One of the last short stories C. S. Lewis wrote was a revision of one of his first stories. It was a short story he called, “Light.” In the story a man named Robin, who was born blind, has recently had his sight restored through surgery. Robin finds himself quite disappointed with his restored sight, however, because he really wants to see that thing called “light” that he has heard so much about, and yet, while his wife and others insist that light is all around him, he can’t see light. Weeks of being able to see but not being able to see light leads Robin to despair and ultimately death. Of course, Robin’s problem, and even the problem of his wife and others who could not manage to help him, was that light is not something we see; light is something by which we see.
Lewis’s story is ultimately about the nature of human knowing, but it also illustrates well, I think, how we often approach the subject of beauty. In our post-Enlightenment era, beauty is something we look at; it is a subject we talk about; it is, perhaps, something we ought to learn to appreciate and enjoy.
However, as with light in Lewis’s story, beauty is not merely something to think about, to look at, and to simply recognize or even delight in, but rather beauty is what we come to know God and his world through. Or, to put it another way, beauty is not simply a category that stands alongside truth and goodness; rather, beauty is the means through which we come to really know what is true and good.
One of the most important, foundational principles of a robustly Christian philosophy is affirmation of absolute truth, goodness, and beauty and the fundamental part each of these principles play in truly knowing God and his world.
Belief in transcendent principles is rooted in a conviction that God is the source, sustainer, and end of all things. The Bible clearly proclaims that God is self-existent and self-sustaining, and all things come from him (Rom. 11:36). Everything that is true is so because God is Truth. Everything that is good is so because God is Good. And everything that is beautiful is so because God is Beauty. There are no such things as brute facts apart from God; they are facts because God determined them to be so. There are no such things as moral standards that are merely conceived out of convention apart from God; actions are moral or immoral because God says they are. And in the same way, beauty is not in the eye of the beholder; something is beautiful when it reflects God who is Beauty.
With this in mind, Christians as image-bearers of God must be committed to thinking God’s thoughts after him, to behaving in certain ways that conform to God’s moral will, and to loving those things that God calls lovely. Thoroughly Christian living is therefore concerned with orthodoxy—right belief, orthopraxy—right behavior, and orthopathy—right loves.
And yet the realm of orthopathy—right loving—is often missing from even the most theologically robust churches. We are all about rigorous theology, and we recognize our goal of cultivating thoroughly Christian values in every area of life, but do we recognize beauty as the essential means through which this will happen?
The Aesthetics of Scripture
The primary, fundamental reason we ought to recognize the significance of beauty as a central means through which our loves are shaped and through which we really come to know God and his world is that the Bible itself is God’s truth communicated in beautiful forms. God’s Word is “more than divine data.”1Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 5. Instead, God’s revelation of truth and goodness comes to us in various aesthetic forms such as “narratives, proverbs, poems, hymns, and oratory whose artistic tools include allegory, metaphor, symbolism, satire, and irony.”2James S. Spiegel, “Aesthetics and Worship,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2, no. 4 (1998): 44.
These aesthetic forms are essential to the truth itself since God’s inspired Word is exactly the best way that truth could be presented. Clyde S. Kilby observes, “The Bible comes to us in an artistic form which is often sublime, rather than as a document of practical, expository prose, strict in outline like a textbook.” He asserts that these aesthetic forms are not merely decorative but part of the essential presentation of the Bible’s truth: “We do not have truth and beauty, or truth decorated with beauty, or truth illustrated by the beautiful phrase, or truth in a ‘beautiful setting.’ Truth and beauty are in the Scriptures, as indeed they must always be, an inseparable unity.”3Clyde S. Kilby, Christianity and Aesthetics (Chicago: Inter-varsity Press, 1961), 19, 21.
To put it another way—truth, goodness, and beauty, are three strands of a single cord that cannot be separated if we desire to truly know God and his world.
