Judging Beauty in Creation
The two domains of God’s revelation are general revelation and special revelation. God has revealed Himself to all men generally through the created order, and God has revealed Himself specifically to some through His Word, mediated through various agents. If we wish to perceive the beauty of God, we will find it in both domains, though they will differ in the specificity of that beauty.
God’s beauty will not be of different kinds, for God is always God. But what can be perceived of God in nature, the human conscience, human culture, and human art will not be as clear or concrete as what can be perceived through language conveyed through angels, prophets, and apostles.
We should also expect that the approach to perceiving God’s beauty in creation will bear great resemblance to perceiving it in Scripture. And on close examination, we find it is just so. Many of the approaches to perceiving beauty in art find nearly exact counterparts in Christian worship and discipleship. In other words, the pagan who perceived true beauty in creation did so because he adopted a posture that mimics something found in Christian virtue. He did not know it, but he submitted to a pattern found within the Triune Godhead, and in doing so, he saw some of that glory.
To put it another way, true beauty always requires it perceivers to be in some kind of union with it. They must humble themselves, pursue it, see it for what it is, and judge it with complete honesty. This kind of act is very close to self-giving love, as we’ll see. The pursuers of beauty, even if they are not regenerate, must get themselves out of the way, receive the beauty of a thing, and judge it fairly. By this act, the common grace of God allows the unsaved to know and experience the echoes of His glory in general revelation. Indeed, were the unsaved to keep using that approach to all of life, they would pretty soon bump up against the gospel and the claims of Christ. As we saw in the last post, most will flee before the light becomes that intense.
What is the procedure for seeing beauty in general revelation? John Witvliet summarises the approach as occurring in four stages: 1) perception, 2) immediate response, 3) interpretation, and 4) evaluation. We’ll take these in turn.
Perceiving beauty is the beginning of the encounter. Both Christian and no-Christian writers have been concerned to point out that true pursuer of beauty must have the quality of receptivity.
C. S. Lewis wrote incisively of this in An Experiment in Criticism. Lewis suggested that to receive a work, the subject must exert his or her senses to conform to the pattern created by the artist. Conversely, using a work of art is treating it as a mere aid to selfish activities. When art is used, it cannot introduce one to new worlds or transform; it can only brighten, relieve, or palliate one’s life. When one uses art for one’s own ends, a work of art has no chance to work on a person, meaning one meets only oneself in the work. Consumers of art do not lay themselves open to what the work in its totality might do to them; they merely treat it as a means to their own selfish ends.
True receptivity begins by laying aside individual preconceptions, interests, and associations. Positively, one must then look, listen, read, or feel, as the case may be. The seeker must go on perceiving until he or she has perceived what is there. This is essentially a form of surrender. Lewis writes, “Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out)”.
This kind of receptivity is contemplation, to be distinguished sharply from distraction. Roger Scruton, in Beauty, distinguishes the true work of art from the false by distinguishing the experience of the one from the other. In the true work of art, it is not one’s own reactions that are interesting, but the meaning and content of the work. Entertainment is not interested in cause, but only in effect—whether the work had pleasant effects on oneself. Though true art also entertains, it does so by creating a distance between oneself and what it portrays, allowing a disinterested sympathy for its subject matter, rather than evoking vicarious emotions of one’s own. This distance is what enables receptivity and contemplation. “The purpose of this distance is not to prevent emotion, but to focus in it, by directing attention towards the imaginary other, rather than the present self” (p. 104).
Contemplation is an act of attention that receives the artwork, or the thing in nature, or whatever the manifestation of beauty as a gift, not an object to be used, but as something to be meditated upon and lived with.
As you can see, the moral qualities of the beholder influence whether beauty is seen or missed altogether.
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.