Characteristic of our age is the wholehearted embrace of relativisms; I speak of relativisms (in the plural) because we can consider relativism from several (interrelated) perspectives. I often make use of a tripartite conception of man (as mind, will, and emotion) to classify some important relativistic views.
- If relativism is applied to mind, we relinquish the objectivity of truth.
- If relativism is applied to will, we relinquish the objectivity of morality.
- If relativism is applied to emotions, we relinquish the objectivity of aesthetics.
In general, evangelical Christians have seen the importance of combating the first two relativisms: there is broad recognition that the Bible articulates truths and moral standards, and that capitulation to pure relativism on these is tantamount to a surrender of the faith itself. To put it a different way, most Christians understand that the Christian worldview creates oughts with reference to our beliefs and our behaviors. We may acknowledge difficulty in knowing precisely what our obligations are, but (again, in the main) we do not deny that such obligations exist.
Aesthetic relativism, by contrast, tends to be treated with ambivalence, if it is not embraced outright. That “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is nigh unto absolute truth in our congregations. And while the denial of alethic and moral absolutes is (rightly) perceived as a threat to Christianity, the corresponding denial of aesthetic absolutes is not.
Of course, this matter of the existence of aesthetic standards is at the heart of the worship debate. Worship is at least a matter of aesthetics; churches cannot avoid doing architecture, rhetoric, poetry, and music. If these activities mean anything, it seems to me that we must at least consider the possibility that they ought to conform to some standard. And it is even the possibility of such a standard that is so roundly denied.
I contend that the consensus on this matter is mistaken. In this paper, I will argue that Christian theology, with its foundational assertion that God’s existence is independent of his creation, forces us to the conclusion that aesthetic judgments have an objective standard to which we are obligated to conform.