Christians and High Culture, Again

NickImageRead Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

As Matthew Arnold envisioned it, high culture is the effort to “know the best that has been thought and said in the world” (Culture and Anarchy). It consists of those products of civilization that are deliberately meant to preserve, shape, and propagate human ideals and mores. It is encountered in libraries, academies, museums, and concert halls. It includes philosophy (broadly defined), the humanities, belles-lettres, music, the visual arts, and the performing arts. High culture can be contrasted with traditional or folk cultures as well as with popular or mass culture.

Each major civilization has produced its own high culture. Typically, high cultures have centered upon worship—not surprisingly, since every culture is the incarnation of a religion. From this center, however, each culture has gone on to examine the enduring aspects of human life: birth and death, comedy and tragedy, love and marriage and childbearing, hearth, home, valor and friendship, among others. They also explore answers to the perennial questions such as the nature of existence, truth, freedom, justice, duty, goodness, and beauty.

Christian leaders have been ambivalent in their opinion of high culture. Saul of Tarsus imbibed deeply from the high cultures of his day, but after his conversion he refused to rely upon cultural sophistication as a strategy for advancing the gospel. Even then, however, he clearly employed his cultural skills in the composition of his epistles. Tertullian, rejecting philosophy as only a trained rhetor could, asked “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” Others, such as Clement of Alexandria, followed by his pupil Origen, virtually subordinated Christian doctrine to the major philosophies of their day.

This ambivalence has a reason. On the one hand, the content of the various high cultures has often militated against Christian perspectives. On the other hand, the articulation of Christian perspectives seems to require mastery of the very disciplines that are perpetuated within high culture. The utterly unlettered or completely bumptious have only rarely made much of a contribution to Christian thought or sensibility.

Some theologians have railed against the philosophers, but they have nevertheless mastered the tools of thought. Similarly, the great hymn writers—the anonymous author of the Te Deum, or figures such as Athanasius, Hus, Weiss, Luther, Tersteegen, Gerhardt, Watts, the Wesleys, Newton, or Cowper—have been individuals who mastered poetic or musical disciplines, or both. In a word, they have been cultured individuals.

Christianity depends upon cultural mastery for its own wellbeing. The understanding and preservation of correct doctrine requires theologians who have spent sufficient time in the academy to master intellectual discipline. The duty to teach one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs requires individuals who have mastered literary and musical disciplines. When such persons are lacking, Christianity enters periods of base and unfruitful expression (such as the present hour). It loses its power to fire the imagination with truth and to appeal to ordinate affection. It must instead resort to inflaming the appetites.

High culture is necessary for the inner wellbeing of the church. This is not to suggest that every Christian must become highly cultured—far from it! Still, unless at least some Christians are able to negotiate the cultured disciplines, then many aspects of faith and life will suffer. Even less-cultured believers ought to value what only the more cultured are likely to contribute.

It would be a mistake, however, to suppose that high culture is necessary only for the articulation of Christian doctrine and worship. It is also of use for another purpose. Our Christianity is not supposed to be confined to church. It is supposed to affect all of life. Consequently, Christians should look at all of life—including common or mundane things—from a unique perspective, and that perspective should find its place in the expressions of high culture.

High culture itself deals with all of life and thought, whether of mundane activities such as eating and drinking or of such perennial matters as the nature of justice. In addressing these matters, high culture does two things. First, it provides tools of expression and organization through which even non-religious matters can be examined. Second, it preserves the variegated interaction of the resulting perspectives, not merely as a dead record, but as a living embodiment. To participate in high culture is actually to enter into the conversation and to see through the eyes of those who have skillfully given expression to particular points of view.

Christians make a serious mistake when they think that their use of culture applies only to church. It also applies to eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. It is about all of the mundane activities of life, each of which has its own place in the purpose of God and its own luster when it occupies that place. These activities are common to all humans, and so are the enduring questions that arise from the consideration of those things.

