Beauty and Knowledge
Beauty does not only encourage a pursuit of reality, but beauty encourages a Christian epistemology. It teaches how we know what we know.
The Enlightenment project involved pursuing certainty without relying on revelation or authority. If a thinking, knowing subject could be “neutral”, pure reason would lead to truth. This resulted in a general suspicion of any elements of knowledge and human experience that could not be verified through empirical means. Beauty would be one of the casualties of this project.
There are always reactions to reactions, however. After the pure rationalism of the early Enlightenment came the aestheticism of the eighteenth century, trying to find a place for beauty in a world of reason, even if it meant art for art’s sake. After the dust settled, Immanuel Kant carried the day, trying to rescue both fact and value, objective and subjective, empirical and transcendental, by separating the two. This has come to be called the fact/value distinction. You can put science and reason in one box, and beauty and morality in another, but the rule is that the boxes cannot touch.
Most would say that this idea of neutral knowing has largely had its time in the sun. Postmodernity’s intellectuals delighted in pointing out the situatedness of all knowers, of the interpretive nature of all knowledge, of the permanence of our personal commitments when seeking to understand.
Some of Christianity’s early responses to the Enlightenment quest for “objective, rational, value-free facts” included defending the faith on the terms set by its critics. When attempting to defend Christianity on scientific or empirical grounds alone, Christians were conceding to a false theory of knowledge. Since no lie can be brought into the service of the truth, attempting to validate Christianity by a false standard was doomed to failure.
But the church was doomed to find itself, once again, becoming expert in the world’s fashions only when the world had already discarded them. Postmodernity and post-secularism was shaping a society that was becoming indifferent to supposedly empirically verified truth-claims. A new, sensuous spirituality was charming the modern consciousness, and a thirst for beauty had returned. Some church goers were more interested in beautiful architecture, ancient traditions and artistic liturgy than they were in historical evidences for the faith.
Christian responses to this postmodern epistemology have been varied. Some retreated back into modernity, loudly emphasising a scientific and rational basis for the truth of the Bible in opposition to the “no truth except personal truth” approach. Others sadly embraced the deconstructionism of postmodernism. But to deny the reality of any of Christianity’s metaphysical claims is crippling oneself before you have even begun the race.
Beauty offers us a Christian way of knowing reality. It does something unexpected: it accepts as true what postmoderns say about the Enlightenment view of knowledge, but it simultaneously rejects postmodernism’s nihilism. Beauty concedes both the subjective aspect of human knowledge and an objective basis for that knowledge in reality outside of the subject.
The world continues to deny that truth can be known. Beauty comes to the rescue. Beauty’s claim is that it exists undeniably outside individual knowers (two people can see a rainbow a both remark on its beauty) while making demands on subjects that they shape their judgements to perceive and experience it rightly (a warped person might find rainbows ugly).
Beauty provides the link to knowing objective reality through the correct subjective postures. Beauty is the merger between objective reality and subjective perception. It is correspondence between affection and reality.
For Christians, beauty should be primary when pursuing knowledge. After all, beauty foregrounds the use of imagination in perception. Since faith and imagination are inseparably connected, beauty insists that we foreground faith to rightly perceive the world. While we treasure reason, Christians ought to believe that the aesthetic dimension of man is needed for his broadest and most encompassing grasp of reality.
Slowly, the church is beginning to jettison the Enlightenment, realising that relegating beauty to nothing more than the preferences and pleasures within a subject is an Enlightenment revision, not a biblical or Christian view at all.
Beauty is at the heart of how one knows the world, and how you know that you know.
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.