On Beauty and Aesthetics (pt. 1)

“Beauty is an event: it happens when the Whole, the All, offers itself to us in the Fragment, when the Infinite makes itself little.” – Bruno Forte


“What is the role of aesthetics?” I was asked as we were preparing for the evening meal where I was retreating in south-central Missouri this past weekend. They were interested in the independent study class that I am pursuing this Fall semester. Theological Aesthetics, or Christian Aesthetics, or the Theology of Beauty and Art, I usually say. As I was de-coring the apples to prepare for British baked apples, Tabby was preparing chicken breasts and Allison was making pumpkin soup and fresh bread. These are the kind of conversations and the context in which I look forward to frequently. They had showed interest in the content of my independent study earlier in the day when I had told them about my courses this Fall. Now that we had the proximity, focus, and time to dive deeper in the details of the work, they apparently led the way by taking the initiative to strike up conversation about aesthetics. This is L’Abri. And this makes me smile.

As I was beginning to briefly summarize the first two books I had recently finished reading, plus a few articles that have peppered my experience thus far, Allison asked it. “So, what do they say is the role of aesthetics?” My natural response to the word role is not always positive. I tend to associate the word role with words and ideas like purpose, point, and provision. What does this or that provide for us, for this event, for this group, for this experience?

I tend, not always rightfully so, to associate words like this with utilitarianism and pragmatism. Focusing on function at the expense of form. Meaning, substance, nature, identity, presence, being reduced to pragmatic function and utility.

It’s like asking, “What are aesthetics for?” Why do they exist? These are not idle, meaningless, or valueless questions. They are questions in a particular category, of a certain kind. “What are aesthetics?” and attempting to describe what we mean by aesthetics is another question. A question of nature or identity and substance. There are teleological questions, dealing with the goal, purpose, and end-orientation to which aesthetics are aimed at. This deals with the why of aesthetics, it’s purpose(s). (We must consider what we mean by purpose. Is there only one? Must there be one at all?) Yet, in another sense, all of the questions deal with the why of aesthetics (or any other thing/concept/idea). So, in summary, we have questions dealing with what our subject (aesthetics) is and what our subject does, or can do, or is made to do. It should be kept in mind that byproducts do not necessarily point to purpose or teleological aims. The potential contained in something does not necessarily tell us anything about its purpose or role.

Where do we begin with our discussion of aesthetics? What can be a first step in our approach? Well, we are in a Western context, born and bred, so we begin with definitions (or, as I like say instead, descriptions). ‘Aesthetics’ was first invented in 1735 by Alexander Baumgarten. The word comes from the Greek aisthetikos, an adjective meaning anything ‘perceptible or concerned with perception.’ It was at this time, in the mid-18th century, that taste came onto the scene. Frank Burch Brown, in Good Taste, Bad Taste, and Christian Taste: Aesthetics in Religious Life, says that “we all exercise taste in at least three ways: in aesthetic perceiving, enjoying and judging (which, in more technical language, we can also term apperception, appreciation, and appraisal).” In the mid-18th century, when philosophers like Immanuel Kant and David Hume began engaging with aesthetics, “taste involved perception and discrimination–along with imagination and capacity for a certain kind of ‘disinterested’ pleasure, since the beautiful pleases in one’s very perception of it and not because it is useful or true or good.” Seerveld, in Rainbows for the Fallen World describes aesthetic life as

“that kind of human subject activity which is peculiarly and principally responsive to God’s creation ordinance of nuance-fulness, which holds somehow for all creaturely reality.” (145)

At this time, aesthetic taste (as described above) involved more than merely the physical senses and what one can take in via various sensations. It became a kind of subjective feeling produced by the free play of the mental powers that make up imagination.

“One cannot tell that a poem is beautiful by consulting the five senses alone, or by trying to assess its usefulness, nor yet by turning to science or religion. Taste is not based, finally, on sensation nor on pragmatic, cognitive, moral, or religious considerations. Taste attends to something else: the formal, expressive, and imaginative qualities of the aesthetic object, which please in the very process of being perceived.” (F. B. Brown)

According to David Hume, Immanuel Kant, and Edmund Burke, “taste was fundamentally the power (or faculty) of discerning beauty” (F.B. Brown, 64).

It  may be helpful here to point out the distinctions between the aesthetic qualities we perceive, enjoy, and judge present in nature (natural aesthetics) and the aesthetics of what human beings create, discover, or illuminate (depending on how one understands the creative process and endeavor). God is creator and God created, continues to create, and sustain the creation of everyday. One need only think of daily (unique) sunsets, flowers blossoming in spring, the yellowing and oranging of leaves in Autumn, a forest carpeted in bluebells, or the songs of warblers to apprehend the daily paradise around us given and maintained by God. There is also the aesthetics of/from which we human beings create or make. The aesthetic qualities (or lack of) in our living rooms, of the design of our dinner table prepared for the meal, of our music we sing to, or sing through, of our clothing we bedeck our bodies with, of anything we human beings touch. C.S. Lewis said in his essay Is Theology Poetry?  that “Man is a poetical animal and touches nothing which he does not adorn.”