One purpose of Christian involvement in high culture is to give expression to Christian perspectives on all of the mundane activities of life, as well as to articulate Christian answers to the perennial questions. Christians should offer these expressions, not because they hope to Christianize the world, but rather because a Christian perspective is worth offering for its own sake. To be human means to be interested in the meaning of the things that humans do; to be Christian means to be interested in God’s perspective on those things.

Articulating Christian insights and fostering ordinate expressions is in the interest of truth, whether or not anyone listens to those expressions. Christians should say some things, not because the masses are likely to listen to them, but simply because those things should not be left unsaid. If the devout never participate in high culture, however, then the Christian voice on these matters will be silenced.

Once the Christian voice is silenced, at least two other calamities are likely to follow. The first will occur when people begin to assume that Christianity has nothing to say about everyday humanity. The result will be a false dichotomy between the sacred (the spiritual activities of life that are governed by God) and the secular (ordinary matters about which—it is now assumed—God is not interested). Christians will fail to recognize the actual Lordship of Christ over significant areas of life or, if they recognize His Lordship in principle, will be uncertain how to apply it. Since they do not live in a social vacuum, Christians will be likely to absorb, and eventually acquiesce to, the perspectives of the anti-Christian civilizations around them.

The second calamity is that thoughtful people will judge Christians themselves to be trite, shallow, and superficial. And they will be justified in that judgment. The matters with which high culture concerns itself are important, even when they are mundane. The tools of thought and modes of expression that high culture offers are the best available for the serious work of the mind and heart. To turn one’s back on these things and to treat them as if they are insignificant is to trample the most distinctively human concerns and endeavors, and is, consequently, to label one’s self a boor. Thoughtful people are not likely to listen to a serious message (such as the gospel ultimately is) when it is presented by those who repeatedly prove themselves to be trivial (such as Christians sometimes do). Once Christians demonstrate that they are frivolous, their message will depend upon propaganda and demagoguery.

There is a balance to be struck here. On the one hand, Christians never bring glory to God by making themselves impressive, for in themselves they are genuinely insignificant. On the other hand, they will never advance truth by rendering themselves trivial, for Christianity is serious. The antidotes to both arrogance and frivolity are the same: humility, temperance, and sobriety. Christianity needs some who will master the cultured disciplines but who will do their work humbly, temperately, and soberly.

Not every Christian needs to be a philosopher, a poet, a composer, or an artist. Some, however, will find that their callings involve exactly these disciplines. They will be called to involve themselves with high culture. Far from opposing high culture, the remainder of Christians should celebrate such callings. Without them, Christian faith and life would be crippled.

The Lamb
William Blake (1757–1827)

Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o’er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee

Little Lamb I’ll tell thee,
Little Lamb I’ll tell thee!
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.
Little Lamb God bless thee.

[node:bio/kevin-t-bauder body]

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There are 36 Comments

Joel Tetreau's picture

Kevin,

Man you are fun to read. I think you like this topic! I'm enjoying your work on culture. Two questions: Do you have an illustration or two from the NT text that supports your hypothesis that the church needs high culture for it to be healthy? Does the NT being written in common Greek vs. Classical work against your hypothesis?

Straight Ahead,

jt

Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (sevbc.org); Regional Coordinator for IBL West (iblministry.com), Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

Andrew K.'s picture

What about folk culture?

Since much of higher culture takes inspiration for its content and form from folk culture, wouldn't there be some advantage on exploring thought and involvement in this area?

神是爱

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Joel Tetreau wrote:
Kevin,
Man you are fun to read. I think you like this topic! I'm enjoying your work on culture. Two questions: Do you have an illustration or two from the NT text that supports your hypothesis that the church needs high culture for it to be healthy? Does the NT being written in common Greek vs. Classical work against your hypothesis?

One answer...

Kevin's essay wrote:
Christian leaders have been ambivalent in their opinion of high culture. Saul of Tarsus imbibed deeply from the high cultures of his day, but after his conversion he refused to rely upon cultural sophistication as a strategy for advancing the gospel. Even then, however, he clearly employed his cultural skills in the composition of his epistles.

