The Objectivity of Beauty

*Posted by Joe Wooddell

Each fall I try to learn one or two more Christmas songs on the piano. This year it’s “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” in E minor, and I’ve almost got it down. While practicing yesterday I came almost to the end and hovered mercilessly over the V7 (B major) chord, playing trills with the third and added fourth. (This just means I was stuck on the word “and” right before the last word “joy” at the end of the song: “Oh-oh ti-dings of com-fort and. . . .) While stuck there dragging it out, I looked over at my oldest son who was about to walk upstairs. He was leaning far forward, smiling, and about to fall into another step, but he was waiting for me to hit the final chord. He knew the song shouldn’t end there. The chord progression had to be “resolved.” The experience reminded me of (noticed I didn’t say “proved”) my longstanding belief in the objectivity of beauty.

The following is not a rhetorical question; I’m hoping for feedback: is beauty objective or subjective? In other words, is beauty in the eye of the beholder, or are some things just beautiful (or ugly) regardless of what anyone thinks? Follow-up question: if this question bothers you, why? Plato and other ancient philosophers understood truth, goodness, and beauty as identical, and I agree. I can’t remember ever having thought differently. Even as a child, growing up in the 70s, I knew true beauty (and ugliness) when I saw it. As I walked to the city bus stop on dark, cold, Cincinnati winter mornings (uphill in the snow both ways barefoot), I would pass one particular house dimly lit by a couple of porch lights, with a well manicured lawn. I imagined the inhabitants snuggled warmly in their beds, waking to a hot bowl of oatmeal and fresh squeezed orange juice. That image was beautiful, and I knew it. For years I listened to my incredibly talented brother play classical and jazz piano, and I knew Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata” and Brubeck’s “Take Five” were beautiful. Later I realized the yard that got overgrown, and my brother’s mistakes on the piano were all less than beautiful. But all that was just the beginning.

In my thirties, my philosophical studies crystallized my belief in the objectivity of beauty. True beauty is grounded in the character and nature of God, and He has made or allowed some things to become more physically beautiful than others. Augustine and Aquinas agree (see the Confessions and Summa Theologica respectively). For Jonathan Edwards in The Nature of True Virtue, true virtue just is spiritual beauty. By sinning we have marred both physical and spiritual beauty.

None of this is to say humans all agree on true beauty or a standard by which it may be measured or judged. We disagree on it, just like we often disagree on morality. Humans, I think, have both a moral and a rational sense, so why not an aesthetic sense as well? We often know truth when we see it. For example, it’s impossible that two plus two equal four and that it not equal four at the same time in the same sense. We know this is true when we see it. We don’t need an argument. We also often know goodness or badness when we see it. For example, we simply know that kindness and courage are virtues, and that torturing babies for fun is wrong. We need no arguments for these. As soon as we understand them they strike us as correct. So why not also assume we often know true beauty when we see it? The sight of Pike’s Peak from the top of Palmer Park on a clear day is gorgeous. A child tripping over a hole in the road and smearing his face in the week-old remains of a dead skunk is ugly. Anyone who disagrees with either is simply wrong.

Secularists of various stripes tend to endorse moral subjectivism or relativism. (Most are inconsistent in this, but showing the inconsistency requires another blog post.) Many Christians, however, are moral objectivists. That is, they rightly believe morality is unchanging, based solely on God’s nature and/or commands, or on how He set up reality. So the next point is for these objectivist believers. If morality is objective, irrespective of others’ opinions, why would you say beauty is subjective because of others’ opinions? I’ve never heard a good response, which is why I’m posing the question here. I suppose one can be an aesthetic subjectivist (although I think the position is wrong), but a Christian who believes in the objectivity of morality, regardless of others’ opinions, shouldn’t also be an aesthetic subjectivist because of others’ opinions. If you’re going to be an aesthetic subjectivist, then think of a different argument or reason besides saying “well, everyone disagrees about beauty.” The fact is, many people disagree about morality as well, but that doesn’t make morality subjective.

If I am correct, the upshot for all of this is that when we put true beauty on display, we’re ipso facto putting truth and goodness on display also. Such an idea significantly expands our options for teaching, preaching, evangelizing, and doing apologetics. If all this is correct, then all sorts of art forms may be used for these purposes, not to mention the beauty of individual or corporate Christian life. Of course, in the end, specific words must be used to teach specific doctrines and truths, but aesthetics can and should be used along the way, before and during these processes. Let’s not leave culture and the arts to unbelievers. Let’s encourage those gifted in such pursuits to do their work to the glory of God, using their craft as a means to the end of leading others into a saving relationship with Him.

