The distance between good and bad [art] is not perhaps so large as is the distance between good and great.” The words are those of Kenneth Hayes Miller, one of the foremost of recent teachers of painting, whose pupils at the Art Students League in New York include such painters as Reginald Marsh, Isabel Bishop, and Edward Hopper.

A vast number of artistic works may be called good because they are loving gestures toward the divine. But there are also works of art that are sadly superficial and others that are altogether perverse. Superficial appeal to the eye can be fascinating to both artistic innovators and their extensive audiences, and works containing nothing more than such an appeal may be harmless. Quite different, however, are works so full of aesthetic disorders that a parallel can be drawn between their effects upon the aesthetic sensibilities and the effect of narcotics. Addiction to this kind of art seems to atrophy the capacity to enjoy orderly and beautiful works.

Christian artists and Christian users of art are responsible for what they permit to dwell within their aesthetic sensibility. The Holy Spirit insistently teaches us to be discerning. But discernment affronts the casualness of an age without standards that confuses novelty, faddism, and popularity with aesthetic worth. The strenuous requirement of discernment cannot bow to mere popularity.

For the Christian artist to fulfill his high calling in Christ calls for discipline, discernment, and order. This requires that aesthetics be subjected to the mind of Christ, who is himself the truth; such subjection both ennobles man and glorifies God, for as John’s Gospel says, the truth will make us free.

Out of this context, then, we turn to the high mysteries, both religious and aesthetic, that have to do with the center of beauty and being. Here we enter a realm of paradox where lofty demands are made on mind, heart, and spirit.

In God’s insistently loving pursuit of sinful man, his terrible yet lovely game of holy hide-and-seek, there is a stumbling block for those who will not lose their lives in order to find them. As the Father pursues his children, he veils his face first behind the curtain of the tabernacle and then behind the curtain that is Christ’s flesh. Yet we must remember that the children of disobedience choose to make up their own games, and that their works, though seemingly sheep-like, can be like ravening wolves in their effect upon both the religious and aesthetic perceptions.

Christians are free. Therefore, according to Paul, all things are lawful for them, although all things are not therefore convenient. Likewise, all art forms are lawful, but not all art forms are convenient.

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Admittedly God bestows talent upon both the just and the unjust. Yet the important thing is not so much the talent but how it is used. Unquestionably a talent used in unity with Christ, and thus in unity with the Father, is more fittingly employed than one used only for self-expression leading to the worship of the creature. For, as Paul says in the first chapter of Romans, the worship of the creature brings darkness to man’s mind and his abandonment to disorder. The result is man’s pathological preoccupation with himself, ending in meaninglessness and despair. The bizarre chaos of some modern art is neurotic evidence of this.

When an artist in this condition turns to religious subjects, he projects his own neurosis. For he does not understand that Christ came into the world to suffer and die. Nor does he know that Christ had power to lay down his life and take it up again, and that no power could be exercised against him were it not given from above.

But a problem arises when one criticizes these fellow artists. Christ accepts their neurotic aberrations as related to his Atonement, thereby rendering all human judgment suspect. Thus these observations about certain aspects of modern art can be offered only as an exercise of discernment, not as a human indictment of fellow artists. This is why Christian artistic discernment must be exercised within the context of Paul’s “lawfulness” and “convenience,” in the hope that love will cover the multitude of sins of all who participate in artistic creation. For we must always be aware that Christ’s agony was suffered within the cup of love whose form is deeper and more wonderful than our mortal understanding can grasp.

Paradox And Aesthetics

Consider now the analogy between holy paradox and high aesthetics. This helps us understand the similarity between the inner dynamics of human living and the mysterious sensation we call aesthetic experience.

Anyone who has studied the Scriptures must realize that God not only reveals himself to spiritual babes but also withholds himself from the wise and the prudent who hold the truth in unrighteousness. Take for example the discourse in the sixth chapter of John’s Gospel, where Christ describes himself as the bread come down from heaven. Here we are confronted with paradox, for in this discourse Christ on the one hand makes the insistent demand that we eat his flesh and drink his blood and on the other hand turns around and says that “the flesh profiteth nothing” and that the words he speaks are “spirit and they are life.” No wonder “many of his disciples … walked no more with him.”

