Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Beauty and Holiness

There is a triad of Christian ideals: the good, the true, and the beautiful. God is the fountainhead of these three, the source from which they flow, and the standard by which they are judged.

Like Ahab in Melville’s Moby Dick, we all have a tendency toward monomania. Imprisoned by a fetish for reductionism, we tend to make the complex simplistic, and the multifaceted one-dimensional. It is a matter of emphasis, at times even preoccupation.

Church history bears witness to our monomial predilections. We have seen the impact of intellectualism, which so stresses the importance of doctrinal truth that it has little concern for ethics and aesthetics. We have seen moralism that reduces Christianity to right conduct without a view toward theological truth and often coupled with a contempt for art. We have seen aestheticism which has equated beauty with God and rested in liturgy at the expense of truth and conduct.

Indeed the true, the good, and the beautiful may be distinguished, but to separate them or isolate one from the others is to have a distortion of the character of God. Authentic beauty is wed to truth and goodness as authentic goodness is both true and beautiful.

In this issue we are concerned with one aspect of the triad, the beautiful; but not in isolation from or contradiction of the good and the true. We are also concerned with the relationship between the beautiful and the holy.

The Bible speaks of the “beauty of holiness” (1 Chronicles 16:29). We now ask if this phrase is in any way tautological; that is, we ask if it can be reversed and still hold true. We’ve seen what happens when we take the phrase “God is love” and make it a symmetrical equation, a copula that translates into “love is God.” Then romance becomes an idol worshiped in the place of the living God.

All that God is, is beautiful. But not all that is beautiful is God. It may come from God and bear witness to God, but it is not God. Nature is beautiful, but nature is not God.

The Enlightenment of the 18th century saw a rise in aestheticism, whereby the arts were assigned the function of shaping human thought and behavior. The chief epistemology of enlightenment thought was the analytical method, which involved a search for “the logic of facts”—it was an attempt to apply the scientific method that gave weight both to induction and deduction. Art was seen as a bridge between science and life. The chief span of the bridge was found in mathematics. Art involves a grasp of mathematical balance, proportion, harmony, and symmetry. As music was said to “charm the savage beast” (a la David’s music for Saul) the arts could be useful to instruct the human mind and shape the human spirit toward a good, proportional, balanced life.

The aestheticism of the Enlightenment, however, sought to find the relationship between the beautiful and the good without dependence upon biblical truth. It was a naturalistic form of aestheticism.

The chief opponent of Enlightenment thought in this area was Johann Sebastian Bach. Bach’s view of beauty was specifically Christian. For him, beauty was demonic if it was not subordinated to the Word of God.

Jaroslav Pelikan summarized the key points of Bach’s view in his book, Fools for Christ. The following propositions capture Bach’s Christian aesthetic:

Proposition #1. The highest activity of the human spirit is the praise of God. Such praise involves the total activity of the Spirit. Any object of the uplifted heart short of the Lord Himself is unworthy of human aspirations. Bach strove to honor the holiness of God even in his “secular” compositions.

Proposition #2. As the praise of the eternal God, Christian art is an expression of boundless freedom; but as the praise of God who became incarnate, it bends itself to form.

Proposition #3. As the medium of a historical faith. Christian art has to be cast in terms of historical tradition; yet as an expression of faith in the living God, it has to be relevant and contemporary. (Bach’s setting of the Nicene Creed in a contemporary style reflects this blend.) There is a marriage of the classic and the fresh; of the orthodox and the contemporary. Orthodox itself does not change, but its expression is contemporary.

Proposition #4. Christian art illumines or even transcends the content of the words with which it is joined. Art is never to be set in competition with the Word of God. Rather it is a response to the Word and reinforces the Word. Bach saw art as a kind of quasi-sacramental medium of communication. That is, it is dependent for its validation upon the Word yet aids in the communication of the Word.

Beauty then, for Bach, was a channel by which the holiness of God was communicated to the human spirit. Pelikan summarizes Bach’s view:
The Holy is not, first of all, a highest Good, a sublimely True, an ultimately Beautiful. Yet that Holy which men have vainly tried to grasp with their systems of thought, their categories of ethics, and their depictions of beauty; that Holy which has eluded every human attempt to take it captive and to tame it; that Holy has been made flesh and has dwelt among us in Jesus Christ.