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.

14. Beauty’s Difficulties: A Case of Mistaken Identity

The topic of beauty suffers not only because its definition is disputed, but because beauty is often a victim of misidentification. These wrong associations lead beauty’s critics to dismiss the topic out of hand. As I’ve said, I believe beauty refers to the deepest reality, and so it is no small matter when beauty is trivialised or mistaken for something else. Beauty is confused with at least four things, which compromise its true meaning.

1) Beauty is not prettiness. That is, beauty has little to do with the saccharine-sweet, the merely decorative, or the superficial niceness of appearance. While there may be instances of what is pretty, charming, or pleasing that possess beauty, beauty is far more, and far deeper than the surface appearance of an endearing garden, a memorable face, or a cute outfit.

2) Allied to this, beauty is not kitsch. Sentimental art evades or trivialises evil, presenting a fiction of an unfallen present world, and so allows its viewers to wallow in pleasant feelings. The sentimentalist is emotionally self-indulgent, loving, grieving, hating, pitying, not for the sake of another, but for the sake of enjoying love, grief, hate, and pity. Sentimental art denies the need for sacrifice in approaching beauty, but in so doing deprives feeling of depth and reality. Dorothy Sayers terms such art “amusement art” and notes that what people get from it “is the enjoyment of the emotions which usually accompany experience without us having had the experience”. Nothing in such an aesthetic experience reveals people to
themselves; it merely enhances and inflates an image of themselves as they fancy themselves to be. Sentimental art appeals to human vanity, self-centredness, and egotism. Kitsch is where humans go to indulge the love of self, and to escape into worlds of their own making. Kitsch trades in the familiar, the easy, the shallow, and the childish, because these appeal to what is most selfish in all. Sentimentalism is then worse than an aesthetic faux pas, it trades in falsehoods. It distorts the realities to which it claims to allude. It cannot generate action appropriate to what it claims to represent, for it falsifies the experience from the start, giving instead a placebo emotion.

For this reason, sentimentality and kitsch is a form of art hostile to what Christianity purports to teach: a denial of self, so as to worship the glory of Another. Bishop Harries goes as far as saying that “Kitsch, in whatever form, is an enemy of the Christian faith and must be exposed as such”. Kitsch is not only an aesthetic failure, but a moral and spiritual failure, too. Christ’s beauty is not a sentimental prettiness, and therefore sentimental art has the potential of leading into idolatry. Scruton similarly claims that kitsch is not primarily an artistic phenomenon, but a disease of faith.

3) Beauty is not pleasure. At least, while beauty evokes pleasure, and beautiful souls find pleasure in the beautiful, beauty is not identical to pleasure. When defined too narrowly as an aesthetic experience, beauty has no place for pain, discord, tragedy, and suffering. The kind of beauty that a Christian believes in must include the message of the Cross, with its ugliness, horror and pain.

4) Beauty is not a surrogate religion. Emil Brunner pointed out that the danger of this approach, at least in artistic matters, is “taking the reflection for the reality, or at any rate of resting content with it. Thus art becomes a substitute for faith, which is sought because it does not demand decision, as faith does, but merely the attitude of a spectator, or of one who is swayed hither and thither by the artistic influences around him; that is, it is not a real devotion, it is merely aesthetic.” Jacques Barzun wrote that “autonomous art has no unity, no eternity, no theology, no myth, no minister, its cult can only fall into a worship of the instrument—idolatry. And to say idolatry is to say failure, for what is wrong with idolatry is that it is a dead stop along the way to the transcendent.”

The Bowl

High upon a volcanic plateau was a village, about an hour’s walk from the Everlasting Spring. Once a week, on the Day of Worship, the Healer would arise long before dawn and begin his trek to the Spring, carrying the Bowl. Hollowed out from a large stone, the Bowl had been passed down from one Healer to another for more generations than could now be remembered. Once at the Spring, the Healer would carefully fill the heavy Bowl up to its brim, and then begin the journey back, being at pains not to spill the precious water.

