Today Justin Taylor wrote about a book titled The Love of Wisdom: A Christian Introduction to Philosophy, by Steve Cowan and James Spiegel. He added a link to a journal article written by Spiegel titled “”Aesthetics and Worship.” This article is well worth the read.
The relationship between aesthetics and theology is something that I love to think about. Collide magazine recently published an article I wrote on the subject titled “Theosthetics: Thoughts at the Intersection of Aesthetics and Worship.” This article is my first attempt and developing my thoughts on the subject.
The subject of aesthetics is something we, as Christians, need to give much thought. We are pretty good at articulating our theology in relation to truth and goodness, but what about beauty?
I agree with Spiegel’s conclusion;
“The Christian church, once the leader of the arts, is now scarcely taken seriously in artistic communities. Worse yet, the formal worship of Christians is compromised by mediocrity in this area. Our problem, however, is not for lack of inspiration, as the scriptures are brimming with aesthetic instructions, from the Genesis creation account to the hymns of Revelation, not to mention the nature of the Biblical writings themselves. We must recapture a truly Christian vision for the arts, and strive mightily to be aesthetically virtuous. The duties of the church pertain not only to goodness but to beauty as well.”
I am glad that Justin Taylor pointed this out. If anyone else has found a good resource on the relationship between theology and aesthetics please let me know!
11 thoughts on ““The Christian and Aesthetics””
I decided to post here rather than at Justin Taylor’s blog. Here is the short answer:
Theology is not Scripture. It is a theory of the absolute Word-Revelation of Christ. As a discipline it has a certain task, asks particular kinds of questions and elucidates the meaning of the text. It is theoretical.
Philosophy is likewise a discipline, and it asks different questions. I take Herman Dooyeweerd’s definition as the most comprehensive and helpful. Philosophy is “the study of the inner nature and structure of the different modal aspects of our temporal horizon of experience, and the attempt of a theoretical view of their mutual relation and inner coherence”.
Both disciplines can be based on the Scriptures, but both ask and answer different questions.
That is the quick answer.
I agree that both disciplines (theology and philosophy) ask, and sometimes answer different questions about the nature of being and reality. I also think that both disciplines can be oriented towards, if not brought into submission to scripture- in that we use scripture to answer the questions of philosophy, and use scripture as the means to develop our understanding of God (either systematic theology or biblical theology).
I do not fully agree with your following statement, “A Christian aesthetic is not based in theology, but in Biblical philosophy.” Because both disciplines, as you said, ask and answer different questions. Therefore, both can be helpful.
The reason for my statement is this: a Christian philosophy takes into account all the modal aspects of our temporal experience, and seeks to display the inner coherence between each one. Theology is a result of a dialectic between the pistic and the analytic aspects, although like all other disciplines it entails all the others. Aesthetics is another aspect, and the results we gain from it must be combined in dialectic with another aspect if we are to come up with a “discipline” we might call “art”. It is not a philosophy of art, but a means of actually producing art. We might say that artistic work is a dialectic between the aesthetic and one of the other aspects.
So you see, a Christian philosophy is based in Scripture, but it has the transcendental approach of seeing all aspects of our existence. It takes into account ALL aspects and how they “fit” together. I may not be explaining this as well as a I might, in fact I am sure of it.
Suffice it to say that misunderstanding is sure to arise here. My basic notion is this:
Scripture is not theology. It is pre-theology.
Theology is a distinct discipline and is a result of a dialectic between the pistic and analytical aspects of our experience.
Aesthetics is a distinct aspect. When combined with another aspect a discipline will arise, such as art or art critique. The aspects are mutually exclusive, although they are correlative.
This is a very short and messy answer to a very large and difficult subject.
In closing, I need to point out that the philosophy I am suggesting cannot be sustained by Baptist theology or a baptistic understanding of Scripture. It is Neo-Calvinist and takes the Scriptures as an undivided whole. No dispensationalism, no dichotomies between covenants, no social exclusion of children from baptism or the Lord’s supper.
It might just be that we are living in different worlds.
It might be put better like this: this philosophy assumes the creation-fall-redemption pattern of Scripture as the basis of all of life. There is not leaving off from creation, neither are there problems with any of the covenants preceding Christ. The Scriptures are one as God is one.
Baptistic theology and this philosophy will clash. Reformed Calvinism and this philosophy will not. There, that is better.
I would go back and rethink your “different worlds” comment.
I think you have made some broad assumptions about “Baptist theology,” and even my own theological orientation which seem to be based on false presuppositions and cultural stereotypes.
These ideas and comments about “beauty” are very intresting and very cerebral. I am a Christian artist and my understanding of aesthetics is that it is a philosophical theory as to what is beautiful. This is an idealogical concept that I have given much thought to. As an artist I totally understand that what I think is beautiful may not be beautiful to anyone else. Most artist at one time or another compromise our understanding of beauty to please the sensabilities of other people (patrons). Artists must come to grips with their personal idea of “beauty” and follow their own individualistic path. All of us at one time or another have been in an art gallery and seen a work of art and said “I can do that” or “is this art, a child can do that”. The unique thing about that work of art was the idea, the “original thought” that preceded the work. Where do these ideas come from?
It would be enlightening to know what the world looked like before the fall of man. With the fall came death and decay, black and grey. Before the fall the world was pure, what does this actually mean? What is beautiful to God, does God even care about beauty or Is everything and everyone beautiful to God? Well I think God does care about beauty, he certainly cares about our moral and spiritual standing otherwise He would not have provided salvation for us.
We are fallen sinful creatures striving to be Christ Like. The goal of aesthetics is to strive for “beauty.” In some ways when it comes to visual arts, music or literature aesthetics is measured by a persons idea of what is beautiful. We somehow know intrinsically what we think is beautiful or unacceptable. Where do we get this idea or opinion? Is this personal opinion a learned cultural appreciation or is it an omni-present standard that is just there for us to experience?
How do we know what is beautiful? This is still a question I will ponder.
What is the Christian vision for the arts? We are to be virtuous in all aspects of our life!
Spiegel noted that :
Aesthetic virtues are: technical excellence, veracity, originality, moral integrity, and intentionality. These are contrasted with the aesthetic vices: laziness, banality, artificiality, authentic utilitarianism.
But my question still remains, how do we know – that it is technically excellent, does it show veracity, is it original, does it have moral integrity, and is it intentional?
Thanks for all the thoughts. I am hoping to have a book proposal on this subject ready in the near future.
From what I read on your blog, I am assuming that you are a baptist, no? Most of the blog links you have are to Baptist sites as well. It seems like a right deduction and not a stereotype as you suggest. There are certain aspects to Baptist theology that leave off from creational considerations; this is not an assumption but a reality of the theology. When baptists do assume a creational redemption they do so while being at odds with the basic notion of salvation that is assumed. I am not being pejorative.
Further, I just want to say that I am not suggesting that being a “Christian” is at question here. However, unless we are willing to openly admit to basic differences, real discussion is nigh impossible.
Matt, it is always good to see Christians engaging with art and aesthetics. It is messy, but too few of us have waded into the fray. Fortunately, some formidable thinkers have gone in ahead of us. Chris mentioned Dooyeweerd; if you haven’t yet stumbled across his writings, do check him out, if only to “place” aesthetics and art into a philosophical framework that will help, rather than hinder, a sensible exploration of these issues. If, as Alan says, things can get too cerebral, and you would prefer a more “tangible” approach, go for Hans Rookmaaker, who was influenced by Dooyeweerd. Other great stuff: Francis Schaeffer, Calvin Seerfeld.