Suggested reading:

Jonathan Edwards, The Nature of True Virtue. Francis Schaeffer, Art and the Bible. Steve Turner, Imagine: A Vision for Christians in the Arts. Joseph D. Wooddell, The Beauty of the Faith: Using Aesthetics for Christian Apologetics.

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4 Responses to The Objectivity of Beauty

  1. Andrew Hebert says:

    How would you interact with the idea that “word” is better than “image,” and how does that come into play here?

    • Joe Wooddell says:

      Great question. I mentioned it briefly in the final paragraph, but we could discuss it to no end. Here are some thoughts. I took Principles of Preaching with Calvin Miller at Southwestern Seminary the only time he was allowed to teach it. (I didn’t learn traditional expository preaching/teaching until sitting in Alan Streett’s Sunday School class for three years.) Miller advocated (I assume he still does) what he called the “single point sermon.” He says folks should go away with one phrase, idea, picture, or theme in their mind (the “PPR,” the point of planned redundancy), and he says if you can preach the entire sermon in the form of one big “story” with ten or twenty “moves” (as opposed to outline points) all the better. In fact, he wrote a book a few years ago called Preaching: The Art of Narrative Exposition. (I’d put the title in italics, but I can’t figure out how unless I type it into a Word document and cut and paste to here, which is too much trouble; of course, in the time it took me to make this comment I could have done it.) The book argues that one can do “expository preaching” (i.e., exposing what the biblical text actually says and means, down to the very words and units of thought, and disseminating it to the congregation) in the form of a narrative. He’s trying to make expository preaching less boring, more memorable. God bless him! And he does it himself.

      On the other hand, a few years ago David Allen preached in Criswell College chapel, and argued that “word” is more important than “image,” and that in using everything from movie clips to power point (am I breaking the law by not putting an ® or © next to this?) to art in the sanctuary (I think he mentioned or implied this) that we are in danger (to be fair, he didn’t say it was necessarily the case) of idolatry. If I remember correctly, he maintained that we (might) corrupt the gospel and the Word of God with our attempt to use image as opposed to word as a means to preach. Allen would refer to Miller as a “soft postmodernist,” and he might be right. Miller does have postmodernist leanings, but it all depends on how you define postmodernism. If by postmodern you mean we should try to be culturally relevant and not boring, that we should use language and ideas people can understand, that some traditions are simply that, traditions, that candles, incense, a loaf of rustic bread for the Lord’s Supper rather than little soggy wafers might be nice, that it’s okay to show movie clips in church to arrest people’s attention and make a point (what we typically use illustrations for), and that ties might be optional, then lots of us might qualify, including Jesus, I suppose. If by postmodern you mean epistemological and/or moral relativism, then please count me out.

      Here’s the point: A traditional sermon “illustration” is an “image” of sorts. A cross is an image, and most churches have at least one somewhere on the property, usually up on the stage or podium, or on the roof. The really lame clip art in the bulletin is an image. In fact (and here’s where it gets tricky and complicated), one might argue that words themselves are simply symbols or images that we use to depict reality. Scripture even says Jesus is the “image” of the invisible God, that we also reflect God’s image, that husbands and wives should symbolize Christ and the Church (respectively), etc.

      So to try and answer your question: I love word much more than image. I am a philosopher in the analytic tradition, and I am an auditory learner. I tend to communicate in ways in which I am comfortable: i.e., with words. But I think it’s worth challenging ourselves (and especially the most gifted among us in things like the arts) to use beauty and the arts as, perhaps, a “handmaiden” of word. Word always gets the final word. We have to be specific, and I think word is the best way to do that. But I’m not a cultural anthropologist or even a full time, cross-cultural missionary, so I’m not sure exactly how best to communicate truth to different cultures. No matter what, however, we need to be as certain as possible that we’ve communicated the truth of the Gospel and God’s Word as clearly as possible. He gave it to us in word form, and I think we would do well to make sure we don’t corrupt it. The best way to be sure of this, I think, is through word, not image (as we’ve been discussing it). Let me know if you think I’m contradicting myself.

  2. your brother says:

    ill have to agree with this….”my incredibly talented brother “….. :)

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