Conflict between Christianity and aesthetics is no new thing. Bernard of Clairvaux (1091–1153) asserted that “works of art are idols which turn men away from God”; and long before Bernard, Tertullian (1607–230?) argued that the arts are ministrations of sin and rejected Christian participation in every aspect of contemporary culture. The great nineteenth-century novelist Tolstoy in his mystical years rejected the entire culture that had nourished him, including the sciences and the arts (except for art that was explicitly harmonious with Christian morality, which because of its explicitness often turns out to be homily or tract rather than art). And in 1960 Professor Charles I. Glicksburg of Brooklyn College wrote: “all orthodoxy spells the death of the creative imagination” (Literature and Religion: A Study in Conflict).

But I wish to dissent. I believe that there is no conflict between Christianity and aesthetic pursuits—and in fact, that there is a strong correlation between Christian values and the values inherent in an aesthetic object and in aesthetic contemplation.

In an essay “On Style” (in Against Interpretation, Dell, 1961), Susan Sontag says that ethical attitudes are fostered or nourished by aesthetic experience. Morality she defines as a form of consciousness that is aimed at decisive action, whereas aesthetic experience is the nourishment of consciousness, the enlivening of human sensibility. Only rarely can a man make a moral choice that rises higher than his vision of reality, his sensibility; and it is partly through aesthetic experience that he sharpens and deepens that sensibility. Therefore aesthetic experience is actually the nourishment of the human capacity for moral choice.

Let me illustrate. On Thanksgiving, 1968, Truman Capote presented a TV play about Thanksgiving during his childhood. The major conflict was between Buddy, a boy cherished by his elderly aunt, and a poor neighborhood boy whom the aunt insisted should be invited to share Thanksgiving dinner. When Buddy sees his archenemy steal his aunt’s prized brooch, he waits until everyone is seated at dinner to announce the fact of the theft. Both Buddy and the audience are shocked when the aunt refuses to support him; she checks her jewelry box and insists that the brooch is still there, even though both Buddy and his rival know the truth. Naturally, Buddy feels betrayed by the adult world, and the sympathetic viewer feels outraged and baffled. But later the aunt lovingly explains the reason for her lie: Buddy had deliberately and maliciously planned to humiliate his enemy, whereas his enemy had simply been too weak to resist the sudden temptation of the brooch. Lovelessly triumphant retaliation is worse than moral weakness: this was what the aunt wanted Buddy to learn.

And it was also what Truman Capote wanted his TV audience to learn, no doubt in conjunction with his well-known campaign against capital punishment. My point is this: through that play Mr. Capote made his audience more aware of the moral ramifications of certain choices. Whether or not the viewer agreed with the playwright’s conclusions, the experience made him more sensitive in the major areas of self-righteousness, vengeance, love, and human relationships. So vivid was the drama that it remains embedded in the viewer’s consciousness, causing certain attitudes to change or to become stronger, so that his reactions in related situations in the future will be slightly different than what they would have been had he never seen the play. I must emphasize that I am talking, not of accepting an author’s personal solutions, but of being stimulated to greater awareness of the issues involved in a specific type of choice. Quite properly, art is not so concerned with supplying answers as with posing a broad spectrum of questions.

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An authentic appreciation of beauty (that is, an aesthetic experience) has certain characteristics. Sontag’s list includes disinterestedness, contemplativeness, attentiveness, and the awakening of the feelings. Moreover, to have an aesthetic experience, I must be in contact with an aesthetic object—which could be a building, a novel, a string quartet, a painting, a beautifully set dinner table, a champion athlete in motion, the actions of someone whose skill and dedication have turned his work into an art. This aesthetic object will possess the following qualities: grace, intelligence, expressiveness, energy, and sensuousness. All these qualities, both those inherent in the object and those inherent in the appreciative beholder, Sontag calls “fundamental constituents of a moral response to life.”

