The Ethical as the Beautiful: Part 3, The Beauty That Draws Us to the Good

After using the story of the woman caught in the act of adultery to illustrate Jesus' "sense of style" in his essay "A Sense of Style: Beauty and the Christian Moral Life," David Bentley Hart goes on to make this comment: "Admittedly, it is a difficult style to catch hold of, and not everyone cares to try."

For my part, I've always wanted to try. I've always been absolutely transfixed by how Jesus moves through the world, and obsessed with pondering how that style would translate into my own life.

And Hart's absolutely right, it's not a style you can emulate trying to piously follow a set of rules. Largely because this sense of style plays out spontaneously in human interactions, especially how you treat people, often on the fly. Do the people you encounter this day feel safe, seen, and loved by you? Not just and only our best friends during an intimate chat over coffee, but complete strangers whom we bump into the rough and tumble of the day in our hurry, distraction, and stress. Do those people, the mass of strangers, receive from you the beautiful gesture?

If we were to classify Hart's argument, it's a species of virtue ethics, acquiring habits of heart, mind, and action. Christian moral action is less about working through ethical puzzles than training oneself to respond to life, in an almost automatic, unconscious way, in ways that conform to the style of Jesus.     

What Hart helps us see is the artistry involved in this process. Discussions in virtue ethics and spiritual formation can sound grim, all about discipline and training. And that may be where we start. If the moral life is like learning to play an instrument, creative artistry is built upon a foundation of technical skill. Consequently, our early lessons are going to be rote and rudimentary. But the goal with advancing skill is the ability to perform creatively and beautifully in ways that surpass mere technical proficiency.  All this is a part of what the Greeks meant by arete, the word we translate as virtue. For the Greeks, arete has an aesthetic aspect. Virtuous living is "artful" living.   

And the purpose of this beauty in the moral life isn't some evolutionary spandrel, an unnecessary add-on, like so much Christmas tree tinsel. The purpose of beauty is to reflect and draw us toward God, the ontological heart of the cosmos and of your very existence. As Hart wraps us his essay (bold is mine):

[The story of the adulterous woman] enunciates no exact principles or laws, but it compellingly, beguilingly invites us to adopt the style pervading Christ’s actions as, so to speak, the most exquisite imaginable dernier cri [Note: French for "the latest fashion"]. In dispersing the woman’s accusers with a cool irony that leaves them haplessly silent, and in then granting her a forgiveness wholly unencumbered by any ponderous expressions of disapproving decency or piety, and without even any prescribed penance, Christ demonstrates how a single graceful gesture, per­formed with sufficient moral and aesthetic skill, can express all the dimensions of the beauty of charity. It may seem somewhat perverse, as I have noted, to suggest that the ethical should in this sense be ultimately reducible to the aesthetic; but it should be, even so, for the simple reason that what draws us to the good is that it is also eternal beauty. God himself is beauty, that is, and in the end, for Christians, we are joined to him in seeking the beautiful as he has taught us to recognize it in Christ, and in therefore seeking in every circumstance, however unanticipated, to express that beauty always anew, in ever more novel variations on that original “theme”—that unique and irresistibly attractive manner. At times, a sense of style really is everything.

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