Jim Barnes's picture

Joel Tetreau wrote:
Kevin,

Man you are fun to read. I think you like this topic! I'm enjoying your work on culture. Two questions: Do you have an illustration or two from the NT text that supports your hypothesis that the church needs high culture for it to be healthy? Does the NT being written in common Greek vs. Classical work against your hypothesis?

Straight Ahead,

jt

Joel, Could Philippians 4:8 be used here? I am not sure how broad Kevin defines high culture, but this verse comes to mind.

Todd Wood's picture

1. What books would you suggest to provide a beginning instruction for writing spiritual poetry, texts, and prayers for church family meditation?

2. If we wanted to offer our written works to music composers, to whom could we submit our stuff?

3. Christianity needs some who will master the cultured disciplines but who will do their work humbly, temperately, and soberly. Who would you recommend as living mentors in 2011 contributing to the topic of my question #1?

By the way, I like William Blake's The Lamb.

CPHurst's picture

Kevin, to be honest the very term "high" culture rubs me the wrong way. What would be some examples of "low" culture and is it in any way inferior to "high" culture? I dont necessarily have a problem with classifying types of culture but I am not very comfortable with making it look like some are "better" than others. If you have already spoken to this on SI then I apologize for the question and just point me to it.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Maybe we'll get Kevin to post some answers yet, but a couple from me FWIW...

Todd... maybe Chris Anderson at ChurchWorksMedia.com could help with your music questions.

Craig, about "high culture..." It's one of those things that is hard to explain to people who don't already know what it is... or prove to people who don't already believe in its value. (Sounds snobby I know... true though. Smile )
So I don't envy Kevin his work in that department!

Maybe an analogy would help. If you go to your typical bookstore, I think we'd all agree that the vast majority of what's there is cheap junk. The phrase "pulp fiction" was invented at a time when people still widely recognized that there is fiction of enduring value and then there's fiction that is pretty much cheap, mass market junk.
(Or maybe something in between... I think some of the cheap, mass market junk is way better than others and--well, you can't really blame a writer for wanting to make a living!)

Go to a flea market and you have a similar experience... mostly junk. Some treasures... maybe.

What's the difference? Well, they say one man's junk is another man's treasure but at both flea markets and bookstores there is stuff that, over time, just about everyone recognizes to be treasure... and a whole lot that--mostly by being forgotten--is recognized as junk.

High culture is the treasures. Low culture is the junk.

But there is some info in the essay itself...

KB wrote:
As Matthew Arnold envisioned it, high culture is the effort to “know the best that has been thought and said in the world” (Culture and Anarchy). It consists of those products of civilization that are deliberately meant to preserve, shape, and propagate human ideals and mores.

High culture is generally a subset of what people produce with the intention that it communicate big, lofty, weighty, enduring ideas... as opposed to what they create to "express themselves," or just make a buck or get famous or "have a good time."

DavidO's picture

Todd Wood wrote:
1. What books would you suggest to provide a beginning instruction for writing spiritual poetry, texts, and prayers for church family meditation?

The best instruction in writing good poetry is reading good poetry. I recommend complete works of the following devotional poets.

Christina Rosetti
George Herbert
Isaac Watts
Charles Wesley
Anne Bradstreet
Edward Taylor
William Cowper
Isaac Watts
George MacDonald

Other excellent formal poets include Shakespeare, Tennyson, Blake (whom you already like Smile ), Wordsworth, Milton, Dickinson, Gerard Manley Hopkins among many others.

Some modern formalists, invaluable in that they provide us with present day formal idiom (i.e. how to write meter and rhyme that doesn't twist syntax as much as older writers were able to get away with [this helps the writer avoid looking like he's trying to sound archaic ]) include Karl Shapiro, Richard Wilbur (especially Wilbur!), Stanley Kunitz (early works), Mark Jarman, among others. These writers are also very good at engaging the imagination.

As to techical help for writers I recommend:

Rules for the Dance by Mary Oliver is a guide for writing metrical verse.

The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser has good advice for a lot of miscellaneous aspects of poetry as well as some really good instruction on using metaphor.