And any one who knows the Bible can see that these same qualities are praised there, though in different terminology. Disinterestedness, the first requirement for aesthetic experience, means unbiased freedom from unselfish motive; and it was precisely this quality that St. Paul praised in the attitude of Timothy, because he found it so rare: “For all seek their own, not the things which are Jesus Christ’s” (Phil. 2:21). Similarly, in First Corinthians 13 Paul cited disinterestedness as a characteristic of love: love “seeketh not her own.” And the many passages concerned with conquering the flesh refer to the conquering of the inveterate human tendency toward self-interest, self-centeredness. To receive the full impact of an aesthetic object, I must be disinterested, directing my attention to the object rather than to myself; thus aesthetic experience will nourish my capacity to rise above self-interest and to become absorbed in that which is not me.

Nowhere is the disinterested reaction more fully evoked than in response to the aesthetic objects of God: mountains, sunsets, waterfalls, forests filled with snow. (Who can forget the shock of worship when, concentrating on a scientific achievement, we heard from the moon the divine poetry, “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth”?) But disinterestedness is a necessary component of every aesthetic experience, whether of human achievements or of the handiwork of God.

The second quality Sontag finds in aesthetic experience is contemplativeness. Christianity recognizes this as the quality that raises man above animality and that therefore must be developed in healthful balance with active living. There is an overt blending of aesthetics with morality in the terminology of a leading New Testament passage on contemplation: “Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things” (Phil. 4:8).

A third quality of aesthetic experience is attentiveness, or heedful observation through the selective narrowing or focusing of consciousness and receptivity. One cannot really experience a symphony if he uses it as background for a game of checkers; he must discipline his mind, focus his consciousness. Love of one’s neighbor calls for a similar ability to listen, to observe, to react to what is out there in the other person, as opposed to defensive or preoccupied uninvolvement. And this too requires discipline. On first hearing Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, the non-musician may hear nothing but noise, and may suspect that the instruments are wandering aimlessly, with no overall pattern; but if through repeated exposure he learns to listen, to focus his mind on the music instead of wool-gathering, he will begin to perceive and enjoy beauty. It is a discipline, but everything worthwhile requires discipline. (There is, for instance, no mental discipline more arduous than meaningful prayer, which is a form of creative thinking about reality.) And this ability to be attentive has been offered to those who want to live abundantly: “For God hath not given us the spirit of fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound [disciplined] mind” (2 Tim. 1:7).

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The final quality Sontag lists as intrinsic to aesthetic experience is the awakening of the feelings. Perhaps it was exactly this that Bernard and Tertullian feared in the arts. Certainly it was what Plato feared. “We shall be right in refusing to admit [the poet] into a well-ordered State,” he says in The Republic, “because he awakens and nourishes and strengthens the feelings [inferior faculties of the soul] and impairs the reason [the soul’s highest faculty].” But despite much confused thinking through the years, the New Testament is not essentially Platonic and denies the validity neither of the emotions nor of the body.

When the King James translators chose the word heart, they were using it in its Old English sense as “the center of vital functions, the seat of affections, desires, thoughts” (Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology). Therefore statements such as “Keep thy heart with all diligence: for out of it are the issues of life” (Prov. 4:23) constitute a recognition of the importance of affections and desires as well as of reason. A man is redeemed by believing in his heart—that is, in an organic fusion of mind and will and emotions, in the center not of some single faculty but of his whole being. Thus the Bible recognizes the importance of emotion and gives it equal status with reason by recognizing in man’s sensibility an organic union called the heart.