Once the Healer arrived, the village people gathered. With great gratitude, they received the bowl, each one drinking his share before passing it on to his neighbour. Fathers helped their children with the weight of the Bowl, so that they too could enjoy the life-giving water. People always thanked the Healer, for they knew the hike to the Spring and back while carrying a stone bowl was indeed an arduous effort.

However, the mood was changing in the village. News of changes in other villages had spread, and discontent began to set in. Murmurings reached the ears of the Healer. Chief of these was the complaint that the Bowl was simply too heavy. People could no longer hold such a heavy Bowl, and they were being denied access to the water by the sheer bulk and weight of the Bowl.
And indeed, the people’s arms had grown weak. The Healer had been observing the strongest of the men in the village losing strength and muscle for several years. And there was no doubt that the Bowl was heavy, particularly when full of the Spring’s water, and especially for weak arms.

Word had arrived of what other villages were doing. They had rejected the traditional Stone Bowls, and had begun using something new – the Plastic Platter. The Plastic Platter was a thin, disc-shaped plate, slightly turned up at the edges. They were usually decorated with bright and colourful designs, and the people marvelled at them. (They were imported from the West, and the village people thought this added to their value.) Some Plastic Platters had been brought to the village, and those most vociferous for change brought them to the Healer.

The Healer took some time to examine them. He could immediately see why people liked them. They were very light – the smallest child could hold them. (For a moment, he was tempted by the thought of how much easier they would make his task.) They were attractive and drew attention to themselves, whereas the Bowl simply focused one on the water. Moreover, they were so cheap that each villager could have his own Platter, making the Day of Worship a very personal experience.

However, the Healer was deeply troubled by the greatest flaw in the Platters: they could hold almost no water. Little more than a sip of water could be held by their shallow forms. The Healer knew that the villagers would begin to thirst and eventually die if the water came to them on these Platters.

He called a meeting and began to explain his concerns. A restlessness pervaded the meeting. Voices began lodging objections. “It’s the same water, isn’t it? Why do we have to do as our forefathers did? These Platters are easier to use. You do want people to have access to the water, don’t you? Or are you trying to keep it all to yourself?”

The Healer spoke slowly. “I very much want us all to drink of the Spring. Yet I think our forefathers knew well why the Stone Bowl would serve us best. It holds much water, enough for us all. It requires we all share one Bowl, unifying us. It is heavy, reminding us of the Spring’s importance. It sometimes requires that we serve each other, by helping the weak, the sick, the frail and the young.

“I am afraid the Platters will not hold much water. Their colour will distract us from how little water we have actually tasted. Their lightness will remove all sense of what we owe the Spring. And they will divide us from each other, instead of uniting us.”

The meeting broke up. Several disgruntled people left the village with their families, and more people in the villages began using the Platters. The Healer determined he had only two choices: begin using the Platters, or help each of his people hold the Bowl, till each one’s arms were strong enough to hold it himself.

What ought he to do, if he be worthy of the title Healer?

The Unexamined Life

“The unexamined life is not worth living”, said Socrates. Socrates was teaching the need to live a life where all things are parsed for their meaning. A life lived on auto-pilot, following the great mass of humanity, takes most of life for granted. It is a life lived without reflection, without much meditation, and consequently, without much understanding. Life is reduced to a set of tasks to be completed. As reflection and contemplation wither, inevitably wonder, awe and worship suffer as well. Examining life for its meaning sets us apart from animals, who also eat, sleep, mate, get food, build shelter. Animals do not look at the sky and simply ask, “Why?”, nor do they contemplate beauty.

Since Christians believe we live in an ordered universe that was designed and created by an Intelligent Being, it only follows that we should examine all of life for meaning. The Examined Life, however, is not popular amongst many modern Christians. Begin urging Christians to examine the meaning of their music, or the impact of clothing on our moods and manners, or the uses of technology, or the values of pop culture, or the frivolity of entertainment-based living and they will go through a range of emotions.

First, amusement. “You’re kidding, right? You don’t seriously expect me to believe that God has an opinion on my [fill in the cherished idol], do you?”

