An Aesthetic Apologetic?

Goodness, Truth, and Beauty as transcendental goals worthy of all human pursuit has plagued many a philosophical mind through the ages. Truth is something in which knowledge delights, the good is something whose possession satisfies us: beauty is that which the perception pleases us,” (Italics original).[1] The idea of reason or truth defending the veracity of the Christian truth claims is not new. Nor terribly new is the idea that our faithful behavior may commend the faith to the unbeliever. But what about beauty?

Can beauty, be it in the form of music or art, any sort of excellence which moves the spirit of man, be an effective – even primary – polemical vehicle for the church?

Cardinal Ratzinger provoked the question in 1985:

The only really effective apologia for Christianity comes down to two arguments, namely, the saints the Church has produced and the art which has grown in her womb. Better witness is borne to the Lord by the splendor of holiness and art which have arisen in the community of believers than by the clever excuses which apologetics has come up with to justify the dark sides, which, sadly, are so frequent in the Church’s human history. If the Church is to continue to transform and humanize the world, how can she dispense with beauty in her liturgies, that beauty which is so closely linked with love and with the radiance of the Resurrection? No, Christians must not be too easily satisfied. They must make their Church into a place in which beauty — and truth — is at home. Without this the world will become the first circle of hell. . . . A theologian who does not love art, poetry, music and nature can be dangerous. Blindness and deafness toward the beautiful are not incidental: they necessarily are reflected in his theology.[2]

Now, there are two kinds of statements, either that of poetry or prose, the rhetorical/imagistic or philsophical/scientific, the figurative and the literal. This is necessary for anthropology shows us that man has a head and a heart, intellect and feeling, and knowledge is, paradoxically, communicated via both means. Further, we see that many truths are better expressed poetically, while yet others scientifically. 

The scientists may tell us all about a flower – from a scientific perspective – but he cannot communicate the meaning of the flower the way a young man can, when he gives it to the charming girl. The poet can express what the scientist often misses, and the flower does, indeed, posses, a meaning that other objects do not. If this were not so, then the young man could give a stick to his lady with no difference; she would be just as grateful. 

What is not abundantly clear is which category Cardinal Ratzinger intends. If he means it rhetorically, then it would seem he means to be hyperbolic. And if so, it should be easy enough to agree.

But if his writing is prose, literal, and, in fact, a philosophically precise (or precise-ish) position, then that is a different matter. Let’s assume this is the case.

Some Difficulties

It would seem that Cardinal Ratzinger overlooks the fact that many have been persuaded by apologetics and argumentation – examples abound. Besides, is beauty a thing that speaks directly to reason, or emotion? How do these relate? That is, if beauty speaks to emotion and not reason, (or not reason directly), then is it not a misnomer, at best, to speak of beauty as an apologetic?

To be sure, we find reasons being directly given in Scripture. Paul’s Aeropagus address being the prime example. And miracles are clearly understood in Scripture to be the validation of veracity.

The Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck never directly addressed the question of beauty’s relationship to evangelism and apologetics. However, he wrote an insightful essay that gives us a clue to how he would address this.

“If truth, goodness, and beauty (glory) are originally ascribed to God,” Bavinck reasons, “then they of course…cannot be opposed to each other in their inner nature.”[3] The corollary would be thus; not beauty alone should be presented to the unbeliever but goodness and truth. Truth as expressed in form of reason, clothed in splendor, buttressed by harmony, accompanied by song, and arrayed with all the majesty that is appropriate for the noble task.

“Beauty always derives its content,” Bavinck further opines, “from the true and the good, and it is their revelation and appearance.”[4] In short, Bavinck would seem to hold the position that properly and strictly speaking, there is no such thing as a beautiful lie or an ugly truth. This is not an immediately intuitive position, but if correct, it would have at least one corollary: namely, that beauty alone cannot be a defense of the faith, but true statements and good actions.[5]

To conclude, Jeremy Begbie captures perhaps the greatest reason apologetics could never be reduced solely and merely to beauty and emotions with a simple point:

[C]laims of religious experience through music are notoriously hard to evaluate and build upon unless one is prepared to identify at least something of the content of the “religion” in question. The category of “religion” or “religious,”….is a massively contested one, as is the belief that there is some kind of locatable core or essence of “religious experience.” Unless we are willing to clarify what we might mean by asserting that, for example, music puts us in touch with God (for the Christian, as for any theistic faith, this would mean with a quite specific God, we will be powerless in the face of the skeptic, who will see such claims as no more than hyperbole for a fervent emotional experience or as a way of masking our desire to have some kind of ultimate authority to back up our musical tastes! In short, a laudable attempt to connect with musical experience in the culture at large can easily trade away the distinctives of Christian faith, leaving the church more irrelevant than ever.[6]

Citations & References 1. Herman Bavinck, Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, (Baker Book House, 2013), p. 270.
2. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, The Ratzinger Report: An Exclusive Interview on the State of the Church, edited by Vittorio Messori (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1985).
3. Bavinck, Essays on Religion, Science, and Society, p. 255.
4. Ibid., p. 256.
5. I admit that this is unsatisfactory, in that Bavinck would say that beauty is revealed in the true statement and the good action, but it does not directly address the question of the truth and goodness in, say, music or paintings. But at the risk of redundancy, a painting is not really an argument, except by way of metaphor.
6. Jeremy Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, (SPCK: 2008), Kindle loc. 217.

Robert J. McPherson II

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Robert J. McPherson II is a graduate of RC Sproul’s Reformation Bible College with an honors degree in theology. He has an MA in Philosophy from the University of Buckingham; conducting research under the guidance of Sir Roger Scruton. His thesis is on personal responsibility and social justice.

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