Aesthetics are everywhere. We cannot go one hour without making aesthetic choices. And remembering Brown’s three elements in taste, or aesthetic choices, perception, enjoyment (or lack of), and judgement, it can be said that these ‘elements of taste’ can be and are occurring whether one is aware of them or not. There is a subconscious and conscious aspect to this.

Let us aim for a description of art. Brown describes a work of art as we normally think of it today as

“a human artefact made with skill and know-how and a degree of inspiration or creativity; it is usually beautiful, imaginative, or expressive; it is sharable; it can be appreciated to a large extent for aesthetic reasons, varying from pure delight in sensuous form to an enjoyment of richly imaginative insight.” (62).

Some may tend to think of aesthetics as mere adornment or decoration, but they then may keep separate any art from such aesthetics that exist merely to adorn or decorate. Built into this sentiment is the assumption that adornment or decoration is merely an add-on, supplemental or augmentative, secondary at best, serving only as a means to something else.

Brown lays out a clear, helpful list of examples that art may serve as. Summarily, art serves as/with:

  • prayer
  • praise
  • overtly didactic purposes
  • primarily to beautify a place or moment of worship
  • motivation for religious or ethical action in the world
  • glorify God by enhancing human life itself by creating this-worldly beauty
  • searching for God or for the depths of human experience by agonizing and questioning
  • sacred art (art made explicitly for church use)
  • broadly religious art (in galleries, theaters, stages, concert halls)
  • art with a secular character that holds religious or theological significance because of depth of human expression or because of the sense of transcendence that its beauty generates.  (55)

Perhaps this list can be broadened, sharpened, augmented, and certainly questioned or challenged. One may be thinking of propaganda, adverts, commercial use, and evangelism.

Calvin Seerveld, in his book Rainbows for the Fallen World: Aesthetic Life and Artistic Task, points us to the delightful and holy extravagance and seeming wastefulness of what we might call excessive, or even pointless, beauty. “Because paints and novels and music are somewhat like rainbows. God did not have to make rainbows.” (8). We pragmatic moderns may ask, ‘What is the point of a sunset?’, ‘What is the role of these wildflowers I’ve stumbled upon out here during my walk in this nature reserve?’, or ‘Why am I out here walking through this nature reserve anyway?’ There is much built into these questions that I desire to unpack, but I will save that for another essay. Seerveld poetically describes the communicative power of God’s creation, “The glorious, formidable sun is not a matter of fact so much as a minister of God, as faithful as the angels, whose testimony day after day is more than human tradition.” (12). Seerveld’s ability to the see the meaning and weighty glory in everything is transparent in his writing. I would say that he has a solidly formed sacramental theology, where all of life, all of creation is, or can be, sacramental, meaning that all things are ripe and potent to convey to us Heavenly reality and the character, will, and love of God if we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear.

“Here is an unspeakable secret: paradise is all around us and we do not understand.” – Thomas Merton

“Earth’s crammed with Heaven,

And every common bush afire with God;

But only he who sees, takes off his shoes, 

The rest sit round it and pluck blackberries,

And daub their natural faces unaware

More and more from the first similitude.” – Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Sight. The ability to see. The capacity to receive. Vision. Vision which includes all of our physical senses, includes our imagination, our ‘third eye’, our intuition, our heart, our mind. In a word, everything and anything that God has given us human beings to receive Him, receive truth, receive Light, receive Life, receive and engage with Reality as it is and as it is supposed to be.

I admit that (works of) art and aesthetics are intimately related and intertwined. One can poetically describe creation and, above all, the human person, as the artwork of God. The Psalms certainly do as much. For our purposes, however, it is helpful to restrain ourselves to a description of art as I quoted from F.B. Brown above. So, one way to answer the question “What is the role of aesthetics?” can, in one way, be answered (or at least addressed) thus: “Art calls to our attention in capital, cursive letters, as it were, what usually flits by in reality as fine print.” (Seerveld, 27). Art, and by extension aesthetics, bring to our attention the good, true, and beautiful in reality that we normally are prone to bypass, to ignore, to miss, to downplay. There is deep, rich meaning in this. We hear the echo call to pay attention, listen, observe, taste, see, enjoy, receive.

“But walking down the street in a way that’s open to the reassuring winks that God is still up to his marvelous tricks, cajoling into wonder whoever has ears to hear and eyes to see nuances, wondering expectantly about the import of all these allusive features—such a walk is simply aesthetically wary.” (146).

Open hands. Open hearts. Open minds. Open imaginations. Ready and receptive to be surprised. In matters of taste, we are primarily talking about aesthetic responsiveness and responsiveness.

“All on its own, a snowflake on a pane of glass possesses a geometrical form we can appreciate, and a sensuous fragility expressive, perhaps, of a delicate serenity. In one’s imagination the flake could be pictured almost as a microcosm—an orderly, harmonious world that is beautiful in itself, regardless of what one thinks the rest of the world is like. Such qualities are aesthetic,” (F. B. Brown, xii)



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