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The highest paradoxes, which are related to all other paradoxes, are contained in such words as these: “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also, he cannot be my disciple.” In its aesthetic application this saying means that the artist who is committed to express the highest aesthetic experience must hate the parts of a picture for the sake of its unity. Unity is the highest principle of art, just as love is the highest principle in Christian life. The great virtues, if they fail to produce love, profit nothing. Likewise, if the skill of the artist fails to produce unity, it profits him nothing, aesthetically.

There are countless affinities between aesthetic and religious perception. For this very reason, the aesthetic faculty when not surrendered to Christ competes with rather than conforms to the redemptive task. This explains why art and idolatry are often found serving each other. And it also explains, in part at least, why those who in former times have condemned aesthetic forms, both artistic and liturgical, are not without some justification, especially when these forms have been used unrighteously to “serve the creature rather than the Creator.” Nevertheless, wrong use of a gift does not invalidate its right use.

What Is Perception?

As we go on to look more closely at the mystery of aesthetics, we need to clarify the meaning of perception, because perception is crucial to aesthetic experience. We often say of a mysterious event that it apparently happened “without rhyme or reason.” The familiar phrase points to understanding of the mystery of aesthetic perception by suggesting a clue to the two great ways reality comes to have meaning for us.

Following this clue, we may think of “rhyme” as symbolizing that reality resulting from the recurrent events whereby the physical universe and all the complexities of organic life are actively held together in time. Rhythmic patterns created by the times and the seasons, by our heartbeat, breathing, and the other silent processes of life take meaning from their regular occurrence in dependable cycles.

But there are other realities. After God created, he brooded and set up interdependent relationships that require cognitive participation on the part of his creatures. These relationships are essentially connected to meaning. And since meaning is inherent in creation from beginning to end, we are bound to reflect on the past, to relate meaningfully to the present, and to look forward to the ends of life. Thus this cognitive participation in creation is the reason-reality suggested by the words “rhyme or reason.”

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Now as we follow this clue, we see that in great art the rhyme-reality, symbolizing the pulsating activity of life, shares the same pattern with the reason-reality, whose elements are composed of the descriptive, philosophical, and spiritual aspects of life. Just as emotional meanings arise from action and thought, so overtones arise from the abstract pattern underlying the outward reality and the story elements in great art. Properly speaking, basic motor activity undergirding and supporting cognition is unconscious. It operates at the level of unconscious habit, freeing the cognitive process.

Now, to elevate the abstract in art to the place where it must be dealt with by the cognitive faculties is to frustrate both the rhyme-reality and the reason-reality. Abstract relationships in painting should be so skillfully and unobtrusively developed as not to call into conscious attention forces other than those out of which uninterrupted reason-reality would flow.

In certain physical or nervous states, we may be suddenly and unhealthily aware, for example, of a fast pulse, or shortness of breath, or other motor disturbances. Likewise, it may be that distortions and conscious abstractions in art could serve a purpose in metaphorizing neurosis. But in religious works of art we must never confuse Christ’s high paradoxical struggles between his flesh and his spirit in the Garden of Gethsemane with neurosis; to do so would show failure to grasp the awesome meaning of his becoming the sin of the whole world and bearing it outside the gate—an event of such dimensions as to stagger the mind.

Let us look again at some paradoxes. Christ says that a man must be born again of water and of the Spirit, if he is to enter the kingdom of heaven. Paul gives us the allegory of the bondmaid and the free woman, Hagar and Sarah, using these two women as prototypes of the two covenants, one given from “Mt. Sinai in Arabia” and the other, relating to the New Israel, given to Abraham by promise. And the essence of the allegory is found within Paul himself, in the conflict he describes of flesh lusting against spirit and spirit against flesh (Rom. 7:15–25).