Ultimately, a hymn writer must be a student of literature ready to devote some serious time to becoming an artist.

I wish hope the best for you and all others who so aspire.

Joel Tetreau's picture

Jim, great question on Phil 4:8. Would it be possible for Phil 4:8 to be consistent with manifestation of folk culture? Would it be possible to have High Culture that violates Phil 4:8? Perhaps friends who believe as Kevin would say that "whatsoever is good" rightly understood leads one to "high culture." Those of you that believe this or close to this - please put it in your own words - not trying to present a straw man. I'm thinking do we really find "high culture" with Jesus and his disciples? Was John the Baptist committed to High Culture? The Roman church with it's Latin, Gold trappings and such likes High culture. I don't know......just thinking.

Peace!

Enjoying a beautiful AZ evening from my "Lawn 4000".

Straight Ahead!

jt

Dr. Joel Tetreau serves as Senior Pastor, Southeast Valley Bible Church (sevbc.org); Regional Coordinator for IBL West (iblministry.com), Board Member & friend for several different ministries;

Jeff Brown's picture

Joel Tetreau wrote:
Kevin,

Man you are fun to read. I think you like this topic! I'm enjoying your work on culture. Two questions: Do you have an illustration or two from the NT text that supports your hypothesis that the church needs high culture for it to be healthy? Does the NT being written in common Greek vs. Classical work against your hypothesis?

Joel, your question is not phrased quite right. KoineGreek was the lingua franca of the Bible's day, including the language of literary works (e.g. Josephus, Philo, Strabo, Plutarch). Classical Greek went out of use on the broad scope after Alexander the Great. There are also exceptions to that. Luke wrote Acts in Koine, but shirfted to a more Classical Style in chapter 27, to present the story of Paul's voyage.

But it is generally agreed (I think) that the writiers of the New Testament generally did not write in literary style. Paul's letters, for instance, were letters.

Still, and here is another qualifier, even though written in a familiar style, Romans contains phrases as clever as any philosopher could compose. They aren't all that easy to comprehend at first glance. Paul's learning came through even in his familiar-style letters, and it was meant from God for our blessing.

So I think that your point is right, that the Bible was written in a style for the common man, not for the reader of fine literature.

(straight ahead after the s-curve) Wink

I ditto your appreciation for what Kevin has written here.

Jeff Brown

Jeff Brown's picture

One more suggestion for poetry: The Best Loved Poems of the American People, by Hazel Felleman. This was once the best-seller among American poetry anthologies. You can probably get it through Amazon. But if you want to look at it first, you can likely find a copy at the nearest Barnes and Noble. I would be surprised if you don't like it, and many of the writers selected were Christians. We give it as a gift to our children, when they have children, to encourage them in a love of poetry.

Jeff Brown

DavidO's picture

DavidO wrote:
I recommend complete works of the following devotional poets.

Can't believe I forgot David, Asaph, Moses, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

Susan R's picture

EditorModerator

There have been several studies about how the medium affects the message- from audio to electronic to digital to paper. It has been determined that different modes and methods have a measurable physical effect on the brain and body. When considering what is 'good' as far as partaking in culture, I think medium should be considered as much as content.

Phil. 4:8 is a fine nutshell for measuring high/low culture. A Christian is by default going to have a different criteria for determining what is 'good' and 'bad'. So, just because teachers and professors call Catcher in the Rye a classic doesn't make it a classic in the sense of 'high' culture. It may have had cultural impact, but so did Star Wars and Jim Morrison.

As a homeschooler, I am the one teaching the importance and quality of literature, music, and art to my kids. We differentiate between the themes that portray truths, inspire one to consider something greater and outside of themselves, engender gratitude and awe, and messages that glorify or excuse humanity's baser instincts. We try to examine why certain works are considered classic and yet don't meet Phil. 4:8 standards. I think when the Bible says that God has given us richly all things to enjoy (1 Tim. 6:17), it isn't talking about Gilligan's Island or Robert Plant, but about enjoying those things consistent with the fruits of the Spirit. We may 'consider the source', but mostly we look at the actual content, so folk culture still gets a fair shake.