Second, disbelief. “You must be some kind of cult. I’ve been listening to very conservative preachers all my life, and I’ve never heard anything like this. You’re going off the deep end.”

Third, anger. “I can’t stand all this nitpicking about how I live my life. Who are you to say that my [fill in the cherished activity] is incompatible with Christianity? Show me a chapter and verse!” Strange, as Kevin Bauder has pointed out, how some people are very attached to, and very defensive of, the things they claim carry no meaning.

For many people, a “conservative” Christian church equals a generally biblical theology, some expository preaching, and corporate worship that is tame in comparison to the rock-fests passing for Christianity everywhere else. This is ‘conservative’ to most Christians today. However, what is clear about such churches, judging by the members that come to us, is that no attempt was made to insist upon an examined life outside of the Sunday sermon. The pastor was too squeamish to touch the ‘hot-topics’ that get Christians all defensive, so he never did. Or, he was schooled in an environment which conveniently did a hop, skip and jump over such things, lest they be branded as fundamentalists. This is why people are puzzled by the Examined Life. Few Christian leaders seem to practise it; the chances of the average Christian knowing it are slim indeed.

Should these leaders be called on their unexamined living, the stock response is that such talk is legalism. Legalism is the easiest and most popular smear-word in modern Christianity. Not many people who use it to blackball their opponents would be able to define it if they were pressed. In most people’s minds, it means something like, “I’m being told what to do in very specific areas of my life, and it feels constrictive!” By that definition, simple obedience is legalistic.

True legalism, or better, Pharisaism, is turning from a Spirit-empowered walk in loving obedience to Christ’s Word, to an externalised, flesh-empowered conformity to please man. Despite what evangelicals will tell you today, it is not the specificity of the rule that makes it legalistic, it is the motive and the means through which it is performed. If you think legalism is getting down to the nuts and bolts of everyday life, I’d encourage you to read church covenants and rules of church membership from the 17th and 18th century. You will brand the whole Christian church of the era as legalistic.

The Examined Life is not legalism or Pharisaism, though living the examined life can seem demanding at first. We are not, as a rule, a reflective culture. Forcing people to think about things that are taken for granted seems burdensome and onerous.

But Socrates’ comment is meant to have the opposite effect. The Christian who embarks upon the Examined Life finds he or she was missing the wonder of living when living an unexamined life. The mystery of the world, the wisdom and power of art, the fragility of the conscience, the worth and dignity of the human soul, the revelatory power of nature, the ongoing analogies of faith all around us, the preciousness of living life as the image of God in a universe made by God and for God – these come alive to the one willing to simply examine the meaning of all things.

So when called on to examine yourself or the meanings of things in your life in all areas of life, don’t see it as the invasion of crabby Pharisees into your personal freedom. Realise it is the entry point into the Christian life worth living. “For in Him we live and move and have our being.” (Acts 17:28 )

13. Beauty’s Difficulties: A Christian Response to the Subject-Object Dilemma

For a while, it seemed chic to be able to say the word postmodern in a sermon. The belief-system behind the word is rather drab. No God exists, no human nature exists, and no essences exists. As such, beauty is a fiction imposed upon reality by humans wanting to order their meaningless existence. Truth is no longer what corresponds to reality; truth is merely the internally coherent and practically useful understanding of a single human consciousness. Postmodernism is hardly friendly to Christianity on this score.

Modernism introduced the division between subject and object. Postmodernism erases the object altogether, at least as far as our consciousness goes. Christians have responded in at least four ways to this subject-object dichotomy.

Augustine and Pascal: Loving Intuition
Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) are separated by more than a millennium, but are philosophically very close to one another. Augustine and Pascal held to a kind of affective rationality: the idea that right loves will correctly shape reason and further cognition. Subjects cannot know objects unless they are rightly related to those objects by loving them correctly. One cannot know how to love a single object without relating it to the universe of objects. One cannot know the correct ordering and relationship of all objects in the universe unless one loves the Author and Creator of all objects and loves objects for his sake. Humble, believing love toward God, in the right order, and to the right degree, is the basis of all progress in knowledge. We can know objects when we are in submission to God, the author of all subjects and objects.

