Note: this essay was adapted and included in my book Sound Worship.
After my reading of Adler’s Six Great Ideas and contemplation of his discussion of truth, goodness, and beauty, I have the following thoughts and conclusions for believers and their pursuit of that which is true, good, and beautiful.
I like Adler’s connection of truth, goodness, and beauty. It is, of course, a connection that theologians and aestheticians have made for centuries, and it is a connection that I have been contemplating with a good friend, Michael Riley for some time now. He actually brought up the parallels between truth, goodness, and beauty and the mind, will, and emotions of man. I’ll have to think further on this point.
Back to Adler. The first point that was helpful to me was the observation that in each realm there is an aspect of subjectivity and objectivity. The subjective realm of truth has to do with the relationship between what I say and what I think. The subjective aspect of goodness relates to those things that I want; those things that I consider good for me. However, in both of these cases, the subjective aspects may, in fact, be inconsistent with reality. What I think is true or good may in fact not be so. Therefore, as believers, it is our biblical responsibility to align our subjective aspects of truth and goodness with objective reality. In other words, as a Christian, I should always aim for discovering the truth and then agreeing with it. I should always strive to discover what is objectively good, and pursue it. We have every right to insist that believers pursue what is objectively true and good. In both of these realms, biblical knowledge and study are the key.
With regard to subjective and objective realms, beauty is no different. The subjective realm of beauty involves those objects in which Ipersonally find pleasure. The objective aspect has to do with those intrinsic qualities that make an object admirable. The subjective aspect tells us more about an individual, and the objective realm tells us about the object itself. This corresponds perfectly with truth and goodness.
Adler stops here. While in the realm of truth and goodness he argues that we can legitimately insist that such and such should be regarded as true or good for someone, he stops short of insisting the same for beauty. What Adler does acknowledge, however, is that in the subjective realm of beauty, there is such a thing as “bad taste.” In other words, if someone takes subjective aesthetic pleasure in something that is objectively ugly, they can be said to have “bad taste.” On the other hand, if someone takes subjective pleasure in an object that has intrinsic qualities that make it objectively beautiful, they can be said to have “good taste.” While Adler admits this, he does not insist that individuals have a responsibility to pursue “good taste.”
The question is, then, do Christians have this responsibility? Are believers obligated to pursue an appreciation for that which is objectively beautiful and reject those things that are objectively ugly?
Now in the realm of truth, believers can find explicit answers as to what is true in the Bible. The same is true for that which is good. Can the same be said for beauty? The immediately apparent answer might be no, but before we settle on this answer, we need to ask how we come to know what is true and what is good in the Bible.
For instance, does the Bible explicitly tell us everything that is true? In other words, if the Bible does not say, “such and such is true,” is it therefore false? Additionally, does the Bible explicitly tell us everything that is good? In other words, if the Bible does not say, “such and such is good,” is it therefore evil? I think we can safely answer no to each of these questions. The Bible tells us some things that are true and some things that are good, but not everything. It is the responsibility of believers to use those principles that make something true or good and then apply them to other situations to determine the truth or goodness.
This is why the Bible commands believers to exercise discernment:
Psalm 119:66 “Teach me good discernment and knowledge, for I believe in Thy commandments.”Proverbs 16:21 “The wise in heart will be called discerning.”
John 7:24 “Judge with righteous judgment.”
1 Thessalonians 5:21 “Examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.”
Romans 2:18 “If you know his will and approve of what is superior because you are instructed by the law.”
Philippians 1:10 “So that you may be able to discern what is best.”
1 Corinthians 14:29 “Two or three prophets should speak, and the others should weigh carefully what is said.”
Ephesians 5:10 “Find out what pleases the Lord.”
Hebrews 5:14 “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.”
Acts 17:11 “Now the Bereans were of more noble character than the Thessalonians, for they received the message with great eagerness and examined the Scriptures every day to see if what Paul said was true.”
1 John 4:1, 6 “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. . . . Whoever knows God listens to us; but whoever is not from God does not listen to us. This is how we recognize the Spirit of truth and the spirit of falsehood.”
Galatians 6:4 “Each one should test his own actions.”
Proverbs 2:4-6 “If you cry for discernment, lift your voice for understanding; If you seek her as silver and search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will discern the fear of the Lord, and discover the knowledge of God. For the Lord gives wisdom; From His mouth come knowledge and understanding.”
Ephesians 5:10 “Proving what is acceptable to the Lord.”
The whole point of passages like these is that the Bible is not an encyclopedia of truth and goodness. It gives believers principles and examples of truth and goodness, but believers are responsible to test things and be discerning.
The question for our discussion is, is the same true for beauty? I think Philippians 4:8 will help us here:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.
What is crucial in our application of this passage to our discussion is the observation that elements of all three realms—truth, goodness, andbeauty—are present in this verse. Especially notable are words like “pure, “lovely,” “excellent,” “praiseworthy,” and especially, “admirable” (the very same word Adler uses to describe the objective beauty of an object). The Bible commands believers to think about things that are objectively true, objectively good, and objectively beautiful.
Which leads us back to the important question, How do we discern what is objectively beautiful? I think Adler’s answer is biblically acceptable:
“The judgment about the beauty of an object in terms of its admirability for intrinsic excellence or perfection is the judgment of an expert, with special knowledge and skill in judging specimens of a certain kind” (115).
Unfortunately in the church today there is a hesitance, if not a resistance, to trust the knowledge of so-called “experts.” Independence and autonomy are so relished that a reliance on someone else is discouraged. Insisting that someone should trust an “expert” is tantamount to elitism in many people’s minds. “If I can’t know something for myself then it is not worthy of knowing” (for a satirical examination of this kind of thinking, see “An Argument For the Consumption of Cyanide”).
But if the Bible commands believers to think on those things that are actually objectively worthy of praise; if it commands Christians to think on those things that are objectively admirable; then believers have one of two options:
With regard to a specific question of beauty, believers can either1. spend the necessary time and effort to know everything there is to know about the given specimen and what makes it objectively beautiful, or
2. trust experts who have already done this.
It is my contention that just as believers have the biblical responsibility to pursue what is objectively true and what is objectively good, so believers must pursue what is objectively beautiful as well. This will certainly be a continual process of learning and growth, but this is no different than in the realms of truth and goodness. I will readily admit, taste is the key here. But believers are biblically responsible to changetheir tastes if they do not correspond to objective reality.
One final point. When it comes to evaluating music, especially music intended for congregational worship, I think that all three realms apply. When evaluating a given musical form, genre, or individual song, believers must ask:
1. Is it objectively true?2. Is it objectively good?
3. Is it objectively beautiful?
All three are important when determining what is appropriate to present as a gift to the Lord.