The Bible’s Beautiful Both/And

Our era is marked by a deep hunger for wholeness, intactness, integrity. We’re all painfully aware that—globally, nationally, and personally—“things fall apart.” Christians know the Lord is the one in whom all things hold together (Col. 1:17) and that he’ll return to bring full healing to a fallen, fragmented world. But what happens in the meantime—when, under severe pressure, our most personal way of connecting to him collapses as well? If we’re not careful, efforts to bind up a brokenhearted faith can create further fractures within our souls.

In a moving personal reflection, James K. A. Smith describes himself as a philosopher who has lost faith in the religiously persuasive power of reason. Smith isn’t advocating an anti-intellectual faith; he’s calling for anti-intellectualism in connecting to Christian truth. He decries the emotional barrenness and pastoral ineptitude of the “baseline Platonic picture of the human person in which reason rules the passions and emotions.”

Smith’s confidence in philosophy (as he frames it) crumbled during a time of deep depression when reason couldn’t make sense of his condition, much less lift him from a pit of inexplicable despair. He lauds the presence of his counselor who, instead of offering abstract analysis, lovingly jumped in beside him.

Smith isn’t advocating an anti-intellectual faith; he’s calling for anti-intellectualism in connecting to Christian truth.

Seeing his personal despair writ large in culture, Smith concludes that “we can’t think our way out of this mess.” Tired of trading in the “truths of the intellect,” he announces: “I’m throwing in my lot with the poets and painters, the novelists and songwriters.”

My purpose here is not to directly respond to Smith (others have done so). If Smith is merely rejecting rationalism and its residue in Western faith, then with him I say “good riddance.” His vision for creative art’s contributions to faith and human wholeness is beautiful. Yet there is a warning in the way that—in tune with our tribalistic times—Smith praises good things partly by punishing other good things for being different.

Fragmented Faith

Smith cites Hans Urs von Balthasar as motivation for a new modus operandi: “Love alone is credible; nothing else can be believed, and nothing else ought to be believed.” Smith reasons, “If love alone is credible, literature is truer than philosophy.” He wants to write with “allure rather than acuity,” in a way that works “from the imagination up.” Philosophy is out because it “doesn’t ‘speak’ imagination,” and the logician “speaks a tongue that’s foreign to the heart.”

But these either/or separations raise important questions about love. If Jesus calls us to love God with all we are (Deut. 6:4; Matt. 22:37), shouldn’t logical analysis be warmly conversant with the language of the heart?

If Jesus calls us to love God with all that we are, shouldn’t logical analysis be warmly conversant with the language of the heart?

Moreover, why should we assume philosophy and imagination can’t commiserate? Reason and its apologetic accessories need to know their place, but should they be shunned for their limited function within our faith? Their limits are not liabilities, but declarations of dependence on other human faculties in loving God with our whole being. Our Lord’s call to totalizing love exposes these internal divisions as spiritually unhealthy.

Theology of Totality

Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck (1854–1921), a teacher within Smith’s tradition, warned against “one-sidedness” in faith. This spiritual “pathology” imprisons Christian belief within one sphere of interaction with God, such as intellect or emotion. Bavinck insists, “To do full justice to religion, we must return to the central unity in man that is the basis for differentiating his faculties and which is in Holy Scripture designated the heart, from which proceed all expressions of life in mind, feeling, and will.” For Bavinck, the connectedness of human inner being requires us to engage the arts for a wholehearted faith.

In his outstanding biography, James Eglinton demonstrates that Bavinck’s essential burden was to work out a theology of totality. Bavinck reveled in the “unfathomable interrelatedness”—the integrity—of creation as it revealed the glory of the triune God. In his labor of love, Bavinck paid special attention to aesthetics (the study of beauty). He rejoiced that “it is God’s glory that meets and enlightens us . . . through the works of nature and art. Humanity and the world are related because they are both related to God. The same reason, the same spirit, the same order lives in both.” The venerable professor saw the arts as tutors in anthropology (the study of humanity) and even eschatology (the study of last things).

In a lovely and substantial essay, Bavinck expounds beauty’s revelatory power:

Beauty always awakens in us images, moods and affections that otherwise would have remained dormant and not even known to us. Beauty thus discloses us to ourselves. . . . By God’s grace, beauty is observed, felt, translated by artists; it is prophecy . . . that this world is not destined for ruin but . . . a glory for which there is a longing deep in every human heart.

Beauty unveils hidden aspects of our humanity and assures us that full healing is coming to the cosmos. No wonder the Holy Spirit built so much beauty into the Bible, making God’s written words a work of art.

Scripture Feeds the Artistic Soul

Scripture speaks to the whole human heart, often in styles that feed the artistic soul. Examples abound, but the most obvious place to behold biblical beauty is its collection of songs—what Martin Luther called the “little Bible.”

The psalms show how the Bible, in both content and composition, is all about both/and in connecting to God. These cries of the heart feature syllogistic reasoning (Ps. 66:18–19), yet logical analysis knows its creaturely limits (Ps. 131; 139:6). Sometimes, establishing sound premises results not so much in deduced conclusions as in deliberate conviction (Ps. 42).

By divine design, the psalms connect and inform the rest of the biblical canon. King David’s pathos-laden poetry (Ps. 32) arms the apostle Paul’s analytical attack on self-righteousness (Rom. 4). In the Psalms, dogmatic doctrine is a work of art. No false dichotomies among human faculties are to be found. Esther Meek puts it eloquently: “Scripture flourishes when seen as the excessively generous, artful act of love on the part of a God who sources the best philosophizing ever.” The Bible is absolute truth, artistically told.

In the Psalms, dogmatic doctrine is a work of art. . . . The Bible is absolute truth, artistically told.

Like the rest of Scripture, the psalms are both divinely inspired and thoroughly human. Even more wondrously, they are simultaneously God’s words to us and our words to God. Most important, these spiritual songs filled and expressed the heart of the eternal Word made flesh. They prophesied cosmic wholeness, and they fed the soul of the human who’d accomplish it.

As followers of Christ, let’s be careful not to separate what God has joined together. The Bible unites the totality of our hearts in healing praise of the triune God. In a day of dehumanizing polarizations and religious disenchantment, when it’s tempting to lose our integrity as image-bearers, God’s lovely Book leads us in keeping it all together.