The question of God confronts the whole of man. It is a question that is partially resolved through the mind arriving at its truth, and partially resolved through the will arriving at its goodness. It is technically possible, of course, for the mind to recognize as true what the will considers undesirable. But especially in the question of absolute first principles, it is natural for man to feel unresolved if his dynamic motions toward goodness and truth do not converge at some point. Fascinatingly, the sanity of man (i.e. the unity of his mind and will) depends upon some perceived unity in reality. Many apologists intuitively realize this, and so they seek to provide arguments for God, and then help remove whatever obstacles might viscerally stand in the way of an intellectual argument (the problems of evil, divine justice, divine absence, etc).
This is a legitimate approach, but in the final three installments of this series, I will reverse the typical order. Sometimes it is helpful to come to the intellectual arguments with an unclogged vision of what it is that we’re really considering. It is true that we often need to correct our ideas in order to refine our sentiments, but this is also no mechanical affair. In fact, much pathological religion has developed through simply trumping one’s sense of goodness or beauty with a (typically juvenile) conclusion of the mind. Cults are successful precisely to the extent that they can train their devotees to hold the nose in the name of devotional purity. But God has not designed our faculties to work apart from one another, and the consideration of beauty and goodness provide important feedback to the intellect in its making of judgments. Moreover, just as one can work with and through distorted truths, so one can work with and through distorted sentiments, affections, and desires. As Lewis insisted, we never really leave the Tao. Idolatry is simply the inflation of one of its aspects into an idolatrous tyranny that consumes all the rest. But this also means that we can move through the desires of man to consider the question of God, because Christ is ultimately the Desire of the nations. And so, in this installment, I will ask how a person might wisely work through any perceived tension between the existence of God and what is perceived to be beautiful. Next time, I will consider how a person might wisely work through any perceived tension between the existence of God and what is felt to be good. And finally, I will consider how a person might wisely work through the question of God’s existence relative to the truth. There, I will suggest resources for working through the “intellectual” aspect of the God question.
What is the difference between the first and second question? What, in short, is the difference between beauty and goodness? When asking about what prevents belief relative to beauty, we are asking concerning what seems attractive on an aesthetic register. When asking about what prevents belief relative to goodness, we are asking concerning what seems good on a moral register. So, for instance, few would argue that it is intrinsically sinful to be loyal to one lover through a lifetime. That is, if asked, many would say that loyalty to one lover through a lifetime is a good thing. Yet, presumably, many of those same would find such an option unattractive. Who says we should take the track of putting all of our relational and sexual needs into one basket? Are we not mammals? Thus, in such cases one can distinguish between what seems to be good and what seems to be beautiful. Similarly, one can distinguish between questions of divine goodness and questions of divine beauty, and it is arguably the question of beauty that is least often discussed. And perhaps it is the case that “setting the dial” right on this front enables us to come to the question of goodness and truth with greater calibration.
Let us refine our question, then. We want to consider how our sense of what seems attractive might prevent (or not) belief in God. In order to get at this, it is first appropriate to try and get some basic understanding of beauty in general, and then it will help to see this understanding cashed out in a specific example. Beauty is a notoriously difficult concept to wrap one’s head around. We reflexively grasp the link between the truth and the mind of man, and between the good and the will of man. But what is beauty, and how is it related to man? D.C. Schindler has recently argued with great precision that beauty is the shine of being, and is experienced by the whole person – a sort of “unity” of mind and will. What does this mean? Roughly speaking, beauty is associated with “appearance,” and most nascently and primitively with the appearance and presence of being itself as “shining” in the things that are known. The infant is aware of a presence that is not the self “standing forth” and drawing the soul toward itself. Encountering new objects, the toddler is drawn to play with them. In this sense, beauty is prior to goodness and truth in that the most nascent experience of “presence” pre-contains each – drawing forth the soul to “bring the shining object near” in the mode of knowing, and to “pursue the shining object far” in the mode of desiring and pursuing. One might say that beauty is the first “whiff of being,” which entices the soul to ask, “What is that I smell?” or “How may I go about acquiring it?”
