A Beautiful Life

Two years ago I sat down for coffee with an ACU student who had immersed himself in the books of the New Atheists: Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens. He was, unsurprisingly, strongly affected by their arguments and wanted to visit with me about my take on all this. Why, he wanted to know, did I believe in Christianity?

For the good part of an hour we talked about the criticisms of the New Atheists. But it soon became apparent to the student that Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens are not really attacking Christianity. They are, rather, attacking a particular brand of Christianity, fundamentalism. So if you aren't a fundamentalist you don't feel particularly critiqued by the New Atheists. True, the New Atheists do criticize "liberal" Christians for creating a culture, by broadly legitimizing religious belief, that allows fundamentalism to flourish. My counterargument is that, as a "liberal" Christian and an insider, I'm much more effective in pushing against the worst strains within the Christian faith than the New Atheists (who are largely just preaching to the choir to sell books).

When we got to this point in the conversation the student still seem frustrated with my epistemology. He wanted black and white answers, true or false. I refused those categories and tried one more time to communicate my point. This is the exchange we had:

Me: "Do you want to live a beautiful life?"

Student: "Huh?"

Me: "Do you want to live a beautiful life?"

Student: "I think so. Yes, I'd like to live a beautiful life."

Me: "Okay. So what kind of life to you think is beautiful? What is your aesthetic?"

Student: "What do you mean 'my aesthetic'?"

Me: "Judgments of beauty require an aesthetic, some criterion which separates the ugly from the beautiful. So if you want to live a beautiful life you need some way of defining beauty. Here's a way to find your aesthetic, ask yourself these questions. Who, living or dead, do you admire the most? What moves you to tears? What shakes your soul? When you get answers to these questions you'll start to see the shape of your aesthetic, what you consider to be a beautiful life."

Student: "Okay, but what does this have to do with Christianity?"

Me: "I'm a Christian because Jesus of Nazareth is my aesthetic. He's how I define a beautiful life. I've noticed in my heart that every time a human action moved my soul or brought tears to my eyes that action reminded me of Jesus. And so, because I want to live a beautiful life, I follow Jesus."

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25 thoughts on “A Beautiful Life”

  1. I like where you're going with this, but I would argue that we'd still need to make some connection between the aesthetic and the epistemic.

    As it stands, I'm left with some questions: would it make a difference to you if it could be shown definitively that Jesus of Nazareth never existed? What makes Jesus different than other beautiful stories, and does anything make Jesus different from beautiful stories that we know to be "fiction"?

    I'd always want to know, what comes "first", the perception of beauty, or the "aesthetic"? Did you simply notice that Jesus happened to match up best with what you find beautiful? Or did your perception of beauty develop alongside or indeed *after* you learned a lot about Christ and considered yourself a Christian (which seems far more likely)? And in that case, is Christianity reduced to a cultural preference?

    I think you're pointed a helpful direction but I don't think the aesthetic by itself is enough to make sense of following Christ, much less "believing" Christianity. In order to get there, I think we need some connection between beauty and truth (and thus between the aesthetic and epistemic).

  2. "I don't think the aesthetic by itself is enough to make sense of following Christ." I understand and sympathize with the sentiment of what you're saying, Spaceman Spiff. Let me add the following comment, however: neither the aesthetic nor the epistemic are ever found by themselves. The aesthetic and the epistemic alone are abstractions. Preferable, to me anyway, is the claim by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (late 17th, early 18th centuries), that the beautiful IS the true, and vice versa. Theologically (if I may revert to medieval metaphysics for a moment), this makes a lot of sense. As transcendentals grounded in the simplicity of God, truth and beauty must be one. This is von Balthasar's point in his theological aesthetics. Beauty is the forgotten transcendental. But I suppose we don't need these guys to tell us this. "Come and see," Jesus said, and seeing is of course aesthetic but also used figuratively for the acquisition of understanding in both Greek and English. So, I think you're right on, Richard, in pointing toward the aesthetic. This is something desperately lacking in the New Atheists, I think. I hope the student finds his beautiful life -- which is the only true life.