Jonathan Edwards: Consenting Sensibility
Edwards (1703-58) agreed with Pascal and Augustine in saying that humble, believing love is the basis of right perception. Yet he went beyond them in stating that such love is the creaturely mirror of the love God has for himself and his works. Beauty and the sense of beauty are not divided. The perceiver is fundamental to recognising God’s beauty, but the perceiver must have been brought into a loving state in relationship to God, which he called “consent”. God’s beauty is “objectively” real, but only perceivable by the one beautified with the consenting disposition. Further, Edwards’ view of love pushes one beyond desire and delight into the concept of union. “Consent” is not simply pleasure, but the desire for compete conformity, for total union of wills and desires. Beholding beauty cannot be separated from becoming part of that beauty.

Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis: Imaginative Rationalism
Owen Barfield (1898–1997) and C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) were British intellectuals of the twentieth century. Lewis and Barfield can both be called imaginative rationalists, for both saw the place of reason (and used it persuasively), but both saw reason functioning only when in the service of a greater organ of truth: imagination. Perception is not passive, but an active construal into a “grid”, which is the imagination. Lewis and Barfield understood that this grid of pre apprehension is fundamental to reason functioning properly. Imagination, understood as the active lens of the interpretive perception of reality, is fundamental to knowledge. This lens is to be shaped by those forms that appeal to imagination. When the Christian imagination is in place—understanding the universe as God has revealed it to be—it will participate in that moral universe with ordinate affection towards it, and so rightly judge its truth, goodness, and beauty.

Michael Polanyi: Personal Knowledge and Indwelling
Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) was a Hungarian-British physicist and philosopher. Polanyi taught that people can know the world, not infallibly or with omniscience, because they are both part of the world and are able to transcend it through perception, imagination, and reason. Polanyi also spoke much of personal knowledge. By this he meant that human knowing is always an exercise of personal responsibility. Instead of Enlightenment philosophy’s notion of minimising or even eliminating the personal responsibility of the knower (by calling it “objectivity”), Polanyi insisted the knower must submit to reality as a responsible knower. He also spoke of “indwelling”. Indwelling is loving in order to know. By empathetically putting oneself inside the thing one wants to know, and taking it inside, one extends welcome, trust, and caring attentiveness.

These four proposals give us four distinctives necessary to a Christian realist correspondence model for beauty. First, the need for faith and love in one’s approach to God. Second, the necessity of a Christian imagination: a faith-filled grid that views reality primarily as a creation by a Triune Creator parsed by creatures who are subcreators. Third, the essentiality of union: union in being and in attitude with the object of knowledge is necessary to properly love, know and understand it. Fourth, the necessity of illumination. God’s voluntary self-disclosure and enlightenment of the heart and mind is fundamental to understanding God’s beauty.

With modernism, Christians agree that there is beauty, whether subjects perceive it or not. The rainbow is there as a phenomenon of light and water vapour, even if observers are not present. With postmodernism, we agree that beauty requires subjects to perceive it. The rainbow requires human eyes to be perceived as a rainbow. With premodernism, we agree that we must be in the right posture toward God and creation to properly perceive beauty. The rainbow must be seen at a certain angle and position, for not all can see it. Nevertheless, the rainbow is real, as is true beauty.

12. Beauty’s Difficulties: Subjective vs Objective?

Perhaps the most frequent objection levelled at those wishing to see beauty restored to a central place in Christian thinking is that beauty represents “subjective” knowledge: inward experience known only to a perceiving subject. Thinkers in the modernist tradition still hold that some forms of knowledge can be known objectively, while transcendental values such as beauty, cannot.

Conversely, those in the postmodern tradition take subjectivism to its logical conclusion. According to them, whatever is outside the consciousness of the subject cannot be known independently or separately of that subject; indeed, any claim to “objective” knowledge would once again originate from within a subject, meaning the claim would be circular or incoherent. A claim to know anything comes from a subject; how then could any subject claim access to a knowledge independent of his or her own cognition?