I am afraid that most Christians do not recognize this, and this is evidenced at very least by the fact that many Christians are afraid to affirm and defend absolute beauty in the same way we do absolute truth and morality. We have bought into the modernist idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and the postmodern multicultural agenda that argues art is merely neutral contextualization of a given civilization. We still view beauty and the arts as means to the end of making truth interesting instead of as ends in themselves. We view beauty as something to see rather than something by which we see.
I phrase it that way specifically because again, often when we consider aesthetics, it becomes something we talk about and think about. Talking about, thinking about, and looking at beauty are all good as far as they go, but what I am calling the tools of loving—that which shapes our loves and cultivates virtue in us—is not something to look at but rather what we see through.
By aesthetics, I am referring to the very broad idea that finds its roots in the Greek word aisthanomai, which means, “I perceive, feel, sense.” Aesthetics involves all that affects perception. It involves the how ideas are expressed and communicated. It certainly includes a consideration of beauty and art, but it is far more than that. Every way in which we learn, every way in which we encounter truth aesthetically shapes the way we perceive the truth. Even what we might consider the least artistic elements of your education had aesthetic aspects to them. A straightforward didactic lecture has a certain aesthetic that shapes perception just as much as a poem does. Aesthetic form is the container in which we perceive truth, and the truth takes the shape of the container such that perception of the truth is affected by the container.
So the power of aesthetics is that everything about the forms through which we perceive truth themselves form us to know and love God and his world through renewed eyes.
That Your Love May Abound
The apostle Paul prays for this very kind of renewal in Philippians 1:9–11, when he says,
And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
Paul knows that what truly characterizes a Christian is love, what he describes in the previous verse as “the affection of Christ Jesus.” Jesus himself taught that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.
But this love is not the romanticized sentimentalism so characteristic of our day. Notice in particular how Paul characterizes this love— “love with knowledge and discernment.” Here, perhaps, is an apt description of the goal of Christian sanctification—that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and discernment so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
What Paul prays for here is a love characterized by “full knowledge,” knowledge of God and his world, knowledge of his works through history, knowledge of his Word.
But Christian love is not characterized by knowledge alone, and likewise the goal of Christian sanctification is not simply knowledge. What does Paul say: “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge, and all discernment.”
Discernment. There’s the other half of Christian love; there’s the other half of the goal of your sanctification, and indeed what you must pursue in the entirety of your life.
Discernment. This is the biblical virtue of wisdom, what Kevin Vanhoozer defines as “the ability to see what is right and fitting in a particular situation given our understanding of the larger whole of which we are a part.”4Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness and Wisdom (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016), 137. Wisdom is “the virtue that orders all other virtues,” it is the ability to take all of the knowledge you have gleaned about God and his world and then discern how other elements fit into the larger whole, whether they be ways of life, personal experiences, events happening around us—wisdom is the ability to discern what fits in God’s design for the world and what does not fit.
My favorite illustration of the difference between knowledge and wisdom is that knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit, but wisdom is discerning that a tomato doesn’t fit in a fruit salad.
The cultivation of knowledge and discernment is the aim of Christian sanctification because it prepares you for a life of properly fitting together all of the particular information you will encounter around you into the larger whole as God intends. There are many people who have accumulated a lot of knowledge, but relatively few who truly know what to do with that knowledge, who have the ability to perceive how that knowledge fits together properly. As Paul continues to say in Philippians 1, “so that you may approve what is excellent.” That’s wisdom. That’s discernment.
Now here’s the fascinating thing thing about this little word “discernment” in Philippians 1:9. “Discernment” is a translation of the Greek word aisthanomai—from which we get the English word “aesthetics.”
This reveals the important, fundamental purpose behind of beauty in Christian sanctification. The aesthetic elements of our sanctification are not merely value-added; they are not included merely to make the acquisition of knowledge more engaging or interesting. The aesthetic elements of our sanctification are fundamentally moral because they help form discernment within us—they helped form wisdom. This is the formative power of beauty.
