Aesthetics is a topic we rarely discuss in the Christian community, let alone the concept of “aesthetic faithfulness”. Yet, a proper understanding of aesthetics informs our navigation of the world as people of faith.
The essential question of aesthetics is, why does this—whatever “this” is—please me? Why is this painting beautiful? Or, why do we enjoy a sunset on the beach? Traditionally, this is measured by the truth, beauty and goodness of the “thing” in question. Additionally, as people of faith we want to know the things of life we enjoy and create are also good and pleasing to God. Can we be “aesthetically faithful”?
Indeed, we are aesthetically faithful when we engage in habitual practices that connect us with the truth, beauty and goodness of the natural and cultural world around us. Or, as Calvin Seerveld writes in his book Rainbows for the Fallen World, “God wants playful, imaginative and comic incidents to take place in his world.” And God wants us to enjoy these things.
The Cake is a Lie
One may wonder if this gives us a hedonistic imperative to engage in only those activities maximizing our pleasure. Far from it! Aesthetics is not simply a pursuit of pleasure for pleasures sake; aesthetic faithfulness is not a slavish devotion to dopamine. It is the work of aligning our life in pursuit of the true, the good and the beautiful. A life spent chasing material or physical pleasures as an end unto themselves is not a life of aesthetic faithfulness, but rather a life of idolatry.
But neither is it a life of austerity or pious asceticism. The aesthetically faithful life teaches us to celebrate the Godly truth, beauty and goodness present in creation and culture. The aesthetically faithful life rejects holding the physical world as evil, and recognizes instead the restorative, life affirming essence of God found in nearly all creation and culture. Thus, it also rejects the notion that some Christian sub-genre of culture has a monopoly on truth, beauty and goodness.
So rejecting amoral hedonism on one end, and drab austerity on the other, how do we find the proper path to the aesthetically faithful life? Here Seerveld acknowledges the difficulty of this endeavor, “…there are no general, simple or standard recipes which guarantee aesthetic obedience, because an obedient aesthetic life is not a cake.” We must undertake this task both individually and communally to have some idea if we are headed in the right direction.
Posture of Worship
For me, living the aesthetically faithful life means ultimately having a posture of worship. As we breathe in the truth, beauty and goodness God has placed in the world, we breathe out the creational and culturely work of building the Kingdom. Aesthetic faithfulness is found in activities like learning to bake bread, helping a neighbor in their garden, or sharing new music with a friend. There are myriad ways we can celebrate the pleasing and enjoyable parts of life when we strive for the aesthetically faithful life. Indeed, the aesthetically faithful life is itself true, beautiful and good.