Reformed Aesthetics – Introduction

My contributions to this site will be an attempt to formulate a Reformed view of aesthetics.[1] Though Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox think on these things regularly, Reformed Christians rarely discuss issues in art, poetics, music, and other things with the form and felt qualities of meaning. One would struggle to find any detailed discussion of these topics in most systematic theologies. This is a mistake. The aesthetic dimension of life is vital to worship and life. Rod Dreher, an Orthodox convert, in The American Conservative recently said it well:

“I don’t think most people come to God (or most other core beliefs) through rational argumentation. They usually do the reasoning afterwards to explain to themselves and others why they believe. We experience faith, as we do almost everything else in life, holistically. We feel it with our emotions, intuition, and imagination as much as with our intellect. We even experience with our physical bodies. The power of art is that it speaks to us in the fullness of our humanity. When the Church loses that capacity, it loses its ability to speak to most of humanity in its natural language.” [2]

This comment raises various questions concerning the primacy of the intellect and religious epistemology. But leaving these concerns aside, Dreher main point is worth pondering. If achieving the “fullness of our humanity” includes assigning or recognizing (and then sharing) meaning in the perceptible forms and felt qualities of certain things, then we must consider how to rightly conduct this sort of activity. The key word is “rightly,” and I suspect that the Reformed insistence on doing such activity rightly has led to the widespread abandonment of the topic in the interest of avoiding doing it wrongly. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, I suspect we may have added to the Word of God greater restrictions in the interest of avoiding any violation of the Word of God.

Now, I’m not advocating for the use of icons, images of God the Father, and statues in churches. Nor am I arguing that we satisfy the latest craving for a “sacramental worldview” found in the neo-platonism of the medieval period and in the Radical Orthodox movement. Advocates of this view argue, in the words of Giordano Bruno, that an object “cannot be sufficient of itself, nor good of itself, nor beautiful of itself; because it is not the universal nor the absolute entity.”[3] In other words, there must be a superadded, supernatural category for something to be beautiful. With most of the Reformers, I deny this. Beautiful things are not beautiful because they “participate” in the divine. While creaturely beauty is an analogy to the beauty of God, it is not an analogy by virtue of some added divinity. There is no nature/grace dualism. Just as God’s moral character has been created or brought into creation as the moral law, God’s beauty has been analogized into creation as the creaturely standard of beauty. The standard of beauty is purely creaturely, not something creaturely with some supra-creaturely or divine addition.

This view precludes serious consideration of the alleged magical qualities and powers of human artifacts (icons, relics, church buildings, holy sites, etc.). But this refusal to recognize magical qualities in icons and ancient bones, or, for that matter any superadded divine attributes to created things, does not necessitate nominalism and aesthetic relativism. One can have a legitimate aesthetic experience; and aesthetic standards exist. But these standards are natural standards that were ‘brought in’ by analogizing the beauty of God. But more than an analogy, every experience of aesthetic pleasure is a foretaste of eternity. We will never behold God’s essence, but when the New Jerusalem is brought to earth by Christ we will experience God’s beauty in the fullest possible creaturely way. What we experience now is a foretaste of that. All of life, even the mundane (especially the mundane), is sacred. There is no secular experience; all of life, everyday life, is sacred.

So art, poetics, drama, music, culture, cultivation, and other mediums of shared meaning have a place in Reformed thought that need to be explored and integrated. It is not simply our bare churches that need to be reexamined; our view of the world and every experience in it needs examination. It is not the thoughts we have in a museum that I want to rattle. I want to bring (to borrow a phrase from William Dyrness) the “poetics of everyday life” back into focus and thereby contribute to the restoration of the aesthetic aspect of Reformed life and worship.

Stephen Wolfe
Baton Rouge, LA

[1] I have to thank John Bugay for allowing me to post my thoughts on this important site. It is an honor.

[3] Quoted in Monroe C. Beardsley, Aesthetics: From Classical Greece to the Present (University of Alabama Press), 120.

6 replies on “Reformed Aesthetics – Introduction”

  1. I know you are delving into the deep here, however I especially appreciate the statement that “There is no secular experience; all of life, everyday life, is sacred.” It reminds me that there is no shortage of God’s wonder and beauty surrounding us and it’s a good thing to acknowledge it in its many forms and give thanks.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: