Aesthetics and a Christian Worldview by Jeffery Smith

Francis Schaeffer in his work entitled, Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology pointed out that, “Near the end of his life, Charles Darwin”, the man who was so influential in developing the theory of evolution, “acknowledged several times in his writings that two things had become dull to him as he got older.” One was his joy in the arts and the other was his joy in nature. Schaeffer comments on the irony of this famous naturalist losing his enthusiasm for the very thing that he had made his life’s calling. He wrote, “Darwin offered his proposition that nature, including man, is based only on the impersonal plus time plus chance, and he had to acknowledge at the end of his life that it had had these adverse effects on him.” Then Schaeffer argues that what we’ve seen, and I would add continue to see, in the Western world is this same loss of joy in our total culture. We have lost the sense of sacred joy in creation because, after all, nature is nothing more than the product of impersonal chance.1 That’s what young people are being taught in our schools. Is it any wonder then that we are marked in our society by a joyless depressed generation of young people?2

One of the most striking things about the world that God has made is its order and beauty. There is an orderliness to the creation, a symmetry to it. This is evident in the creation account in Genesis 1. We have God creating beauty and structure and order out of chaos, dividing light from darkness, sea from sky, land from sea; then covering the earth with vegetation and filling the skies with heavenly bodies. Then he fills the seas and then the earth with living creatures. And it all culminates in the creation of man. The text most definitely focuses our attention upon this matter of the orderly structured nature of God’s creating work. This is telling us something about God himself. Remember, the creation itself declares his glory (Ps.191-6), Rom, 1:19-20). It is intended to reveal something about God to us and one of the things the scriptures emphasize is that our God is a God of order.
The message of the Bible is that this world we live in is not a product of meaningless chance, and chaotic randomness. No, we are told that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void: and darkness was upon the face of the deep but God spoke into the darkness and said, “Let there be light: and there was light.” He created a world of order in which every plant and every creature fits into its own peculiar place and role. He did not create a mass of unrelated chaotic matter but a world that operates according to the fixed and orderly laws of nature that He has established and upholds by His active providence. Everything in God’s world reflects this reality that God is a God of order, plan, and purpose.3

The scriptures also reveal God to us as the God of providence who is working all things after the counsel of His own will. Everything in history and time is moving to God’s appointed end. There is meaning to it all! Nothing is haphazard. It’s not all a bunch of meaningless confusion. God is methodically and deliberately governing all of his creatures and all of their actions.

Furthermore, we who are Christians have heard and believed the good news of the gospel. The gospel has shined into our hearts in saving power, just as God caused the light to shine out of darkness in the first creation. We have been made new creations in Christ Jesus and we have come to know the almighty God as our Heavenly Father. So the Christian has come to understand life as having positive meaning and purpose. He understands that the ups and downs of life are not the reflection of a world of chaos or the result of the whims of unknown gods, playing cat and mouse with human pawns. He understands that the ups and downs are rather the result of the wise guidance of an almighty Father in heaven who loves His people for whom He sent His Son to die; a God who is working all things together for their good. For the Christian life makes sense. There is purpose and concord and order to life and reality.

Now this is important. This is the exact opposite of the worldview that characterizes the postmodernism of our day. One of the characteristics of postmodernism is an aversion to absolute truth claims or metanarratives that purport to explain the meaning of life for all mankind. There’s no real overarching purpose and meaning. There’s nothing we can really be certain about; everything is subjective. One of the places this philosophy of life is reflected is in postmodern art and architecture. The postmodern artist seeks to reflect this worldview. For example, one characteristic is the effort to collapse the difference between what is artistic and what is not. You’ll find ordinary objects, such as coke bottles, sleds or toilets displayed as if they were art. A postmodern artist may make meticulously realistic paintings of such things. Apparently, as I’ve read, one artist displays his bowel movements. Rather than making art that is beautiful and pleasing, some post-modern artists experiment with art that is purposefully ugly and infuriating. This is done deliberately; there’s a message. The message is, “What does it matter? Who cares? What is beautiful anyhow? What is art anyhow? It’s whatever you want it to be. There’s no real objective standard or meaning to anything.” By contrast the Christian worldview is that everything is not meaningless chaos and relativity. Under God there is purpose and order and beauty to life and reality, though marred by sin.

Now the Christian worldview should be reflected by God’s people. For example, Christians ought to be concerned about aesthetics. What is aesthetics? Aesthetics is the way something looks or the way something sounds. So it’s a word that is also used to refer to the study of beauty and order and proportion. Christians are not intended to be indifferent to the matter of aesthetics. Drab and colorless is not somehow more holy. Indifference to structure and beauty is not somehow a mark of being more heavenly minded. Aesthetics matters because we have been called to reflect the glory of the God who has saved us; the God who created this orderly, structured and beautiful world. It matters in worship (1 Cor.14:40), in our music, in our place of meeting. It matters in our dress (1 Tim.2:9), in the care of our homes, in all of life. The beauty and order that God has built into creation is something to be enjoyed, celebrated and appreciated and to be reflected in God’s people.

Let me conclude these thoughts by referring to a story told by Francis Schaeffer about an occasion when he visited of a Christian school in the 1960s. Just across a ravine from the school was what they called a hippie community. Schaeffer was curious to find out about these people and perhaps to have opportunity to share his faith with them. So he crossed the ravine to learn more about it. He discovered that the community was pagan and conducted pagan earth rituals. But he was also struck with how beautiful the community was and how carefully they kept it up. The leader of the pagan community at one point looked across at the Christian school and said to him, “Look at that; isn’t that ugly?” “And it was ugly”, Schaeffer says,

“I could not deny it. It was an ugly building without any trees. It was then that I realized what a poor situation this was. When I looked at the Bohemian people’s place it was beautiful. They had even gone to the trouble of running their electric cables under the level of the trees so they couldn’t be seen. Then I stood on pagan ground and looked at the Christian community and saw ugliness.” 4

Schaeffer’s point was that it ought not to be that way. Here you have a Christianity that is failing to take into account man’s responsibility to reflect the glory of God in this area of aesthetics.

1 Francis Schaeffer , “Pollution and the Death of Man,” 1970, The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaefer: A Christian Worldview Vol. 5, (Westchester Illinois: Crossway Books 1982), 4.
2 My attention was originally drawn to this work of Schaeffer , its relevance to the subject of this article and his comments mentioned here and later in the blog through a printed sermon by Geoff Thomas on Genesis 1:16-31. It may be accessed at on the internet at: http://www.alfredplacechurch.org.uk/?page_id=935.
3 Some of these thoughts and those of the two following paragraphs were first suggested to me while listening to a tape of a sermon by Lloyd-Jones on the subject of singing or songs in worship from an exposition of Eph. 5:18-19.
4 Ibid. 23-24.

One comment on “Aesthetics and a Christian Worldview by Jeffery Smith

  1. […] Aesthetics and a Christian Worldview by Jeffery Smith. […]

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