  3. This is a really fantastic line of thinking...by which I mean, with due recognition of how self-serving it may sound, that I am coming to the same conclusion as I deal with my increasingly agnostic 14-year-old son. That is, I find the logic here pretty compelling. Plus, there is plenty of warrant in the New Testament, both poetic and theological, for understanding spiritual truth as largely perception-contingent (the blind lead the blind, who knows the thoughts of a man but the spirit within him, seek and ye shall find, etc.)


  4. I love the idea of leading a beautiful life by following Jesus. Of course, it doesn't prove the "New Atheists" wrong, but it's how I operate too -- I follow this religion because I would like it to be true, not because I fully believe in every aspect of it. It's unfortunate that so many Christians don't see the beauty in Jesus. So many of them seem to be hate-filled neurotics who twist Christianity to advance their own prejudices (homophobia, misogyny, etc.) and fascist political beliefs. It's good to be reminded that the life of Christ is our true example. I can fully understand the appeal of the New Atheists to people whose main example of Christians is the heretofore described variety.

  5. Frankly, I find the Mahayana picture of the universe more aesthetically pleasing. First, a more diverse array of supernatural beings. Devas, Asuras, Bodhisattvas - and if you take in indigenous cultural elements such as Shinto, you also get kappa and tanuki and werewolves and vampires. Second, Buddhism recognizes that the only constant is change. Ergo, nobody stays in Heaven or Hell forever, nobody is trapped at a certain level of spiritual growth.

    I find the life of Jesus to be aesthetically pleasing right up until the part Christians seem to think is most important - his ugly crucifixion. The things he SAID, the things he DID, how he treated people - I find myself strongly moved by this content.

    I think the Gospel of Thomas is a book of subtle profoundity that ranks with the Tao te Ching in its unassuming wisdom. But the synoptic view of salvation-through-sacrifice I find horrifically ugly and nightmarish - I prefer the Jesus who prefers mercy to sacrifice to the one who is sacrificed because God will not forgive without spilling blood.

    So if your argument comes down to pure aesthetics, well, I personally find myself moved by a much wider picture of the spirit than Christianity offers. How is Kwan Yin, the goddess who hears the cries of the world, less of an aesthetic personna than Jesus Christ?

  6. You pose the question as to "moral models". Morality is a question of ethics and values, which cannot be defined by one person or value. And individuals will differ as their values and priorities, as it concerns values. We must ask the question about defining what is "good", or beautiful...

    For me, liberty and justice are values I hold. But, liberty and justice must be defined if that is to be understood.

    Liberty is about life, as defined by individuality, and justice is about the type of government that protects such liberty.

    So, my definition of a beautiful life is not a life based on a particular "moral model", but ideals of liberty and justice for the individual.

  7. Richard,
    One question that puzzles me, and it may be b/c I am just getting into understanding this area, but although justice and liberty are universal ideals, how do they apply? I do not subscribe to the "myth of American exceptionalism"...as I do believe that our form of government is the best...but how is that to be a universal, in such a diverse world?

    Can we come to REALLY embrace universality, because humans are contextually bound, and "determined". OR is the innate sense in man such that the ideals of justice and liberty are explained in similar form/ways.

  8. As always, this post is intriguing and thought-provoking. I always enjoy reading your ideas on issues and often find your existential perspective very compelling.

    I do have a few questions about this idea as using aesthetics as a litmus test for Jesus. I responded to it over on my blog... http://bit.ly/8ZxhEe

  9. Ben Griffith said...

    The question I have, in response to this in general, is "Why Jesus?"

    No, not even that. It's, "Why Jesus AND NOT Kwan Yin?"

    I can easily understand the life and deeds of Jesus to be profoundly moving and inspiring. What I can't understand is how anyone could find that the life and deeds (insofar as they are reported) of Gnostic Sophia ARE NOT.