In his essay on “The Metaphysical Poets” (1921), T. S. Eliot complained that in the later seventeenth century “a dissociation of sensibility set in from which we have never recovered,” a split between feeling and thinking, so that later poets tended to think and feel “by fits, unbalanced.” This is not the occasion to argue all the literary ins and outs of Eliot’s theory; but on a practical level the dissociation of sensibility is still all too obvious. Some liberal preachers speak as if reason were everything and shudder at emotion, while certain fundamentalist pastors speak as if conversion were purely an emotional matter and lose no opportunity to denigrate reason. In contemporary society, the cult of D. H. Lawrence and LSD and the quest for sheer sensation (all in revolt against mechanization and ultra-rationality) are yet other manifestations. All this extremism could have been avoided had mankind heeded the emphasis of the Bible that out of the heart are the issues of life.

Perhaps someone may object that the emotions have never gone to sleep and therefore do not need to be reawakened. But the fact is that most of life is made up of routine, and routine deadens emotional reactions. The aesthetic object dislocates us, shocks us with its unique reordering of familiar reality, and thus brings us alive. It may also acquaint us with areas where we were so ignorant that we could not possibly have made an appropriate emotional response; for that reason I consider it important for every white Christian to read black authors such as James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.

Then there are the qualities inherent in the aesthetic object itself: grace, intelligence, expressiveness, energy, and sensuousness. All these, properly understood, are Christian virtues as well as aesthetic ones. For most evangelicals, the most troublesome to understand as a Christian virtue might be sensuousness, which in its emphasis on the physical senses might seem to be the enemy of spirituality. But there is nothing antispiritual about a sensitive appreciation of the surface of things, as is demonstrated by God’s concern for the minute aesthetic details of the tabernacle, even down to the precise formula for the incense (Exod. 30:34–38). I agree heartily with Irwin Edman when he says:

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To be sensuously dead is to be on the way to death in toto. A subtilization of sensuous response is a subtilization of the whole temper and fibre of being. Flights of the spirit are perhaps better to be looked for in persons whose senses are stinging and alive than in those who go about dead to the colors of that world in which their spirit lives and has its being [Arts and the Man, Norton, 1939, p. 47].

I hope that by now it is clear why I believe that Christian virtues are reinforced rather than weakened by aesthetic experience. But I am not claiming that any person of extensive aesthetic awareness will necessarily be a Christian, for being a Christian is a matter of heart-belief as well as of perception. As Robert Browning shows in “My Last Duchess,” it is possible to be at once an art connoisseur and a moral monster; and as he shows in “The Bishop Orders His Tomb at St. Praxed,” maniacal selfishness and astute sensitivity to beauty can indeed co-exist. But in cases like this, art is viewed as an opportunity for ego-extension and acquisition rather than a liberating experience of reality (inevitably, God’s reality: there is no other reality).

Even so, the demonic influence in art cannot be denied; there have been morally depraved artists and morally depraved lovers of art. But even the work of Richard Wagner, who has been called “the most self-absorbed egotist of all times,” can be experienced as a revealing of the grandeur and glory of God. For regardless of Wagner’s self-seeking motives, when he composed well he discovered and submitted to the musical principles of God inherent in the universe; and in that submission (that is, in the creative act) he was forced to manifest biblical virtues in order to produce music characterized by grace, intelligence, expressiveness, energy, and sensuousness. Beauty is God’s, regardless of the artist’s conscious motivation.

It is simply not true, of course, that being a Christian will make a technically good artist out of a technically bad one. If two artists were technically equal, it is possible that the genuine conversion of one might provide the impetus and inspiration that would give him an edge over his fellow artist. But if he were converted to a fearful and anti-cultural type of Christianity, the experience might well be the death of his art. Here the blame would not fall on the Word of God but on human warping of it.

Nor is it true that a genuinely aesthetic approach to life would necessitate Christianity, though such an approach would, by my definitions, cultivate certain biblical virtues. This much, I think, can safely be said: because of the mutually reinforcing qualities of Christianity and aesthetics, a Christian who is aesthetically aware will be a richer human being, and therefore a better Christian, than a Christian who is uninterested in beauty and insensitive to it. And conversely, an art-lover who is a Christian will be a richer human being, and therefore a better human being, than the lover of beauty who ignores Christ’s claims upon his life and thus shuts himself off from the power of the Holy Spirit.

