Tag Archive for epistemology

Imaginative Knowledge

If Christian imagination is the best way of referring to how Christians know and perceive the world, does thinking of it this way have any practical effect on our lives? Much in every way.

If imagination is the ultimate way that we understand reality, then this affects how Christians communicate the faith to believers, to their own children, and to unbelievers. It affects not simply the content of that communication, but its form. How so?

When communicating the faith, Christians should aim for the synoptical. That is, Christians should want to take in as much explanation of reality as possible: Creation to Christ, Genesis to Revelation, ultimate questions, the larger narrative. That does not mean we cannot ever focus on particulars, or expound on small details. There is a time to do that. But Christianity is nothing less than an explanation of reality, which means our goal is to the tell The Greatest Story Ever Told. We are to give the explanation of the whole, not get lost in details over minutiae.

When communicating the faith, Christians should aim for the moral, ethical and aesthetic, not merely the ‘factual’. We are not Eustace Scrubbs or Thomas Gradgrinds who believe that the “real” knowledge consists of “hard, neutral, objective” facts. Christians believe there is no such thing as a brute fact. We believe all facts are interpreted ideas nested in a massive network of interpreted ideas (hence the need to be synoptical). But more than requiring “the whole” to interpret individual facts, we also believe facts are only meaningful when we understand purpose, design, beauty or goodness. We want to understand not just the tree, but what the tree is for, why the tree exists, if the tree is good or beautiful. These are moral, ethical, and aesthetic questions. Christians should not seek “neutrality”, but deliberate, honest Christian interpretations of God’s world. Whether talking about science, economics, culture, music, politics or art, Christians must give “the facts” as they fit into God’s world, as explanations of truth, goodness and beauty.

When communicating the faith, Christians should aim for the metaphorical. That is, since we believe reality itself is analogical, we should take our cue from that and seek maximum explanatory power through the use of metaphor. I’m using the word metaphor in a broad sense, to signify the use of analogies: symbols that point to realities beyond themselves. These symbols or metaphors can be musical, or literary, or visual, or otherwise. Richard Weaver said that “a developed culture is a way of looking at the world through an aggregation of symbols, so that empirical facts take on significance and man feels that he is acting in a drama”.

Very importantly, the choice of symbol, analogy or metaphor is vital. Symbols that do not communicate the correct “proportion” between sign and signified end up distorting understanding. The Bible calls God “a high tower”, not “an impenetrable prison”, a “Good Shepherd”, not a “friendly innkeeper”. The image matters, because it provides us with proportions of distance and affection between God and us, and helps us truly understand the nature of unseen reality.

If these three approaches to communication seem abstract, the best way to see them in action is to think of the ultimate communication from God to man: His Word. The Bible is the best example of these in action. The Bible is a synoptic explanation of reality: who God is, what man is, how the world came to be, the problem of evil, the meaning of grace and redemption, God’s ultimate plan, and how the world will both end and continue. The Bible is also a moral explanation, always explaining what pleases God, what is excellent and what is evil. And finally, the Bible, as we have seen, has been given in a form dominated by narrative, poetry, prophecy and graphic imagery and word pictures.

It is from the very form of Scripture that Christians should model how they communicate the faith. In other words, to be truly “biblical” in our sermons, hymns, apologetics, evangelism, we should pay attention not only to the content, that the information corresponds to what is revealed in Scripture. We should pay attention to the form of the information: that the very shape of what we say or write or play has elements of, or is characterised by, synoptical, moral and metaphorical forms of communication.

8. Beauty and Knowing

Beauty does not only encourage a pursuit of reality, but beauty encourages a Christian epistemology. It teaches how we know what we know.

The Enlightenment project involved pursuing certainty without relying on revelation or authority. If a thinking, knowing subject could be “neutral”, pure reason would lead to truth. This resulted in a general suspicion of any elements of knowledge and human experience that could not be verified through empirical means. Beauty would be one of the casualties of this project.

There are always reactions to reactions, however. After the pure rationalism of the early Enlightenment came the aestheticism of the eighteenth century, trying to find a place for beauty in a world of reason, even if it meant art for art’s sake. After the dust settled, Immanuel Kant carried the day, trying to rescue both fact and value, objective and subjective, empirical and transcendental, by separating the two. This has come to be called the fact/value distinction. You can put science and reason in one box, and beauty and morality in another, but the rule is that the boxes cannot touch.

Most would say that this idea of neutral knowing has largely had its time in the sun. Postmodernity’s intellectuals delighted in pointing out the situatedness of all knowers, of the interpretive nature of all knowledge, of the permanence of our personal commitments when seeking to understand.

Some of Christianity’s early responses to the Enlightenment quest for “objective, rational, value-free facts” included defending the faith on the terms set by its critics. When attempting to defend Christianity on scientific or empirical grounds alone, Christians were conceding to a false theory of knowledge. Since no lie can be brought into the service of the truth, attempting to validate Christianity by a false standard was doomed to failure.

But the church was doomed to find itself, once again, becoming expert in the world’s fashions only when the world had already discarded them. Postmodernity and post-secularism was shaping a society that was becoming indifferent  to supposedly empirically verified truth-claims.  A new, sensuous spirituality was charming the modern consciousness, and a thirst for beauty had returned. Some church goers were more interested in beautiful architecture, ancient traditions and artistic liturgy than they were in historical evidences for the faith.

