To be human is to have a sense of beauty. Beauty demands our attention. There is no way, then, to escape the aesthetic task.
If the practice of aesthetics is the responsibility of every person, it’s especially true of Christians. Doing aesthetics isn’t so much a theological option as a theological necessity.
It’s no stretch to argue that the evangelical church has largely neglected theological inquiry into the nature of beauty and aesthetics. Most reflection and writing on these subjects come from professionals in philosophy and in the specialized field of aesthetics. Christians are largely on the sidelines. This should not be.
Here are five factors that have contributed to the lack of distinctly evangelical contributions to the conversation.
1. Shadow of Ascetic Dualism
This shadow darkens a distinctively Christian approach to beauty and aesthetics. Throughout the history of the church there has been a tendency to erect a dichotomy between the spiritual and physical realms. Often this dualism leads to an asceticism that sets Christians up to be deeply suspicious of the very things in which beauty finds its initial mediation—the body and the senses. As holistic beings, however, sensory experience has a powerful role in the formation of persons from cognitive, affective, and volitional levels.
A distinctly Christian vision of beauty and aesthetics, then, could enable us to better discern and understand the God-intended purpose for sensory pleasures. For unless our affections are grounded and guided by biblical parameters, they’re spurious and ungenuine.
2. Deep Suspicion of Beauty
Such suspicion stems from a fear of idolatry. In other words, beauty and aesthetics have often been avoided because of their alluring power.
But God doesn’t forbid the admiration of beauty or the making of beautiful things; he forbids the worship of them. So idolatry is a problem with the heart, not with beauty. In fact, a God-centered vision of beauty displaces idolatry and positions aesthetics as a signpost for worship. Ultimately, we understand that Jesus is the image of God who perfectly depicts the beauty of the Father (Col. 1:15–20; 2 Cor. 3:12–18; Heb. 1:2–3).
3. Divorce of the Transcendentals
Following the Enlightenment of the 17th and 18th centuries, the divorce of transcendental realities (truth, goodness, and beauty) separated the beautiful from the very parameters that provide its meaning—the good and the true. When the transcendentals are compartmentalized, beauty becomes mere sentimentality, truth becomes mere historical fact, and goodness becomes empty morality. Sadly, as Patrick Sherry has observed, theologians treat beauty like Cinderella, but truth and goodness like her ugly stepsisters.
Recapturing a balanced view of the transcendentals, then, helps create a rounded vision for the Christian life and for the place of beauty in Christian theology. Indeed, this is one of the most neglected areas of Christian apologetics in modern theology.
4. Rise of Utilitarianism in Modern Life
Beauty and reflective aesthetic experience are often dismissed since they’re not directly useful in mastering the physical life. Dennis Hollinger has noted that in pragmatic, results-oriented cultures we often see aesthetics as superfluous and unrelated to spirituality.
Yet beauty has the power to draw us into a sphere of life and spirituality that a purely rational approach cannot achieve. Therefore, the danger of limiting beauty to its utilitarian value is twofold: it belittles the God of creation, and robs humanity of a vast terrain of human exploration.
5. Allergy to Natural Theology and General Revelation
This allergic reaction has a long and conspicuous history in Christianity. Even so, following the psalmist many writers throughout history speak of creation as the “handiwork of God” (Ps. 19:1), comparing it to a work of art that is both beautiful in itself and expresses the personality of its Creator.
While the natural world isn’t so much a source for theology as it is an inspiration for theology, beauty and aesthetic experience can be utilized as a significant analogy to the Creator of all. Jonathan Edwards knew this well: “When we are delighted with flowery meadows and gentle breezes of wind, we may consider that we only see the emanations of the sweet benevolence of Jesus Christ.”
Behold Your Beautiful God
While these five observations give cause for concern, all hope is not lost for the church’s theological integration of beauty and aesthetics for the Christian life. In many ways, one’s theological foundation concerning beauty and aesthetics sets the trajectory of a distinctly Christian understanding of this beautiful world.
As Christians, we understand that the revelation of beauty is an act of God’s self-revealing love. The foundational theological assertion concerning beauty and aesthetics is that God alone is the source and substance of true beauty. And not only were we crafted in his image as aesthetic creatures, we were endowed with the capacity to enjoy and cultivate beautiful things.
It’s exactly on this point that Christian thinkers are the true aesthetes. We understand that all of our longings for beauty are finally satisfied in Jesus Christ as the Spirit gives us eyes to see. In this sense, Christians above all others should lead the way in discussions on beauty and aesthetics.