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Here birth in the flesh, which inherits corruption through Adam’s fall, is egocentric and has as its dynamic product lust. But the second birth through the Spirit operates redemptively by the obedience of the second Adam, Christ, who has broken the bondage of the Fall by his perfect obedience, even unto the death of the cross.

When a man is baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection, he is made a new creature with a new dynamic, the indwelling Holy Spirit. This dynamic encounters the law in our members, and the tension creates an internal warfare. It is this warfare that Paul felt when he exclaimed, “Who can deliver me from this body of death?” What saves from “this body of death” is God’s love (agape) in Jesus Christ, which transcends this conflict while at the same time paradoxically fulfilling it. This agape is released in a covenant. Christ says, “This is the new covenant in my blood.” A covenant requires discipline, but in this case a peculiar kind of discipline, a discipline that cannot offend for the sake of love. Christ says, “If you love me, keep my commandments.”

The Higher Gift Of Unity

Turn now to the field of art. On another level, great art forms also have a power, analogous to love, that can deliver them from their own kinds of artistic death. This power is called unity. Unity transcends and fulfills its “rhyme and reason” covenant in a manner similar to the way in which agape fulfills spiritual gifts. Unity, as it transcends the tension between the abstract and the illustrative elements in painting, bestows a higher gift. And when this higher gift becomes operative, the beautiful sensation we call aesthetic occurs.

But we need to look further into the analogy between religion and aesthetics. When religious thinkers fail to take into account transcendent agape, they usually resolve their problems in one of two ways. They either abandon the hope of casting out Hagar and Ishmael and create instead liberal theologies that console the libertine, or else they go around the mountain of paradox and manifest a kind of flint-faced piety. This piety is embarrassed by much in the life of Christ, as when he eats and drinks with sinners or shows his gentle and forgiving concern for women who love much because they have been forgiven much. While God hears the cry of Ishmael and takes pity, many religionists ignore that cry and console themselves with righteous feelings coming out of their legalism. For them it is safe and egotistically fulfilling to come down on either the rationalistic or legalistic side of the paradox. On the other hand, to remain within the tensions of God’s holy paradox requires a giving of one’s life over to the Spirit. This offends our feelings of self-sufficiency, and we recoil from so humiliating a necessity.

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What is true in the descent to one or the other side of holy paradox is also true in aesthetics. The artist, unable to bear the tensions required for unity, may be content to practice an art that is abstract or libertine in form. Or he may skirt the mountain of aesthetic paradox by doing no more than meticulously illustrating nature. But it is only out of this tension between rhyme and reason in the bond of unity that the aesthetic child is born. In this bond of unity, rhyme and reason become as it were one flesh. And from this come the sensations of aesthetics. Aesthetic sensation, then, is not so much the perception of beauty as it is the beauty of this unity of tension-mingled perception.

Unity is to aesthetics what agape is to the Christian life. And unity, when exercised in the service of religious works of art, is an aesthetic metaphor for the Holy Spirit. Aesthetically it brings man a feeling of reconciliation and peace such as the world cannot give. In a significant religious picture this is what is at work. And it is this spiritual process that is important rather than whether the picture is specifically religious in subject matter.

There are two ways to arrive at this essential aesthetic unity. One is to use an art form of three dimensions on two, with the picture plane acting as the unifying agent. The work of Raphael and Michelangelo best exemplifies this, which may be called the on-plane formula.

The second, which may be called the in-plane formula, places a tonal veil over the modeling which gives the effect of gathering up three dimensions in a way best exemplified by Rembrandt. This tonal veil is excellent for introspective works, because the forms seem to emerge half-hidden from a rich, mysterious matrix. Moreover, it also seems to convey the deepest unity. How marvelous for a veil to reveal aesthetically a religious presence! Just as the temple veil pointed to the Presence in the holy of holies, so Christ opened the way to the Presence of God through “the veil, that is to say, his flesh,” when he died on Calvary (Heb. 10:20).

It is in this sense that the Christian artist, along with all his fellow believers, cannot but stand amazed at the way in which God can hide and yet reveal himself in his creation.

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