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Glossing Over Beauty for Truth & Goodness' Sake
Towards a More Harmonius Understanding of Aesthetics
What if we have been glossing over beauty for truth and goodness’ sake, all the while thinking that we correctly understand God’s nature and ways? What if, in treating beauty/aesthetics as merely an incidental element in our existence, we have misunderstood one of the most foundational aspects of his character and work in creation? Over the past few years, I have grown even more resolved that a proper emphasis and recovery of beauty is needed if the Christian church is going to mature in faithfulness of worship and work—not to mention mature in our love of what is beautiful. Hopefully, you share this resolve.
Instinctively, we know that it is wrong for our children to scowl while they mutter thanks to their mother for their dinner. It’s not just because the form of something should match the content. Neither is it merely because “the medium is the message.”While both of these things are true, they are not the whole of the matter. We live in a time that cannot see the forest for the trees. We are so myopically focused on ourselves that we don’t realize just how warped our understanding of God’s character and nature is. When it comes to beauty/aesthetics, not only are we warped in our modern thinking, but many Christians think matters of beauty and aesthetics are peripheral and nothing more than an incidental add-on for those who are inclined towards it.
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Fighting Some Relativism
As a result, this is why Christians have spent many years fighting for truth and goodness, and have left little time or effort for aesthetic understanding. We have stood against the idea that truth is relative to the individual and decried the notion that goodness (or ethics) is subjective to the beliefs of individuals. Then, with phrases like, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” modern Christians confirm a practical, probably unintended, aesthetic relativism that accepts the premise that you ultimately like what you like, and I like what I like in art, music, etc. Who’s to say that this piece of music or art is good? It is merely a matter of personal preference, says the modern thinker. There is a kernel of truth here but not the whole truth. This is, in part, why it is hard to spot the error of this thinking.
We overemphasize personal preference in art and aesthetics because we are products of our time, great-great-grandchildren of the Enlightenment, which brought about a radical shift in focus on the individual parts of things rather than the whole. To put it simply, the Enlightenment gave us Individualism. Fast forward almost three hundred years, and radical Individualism even increasingly attempts to redefine what constitutes male and female as if there never was a God of the universe who told us what male and female are. But, in seed form, Individualism is what allows for the idea that my preferences and tastes are my own and not really the business or concern of others. The arrogance of modern thinking in this is pitifully misguided. We need to dispense with aesthetic relativism and work towards a balanced understanding.
A Harmonious View
What, then, constitutes a harmonious view of beauty? How ought Christians balance our understanding of the patterns of truth, goodness, and beauty in creation? First off, we should seek to bring our understanding of beauty more in harmony with truth and goodness. Sadly, so anemic is our understanding of beauty’s importance that I would be willing to bet some reading my words even now are still more concerned that my words might overemphasize the importance of beauty over truth and goodness. This is because we are conditioned to overemphasize the ideas of truth and goodness, and beauty is seen as a lower-tiered aspect of life. In any case, we have been shaped by almost three hundred years of Enlightenment rationalism. It won’t be a quick course correction, and I do not think we are in danger of a pendulum shift in the direction of beauty to the exclusion of truth and goodness. But we must resolve for balance.
Second, we must work to hold our own personal views of beauty up against the standards of Scripture as best we are able. The scriptures speak of the “beauty of holiness” (Psalm 96:9), and it speaks of dwelling in the house of the Lord and beholding His beauty all the days of my life (Psalm 27:4). These verses are both oriented towards beauty as a righteous ordering of loves and priorities that are outward facing towards what God has spoken and modeled for us in his word and in nature. To put it another way, the pleasure (or beauty) of something is ultimately found in its “right-ordered-ness” toward God and His work. Philippians 4:8 offers an expansion of this by categorizing, “whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.” It’s not just truth and goodness being exhorted here by Paul. He’s also exhorting the Philippians to think on things that are lovely and praiseworthy. He’s giving us a way to view beauty as something beyond just emotional feelings and individual perceptions. All of this is oriented outward towards a standard outside of ourselves.
This is why it is important for my personal pleasures and standards to be shaped and mirrored after the God who made and called all that He made good. A biblical view of beauty must not be an isolated list of subjective preferences that exist in the vacuous spaces of our minds. Instead, our understanding of what is beautiful should be constantly conformed to the ultimate Object that is Truth, Goodness, and Beauty personified—Jesus Christ. While we may be happy to pay lip service to this idea, talk is cheap. We should bring our preferences and desires into conformity to Christ by taking inventory of just how we are regarding art and aesthetics in our living.
Subjects of the King
In a time when the subjective aspects of beauty are overemphasized, we should not, in turn, then overemphasize the objective aspects of beauty. Once again, this is where harmony is needed. It is not that my individual perceptions and pleasure in listening to a piece of music are of no value or concern, it is rather that they not be treated by me or others as if they are the only concern. Just like we must take our thoughts captive to the mind of Christ (2 Corinthians 10:5), so too must we bring our preferences and pleasures also into subjection to Christ. Just like we can easily have sinful thoughts and desires, so too can we have sinful preferences and enjoyments. On one hand, that seems simple enough to say, but at the same time, many Christians act as if their preferences and pleasures of what is beautiful belong to them and answer to no one. We have the Enlightenment and Individualism to thank for this.
More Than A Lens
Some have described beauty as a lens through which we are able to see truth and goodness. That may be true, but the same can be said truth and goodness as God has defined it in His word and nature is the lens by which we rightly see what is also beautiful. It’s not that Truth, Goodness, and Beauty are some mystical triad to be held up like the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather, it is more a matter that God has patterned his universe with an order of being that we should not gloss over.
Up until the early 1700’s, Christians largely operated from a more balanced view of these things. This is why early writers and philosophers could be found making statements like, “The truth of art is higher than the truth of fact,” which highlights the vitality of art and beauty in communicating what is true and good. Even today, there are voices in the wilderness highlighting the necessity of a right and true understanding of beauty, like author and linguist, Anthony Esolen, who rightly observes that “He who promotes the banal in beauty will make no courageous defender of truth and goodness.”Roman Catholic Theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar succinctly summarizes the consequences of a warped understanding and practice of beauty. He writes, “When we lose beauty, we find that truth becomes more brittle, and goodness loses its attractiveness.”
The beauty and truth and goodness of creation must sing out in a glorious harmony. No, the triad of “truth, goodness, and beauty” should not be equated with our understanding of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—the Trinity. Even so, we would do well to work the patterns of all that we do in worship, work, and life to be a harmonious balance of truth, goodness, and beauty of re-creation (or more precisely “wee-creation”) that mirrors the eternal truth, goodness, and beauty of our Triune God and His creation for all the days He gives us.
“The Medium is the Message” was first coined by Marshall McLuhan in the 1960’s.