Christian responses to this postmodern epistemology have been varied. Some retreated back into modernity, loudly emphasising a scientific and rational basis for the truth of the Bible in opposition to the “no truth except personal truth” approach. Others sadly embraced the deconstructionism of postmodernism. But to deny the reality of any of Christianity’s metaphysical claims is crippling oneself before you have even begun the race.

Beauty offers us a Christian way of knowing reality. It does something unexpected: it accepts as true what postmoderns say about the Enlightenment view of knowledge, but it simultaneously rejects postmodernism’s nihilism. Beauty concedes both the subjective aspect of human knowledge and an objective basis for that knowledge in reality outside of the subject.

The world continues to deny that truth can be known. Beauty comes to the rescue. Beauty’s claim is that it exists undeniably outside individual knowers (two people can see a rainbow a both remark on its beauty)  while making demands on subjects that they shape their judgements to perceive and experience it rightly (a warped person might find rainbows ugly).

Beauty provides the link to knowing objective reality through the correct subjective postures. Beauty is the merger between objective reality and subjective perception. It is correspondence between affection and reality.

For Christians, beauty should be primary when pursuing knowledge. After all, beauty foregrounds the use of imagination in perception. Since faith and imagination are inseparably connected, beauty insists that we foreground faith to rightly perceive the world. While we treasure reason, Christians ought to believe that the aesthetic dimension of man is needed for his broadest and most encompassing grasp of reality.

Slowly, the church is beginning to jettison the Enlightenment, realising that relegating beauty to nothing more than the preferences and pleasures within a subject is an Enlightenment revision, not a biblical or Christian view at all.

Beauty is at the heart of how one knows the world, and how you know that you know.

6. The Value of Beauty

What possible value can the study of beauty deliver? Isn’t this fiddling while Rome burns, counting daffodil petals while barbarians lay siege to the city? In times of apostasy, false teaching, deception and darkness, shouldn’t aesthetics go to the bottom of the priority-pile?

When caricatured as effete aestheticism, then yes, beauty will seem to be of little value. But when understood as a deep property of being, something like God’s glory, beauty has nearly unsurpassed value as a study. We can easily suggest four questions that beauty answers.

First, beauty deals directly with the nature of reality. Is the universe essentially material, an impersonal collection of atoms that accidentally produced minds, or is the universe essentially personal: a meaningful and therefore beautiful communication from the eternal Mind to ours? Beauty cannot be consistently upheld in an atheistic worldview. Atheists may agree that beauty exists, as they might agree that goodness exists. But they have no real basis in reality for such things: a sterile universe doesn’t have rules, and a dead cosmos doesn’t try to please and delight. Beauty, if it exists, is essentially supernatural: a pattern of pleasure and harmony from Designer to His creation, where both the message and the ability to read it are placed there by the Creator.

Second, and consequent upon the first point, beauty deals with morality, ethics, and evil. Beauty and morality are not separate domains, but deeply intertwined. Good souls love beautiful things; depraved ones love what is despicable. Think of the horror of people loving torture, rape or child pornography. Yet people do: they even film it, laugh at it and share it. Such people are finding pleasure in what is wicked and ugly. Sin’s deforming power leads souls to love what is ugly, and to even despise what is beautiful. For them, ugly has become beautiful, beautiful has become ugly: they love darkness, for their deeds are evil (Jo. 3:19).

True beauty humanises the soul, and to the degree that one is growing in Christlikeness is the degree to which he loves the beautiful (Phil. 1:9-11). The kind of judgement one uses for ethical judgements is very similar to the kind used for aesthetic judgements. Indeed, the problem of evil (where evil came from, why it exists, why God allows it) is best explained in light of beauty: the most beautiful angel (Ezek 28:12) seeking glory that belongs to the Beautiful God. The creature with greatest original beauty becomes the most deformed one of all, his love becoming more and more corrupt and corrupting. His temptation and deception of the race made in God’s beautiful image is his way of turning an effigy of God into an ugly parody of God’s beauty.

Third, beauty explains the problem of knowing. For the last 500 years, the West has struggled with how subjects can know objects outside of themselves. How do we know what we know, and how can we verify anything we know? Should we use reason, experience, tradition, faith, imagination or authority to know certainties? Can we know anything objectively, or is all knowledge purely subjective? Beauty actually provides a compelling answer. On the one hand, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. On the other, that can be the fault of the beholder: beauty exists and some fail to perceive it. This shows that reality is both independent of observers and yet rightly or wrongly perceived by those observers. When the heart possesses the fear of the Lord, it is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom. Beautiful souls will perceive the beauty that is there.

Finally, beauty appears to be at the heart of motive. Human action has beauty at its core: people are moved and inclined towards what they think is beautiful. That is not to say that all agree on what beauty is. Indeed, this comes back to ethics: bad people are motivated by evil things (Ro. 1:32). However, if beauty is that which provides most pleasure, that which best harmonises and unites sense experience, and that which seems most real (true) and good (best), then one can easily see how beauty is at the heart of all action. People pursue what they think will bring them pleasure. People are moved by what they think is best. People are motivated by what they think is the most comprehensive explanation of reality. Once again, the nature of the heart will then determine what is pleasurable, real, good, and symmetrical. In other words, the love will correspond to the idea of beauty. However grotesque, however bizarre, however irrational, the behaviour of a human can be explained by some inner idea of something as beautiful.

Each of these four is worth considering in a little more detail. We’ll deal with these in turn.