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Christians and Critical Judgments

This entry is part 16 of 63 in the series

"Ten Mangled Words"

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Most Christians are happy to accept the authority of expert opinion. What is instructive to note is which domains of knowledge they are comfortable to refer to experts, as opposed to those in which they actively oppose expert opinion. To paraphrase what I wrote to one commenter, Christians are happy to listen to experts when they are biologists or geologists, and the topic is creationism/evolution. Christians are happy to turn to experts when they are neurologists and the topic is depression and the use of anti-depressants. The expert opinion that these men will bring, when submitting their findings to the principles of Scripture, is deemed helpful – and rightly so. For some reason, when the topic is the more critical judgments of art, the experts are disparagingly called “gatekeepers”, or “elitists”, said to be “keeping out the unwashed, and allowing in the pure.”

Why is this so? I have no way of proving this, but I suspect many Christians have embraced the ‘double-story’ view of truth. Immanuel Kant is really the central culprit here. He taught that human knowledge comes in two separate layers, or floors. The lower floor we might call “scientific” or rational knowledge. It’s the kind of knowledge we can work out using mathematics, or measure with scientific experiments. The upper floor we might call “moral” or intuitive knowledge, and it refers to religious beliefs, morals, and judgments about beauty. Kant believed that only the lower-story could be known with certainty, through empirical observation. The upper-story, he felt, was “impossible to know, but morally necessary to suppose”. What that translates to in the contemporary situation is the idea that science delivers hard facts, while art delivers neutral material which obtains only “personal” judgments, variable from subject to subject.

Christians seem to believe this. They believe we need experts to fight infection in the body, build airplanes, and program software – because this kind of knowledge is, to them at least, entirely “objective”. But determining if a song is sensual, if a poem’s rhythm is comical, if a film is subversive to Christian affections is, to them, no longer a matter of collecting empirical facts, and must then be “subjective”, which in their parlance, usually means “arbitrary in meaning”. Of course, if this is so, an expert in these areas is not only contradictory (for how can one person’s judgment be authoritative if no authoritative or universal judgment is possible), it becomes preposterous – like having a color-inspector tell you if your interior decoration is lawful or not.

But Kant’s dichotomy is open to challenge, and few strict Kantians exist anymore. What Christians need to embrace is the truth that while judgments about music and art are indeed of a different kind to those of maths and science, they are all still judgments. All knowledge is a matter of judgment and interpretation, even the manipulation of numbers, or the direct observation of the universe. It is all performed by subjects, and in that sense, all knowledge is ‘subjective’. The difference between a judgment of art and one of science is not that one is exterior and the other interior, or the one discoverable and the other mystically unknowable. The real difference is that aesthetic, moral, religious knowledge is knowledge that pertains to persons, and so the judgment requires a more careful, critical judgement.

Ethical and aesthetical judgments are difficult. It’s easier to work out the circumference of a circle than it is to determine how Christians smuggling Bibles into a country should deal with the border agents. Such an ethical judgment is hard, but not impossible. It calls for the combined thinking of many Christians on the topics of truthfulness, governmental authority, civil disobedience, conflicting obligations and questions of greater goods and lesser evils. It’s a critical judgment.

Judging art and beauty requires a similarly critical judgment. Such judgment requires a thoughtful examination of form, of the materials used in the art form. It requires knowledge of the symbols and metaphors within a culture. It usually requires historical knowledge, understanding the “conversation” that has taken place within the culture, so that it can place the work within that conversation. The critic, if he is doing is job, is not “forcing his preference” on us, nor is he “criticizing” the work, in the sense of tearing it down. He is explaining meaning to us, using his knowledge of the form, his knowledge of history, and his own sense of perception. He should not tell us what we could not, with the right tools, see ourselves; that is, he is not some kind of mediator interpreting a language that no one else can understand. Nevertheless, he ought to possess a superior knowledge of art, and enough experience and insight to help us see more, and become better judges ourselves.

Certainly we live in an era when we lack a living tradition, and we feel more cut off from art than most generations before us probably ever did. In this atmosphere, we need critics more than ever, while suspecting rightly that the wrong critics have more power to mislead than ever. The solution is not to retreat to Kantian notions of the impossibility of knowing beauty. The solution is to choose critics immersed in the Western and Christian tradition. Unless we believe moral, religious, and aesthetic judgments are all arbitrary, it is entirely permissible and indeed, necessary, to turn to authorities in these areas, to help shape our judgments.

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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.