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The Religious Affections and Beauty

This entry is part 14 of 32 in the series

"Toward Conservative Christian Churches"

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Probably the greatest difference between a thoroughly conservative Christian church and more nominally conservative Christian churches will be found in differences over the religious affections. Conservative Christian churches want to conserve a Christian understanding of the religious affections. In the next few posts, I hope to suggest some ways that churches may recover a right view of the affections.

In my view, for all the areas in which the modern evangelical church fights against secularization, the matter of the affections is its most outstanding blind spot. Evangelicalism (and fundamentalism) combats the post-modern denial of absolute truth, with its consequent pluralism and incoherent view of ‘tolerance’. It wrestles against the moral relativism of our time, with its situational ethics and redefinitions of moral good. In other words, most modern Christians largely fight the battle for the True, which must be believed, and for the Good, which must be obeyed. They see these as absolutes, transcending immanent reality. However, when it comes to the third transcendental, the Beautiful, which must be loved, all bets are off. Here the consensus breaks up, and people start muttering about “the eye of the beholder and all that” or “entirely subjective”. Beauty, which is at the heart of this matter of the affections, cannot be an absolute, according to many Christians, even those who consider themselves ‘conservative evangelicals’ or even fundamentalists. In their view, widely differing tastes and preferences among people is proof positive that beauty is purely a matter of individual likes or dislikes. It cannot be a transcendental which exists apart from human opinion.

For the conservative, this represents an unambiguously secular view, a vestige of the Enlightenment revisions, and the fact that it is found on the lips of professing Christians displays just how profoundly secularized the church is.

A conservative argues for appropriate and inappropriate affections, because he believes affections correspond to something in reality. A certain kind of love ought to be given to a beautiful object. An ugly object deserves a certain kind of response. This is because such things are beautiful or ugly, not merely that they seem that way to different people. The religious affections are expressions of value for the beauty of something. This means that depending on our ability to correctly perceive beauty, our affections may be more or less correct, more or less appropriate. Just as our beliefs can conform or not conform to the True, and just as our actions can conform or not conform to the Good, so our affections can conform or not conform to the Beautiful. This is simply light-years away from how most people think about beauty, love and the affections.

The secular Christian sees his ’emotions’ as having no reference beyond himself. They are just his internal reactions (or worse, his ‘brain chemistry’). He cannot imagine that he could have a ‘wrong’ emotion, because he has no category for such a thing. He is too afraid to judge a song or piece of music as ugly, and therefore inappropriate for the God of all Beauty. He has lost all grounds to discern between right and wrong expressions of love for God in corporate worship or beyond it. He must tenaciously fight for the True and the Good, and tell himself that the Beautiful is a Romans 14 issue.

The battle to recover a right view of beauty and ordinate affection is the toughest battle that conservatives must fight, and as I said before, it is largely an abandoned battleground. However, if it is not fought, we lose far more than an argument over which hymns we prefer. We may lose the very way we are to know and love God.

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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.