We can’t restore truth and goodness without restoring beauty
Our comfort with ugliness is a huge impediment to our labor in advancing Christian facts and morality. How can we reform Western civilization unless we be just in rendering to things their due esteem?
In The Abolition of Man, Lewis quotes 17th century poet Thomas Traherne: “Can you then be Righteous, unless you be just in rendering to Things their due esteem?”
The answer is obviously no. But this has the deepest ramifications.
In all the discussions I’m privy to about what you might call “the state of the world,” I almost never see anyone mention aesthetics. The discussion invariably revolves around our obligations to the truth, and our duties to do what is right. These—epistemology and ethics—are presupposed as the foundation for converging on good living and good culture.
With rare exceptions, our obligation to aesthetics is strangely absent from the calculus.
This despite the historic Christian insistence that God is the ground of the true, the good, and the beautiful—and that these are all ultimately one in him.
Aesthetic appeal is extremely powerful, being even more pre-reflective than moral intuition, in that it is experienced via the senses directly. Righteous indignation, moral satisfaction, good will—these may certainly be experienced in the body. But visual beauty, musical excellence, even social harmony—these are experienced by the body. As such, it is extremely difficult to persuade someone that you represent truth and righteousness if your aesthetic expression says otherwise. Indeed, it is innately contradictory to try to walk in truth and righteousness when your aesthetic expression is embodying their negation in ugliness and banality. You cannot draw yourself, or others, up to wisdom and goodness, if your aesthetic affect is simultaneously dragging you down into a physical expression of their negation.
Consider the church below. (I do not pick on it because of some special animus toward Elim Church Tauranga; it is simply the first image I found which illustrates the point well.) This building is visually repulsive. It is unseemly and unsightly. At best, it is plain and has nothing to commend it.
Yet we are supposed to believe that the religion—the Spirit—which shaped the people who shaped this building, is attractive, fitting, beautiful, sublime, and infinitely commendable.
Consider also the kind of service you could expect at such a church. The music will be an imitation of the world’s music, which is written largely by algorithm to appeal to our most base and unrefined musical instincts—in a word, fleshly. The dress code will be akin to Walmart’s—not merely permitting, but even encouraging cheap, ugly, immodest clothing chosen purely for their effect on the wearers’ feelings about themselves (of course, we have always dressed for comfort, but in times past we dressed for the comfort of others). The rest of the aesthetic, from the lighting to the preaching to the Lord’s Supper—if there even is one—will follow the same pattern.
But is this rendering to Christ, and to his gospel, their due esteem?
And if not, how can such a service be righteous?
This church does not, and cannot, draw you upward toward heaven. It can only draw you down into your own flesh—for that is what it is designed to do. “Come as you are,” “No judgment,” “Felt needs,” “We don’t want to make people uncomfortable.” But this is diametrically opposed to the gospel we are supposed to preach; the Person we are supposed to serve; the Truth and the Life we are supposed to embody—if indeed we are the body of Christ.
“For how great is his goodness, and how great is his beauty!” (Zech 9:17)
Of course, the problem is hardly confined to the church proper. But it does originate there. Culture is downstream from religion. The abandonment of aesthetics by the modern Western church is both a result of unrighteousness, and a cause of manifold new wickedness—simultaneously more extreme, and more banal. You cannot believe that beauty does not matter without also accepting that the material forms of the physical world itself don’t matter. Once you accept that, sexual perversions like women in combat, or transgenderism, must needs follow. Such abominations are the inevitable fruit of the gnostic seed: that how things look have nothing to do with what they mean. The same seed will also produce a multitude of other rotten effects which are now ubiquitous in our society—everything from sweat shops, to Disney’s barren content mill, to AI “art,” to cities designed for cars to drive in rather than people to live in.
It is right and good to put our efforts into defending and articulating the facts and morality of Christianity. It is right and good to try to convince people of the truth, and to try to persuade them to behave righteously. But until we pair these with an equal exertion toward a doctrine of beauty—until we start seeking how to intentionally embody truth and goodness in our art, design, architecture, clothing, food, city planning, writing, websites, cars, music, and especially churches—we will never see the reform we desire.