This article was originally published in my column at the Colson Center. It is republished here with permission. For a complete directory of all my Colson Center articles, click here.
And though the good is weak, beauty is very strong.
Nonbeing sprawls, everywhere it turns into ash whole expanses of being,
It masquerades in shapes and colors that imitate existence
And no one would know it, if they did not know that it was ugly.
And when people cease to believe that there is good and evil
Only beauty will call to them and save them
So that they will still know how to say: this is true and that is false.
Thus finishes the poem ‘One More Day’, written by 20th century Polish poet, Czeslaw Milosz (1911-2004). Milosz, like Dostoevsky before him, realized the important role that beauty can play in helping us to discern between good and evil, truth and falsehood.
Truth, Goodness and Beauty Must Go Together
The interrelationship between goodness, truth and beauty is crucially important to us as Christians. As I argued last year in a piece about George MacDonald, goodness, truth and beauty may be distinguishable, they should never be divisible.
I once heard Douglas Wilson give a talk where he suggested that conservative Christians often excel when it comes to holding the fort for truth and goodness, yet are woefully lacking when it comes to beauty and aesthetics. Pastor Wilson went on to suggest that to have goodness without beauty is moralism. But to have truth without beauty is rationalism and lifeless orthodoxy. Equally, he argued, beauty without truth lapses into sentimental romanticism. (Wilson developed some of these themes with Douglas Jones in their excellent book Angels in the Architecture.)
I think Wilson is right. The area of aesthetics is an arena where we are obligated to think Biblically, yet as Christians we are often purely equipped.
Scripture is not silent on questions about art, beauty and aesthetics (I hope any specialist readers will forgive me for lumping these three categories together for operational purposes. I have given all the fine distinctions in my article ‘Music and the Objectivity of Beauty.’). Indeed, we receive insight in how to think about these topics right from the very opening pages of scripture.
Aesthetics and Creation
One of the striking features of the creation account is that God’s activity is not purely functional. He spends one whole day resting from His work and reflecting that it is very good (Gen. 1:31-2:2). The fact that God is able to sit back (so to speak) and appreciate His artwork tells us an important thing about His nature. It tells us that the Lord exercises aesthetic appreciation.
Even if it were not for the creation narrative, this same fact would be evident when, like David in Psalm 8, we consider the work of God’s fingers. When we look over God’s artwork, we see that not everything in our world has a purely functional or instrumental value. Whatever evolutionists may try to say, there are some things that God made just to look nice, to smell pleasant, and to sound delightful. This suggests that God puts a premium on aesthetic considerations.
Aesthetics and God’s Image-Bearers
When we read about the creation of mankind, we learn that men and women bear the divine image (Gen. 1:26-27). Whatever else this means, it means that we inherit many of God’s characteristics. Human nature exists as an imperfect reflection of divine nature. Thus, the things we see God doing in Genesis 1 and 2 – such as speaking (1:3, 6, 9, 11, etc.), naming (1:5, 8, 10, etc.), making (Gen. 1 & 2), reasoning (2:18) and, yes, exercising aesthetic appreciation (1:31) – are also qualities inherent to us as God’s image-bearers.
To be God’s image-bearers means that human beings can appreciate objects that are aesthetically pleasing even as God can. Adam and Eve were able to exercise their aesthetic senses to appreciate all the wonderful things God gave them in the garden, to enjoy the beautiful sunsets and vistas, to take delight in the music of birds and water, to savor the aesthetically pleasing aromas of flowers, and so forth.
Not only do Adam and Eve enjoy God’s creation; they also make their own works, engaging in what Tolkien called ‘sub-creation.’ For example, Adam’s appreciation of Eve led him to create an aesthetically pleasing artwork to describe his delight, namely the poem of Gen. 2:23.
Aesthetics and the Fall of Man
Eve exercised aesthetic appreciation when she noted that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil “was a delight to the eyes” (Gen. 3:6). Significantly, Eve’s sense of aesthetic appreciation was one of the things the devil was able to exploit when tempting her to sin. The words of Genesis 3:6, “the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes”, has obvious parallels to Genesis 1:31 when God saw that everything He made was good. The devil appealed to Eve’s God-given ability to appreciate what is good and pleasant, but used this to entice her to sin.
