A Spiritual Aesthetic

In this age, the Church is perennially confronted with the challenge of maintaining a kingdom identity in the midst of a fallen world. How do we live as “foreigners and exiles” (1 Pet. 2:11) while remaining in our culture so that we can bear witness to the gospel? How do we “shine among them like stars in the sky” (Php. 2:15) without being corrupted by a pagan society? The fundamental answer of Scripture, seen in these passages and elsewhere, is a firm call to Christian ethics. We must live by the Holy Ghost, not the zeitgeist.

But it may help, in our own context, to pay attention to the persuasive element in the temptations of the world. Biblical ethics come to us in the framework of a biblical worldview; but the jumbled ethics of the world come to us in the framework of a pagan worldview. If we accept that pagan worldview and its persuasive appeals, it will be more difficult for us to see the truth. Is it possible, then, that Spiritual ethics are connected with a Spiritual aesthetic?

Contemporary American culture is aesthetic at heart. In morals, economics, politics and social issues, critical thought very often takes a back seat (or perhaps the trunk) to the persuasive power of art. Advertising is a huge industry, feeding off materialism and nurturing it in turn. Books, magazines, and especially music and cinematography form people’s transcendental perceptions—telling them, whether subtly or ham-fistedly, what is true, beautiful, and good. Television shows and movies are quick to jump on the bandwagon of moral revolution, and serve in turn to normalize new standards. They tell us what good people approve and what good people despise. Beauty, we may say, is now the ascendant transcendental.

This is a serious matter. Cultural critics have pointed out the challenge this poses for articulating a Christian worldview, because argument oftentimes hits a wall in this context. Reason is not persuasive to people whose worldview has been formed not by reason but by aesthetics. Intellectual arguments about the wrongness of certain immoral behaviors seem callous and unpersuasive to people who have been trained by song and image to see those behaviors as good.

How are we to encourage faithful kingdom living in a culture dominated by pagan aesthetics? First, and fundamentally, we maintain that aesthetics is not a substitute for truth. Truth, beauty, and goodness belong together because all three have their source in God, and all three characterize His revelation to us. “The Word became flesh” in Jesus Christ (Jn. 1:14), “the image of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15), and at His cross we beheld the supreme demonstration of love (1 Jn. 3:16).

Second, and following this, we should cultivate a sense of beauty that is consonant with truth and goodness, rather than dominant over them. The Church should develop a Spiritual aesthetic—not ‘spiritual’ in the generic sense so popular in Western culture, but Spiritual in the Christian sense, shaped by and submissive to the Holy Spirit who mediates to us the presence of the Lord and establishes our sonship before the Father. That is to say that Spiritual formation in Christian discipleship may have an aesthetic dimension. Rather than allowing our tastes to be established by the pagan culture, we should instead nurture a Spirit-formed sense of beauty. As that happens, we will find beautiful that which is true and good, and we will find ugly that which is false and evil—however splendid the garb it wears.

What would it look like to develop a kingdom sense of beauty? A Spiritual aesthetic is fundamentally theological: grounded in creation, informed by the fall, expressive of redemption, and ordered towards the eschaton.

Fundamentally Theological

A Spiritual aesthetic must be fundamentally theological. This is true not only in the broad sense of the term, where theology means the whole discipline of study concerning religious truth, but particularly in the narrow sense of the term: theology proper, the study of God. God is the supremely beautiful and the fountainhead of all beauty, so Spiritual aesthetics begins with Him. Our loftiest aesthetic desire can only mirror the words of King David:

“One thing I ask from the LORD,
this only do I seek:
that I may dwell in the house of the LORD
all the days of my life,
to gaze on the beauty of the LORD
and to seek him in his temple.”(Ps. 27:4)

It may be a little surprising to think of the beauty of God. We more readily think of His power and sovereignty, His wisdom, His love and compassion. But how can we speak of the beauty of Him “who lives in unapproachable light, whom no one has seen or can see” (1 Tim. 6:16)?

Yet while the Scriptures rarely apply the term ‘beauty’ to God, a number of related terms are used with more frequency. The Psalms are particularly effusive in praise of God’s splendor, majesty, and glory (e.g. 8:1; 29:2; 96:6). On the rare occasions where the rule that a mortal may not see God and live (Exod. 33:20) is broken (perhaps side-stepped?) in visions, the majesty of God is emphasized. Daniel’s vision of the Ancient of Days and the Son of Man (7:9-14), the Divine throne scenes of Isaiah (6:1-5) and Ezekiel (1:1-28), and John’s apocalyptic glimpses of Christ (Rev. 1:12-16) and God the Father (4:1-11) all have this in common. Ezekiel and John’s visions are the most descriptive, wherein we are given a sublime compounding of images that attempt to convey the indescribable grandeur of God. Ineffable light, scintillating color, and fiery splendor characterizes God in the highest degree, so much as to make even the visionary experience utterly overwhelming.

And what of the Incarnation? What did people see in the supreme revelation, when God became man? True, Jesus Christ “had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him” (Isa. 53:2). His glory was veiled. Yet it was there for those who had eyes to see; the evangelist said, “We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth” (Jn. 1:14). For this beautiful One, who clothed Himself with uncomeliness, “was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed” (Isa. 53:5).

That is fearsome beauty, the magnificence of sacrifice, the glory of self-giving love. In the strange and terrible beauty of the cross, that superlative drama, God has revealed Himself to us: majestic in mercy, awesome in salvation.

God’s beauty, we may suggest, is of an entirely different order than the beauty present in creation. The most dazzling diamond, the most sublime sunset, the most masterful mural or sculpture or symphony, however they move our hearts and elevate our thoughts, are only echoes of the greater beauty which is infinite, the beauty of the infinite God. Spiritual aesthetics is fundamentally theological, for God is the most supremely beautiful.

If God is the supremely beautiful One, then it follows that beauty more generally is the gift of God. As the Creator, He is the ultimate source of all beauty in creation, whether in the natural world or in the products of creatures. A Spiritual aesthetic maintains that all true beauty is a gift of God. This connection must not be severed; beauty is distinct from God (we dare not deify art), but there is a link between true beauty and Divinity, the connection of gift and Giver.

This means that a true understanding of beauty sees it in light of the attributa divina. Beauty is one of the attributes of God, and is thus a characteristic of the highest nobility—art is a lofty thing. But beauty is not the only attribute of God, and it must be understood in light of the other moral attributa. Real beauty is characterized by truth, goodness, righteousness, holiness, and love. There is an internal coherence in the exhortation, “whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things” (Php. 4:8).

So far from making beauty a trait that legitimizes everything connected with it, this theological understanding of beauty serves to distinguish true beauty from false, tarnished, or corrupted beauty. It is not so much that beauty can legitimize an artistic work that is immoral or pagan, but that such characteristics defile the beauty in which they are set. Beauty is the gift of God supremely beautiful, and it is only fully itself when it glorifies Him.

The major thesis of a Spiritual aesthetic is that beauty is defined by God and comes from Him. That means that the character of God informs our understanding of all true beauty. Minor theses trace this by attempting to understand beauty in light of God’s works, in which His character is richly displayed and acted out for creaturely blessing.

Beauty has a connection with the works of God in creation and redemption. That does not mean that every painting must be a landscape or a pietà—though certainly artists throughout the Christian era have found these fruitful subjects. In the next post in this short series, we will seek to support the major thesis of rooting our sense of beauty in God, by discussing a spiritual aesthetic through the lens of redemptive history: grounded in creation, informed by the fall, expressive of redemption, and ordered towards the eschaton.

Joshua Steely