Todd Wood's picture

I will check out these suggestions, David and Jeff.

I have been toying with different ideas for worship on Sundays: placing poetry and prayers in the church bulletins and projector slides, featuring a new hymn or spiritual song once a month, and bringing our pocket Bibles and taking Sunday afternoon hikes and walks in God's creation.

In Idaho, the LDS church monopolizes a great deal of the radio waves where there is high culture. Among the evangelicals in Idaho, Christ's Kirk (http://www.christkirk.com/) leads the way for high culture in worship. And Douglas Wilson is one of the master wordsmiths and classical gurus.

Mike Harding's picture

Kevin,

I have enjoyed your articles on culture immensely and am in agreement. In our music academy I am considering scheduling four classical concerts with the chamber orchestra from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra as a part of our Listen and Learn series. The chamber group would perform at our facility and would be open to the public as well. I am interested in your opinion as to the possible benefits of such a concert series upon our students. Do you think such an endeavor is worth the investment of time and energy?

Pastor Mike Harding

CPHurst's picture

Aaron, dont worry about the snobbery:) I get what it is. So high culture has a timeless aspect to it? Is there value to what is timely but not necessarily timeless? So its the content and not necessarily the form?

The way I have always heard it is that only certain forms are considered high culture like fine arts etc.

Is there more than one view on what counts as high culture?

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

CPHurst wrote:
Aaron, dont worry about the snobbery:) I get what it is. So high culture has a timeless aspect to it? Is there value to what is timely but not necessarily timeless? So its the content and not necessarily the form?

The way I have always heard it is that only certain forms are considered high culture like fine arts etc.

Is there more than one view on what counts as high culture?


Yes, yes, no and definitely.

Value to what is not necessarily timeless: yes. I don't think anybody's saying that low culture should not exist. It has to. It's just not adequate. The alarming thing is that in our day it's just about completely replaced high culture in the public awareness and values. Everything is relevance, relevance, relevance. I'm not for being irrelevant, but "relevant" is often a term that means something like "Speaks to me where I am this moment in some extremely obvious way that requires no effort from me to identify." Add to that the fact that people frequently approach the arts with a mindset completely dominated by what Kevin (and others) call appetites rather than the higher affections. So the standard we're using for "relevance" is not only extremely small on the time scale, it's also too often driven by low appetites.

About "content vs. form." I'm far from expert on this but I don't think most serious artists would grant the distinction. Form is content.

CPHurst's picture

Aaron, "Form is content." Explain that more. Preaching is a form is it not? But not all preaching is good and therefore timeless. So how would form be content? This seems to be a categorical mistake. Help me out and define form and content and then give me an example. (I am sorry if my questions are juvenile).

I think where I have been off-put by the high culture talk is when certain people act like they have nothing to do with other kinds of culture because they are sinful. It's almost like the good better best argument which I do not support when it comes to this discussion.

DavidO's picture

I think a better understanding would be that form shapes content, and content gravitates toward form. They're interdependent, but not synonymous.

You raise preaching as an example. I don't preach but I do some teaching, and when I develop a lesson, the passage's content guides me toward the lesson's form. Similarly, the form of the lesson shapes the content to the hearers. I may not interact with various minor points if they don't fit the thrust of the lesson (which, obviously, ought be the thrust of the passage).

We've all heard sermons where the content was shoehorned into a structure it didn't really fit. We've probably even sung songs which didn't really match the subject in style, or the form of which didn't allow the subject to be adequately explored or fully communicated.

CPHurst's picture

Ok, take painting for instance. There are many kinds of painting styles (forms?) like impressionist, landscape, portrait, etc. With painting there are good and bad paintings within each form. And, it seems to me that though you start off with a certain form (impressionist) that dosent mean that you will produce a good painting (content). Same thing with preaching and teaching. They are good forms but that does not guarantee that the content will be good at all.

I just dont know if I can say that form is content such that the right forms will always produce the right or good content. Is that what is being said? I just dont see the equivocation of terms.

