Thursday, January 29, 2009

The Objectivity of Beauty Part 11 (Beauty and the Biblical Worldview)

We saw earlier that the perception of objective beauty could be obscured by various factors and conditions. The rejection of the Biblical worldview seems to be one of those factors. Before defending this statement, it is necessary to explain what I am not saying: I am not saying that you have to be a Christian in order to appreciate beauty. Neither am I saying that being a Christian automatically enhances one’s aesthetic sensibilities. But what I do want to suggest is that there is a broad link between our culture’s rejection of the Biblical worldview and our culture’s progressive rejection of beauty.

Many of the aesthetic norms which have characterized Western society have come as a direct result of the Christian worldview being deeply saturated in the fabric of our cultural ethos. Although the doctrine of the image of God as well as the doctrine of God’s common grace mean that unbelievers are capable of producing artifacts which truly reflect Divine beauty, over long periods of time non-Christian cultures generally tend towards ugliness. They tend towards the ugliness that comes as a corollary of the relativism necessitated by the rejection of any final standard of truth.

Another reason that non-Christian cultures degenerate toward ugliness is because a world without God is an ugly and frightening place. Indeed, if there is no God, then beauty is but a transitory parenthesis in a world in which the ugliness of chance, chaos and death have the final say over all of us. Just as medieval cathedrals, with their spires pointing to the heavens, were the appropriate artistic outworking of the Trinitarian metaphysic, so nihilistic art, with its hopelessness and celebration for the ugly is a consistent outworking of a world without God.[1]

Conversely, over long periods of time Christian cultures tend to increase in beauty. That is what happened in the Christian West, which gave rise to the symphony, polyphonic harmony, perspective in painting and many other developments that have enriched our world, to say nothing of specific creative geniuses from Bach to Michelangelo, from Shakespeare to Beethoven. Some of these artistic geniuses were not believers, but they lived, worked and breathed in a civilization that was built (albeit imperfectly) on the Christian worldview. Whether or not every great composer, artist or poet explicitly acknowledged that worldview, they worked on the basis of presuppositional aesthetic norms which arose out of the West’s Christian orientation. Long after our society threw off this heritage, these norms have continued to operate like a lizard’s tail which twitches even after it has been severed from the body. But a severed lizard’s tail will not twitch forever.

What is happening in our society today, and has been happening very gradually for some time now, is that our art and our ideas about aesthetics are finally catching up with the collective worldview. As the nihilism birthed by both modernism and postmodernism has begun to seep into the very air that we breath, beauty has become one of the chief casualties. The result is that our world has become a very ugly place.

This is good news for Christians, since it presents us with an enormous opportunity. In the midst of the shallow ugliness that relativism has birthed in our society, the church of today has the marvelous opportunity to corporately witness to the beauty of God’s holiness.

This means that we should be people of beauty just as we pray to be people of goodness, truth and righteousness. To a world that is slipping into ever-deeper degrees of ugliness, a rediscovery of Biblical aesthetics is necessarily at the heart of our spiritual warfare and evangelism. For too long the Church has evangelized with Gnostic aspirations, thinking we must appeal simply to the spirit or the mind instead of seducing the whole person with the loveliness of Christ’s Kingdom, confirming Nietzsche’s complaint that modern Christianity is anemic, opposed to life rather than an affirmation of it. Believing that God is only interested in disembodied souls, we have retreated from a central aspect of the good news.

Conquering Death

The Gospel is the message that Jesus Christ has saved the world from death. One way that we can show this is by letting the Gospel confront whatever aspects of the death-principle are most prevalent in our age. Since our age manifests the death-principle in, among other things, excessive degrees of ugliness, it follows that the articulation of beauty – in word, deed, music, drama, worship, dance and all the arts – is not an optional extra for the church but ought to be a central feature in our annunciation of Christ’s Lordship. Through our artifacts, lives, homes, churches and all our other Kingdom-building endeavors, we can and should constantly be announcing the beauty of the God we worship. Our prayer should be that of Psalm. 90:17: “And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it.”

This project is only possible with a clear understanding of the objectivity of beauty. If we subscribe to the notion that beauty merely exists in the eye of the beholder, our witness as Christians will be severely diminished.

[1] This is a point which Thomas Howard makes in his book Chance or the Dance? A Critique of Modern Secularism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1969), particularly chapter 6.

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