Actually, the problem is mostly a 500 year-old Western problem. Premoderns did not wrestle with the question of the conflict between subjective and objective knowledge. The ancients understood themselves as participants in reality, and they understood that sense perceptions of the world outside the observer were conjunctions between reality and the perceiver. For example, the phenomenon of a rainbow is real and is perceived as such by a subject, but it does not represent a concrete object with independent existence outside of the observer. It requires a subject to perceive the phenomenon of a rainbow. And yet the phenomenon is not merely a psychological one; it represents something real in the world. Subject and object combine. Premoderns saw all sensory experience like the rainbow.

Plato’s theories were similar. Plato understood that knowledge of the external world is verified through access to permanent, unchanging universals. In other words, certainty is not obtained through an interrogation of particular phenomena, but by knowing to what ideal form or essence the material phenomena correspond. This view of “metaphysical realism”, that there are ultimate realities, such as truth, goodness, and beauty, prevailed through the Middle Ages.

The rise of nominalism in the thirteenth century changed all that. Originally an attempt to preserve God’s absolute freedom, nominalism severed the link between ultimate realities (such as beauty), and their presence in our world. All that remained were concrete instances of things, to which we gave the name (or the descriptor) beautiful. This would develop into the rationalism of Descartes. Descartes’ scepticism about the reliability of the senses leads to the idea that perception and reason are entirely different. The Cartesian view is one of the great disintegrating philosophies of all time, setting the mind against the sensory and the intuitive. Participation is all but dead: objects exist without observers, subjects perceive passively and then choose to interpret these perceptions. Meaning is moved from the world to the mind. Meaning no longer inheres in things, it becomes a property of minds who perceive or judge meaning internally. External objects may be a catalyst for perceiving meaning, but the meanings are self-generated by the subject.

You can see what this means for beauty. Beauty cannot be a universal or transcendant property instantiated in our world. Instead, all that exist are objects upon which we project the notion of beauty. Beauty exists not jointly between subject and object, but solely in the subject.

This would develop into the empiricism of Locke and Hume, where transcendentals like beauty are all but fictions we impose upon our experience. Immanuel Kant attempted to come to the rescue, suggesting a two-storey approach to knowledge: matters that can be empirically and rationally proved (phenomena), and those that cannot (noumena), such as morals and beauty. Unfortunately, Kant did not solve the debate; in many respects, he created a permanent wedge between subjective and objective knowledge. Positivists were willing to go beyond Kant to abandon the concept of the noumenal altogether. Whatever cannot be verified by empirical means may be, for all practical purposes, non-existent. Romantics, on the other hand, felt that science had discredited Christianity and saw Kantian noumena as the epistemological way out. Kant’s upper story of the noumenal could be safely protected from the lower story of empiricism, rationalism and materialism.

The result of the Enlightenment was a two-storey view of truth: an objective category for matter, subject to empiricism’s exacting methods; and a subjective category for mind and transcendentals, subject to an increasingly existential outlook. Beauty had gone from a real universal, to a property of objects understood by the mind, to a relational property sensed by those with taste, to a construct of the mind imposed upon objects. Kant’s early transcendental idealism would blossom into the existentialism of postmodernism: a full blown subjectivism and an anti-aesthetic. What are the Christian responses to this dilemma? We’ll consider that next.

11. Beauty’s Difficulties: Philosophy versus Biblical Authority

The question of beauty among Christians is often stymied before it starts. Some of this is due to a long-standing suspicion towards philosophy felt by many Christians. From Tertullian’s “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” to Luther’s denunciation of the Scholastics to evangelicalism’s embrace of Common Sense Realism, there is some considerable water under the bridge when it comes to Christian skepticism of philosophy. For many Christians, if an idea seems more coloured by the speculation of intellectuals and philosophers, it is looked upon with some suspicion.

