Judging Beauty in Creation (2)
We continue with the next three aspects of experiencing beauty in creation.
After contemplating beauty receptively, we experience an immediate response, which is usually unpremeditated and almost instinctive. This immediate response is not the final judgement of the soul upon what it is encountering, only its initial reaction. To take this superficial reaction as determinative of something’s beauty or value is the mistake of the immature, untrained, or even obtuse. Immediate responses are not carefully planned responses, and are therefore indicative of the already-formed character. When Christlike character is present, the more or less immediate responses are those that love what God loves and hate what God hates.
After perception and immediate response, the process of interpretation begins.
Beauty communicates meaning, and meaning must be interpreted. That meaning is discerned and understood by the faculty we call imagination. Through imagination, we understand patterns, metaphors, analogies, symmetries and the like. We are able to interpret what the beauty signifies. This step leads to the final step.
Judgement is necessary once one has interpreted the meaning of something supposedly beautiful. Since meaning is always present, an interpretation of meaning must necessarily lead to an evaluation. Is it true? It is false? Is it trivial? Is it banal? Is it misleading? Is it manipulative? Is it ennobling? Is it transformative? In short, is it good and beautiful? To refer to an object as beautiful or ugly is to refer to the quality of the object, while also expressing a positive or negative response to it and suggesting that others ought to respond in the same way.
Judgement is important to a Christian because it is sin that prefers the epistemological, moral and aesthetic relativism that nullifies judgement. If humans are indeed fallen, then they may be prone to deceive themselves about pleasure. Humans may like what they should not like, and hate what they should love.
T. S. Eliot reminds those desirous of good literary judgement that they need to be acutely aware of two things at once: “what we like,” and “what we ought to like”. These two levels of evaluation are crucial to distinguish. The first level has to do with a subject’s preferences. The second level has to do with the merits of a work. It is not inherently elitist to believe that some aesthetic judgements are better than others. Indeed, every artist, in striving for excellence, makes that assumption. An honest evaluation may recognise that a work of art is good, even though the subject finds no personal pleasure in it. This honest assessment allows those experiencing beauty to admit where their own preferences are perhaps immature or deformed, where some beauty appeals to parts of people that are underdeveloped in them.
Once this distinction is made, it follows that aesthetic discernment is something that can be learnt through diligent study, and even repentance. Just as no one is born wise, so no one is naturally aesthetically wise. Failing to see the necessity of growth in aesthetic discernment will keep people intractably committed to personal preferences, defending their likes and dislikes as if they are essential to their very identities. This explains why so many Christians have taught on the need for receptive perception, as discussed in the previous post. Without surrender to an artwork or a thing of beauty, one cannot see its merits; one sees only oneself and one’s own reactions. If those reactions are immature, one may prevent oneself from moving towards greater and more profound beauties, confusing superficial responses with the intrinsic truth, goodness, or beauty of a work (or lack thereof).
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.