DavidO's picture

Similarly, you can put 14 lines of iambic on a page and make sure the rhymes land where they're supposed to and you still may not really have a sonnet. Form must be matched, or created to match actual content. And some content will not find its highest and best realization in certain very good forms. This is the heart of art= best form for the content well executed and developed.

There is no one size fits all form. But there are forms better suited in general to bear truth and forms ill-suited to bear truth. This is why there are no devotional limericks. Wink

Alex K.'s picture

how about Korean high culture? or various African high cultures? or Hebrew?

why is the imprimatur only given to European? because of Christianity interacting with it. no, i don't think so, at all.

something rotten i think in this "cultural war" and not only the paternalism.

Give to the wise and they will be wiser. Instruct the righteous and they will increase their learning. Proverbs 9:9

Andrew K.'s picture

CPHurst:

I think the problem may be that your understanding of form is actually closer to "genre" or "style." All features of a text relate to form, and most moderns would categorize what we call "content" as simply another feature of form.

Alex K
:

I agree with you to a point, although I think it's generally held that not every society produces a high culture. But I would actually like to write a piece about what I feel I've gained personally from Chinese high culture. I think every variety of what we consider "high culture" has something or things to teach us.

神是爱

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

When I say "Form is content," I mean that form is part of content. It's not all of the content. But form has meaning and so, we need to look at it as a subset of content.

Does that help?
It's hard to come up with examples of this that are obvious enough that everyone would agree and see the point. But the idea that form can be separated from meaning is a major problem we're up against these days... as though all forms were empty gray buckets we can stick any meaning we like into. I doubt anybody thought so until the 20th century, or 19th maybe.

Hey Kevin, if you're reading this: I'm sure you could me out here if you have a few minutes.

CPHurst's picture

Forgive my over analytical nature. I am too literal to the core so I ask a lot of questions in order to even myself out.

Andrew your comment about form and genre/style helped me get it better.

Jeff Brown's picture

I do not have Kevin's knowledge, Aaron, but I hope that I can help the discussion. When you talk about culture, you also have to talk about beauty. Whether one is talking about music, art, acting, writing, or rhetorical form, until the 20th century nearly everyone agreed on what beauty was. They could spot it, even without analyzing it. In his Metaphysics Aristotle tells us that beauty has harmony and order (maybe the same thing). It isn't that everyone afterward read Aristotle, he simply analyzed what everyone judged to be true. So artists, musicians, and writers strove for order and harmony, because they knew it was inherently pleasing (and perhaps because they either thought that the gods, or the Christian God was a God of order).

This perspective changed first through Immanuel Kant. Though he himself was quite a man of order, he taught in his Critique of Pure Reason that we do not really perceive the world in pristine form, but only through the categories of our mind. We evaluate things in nature to be one way because that is how we thought of things before hand. This sounds plausable, but it isn't really provable. And to come to his view, he began with the assertion that the concepts of time and space are the products of our brains, but not of nature itself. Probably scientific research has since proven this false, I don't know, but to come to his assertion, Kant had to flatly deny Genesis 1. He does not say so in his discourse, but I cannot imagine that he did not know exactly what he was doing.

From Kant's concept of "You do not actually observe what is there," plus Darwin's concept of life beginning in a warm pond somewhere (no orderly creator), philosophers, artists, and later musicians and film makers came to the conclusion that "beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder" and has nothing inherently to do with God or creation. I think that Kevin mentioned that, at the end of His creation God remarks, "and behold, it was very good." This would have to mean that he took it to be beautiful as well as wholesome, because God's Word certainly believes in the concept of beauty. Though fallen, nature itself is completely filled with order and harmony. This is precisely what Jesus tells us about common flowers. It is the reason that when a bright rainbow appears after a cloudburst, young and old stop what they are doing and gaze at it. If Jesus said that flowers are beautiful, even glorious, then beauty is not entirely in the eye of the beholder, it is in the eye of God, and He made things beautiful.