According to St. Paul, the marks of the Holy Spirit in a man’s life are these: “love, joy, peace, long-suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance” (Gal. 5:22–23)—in short, the kind of orderliness and beauty that we expect in the form of a good work of art. However tempestuous or ugly the content of an art work may be, as in a war poem by Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, the form brings the content under ordered control and thus into meaningful beauty through the fusing power of the imagination. And the power of the Holy Spirit in a complex human life can similarly bring order out of chaos, beauty out of ashes.

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A Christian who has not developed his sense of beauty by appreciative contact with the arts is an incomplete man. He is missing many opportunities to explore some of the deepest dimensions of humanity—and, after all, it was humanity that Christ died to redeem. Furthermore, both the incarnation and the resurrection, with their union of spirit and flesh, authenticate and validate human experience. A Christian who has not heightened his consciousness of humanity through the arts has cut himself off from one avenue to awareness of what redemption is all about; for the deeper the awareness of the human predicament, the deeper the gratitude for its solution in Christ. And a lover of beauty who has not tasted of redemption is also an incomplete man, unaware as he is of man’s ultimate need.

But the Christian lover of beauty is in a position to make his own life a work of art. “Do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31)—here is rich motivation, here is a worthwhile theme, here is an integrating, synthesizing motif for the hurly-burly of human experience. Must the dishes be washed? Then let them be washed with a constant eye for improved technique, as an act of worship with a loving heart toward God and man: thus drudgery becomes touched with the divine, and to the beholder mere work becomes aesthetically satisfying. Must studies be mastered? Then let them be mastered with an eye for excellent form, making enormous private effort so that in public the learning will sit lightly and gracefully (for all true art is apparently effortless). Is there injustice within one’s sphere of influence? Then let it be viewed aesthetically, perceived as ugly, and corrected—for justice is a form of harmony. As D. W. Prall writes, “It is aesthetic discernment that is required both to see the evils of the world and to picture a better one” (Aesthetic Judgment).

There is nothing that may not be done aesthetically—that is, beautifully in its own way or kind. For a Christian, doing all things aesthetically amounts to doing all things for the glory of God. And artists like Bach and Rembrandt and Milton and T. S. Eliot and C. S. Lewis (as well as hundreds of non-artists who lived beautifully but never achieved fame) have left to us their testimony that it can be done.

As I see it, then, there is no conflict between Christianity and aesthetic pursuits. There is, rather, a strong correlation between the values of Christ and the values inherent in the aesthetic object and in aesthetic contemplation.


God of the quasars and the miniscule,

God of all origins and all futureness,

God of the holy ones, and God of all,

And—most of all—of One who chose to bless


(An enemy):

You came too lowly for my perch of pride,

Yet seemed too far aloft for me to reach you;

You gave, but made your own selection, God,

Not thinglings longed for by the creature


(An enemy).…

You “reconcile” by tossing forth a rope

And not the handsome ribbon I would dangle

Round my honor-worthy throat.… That Hope

And Grace and Peace! They cannot wangle


(Your enemy).

New terms, perhaps—more mine? A truce?

Oh, surely, God of quasars, you can save on

Suaver terms, some laxer kind of peace;

But I won’t call you “bully”I’m too craven,


(An enemy).

I’m bogged in this, this no-man’s middleness,

And going down is bad, and climbing’s harder.

But I’ll consent (as prince to prince) to this

Or that deed or renouncing.… What? No barter

With me

(As enemy).

Mark the foregoing, God, “to be continued.”

I think I shall, I think I’ll do a sequel.…

But tug, tug, tug.… O God the mighty-sinewed,

YOU know this situation is unequal,

For me,


God of the quasars and the miniscule,

God of all origins and all futureness,

God of the holy ones, and God of all,

And—most of all—of One who chose to bless


(An enemy).


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