Beauty’s Difficulties: A Christian Response to the Subject-Object Dilemma
For a while, it seemed chic to be able to say the word postmodern in a sermon. The belief-system behind the word is rather drab. No God exists, no human nature exists, and no essences exists. As such, beauty is a fiction imposed upon reality by humans wanting to order their meaningless existence. Truth is no longer what corresponds to reality; truth is merely the internally coherent and practically useful understanding of a single human consciousness. Postmodernism is hardly friendly to Christianity on this score.
Modernism introduced the division between subject and object. Postmodernism erases the object altogether, at least as far as our consciousness goes. Christians have responded in at least four ways to this subject-object dichotomy.
Augustine and Pascal: Loving Intuition
Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) are separated by more than a millennium, but are philosophically very close to one another. Augustine and Pascal held to a kind of affective rationality: the idea that right loves will correctly shape reason and further cognition. Subjects cannot know objects unless they are rightly related to those objects by loving them correctly. One cannot know how to love a single object without relating it to the universe of objects. One cannot know the correct ordering and relationship of all objects in the universe unless one loves the Author and Creator of all objects and loves objects for his sake. Humble, believing love toward God, in the right order, and to the right degree, is the basis of all progress in knowledge. We can know objects when we are in submission to God, the author of all subjects and objects.
Jonathan Edwards: Consenting Sensibility
Edwards (1703-58) agreed with Pascal and Augustine in saying that humble, believing love is the basis of right perception. Yet he went beyond them in stating that such love is the creaturely mirror of the love God has for himself and his works. Beauty and the sense of beauty are not divided. The perceiver is fundamental to recognising God’s beauty, but the perceiver must have been brought into a loving state in relationship to God, which he called “consent”. God’s beauty is “objectively” real, but only perceivable by the one beautified with the consenting disposition. Further, Edwards’ view of love pushes one beyond desire and delight into the concept of union. “Consent” is not simply pleasure, but the desire for compete conformity, for total union of wills and desires. Beholding beauty cannot be separated from becoming part of that beauty.
Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis: Imaginative Rationalism
Owen Barfield (1898–1997) and C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) were British intellectuals of the twentieth century. Lewis and Barfield can both be called imaginative rationalists, for both saw the place of reason (and used it persuasively), but both saw reason functioning only when in the service of a greater organ of truth: imagination. Perception is not passive, but an active construal into a “grid”, which is the imagination. Lewis and Barfield understood that this grid of pre apprehension is fundamental to reason functioning properly. Imagination, understood as the active lens of the interpretive perception of reality, is fundamental to knowledge. This lens is to be shaped by those forms that appeal to imagination. When the Christian imagination is in place—understanding the universe as God has revealed it to be—it will participate in that moral universe with ordinate affection towards it, and so rightly judge its truth, goodness, and beauty.
Michael Polanyi: Personal Knowledge and Indwelling
Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) was a Hungarian-British physicist and philosopher. Polanyi taught that people can know the world, not infallibly or with omniscience, because they are both part of the world and are able to transcend it through perception, imagination, and reason. Polanyi also spoke much of personal knowledge. By this he meant that human knowing is always an exercise of personal responsibility. Instead of Enlightenment philosophy’s notion of minimising or even eliminating the personal responsibility of the knower (by calling it “objectivity”), Polanyi insisted the knower must submit to reality as a responsible knower. He also spoke of “indwelling”. Indwelling is loving in order to know. By empathetically putting oneself inside the thing one wants to know, and taking it inside, one extends welcome, trust, and caring attentiveness.
These four proposals give us four distinctives necessary to a Christian realist correspondence model for beauty. First, the need for faith and love in one’s approach to God. Second, the necessity of a Christian imagination: a faith-filled grid that views reality primarily as a creation by a Triune Creator parsed by creatures who are subcreators. Third, the essentiality of union: union in being and in attitude with the object of knowledge is necessary to properly love, know and understand it. Fourth, the necessity of illumination. God’s voluntary self-disclosure and enlightenment of the heart and mind is fundamental to understanding God’s beauty.
With modernism, Christians agree that there is beauty, whether subjects perceive it or not. The rainbow is there as a phenomenon of light and water vapour, even if observers are not present. With postmodernism, we agree that beauty requires subjects to perceive it. The rainbow requires human eyes to be perceived as a rainbow. With premodernism, we agree that we must be in the right posture toward God and creation to properly perceive beauty. The rainbow must be seen at a certain angle and position, for not all can see it. Nevertheless, the rainbow is real, as is true beauty.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.