This helps us to see what beauty has to do with the life of the mind. All that enters our consciousness is vying for attention, and it is the “shiniest” things that move us. This is not to be taken in a crass physical way, of course, but rather we can speak about what stands out in a prominence of value within a person’s conscious life. Creatures of hope, we are apt to attend to whatever seems a potential source of reliance or a fitting object of love. Whatever we say about the objectivity of the world, man’s involvement with the world is always value-laden. This is the natural parody of the theological virtues. We cannot help, like the child being drawn to things, but relate to the world in a hopeful way. This is not a psychological statement about a feeling, but rather a commentary on man’s automatic activity in all that he does. A grumpy man navigating traffic makes many moves in a sort of “hope” that doesn’t bespeak any great virtue. And so, in all of conscious life there is a sort of movement toward what can hopefully be relied upon (trusted) as an object to attend to (to love, both in the form of desiring and knowing).
We are unlikely to attend to what seems “less attractive” to us. And, given the fall, the calibration of mankind on this register is profoundly distorted. Much of what we feel is beautiful is (to the fully awake soul) distorted, and much that we call distorted is in fact beautiful. The temptation here is to think that this puts us at an impasse. But Christian persuasion has never simply been about appeal to the mind. The New Testament regularly assumes the apologetic value of Christian love, and even the locus classicus of 1 Peter 3:15 assumes that something identified as a “hope” is prior to “giving reasons for it.” What “shines” on the surface of the Christian is hope, and this turns the inquiring soul to attend more precisely to reasons. And so, the fact that we have a distorted sense of the beautiful does not preclude the possibility of appealing to that same sense. Indeed, the Spirit works through that very appeal to make what is atrophied awake. For human nature agitates for the living God in the same way that the person who is starving themselves to death nevertheless possesses a body that screams for food and water. Human self-sabotage does not change what human nature hungers for. And it remains the aroma of Christian love that has pride of place in persuading human beings of God’s reality.
Destabilized, and awoken to a primal hunger, we are in a place to recognize the manner in which our own sense of what is beautiful is largely shaped by the zeitgeist. In point of fact, all mature humans learn to calibrate their aesthetic sense. It is not surprising that any journey toward truth requires some training of one’s sense of what is beautiful, and apt to be loved. But as noted earlier, the opposite of this can be dangerous. We cannot simply decide to find something beautiful, and much of what we think we’re supposed to consider beautiful is more than what is consciously named. It is usually wrapped in all sorts of nuances and particulars in our imagination. And at that level, much distortion is slipped under the radar, masquerading as principle.
There are errors in all directions here, and for most of us, the most practical question is simply how we are meant to work through a perceived tension between the question of God and our sense of what is beautiful. In what has been said so far, three points may be noted:
- We recognize that our sense of beauty can be distorted.
- It is ordinary for humans to require some retraining in their sense of beauty.
- What seems ugly to us is never to be simply ignored, but attended to by the mind in order for a human to become fully integrated.
Most of the time, we can discover some misunderstanding on our part, some false projection into something good or some good projection into something bad. The above example is especially apt. In order to exegete modern sentiments about monogamy, we would have to deconstruct our own sense of self, the social value we place on sexual expression, and especially what we think is actually happening in a marriage (i.e. what its goods are and what is beautiful within it). Moreover, the wise person recognizes the folly of assuming that no-one else’s sentiments, and even no other generation’s sentiments, provide some correction for my own.
Nevertheless, it remains the case that if Christ is the Desire of the nations, we must be able to move through the consideration of beauty rather than behind it. It is not that we cannot go behind our sentiments, but that we can also ask why we desire what we desire. What is the hope being offered? What is apt to be loved and relied upon? Indeed, moving in this way is a powerful apologetic tool because: (a) human insanity becomes especially clear here, and (b) God Himself always pre-contains whatever perfections are thought to be delivered elsewhere. A movement toward spiritual maturity never feels like the numbing of the aesthetic sense, but rather its deepening, it’s true “waking up” to the whole of reality as given by God to man. Indeed, in classical discourse, beauty is most frequently associated with the characteristic of “unifying” apparently disparate facets of reality into a rhythm and harmony. The Father, in the Son, is that ultimate singularity toward which all truly human desires, thoughts, and events flow. It is, of course, liable to be the case that finite and sinful persons like ourselves will not comprehend the whole sufficiently to overcome all felt tensions. To insist that it must be otherwise doesn’t change our lived reality. But the Christian need never fear that they must ignore these concerns, for our faculties are from God, and He heals our dominion through their restoration, not their erasure. Christians, in short, can expect to be freely, non-manipulatively, and increasingly persuaded that the way of Christ is beautiful. It is precisely the good, true, and beautiful—even reaching to man—that guarantees this.