Merely because Eve’s aesthetic sense was one of the things used to corrupt her does not mean that this area is bad or beyond redemption any more than speech should be discounted since the devil spoke to Eve during the temptation. But it does underscore the danger that arises when our sense of aesthetics (in the case, seeing that the tree “was a delight to the eyes”) becomes unhinged from considerations of truth and goodness. The tree that God created was good and was indeed a delight to the eyes, but Adam and Eve’s sin was to approach this good thing in a sinful way.
Aesthetics and the Dominion Mandate
Even after the fall, our ability to appreciate things that are delightful, creative and beautiful remains a central facet in our ongoing vocation as God’s image-bearers. But it also remains central to our task of fulfilling the dominion mandate given to mankind in Genesis 1:26-28 and reiterated to mankind in the covenant with Noah in Genesis 9.
When God instructed Adam and Eve to use the resources of the earth to take dominion (Genesis 1:26-28), He wasn’t just talking about farming. He was referring to using the earth’s resources in all legitimate callings. The dominion mandate was a challenge for man to develop the earth, which was rich with technological, cultural, intellectual and aesthetic potential.
Early on in the Genesis narrative we see family groups specializing in certain types of labor, with some focusing on using the earth’s resources to make artworks. We are told in Genesis 4:21 that Jubal who was descended from Cain was “the father of all those who play the lyre and pipe” just as Jabal had been “the father of those who dwell in tents and have livestock.” (Gen. 4:20). No doubt other families specialized in metalwork, learning to make Jewry and other aesthetically pleasing objects.
Now fast-forward to the present day. The descendants of Adam are still taking dominion of the earth, and many still specialize in doing this through creating aesthetically pleasing artifacts. The only difference is that now our artistic creations have expanded beyond simply making harps and flutes like the family of Jubal. Adam’s descendants are now exploiting the earth’s resources to make cellos, oil paintings, novels, icons, orchestras, movies, recording equipment and opera houses. The list could go on and on.
It is true that given the reality of our post-fall world, these artistic artifacts are often tinctured with sin. The devil still uses our aesthetic sense to tempt us away from God’s commandments, resulting in beauty becoming divided from her sisters of truth and goodness. Yet this should not negate the reality that artistic production and appreciation remain crucial in the ongoing process of developing the earth’s resources to the glory of God.
Unnecessarily Little Extras
Of course, the area of aesthetics is not the only area, or even the most important, in which mankind fulfills the dominion mandate. But it is an important area nonetheless. It is true that few of us can make a living as professional painters, pianists, poets, film directors, sculptures, ballet dancers, novelists, architects or opera singers. For most of us, our involvement in art and aesthetics will be simply recreational, whether it be appreciating aesthetically pleasing artifacts that others have made, like movies, music and smells, or making small things ourselves like craftwork and music. But even when these things are simply recreational, there is still something profound going on. When we make something that is beautiful (whether it be knitting a sweater for a doll or singing a hymn), or when we appreciate an aesthetically pleasing artifact that someone else has constructed (whether it be watching a movie or enjoying fine clothes), we are exercising a faculty that marks us out as God’s image-bearers and gives glory to Him, provided that sin is not involved.
Similarly, the jobs that many of us are called to do which are not purely creative can still be permeated with subtle aesthetic considerations, thus underscoring the fact that human beings are not merely functional creatures. I am reminded of this when my wife takes a little extra time to set the dinner table nicely, perhaps by adding some flowers and candles, and putting on some pleasant music in the background. These additions do not have an immediate utility value. That is, they are not necessary for conveying food from the plate to the mouth. But they do add an aesthetic dimension to the meal experience that is part of what it means to enjoy the resources of the earth that God has given us. (And think, for a moment, of all the resources the descendants of Adam had to take dominion of throughout thousands of years just to get to the point of having CD players to add richness to our meals.)
When God created the world, He didn’t just make everything for its utility value, but He added ‘unnecessary’ extras to be beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. Similarly with our works of sub-creation: some artifacts are good, not merely because of what they do for us, but because of what they are in themselves as aesthetically pleasing objects.