So beauty is always a part of culture. But the idea of beauty does not neccessarily come out of culture, it is merely recognized by culture. Beauty comes from the mind of God. An excellent new book on the subject is Nancy Pearcy's Saving Leonardo. I am kind of surprised it has not been mentioned in all this discussion.

Thus when the man of God prepares a sermon, he should strive his very best to make it orderly, easily understood, and offensive only because of the Cross of Christ. On the other hand, if he preaches a haystack sermon, as many very good preachers have preached through the years, God may not say, "That was beautiful," but He may still say, "I am well pleased." Then we are talking about two different things. It isn't just the beautiful and well-ordered who know how to love and to communicate God's love.

Jeff Brown

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Thanks, Jeff. This is why--I'm pretty sure--Kevin says all cultures are expressions of religion. If your religion is your set of answers to the the ultimate questions, then your beliefs about beauty are part of your religion.

This confused me a bit though...

Jeff wrote:
From Kant's concept of "You do not actually observe what is there," plus Darwin's concept of life beginning in a warm pond somewhere (no orderly creator), philosophers, artists, and later musicians and film makers came to the conclusion that "beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder"

I'm thinking we need another distinction here. One of the things Kevin has been talking about in the past--against the Common Sense Realism in particular--was the idea that what sense is what's actually there. That is, if I understood him right, his view was that both the Christian and Platonic view of reality is that our senses only interact with what he called "immanent reality," and not with "real reality."

(He pretty much convinced me, though I think the distinction doesn't matter much most of the time when you're going about living your life every day. It does matter when you're forming the values that shape your choices as your going about living your life every day.)

Anyway, Kant wasn't taking Plato's view. So we're talking about something else there. My guess--and that's all it is--is that Plato says that though what we see isn't ultimate reality, that reality exists and is independent of what we believe about it or how we feel about it. But Kant says there is no "idea" of beauty--no ultimate reality constitues "beauty"--what can even approximately perceive.

In other words...
Plato: the ultimate reality of beauty exists. We do not perceive it directly, but it's there.
Kant: no ultimate standard/reality of beauty exists to perceive?

Need a little help here from someone who is read in both Plato (and Christian versions of that general POV) and Kant who can contrast them in non-scholar language.

Jeff Brown's picture

Aaron, I have Read lots of Plato (skipped his Symposium for reasons obvious). I am working through Critique of Pure Reason, which even some scholars will tell you not to attempt. You forgot Aristotle. He is a big factor in the whole reality question.

Sorry for the scholarly language. I will try to make it simple. And I am sure there are people more schooled at this than I am.

You have correctly described Plato's view. He believed in ultimate reality, but its pure form was not accessible to humans on earth. We see the representation of the form. Because there is only one true form of anything.

Aristotle basically said this is nonsense, and disproved Plato's concept, step for step. It is really involved (found in his Metaphysics), but he showed Plato's "one form" to be nothing more than an assumption, based on the numeral 1.

Modern science, beginning in the 17th century, is based on the idea that effects can be traced to their sources, which are actual entities in nature (unless they have no means of observation). This way of thinking is based originally on the narrative of Genesis one - plain and simple. Because God created, events can be traced back to their causes. Sometimes natural science functions more along the lines of Aristotle (for instance in Biology), other times it functions more along the lines of Plato (Astronomy, which tends to think in terms of the perfect arrangement).

Common Sense Realism was a response to the scepticism of Locke and Hume. It stated that there are certain principles which are unassailable. These form the basis of our thinking: 1) we really exist; 2) real objects can be seen and felt; 3) all of life and morality functions on the basis of given, definite principles existing in the world. (As far as I know, it did not put the Bible into the equation - but I am not authority on or even student of Common Sense Realism)

Immanuel Kant said: We do not perceive reality. We perceive reality on the basis of categories in our minds. To some extent, you see what you are expecting to see. Or you do not see beyond what you perceive can exist. He knocked away all the props of Common Sense Realism. To get there however, he had to assert that space and time are not in nature themselves, but only in our minds. This is, as I said last time, where he has to start, with a direct contradiction of Genesis 1.

