island is a decent illustration of the relationship between the church and its surrounding culture. The church is rather like the island, somewhat separate, but still somewhat connected to the dominant culture. The culture is like the mainland. The tides represent how accessible the one is to the other.

When the waters were low, it meant plenty of traffic between the Island and the Mainland. That meant people, art, language and even categories of thought travelled back and forth. The Island influenced the Mainland, and vice versa, and in times dominated by Christian thought, there was enough homogeneity between the two for there to be only a minor culture shock when going from the one to the other. People going from Mainland culture to the Island church didn’t feel like complete foreigners.

The rising waters of secularism mean that the traffic between the two diminishes, until friendly relations between the two are basically ended. Faithful churches become island cultures. Their identity, norms, loves, customs, and art forms become increasingly localised, with little counterpart in mainland secularism. The Island and the Mainland are increasingly distanced from one another, and become foreigners.

When this happens, churches have two choices. They can attempt to maintain enough familiarity with the Mainland, by importing various secular forms into their churches. Alternatively, they can put their heads down and cultivate Island Culture.

What does Island Culture look like? It means unabashedly perpetuating your own Christian culture in your local church, without respect to how many links it retains to secular culture. That includes the coveted links of relevance, novelty and recognisability.

For example, Christians do not worship the way they do or teach what they do because secular culture announces this week’s List of Relevant Topics. We teach what we do because God has already limited and bounded what will be perpetually relevant in a book called the Bible. Christians do not worship, disciple and shape church life with an eye to how new, updated, or contemporary they seem. Island culture means how old or new something is becomes of secondary concern. What we’re interested in is if something is True, Good, or Beautiful, regardless of whether it was made yesterday or in the fifth century. We have no irrational prejudice towards what is new, nor do we have some nostalgia about a supposed Golden Age of Christianity in the past, but we should not be surprised if much of what we use in island culture originated in eras where Christianity was far more fruitful and culturally dominant. When the bridges between the church and its society were wide and plentiful, the traffic brought both good and bad into the church, which we can continue to sift through. But there is no reason to feign shock that the best artefacts of Christian culture are often older than 100 years. This is Island Culture.

But perhaps the hardest pill to swallow about Island Culture, and especially for pastors, is the matter of recognisability. A visitor to your Island Culture from secular mainland will increasingly find it all very strange, very unfamiliar, and quite unrecognisable. He will not recognise the way of singing, much less the music or the hymns. He will not recognise the authority structures, the way of praying or preaching, or the discipline of the church. It will seem very, very unusual. In fact, his first experience is that he will likely characterise it as “weird”, “abnormal”, “too traditional” or “a bit too sombre”. The unfamiliarity will make him feel awkward, and to most populist Evangelicals, that is just death. The thought of a visitor feeling out of place or uncomfortable fills many pastors with utter dread.

And therein lies the problem. Emerging from a long season where the Island and the Mainland were fairly connected, many pastors are unprepared (and some are unwilling) to embrace the realities of Island Culture. They’re convinced it is still possible to make a church feel familiar to a secular visitor. They usually make this attempt in the music, the outward presentation of the worship service, and in the trappings of technology, or lifestyle-based ministries or sermons. They will sometimes characterise these as “externals” or “preference issues”.

Such words are evidence of what psychologists like to call “confirmation bias”. The vocabulary is designed to reinforce a comfortable view: that there is nothing specifically Christian about music genres, affections, modes of worship, or various technologies; these are all blank hard drives, ready to be filled with Christian content. Actually, these hard-drives often carry powerful viruses of secularism that inevitably destroy the Christian nature of whatever is copied to them. They are artefacts of culture, which always shape the meaning of whatever we put in them.

What many such pastors do not realise is that this distance between us and secularism is not one created by a faithful church. It is created by a secular culture that is rocketing away from biblical norms. The faithful church is not trying to be deliberately odd. Even if it simply perpetuates Christian doctrine, worship and ethics within itself, the faithful church will find the distance increasingly growing between itself and the culture of Netflix, Apple, Amazon, Google, Hollywood and the secular elites. Rising tides don’t mean the island is floating away. It just means previously exposed bridges of commonality are disappearing.

To the degree you seek to make people immersed in secular culture feel at home on when they visit the Island is the degree to which you must import and naturalise ideas, morals, entertainments, dress, or music which are not simply non-Christian, but increasingly anti-Christian. And ironically, to the degree that you succeed is the degree to which you have failed: failed to faithfully preserve and perpetuate the faith.

I take it for granted that every church wishes to be warm and welcoming. I imagine every loving pastor wishes to reduce the awkwardness of unfamiliarity for secular visitors as a sheer act of hospitality and compassionate evangelism. All this is good and well. But the real problem is the pastor who thinks he can reduce the distance between the Island and the Mainland by importing Mainland goods, and baptising them as Christian.

He may see some successes. Unbelievers may feel that the church speaks their language, settle down, and assimilate into the church. On the other hand, what the seeker-friendly movement has abundantly shown is that too much of this simply colonises the Island for secularism. The natives on the Island superficially identify with Christianity, but everyone speaks with a secular accent. They may turn out to be long-term tourists, and not real residents. Again, too much success at this may actually be a sign of failure, given the growing distance between Christianity and secularism.

What then? We cannot control the tides. We cannot move landmasses. We must not turn the Island into a colony of the Mainland.  Conserving and propagating Island Culture is our only obedient option. What does that mean?

Embrace being unusual. Embrace the task of a lot of explaining for those who come to you as refugees from other churches. Embrace slower growth, and accept (with sadness) less return visitors from the neighbourhood. Accept some of the most likely candidates for getting and perpetuating true Christianity will be those who grow up in your church, if they have faithful and thoughtful parents who explain what is done and why. Accept you will be misunderstood as a hide-bound traditionalist, or as a wooden conformist to an old way without any sense of the times or the way to remain relevant. Accept that you will be caricatured as the stereotypical parson with an aversion to change, a suspicion of youth, and a perpetual scorn towards modernity. Accept that the only way people will really understand what you’re doing is if they spend a long time on the Island.

And then, put your head down, and work.

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.