The Eyes of Your Heart
Now how, exactly, does beauty form wisdom? It does so through the imagination. If wisdom is the virtue that enables us to perceive fittingness, imagination is the human faculty through which we do so. As Vanhoozer notes, imagination is the “faculty for making or discovering connections and meaningful forms,” it is “the ability to create or perceive meaningful wholes and coherent forms.”5Vanhoozer, Pictures, 24. As we encounter true beauty, our capacity to perceive beauty ourselves is what cultivates the virtue of wisdom.
I’d like to highlight two ways that this ought to take place in a Christian’s life.
First, beautiful works of the imagination form your capacity to properly perceive fittingness in the world. Beauty is fittingness, and so when we immerse ourselves in beauty—in works of art and means of communication that manifest a profound fittingness in God’s world as he has intended, our moral imaginations are shaped as to what is fitting in the created order.
One of my favorite paintings on display at the national gallery in Washington D.C. is a work called “Fanny/Fingerpainting” by Chuck Close. If you turned the corner in the gallery and encountered the painting up close, all you would see would be a mess of fingerprints. Apparent randomness and disorder. But as you back away from the painting, you would behold a stunningly detailed portrait of an old women that looks photo-realistic. What appeared to be random disorder when viewed up close actually fits in much larger beautiful whole.
This kind of phenomenon characterizes all beautiful art to one degree or another in an almost endless variety of ways. A moment of musical dissonance frozen in time seems harsh and purposeless, but conceived as but a moment in a larger musical composition, we begin to understand how the parts fit into a beautiful whole. One gesture of the body alone may seem awkward, but together with other complementary gestures, it creates a beautifully graceful dance.
By studying and emerging ourselves in and especially performing truly beautiful works of art like these, we are developing wisdom, the ability to perceive a part—a moment frozen in time—and discern how that part fits in the whole of God’s all-wise and beautiful plan for his world.
And likewise, second, beauty in worship orients us to what is fitting in our relationship to God and his world. As Vanhoozer observes, “Both great art and worship awaken our senses and imaginations to the contours of the created order. Yet, unlike art, worship engrafts us into the drama of redemption, into that Trinitarian design for life in which beauty is a loving consent toward another.”6Vanhoozer, Pictures, 139. The beauty of gospel-shaped, covenant-renewal worship regularly orients us to the drama of redemption, enabling us with enlightened eyes to perceive God’s work in the world for his glory and the glory of his people. Beautiful liturgy and music orders our affections into what Lewis called “stable sentiments.” Worship that liturgically participates in the real worship of heaven realigns us with that true reality.
I do not need to tell you that our world is filled with ugliness, disorder, chaos, and pain. Considered as frozen moments in time, such realities might cause us to despair if we cannot perceive how these moment of ugliness fit into an ordered plan of a sovereign God. But having the eyes of our hearts enlightened, having gained through beautiful art “the ability to grasp meaningful patterns or conceive unified wholes out of apparently unrelated elements,” we are better able to “‘see’ God and the kingdom of God at work in the world.”7Vanhoozer, Pictures, 27.
Beauty is an essential part of your sanctification since it is what forms within us true love with knowledge and all discernment.
As you continue to pursue holiness and Christlikeness, don’t simply strive to acquire theological knowledge alone, but let your love abound more and more, with knowledge and discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.
|1||Kevin J. Vanhoozer, The Drama of Doctrine: A Canonical-Linguistic Approach to Christian Theology (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005), 5.|
|2||James S. Spiegel, “Aesthetics and Worship,” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology 2, no. 4 (1998): 44.|
|3||Clyde S. Kilby, Christianity and Aesthetics (Chicago: Inter-varsity Press, 1961), 19, 21.|
|4||Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Pictures at a Theological Exhibition: Scenes of the Church’s Worship, Witness and Wisdom (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016), 137.|
|5||Vanhoozer, Pictures, 24.|
|6||Vanhoozer, Pictures, 139.|
|7||Vanhoozer, Pictures, 27.|