18. Beauty Defined (With Some Help From Edwards)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

17. Beauty’s Definition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tattoos: To Do or Eschew?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

16. Beauty’s Difficulties: Accounting for Taste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

15. Beauty’s Difficulties: The Problem of Taste

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.