Beauty is likely a casualty here, too. This is because the Bible’s treatment of beauty overlaps with philosophy’s treatment of it, but they are not identical. They differ in at least two ways.

First, even though the Bible uses the word beauty, and many synonyms for it, Scripture never discusses beauty in the abstract the way philosophers do. The Hebrews were largely a pre-speculative society, concerned with action, consequence, virtue, and honour. Solomon is as close as we get to Hebrew speculation, but even there, the accent is on “the whole duty of man”. The Bible has no chapter on aesthetics or on explaining the concept of beauty.

Second, the Bible has similar, but not identical, ideas to those of classical philosophy when speaking of beauty. Biblically, beauty means something like pleasure, desire, loveliness, attractiveness, splendour, honour. Glory carries the same idea, with the emphasis being on weighty splendour. Philosophically, beauty means something like harmony, or pleasure, or goodness. Philosophy is concerned with how abstract notions such as unity, plurality, equality, symmetry, or the one and the many combine to explain the phenomenon of beauty. A similar difference in definition exists with the subjective experience of beauty: love. Biblically, love means union, desire, delight, and trusting loyalty. Philosophically, love seems to mean something like unselfishness and benevolence.

So what to do? Is beauty a philosophical idea of little interest to believers? The answer is that philosophy and theology are friends that do not need reconciliation. They need only a proper hierarchy.

Philosophy exists for many reasons. Some have been hostile to biblical faith, but not all. Some of it exists because man, made in God’s image, has been concerned to get past his own perceptions, and to know reality as it is. The presence of the common grace of God in human culture means that truth can be found in both believer and unbeliever. It is entirely possible for unbelieving philosophy to recognise and even expostulate on truths found in God’s universe. We who believe in sola Scriptura do not hold to nuda Scriptura. We believe that Scripture holds the final authority to rule on all knowledge, but we do not believe it is the lone authority. Unbelievers can speak truly, and even discover truths hidden from believers. What unbelievers lack is the comprehensive explanation of Truth: God’s ultimate explanation of reality, revealed in Scripture.

Revelation is then always the key for understanding beauty as it relates to God. We must not begin with philosophy or even nature, and then reason our way to God and His beauty. We must begin with God and his revealed truth. God’s Word sets the overall interpretive grid to understand the idea of beauty.

With that in place, we can freely allow philosophy to speak for itself. We should not despise it, nor pretend that we are pure “biblicists” with no use for philosophy.  In reality, Christians who speak that way merely smuggle in their philosophy and consider it biblical. We all use philosophy, whether we realise it or not.  For example, as theologians point out, the Trinitarian categories of ousia or essentia and hypostases or personae were not biblical words, but categories borrowed from philosophy as helpful constructs to explain the biblical data. Philosophy not only affects Christian thought, it has proved itself indispensable to categorise and helpfully understand biblical revelation.

Yes, Christian discussions of beauty can fall prey to mere speculative reason. We can give Plato a place that should be reserved for Paul. But if we are committed to biblical authority, there is no reason not to hear what unbelievers from Heraclitus to Hume have said on beauty.

 

10. Beauty and Motivation

As surprising as it might sound, beauty lies at the heart of motive. Why we do what we do is a question of desire, and desire is rooted in what we think is good and beautiful.

Jonathan Edwards tackled the questions of motive, desire, and freedom in his work The Freedom of the Will. There Edwards argued that the strongest inclination is the choice one makes, and that choice is the same as the will. There is no neutral “deciding faculty” within us, independent of beauty. Whatever the mind perceives as the greatest apparent good, the heart chooses.

In Edwards’ view, the human will is not the faculty that decides, it is the decision itself. The mind knows the objects of desire, and the heart chooses, or loves what it desires as the greatest good. The greatest motive always prevails as the thing chosen. In other words, what the will chooses is precisely what it loves. This is why it is not strictly correct to speak of “choosing to love”, for one is really thereby saying “choosing to choose” or “loving so as to love”.

The will does not choose to love; the will chooses what it loves. Your chosen desires reflect what you think it best to choose. Loves can be formed and shaped, but they cannot simply be willed into being.  You always love what you think is most beautiful; or to put it differently, best.

Lying at the heart of human action is then a picture of beauty: what the good life is, what is most pleasurable valuable, reliable. Every one of us is inclined towards a vision of something we believe is good. J. K. A. Smith writes, “Our ultimate love is oriented by and to a picture of what we think it looks like for us to live well, and that picture then governs, shapes, and motivates our decisions and actions.” This picture is not a set of abstract ideas, as much as it is an aesthetic idea, an affective, sensible picture of what reality is really like or should be like. This is the telos to which the human heart is inclined; it is its treasure, to which you will always find the heart inclined (Matt. 6:21).

Here is another reason why beauty and morality are intertwined. Those who are hardened sinners do not only do what is evil, they “also approve of those who practice them.” (Rom. 1:32) That is, they delight in sin. They “love darkness, because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19), and they “take pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thes 2:12). For them, their sin is beautiful. Evil is aesthetically pleasing to them. Wickedness is something to be gazed at, admired, courted, pursued, coveted, memorialised, shared, and celebrated. When you love or desire what God hates, then what is ugly to God has become beautiful to you, and what is beautiful to God has become ugly to you. You have inverted good and evil, beauty and ugliness (Is. 5:20).

If what motivates you is something God condemns, you are doubly condemned: you commit acts of evil, and you do so because you treasure what God abhors. On the other hand, if your heart finds joy and delight in holiness, you will pursue those things, and find joy in them. A background vision of God’s holiness, harmony and happiness will explain what a holy man pursues and why.

9. Beauty, Ethics and Worship

Sometimes throwaway lines leave a deep impression. One of those were words written on a blog I avidly followed about fifteen years ago. The writer said, “A good man does not love ugly things”. Words like that enabled me to see a profound link and overlap between what is true, good, and beautiful.

Real beauty nourishes Christian ethics. One of the effects of true beauty is to deeply humanise our souls. In fact, the kind of judgement we use to evaluate the beauty of art or a face or a scene in nature is the same kind of judgement we use to evaluate moral matters. Such judgement employs more than one kind of evaluation; it employs comparison and contrast; it uses memory and tradition; it attempts to relate parts to the whole or individual actions to the greater good. The pursuit of real beauty teaches people the difference between selfish consumption and pursuing the pleasure of beauty for its own sake. That, in turn, helps people identify idolatries and self-love in contrast to generous, noble love.

Some churches are concerned only with truth. Without goodness and beauty, they struggle to attract and convince people who are not usually drawn to sheer dogmatism. On the other hand,  a concern for goodness without truth or beauty becomes nothing more than dead moralism. Both truth and goodness, lacking beauty, do not have the power to convince and save.

Beauty and Worship

Beyond metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, beauty is integral to Christian worship. The neglect of beauty within Christian liturgy and practice in the last century have had visible effects on Christian worship. The last one hundred years or so have been a less fruitful era for Christian expression in terms of music, poetry, literature, architecture, and the plastic arts. This lopsided emphasis on propositional truth may have contributed to a century that has seen little in music to rival Bach or Mendelssohn, little in poetry to rival George Herbert, Isaac Watts or even Christina Rossetti, little in literature to rival Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, little in painting to rival Rembrandt.

Even the seeker-friendly church-growth movement is now reconsidering its adaptation to contemporary culture in its worship, finding that its younger target-market now misses the mysterious, the ancient, and the beautiful. The significant exodus from Protestant Evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in the last few decades is at least partly due to aesthetics: the perceived barrenness of beauty in the average Evangelical or low-church.

If beauty exists, and if the human being is made in God’s image, a dearth of beauty must produce both a thirst and an eventual demand.

It is important to add that the perceptive powers needed to recognise beauty are needed in worship. The arts are fundamental to both private and public worship, and without the ability to perceive the beautiful in art, there will be little sensed beauty in worship. To put it another way, lacking the ability to see beauty in general may hamper the Christian’s ability to encounter and experience God.