When it comes to scientific fact, the intellectual world functions with a very firm belief in cause and effect. You and I live according to cause and effect. We stop living according to cause and effect when we decide to sin, hoping there will be no consequences. But cause and effect keep happening regardless of our hopes. When the intellectual world talks about ultimate causes, ethics, and so forth, it bases its concepts on Kant's disproof of common sense certainties.

If we begin with Genesis 1:1, Kant has missed the boat right at the start. If we read all of Genesis 1 and 2, Plato (who had no access to the account, as far as we know) was way off. Genesis has no notion of the "ideal one fish", etc. located in heavenly realms. Every animal and plant reproduces "after its kind". The multiples of any created plant or animal ARE THE REAL THING. Angels were created in large numbers. They specifically do not reproduce. There is no "ideal one angel." This was in Plato's mind, but nothing in the Bible gives us a hint that it was in God's mind.

If we read what the Scripture says about perception, it sounds very similar to Common Sense Realism: hands down. E.g. John 20:27 "Then He said to Thomas, Reach your finger here, and look at My hands; and reach your hand here, and put it into My side. Do not be unbelieving, but believing."

We do not preach that Thomas did not actually see Jesus' hands, but only his perception of Jesus' hands (Kant). We do not preach that Thomas did not see the true hands of Jesus, but only those observable on earth in time and space, because there is only one true pair of hands in the universe (Plato).

When John says (1 John 1:1) "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life -- ", do we preach "John saw what he perceived was Jesus Christ, but really he did not see him. John touched what he perceived was Jesus' skin, but that is not really what Jesus' skin was like" ?

Kant's view is a good intellectual exercise, but I do not believe it describes truth at all. We may not at times comprehend what our minds refuse to acknowledge (e.g. we are in shock); we may only see parts of objects; sin darkens our perception, but that does not mean we never genuinely perceive reality. Whether one ascribes to Common Sense Philosophy or not, we live according to a very firm belief that our perceptions are very real. You may doubt that. But for the sake of the Gospel, and all our sanities, please don't preach your doubts.

Jeff Brown

Aaron Blumer's picture

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Jeff, your analysis overlaps with several I've read but differs from any I've ever read on several points. Not prepared to put my finger on all of them at this point.
I think you might be too hard on Plato. Before God made a fish, He had to invent "fish." So there is a concept of fishness that is in the mind of God and, therefore, more "real" than anything that is contingent on God.

I'm a rank amateur with this stuff, though... and I think maybe we've wandered from the topic.

As Christians we must believe that the true standard of beauty is defined in God and exists independently of us. I think that's sort of where we were a while back.

As for Kant, if he says what we see is not really there, I would disagree if "there" refers a place in space. But if he says what we see is not ultimately what is real, I'd have to agree with him I think to that extent.

Jeff Brown's picture

You have it pretty much right, Aaron. Kant would say it is really there. But he would also say that what we perceive is not the way things really are: across the board.

Regarding Plato, if God had a bird in mind before creating it, how does this in any way keep His created bird from being ultimate reality? God created many kinds of birds. Obviously, if the Bible is right, God did not have (as Plato would have it) the one true concept of "bird" in His mind. Is God's mind reality, but creation not reality? Do you find this anywhere in the Bible? Are you reality, or is only God's thought about you reality? If you think me too critical of Plato, do not also think me as original. I am way back in the pack of critics.

If Kant is right, beauty does not begin in the mind of God. It begins only with our perception. That was his point. You cannot have this both ways. But if we have the ability to impose our preconceptions on objects we sense, where did those preconceptions come from? Were they mistakes, or did God create us with pre-programmed information (like a DOS system in a computer). I don't think that Kant ever dealt with that. Nowadays hardly a man would dispute the DOS-like system in our minds.

OK, you go your way. I'll go mine. But please, for the love of the Gospel, never preach that the resurrection body of Jesus Christ seen by the 500 on one day was not ultimately what was real. Likewise, for the love of your marriage, never tell your wife that she looks nice, but you can't see the ultimate reality. You would deservedly get a frying pan on the head. Wink

Jeff Brown

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