Beauty, Ethics and Worship
Sometimes throwaway lines leave a deep impression. One of those were words written on a blog I avidly followed about fifteen years ago. The writer said, “A good man does not love ugly things”. Words like that enabled me to see a profound link and overlap between what is true, good, and beautiful.
Real beauty nourishes Christian ethics. One of the effects of true beauty is to deeply humanize our souls. In fact, the kind of judgment we use to evaluate the beauty of art or a face or a scene in nature is the same kind of judgment we use to evaluate moral matters. Such judgment employs more than one kind of evaluation; it employs comparison and contrast; it uses memory and tradition; it attempts to relate parts to the whole or individual actions to the greater good. The pursuit of real beauty teaches people the difference between selfish consumption and pursuing the pleasure of beauty for its own sake. That, in turn, helps people identify idolatries and self-love in contrast to generous, noble love.
Some churches are concerned only with truth. Without goodness and beauty, they struggle to attract and convince people who are not usually drawn to sheer dogmatism. On the other hand, a concern for goodness without truth or beauty becomes nothing more than dead moralism. Both truth and goodness, lacking beauty, do not have the power to convince and save.
Beauty and Worship
Beyond metaphysics, epistemology, and ethics, beauty is integral to Christian worship. The neglect of beauty within Christian liturgy and practice in the last century have had visible effects on Christian worship. The last one hundred years or so have been a less fruitful era for Christian expression in terms of music, poetry, literature, architecture, and the plastic arts. This lopsided emphasis on propositional truth may have contributed to a century that has seen little in music to rival Bach or Mendelssohn, little in poetry to rival George Herbert, Isaac Watts or even Christina Rossetti, little in literature to rival Daniel Defoe, Jane Austen, little in painting to rival Rembrandt.
Even the seeker-friendly church-growth movement is now reconsidering its adaptation to contemporary culture in its worship, finding that its younger target-market now misses the mysterious, the ancient, and the beautiful. The significant exodus from Protestant Evangelicalism to Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy in the last few decades is at least partly due to aesthetics: the perceived barrenness of beauty in the average Evangelical or low-church.
If beauty exists, and if the human being is made in God’s image, a dearth of beauty must produce both a thirst and an eventual demand.
It is important to add that the perceptive powers needed to recognise beauty are needed in worship. The arts are fundamental to both private and public worship, and without the ability to perceive the beautiful in art, there will be little sensed beauty in worship. To put it another way, lacking the ability to see beauty in general may hamper the Christian’s ability to encounter and experience God.
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.