  10. Richard,

    As always, thanks for the thought provoking post. I'm playing with similar ideas using process theology, which is largely an aesthetic philosophy/theology. Where I'm having to bolster my theory is where process seems to be silent, namely, around issues of justice and judgment, which is why some liberation thought appeals to me as a supplement to the aesthetic. Your post reminded me of Whitehead's quote, "The power of God is the worship he inspires." Hope you're well. shalom

  11. I thought the way you handled these questions was terrific! Pointing back to notions of the beautiful/good (re)opens up everything that I find challenging and profound in the Ancient Greek thinkers, the Medievals, and Kant. I think by pointing epistemology back to aesthetics, or at least intertwining them, is something very profound which has been almost entirely lost in the "modern" philosophical era, with the great exception of Kant. I also think that this is a great way of problematizing notions of "universal" "truth" which seems too often to be understand through the narrow viewpoint of: statements logically corresponding to the reduced propositions of scientific investigation.

  12. @Carson:
    "Let me add the following comment, however: neither the aesthetic nor the epistemic are ever found by themselves. The aesthetic and the epistemic alone are abstractions. Preferable, to me anyway, is the claim by Anthony Ashley Cooper, the 3rd Earl of Shaftesbury (late 17th, early 18th centuries), that the beautiful IS the true, and vice versa."

    --When I say we need a connection b/t the epistemic and the aesthetic, I'm talking at a conceptual level, i.e., the way we speak and think needs to reflect some connection that already exists in reality.

    The ontological equation of truth and beauty (and goodness) is a very old idea, but I think it has some mileage. However, what this means is by no means self-evident. For example, on the face of it, it may sound like you mean whatever is most beautiful is what we ought to believe, but then what would we do with realities like the Holocaust? So, the ontological connection has to be fleshed out, and I don't think repeating the medieval equation quite gets us there.

    Moreover, we are still lacking guidance at the secondary level (i.e., the level of the epistemic and the aesthetic--the pursuit of truth and beauty--rather than the ontological level of truth and beauty per se).

    I.e., are we merely recommending that people are most likely to reach truth if they simply follow their perception of beauty? How could such a recommendation possibly make sense of science? Granted that science does involve some sense of aesthetic sensibility in the concept of "elegance", and granted that science probably ought not be our model for ALL knowing. But recommending an epistemology at such a grand, sweeping level as would (seem to) follow from "The Beautiful is the True" would need to at least make sense of something like science, I think.

    To put some flesh on this skeleton of a question: if one of Richard's graduate students argues in a thesis that one psychological theory is more true than another because it is more beautiful, even though it fails to make sense of the experimental data, should Richard pass that thesis? The answer seems to be obviously "No!" and yet the epistemology that seems to be suggested (on the surface anyway) by this idea of following the beautiful appears to say otherwise.

    So, I continue to maintain that we need some more epistemological and ontological work here to make sense of things...

  13. OK, I have to ask. Did anybody else look at this post and think:

    "each day I'll doooo / a golden deeeeed"?

    @Spaceman Spiff: "should Richard pass that thesis?"

    Dude, ouch. =)

  14. Dr Beck- very creative dialogue you had with your student, a question i have is,doesn't your focus and appeal to an aesthetic need a absolute grounding?? I mean, you said Jesus typifies a beautiful life and responses you have align with Him for you, but couldn't you say the same of gandhi?? Jesus and Gandhi have very different worldviews and lives apart from their aesthetically beautiful lives. What are your thoughts on this?? Always enjoy your posts.

  15. Unpacking the assumptions and addressing objections would make a nice series...

    Here's my question/objection: How is suffering for love unambiguously beautiful?


  16. Interesting. I should have sat down and talked to you about agnosticism while I was a student there. But then again, we all know how "taboo" it can be to talk about such matters on a Christian campus. Either way, I bet it would be an interesting conversation.

  17. Some additional clarifications in light of some of ya'll's questions:

    I don't think "the beautiful" is an exhaustive apology for the faith. So I think it is exactly right that it needs to be supplemented.

