I have suggested that the twin pillars of conservatism are 1) an affirmation of transcendent absolute principles of truth, goodness, and beauty; and 2) a commitment to conserve those institutions and forms that best reflect a recognition and respect for this transcendent order. In this post I will examine the first of these pillars.
A Christian conservative is one who believes that principles of truth goodness and beauty are rooted in the very nature and character of God, and are, therefore, absolute. Because God is the source of all that is (Psalm 90:2; Revelation 4:11), his ideas of what is true, good, and beautiful are absolute by their very nature. These ideas in the mind of God–“forms,” if you will–provide the basis and standard by which all human ideas must be measured.
It is the responsibility of Christians to align what they perceive to be true, good, and beautiful, then, to match what actually is true, good, and beautiful in the mind of God. Christians must think God’s thoughts after him, corresponding their ideas of reality with God’s absolute ideas, and this includes all three transcendental categories. This mandate is perhaps no more clearly articulated than in Philippians 4:8:
Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.
We find in this verse a command to judge all things on the basis of certain categories–categories that could be easily divided into truth, goodness, and beauty. God’s ideas are absolute; ours must match his.
While many believers would likely acknowledge this on a theoretical level, many may question whether such absolutes are necessarily knowable, especially in the area of beauty. They would limit what can be known with any certainty only to that which is explicitly articulated in the propositions of Scripture.
There are at least three problems with this view. First, we come to know God’s ideas or absolutes not merely by way of propositions. These absolutes are no less than propositions, to be sure, but God’s ideas are more than propositions. At a very fundamental level, a proposition is true only if one’s imagination of that proposition corresponds correctly to reality. To say it another way, right knowledge (of the true, good, or beautiful) involves not only what is said but also how it is said and perceived. At this level of the imagination, we enter the realm of the affections and aesthetics.
This leads to the second problem: God’s ideas in Scripture are contained not merely in propositions, but also in the way in which those propositions are presented. The Bible comes to us not as a textbook but as a collection of various literary and aesthetic forms. The way in which revelation about God is presented is just as important as the words themselves. So the “truth” of which the Church is the pillar and ground (1 Timothy 3:15) includes facts and our imagination of those facts; truth is proposition plus presentation. The same goes for how goodness and beauty are communicated through Scripture; they come to us by way of propositions, certainly, but also by the way in which they are presented to us.
And the third problem is that there are other sources of God’s ideas than the Bible. No other sources of knowledge are infallible like the Bible, and all other sources of truth must be authenticated by God’s Word, but the Bible itself is clear that both nature and conscience are real sources of revelation (Romans 1). Even nature itself reveals something to us of the glory of God (Psalm 19:1), yet not through propositions; it does so through its beauty.
All this to say that a Christian conservative believes that real absolutes of truth, goodness, and beauty do exist in the nature of God, and that he should strive to know such absolutes, first in the propositions of Scripture, then in how the forms in which those propositions are presented shape the imagination and affections, and finally through other natural sources of knowledge and beauty throughout creation.
Of course, it is entirely possible for someone to believe that absolutes exist in areas of truth and goodness but nevertheless deny they exist with beauty. What I am suggesting, however, is that a correctly biblical view will affirm all three, and this is the essence of the first pillar of conservatism.