    My motive in posting this was modest. I simply wanted to introduce aesthetics as a way of approaching faith questions. I don't think people use this category much when talking about faith, but it seems helpful to me.

    If we think about the classic questions from the Greeks--What is true? What is good? What is beautiful?--we tend to focus on the first two, the epistemological and the ethical. We don't spend much time talking about the beautiful. Yes, we need all three in the conversation, but the beautiful tends to get left out the most often. I, personally, haven't heard anyone of my acquaintance use this category. I'd just like to keep the beautiful in sight when we talk about faith. Faith appeals to our emotions and to the ineffable aspects of human experience in a way "knowledge" cannot.

  18. Philip Yancey has written that basically aesthetics saved his faith after his toxic fundamentalist upbringing. If I recall, he recounts in his book "Soul Survivor: How My Faith Survived the Church," that it was while he was in college that nature, classical music, and romancing his wife (supplemented by reading the calmer, more gracious voices of Lewis, Chesterton, etc.) enabled him to rediscover God apart from the patronizing vehemence of his childhood church.

  19. Within the past year or two, I've had similar suspicions. However, it isn't something you can easily bring up. But I couldn't get away from it: it's as if my aesthetic side has the clearest view of Jesus, and the deepest understanding what the implications of that life are. At the same time, I was also wary of such a viewpoint, because emotion can hold a lot of power over it.

    Thanks for this post. I feel 1% less crazy now. :) Maybe we can get some more posts about it in the future?

  20. Richard:

    I think you're right. As I said, this is a really important direction. For some further reading if you wanted to see what some folks are saying about this, you could look at David Bentley Hart's "The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth", and certainly the massive work of Hans Urs von Balthasar in theological aesthetics. I think the first part of his systematic theology is called "Seeing the Form." It's pretty massive, but based on my limited sampling it's quite readable.

    Also, I'm presenting a related paper at the Christian Scholar's Conference this year arguing that pursuing "understanding" as an epistemic good from a Christian theological perspective could draw together the epistemic and the aesthetic.

  21. About two-and-a-half years ago, I reached a real crisis of faith regarding the historical resurrection. Ultimately, after some fervent (and demanding) prayers, I received a dream which essentially conveyed that no, the resurrection didn't actually happen. And so I rejected the resurrection as historical fact.

    That Sunday, in church, I found that suddenly the worship service was actually far more meaningful. For the first time since, well, ever, I had no nagging questions ("but did it really happen?") running through my mind, and so I was free to actually experience. I found that the story of Jesus was still of great importance to me, I think for the same reasons that Dr. Beck mentions. I got far more involved with the church as a result of this experience.

    For all that, though, I agree with Dammerung. It bothers me that even the most liberal voices in contemporary Christianity often assert that being Christian necessarily means following Jesus alone, to the exclusion of other spiritual paths.

  22. I'm glad Spaceman Spiff mentions DBH's "The Beauty of the Infinite" in this context.

    First, I'm enamored by Richard's post and thesis therein - I find it not only compelling but sublime. DBH's ideas are profound in this regard as well.

    What I'm a little more intrigued about is another of Richard's recent posts dealing with the acceptance and even friendship with Death - as a Christian as these compare to DBH's ideas expressed most artfully in his "The Doors of the Sea" - written as a response to much of the neo-Calvinist drivel that was written in the wake of the Asian tsunami several years ago. DBH argues that death and suffering can only be rightly understood as violations, and horrible breaches of God's intended order - not as natural artifacts or engineered properties of Creation. He argues this away to separate the idea that God has any need, use or or desire for suffering, tragedy and pain.

  23. Richard Beck suggests that Jesus defines his aesthetic. I think it's as likely that his aesthetic defines his Jesus.

  24. I admit that is likely true. But I'm also pretty sure the causality is going in the other direction as well. I don't visit a prison because I think it's a kick. I go because of Matthew 25. I don't sit with the homeless and hold my nose because I find the situation aesthetically pleasing.

    I'm following a teacher, a master..a Lord, if you want to use religious language.

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