Groundwork for a Reformed Theology of Public Aesthetics

Dutch town

The Apostle Paul said that “the whole law is fulfilled in one word: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.'” (Galatians 5:14). How one goes about loving one’s neighbor is the subject of much discussion and controversy in Christianity. Among Reformed Christians, the debate on Christian public engagement between the Two-Kingdom advocates, the Kuyperians, the theonomists and others continues. What is often left out in these discussions is the aesthetic demands of loving one’s neighbor. We always ask, what ought we do? or what ought we think? But why not the question, how ought things look? Following much modernist thought, Reformed Christians have separated the aesthetic from the ethical. We have come to believe that only ideas are formative of character, virtue, and holiness in a community. My contention in this post is that human beings—as created beings meant to belong in creation—have an aesthetic need built into their being. I also argue that loving one’s neighbor includes seeking to fulfill this aesthetic need through proper community and town/city development. In addition, I argue that the modern view of nature as something other than and separate from man is problematic and must be rejected.

We should keep in mind that the Son of God did not come to earth simply to show the way of righteousness, or even just to bear the sins of humankind. He came to restore creation and finish the work that God set for Adam. To love God and to love man is not simply to fulfill a set of disconnected ethical demands, but to work toward the original intent of creation, namely, to build beautiful and harmonious communities that express a love for God and each other. The ultimate demand of God for humankind is a unity of the aesthetic and the ethical. We are not simply to love, but to love with beauty.

I. Creation as the Theater of Divine Glory

In the Reformed theological tradition, creation is the theater of God’s glory. It is the display of his power, majesty, goodness, and beauty. It is the place where God acts and speaks to his people. John Calvin said that “the world was founded for this purpose, that it should be the sphere of the divine glory.”[1] The world in its movement, colors, sounds and every other experience of the human subject is a response by creation to God’s rejoicing in his works. The very “stability of the world depends on the rejoicing of God in his works.” We are to see, taste, and touch God in creation, for “the very beautiful fabric of the world [is the place] in which he wishes to be seen by us.”[2]

Reformed theology rejects the nature/grace dualism of medieval theology. This theology, made explicit by Thomas Aquinas, states that even prior to sin, nature required a superadded feature, namely, grace in order to keep it from falling.[3] In other words, nature did not have an original integrity; it required an addition supernatural category to remain away from corruption. According to this view, Adam and Eve actually fell from grace in the Fall, and redemption is a process of restoring that grace to humankind and the world. This supernatural feature is the God-like aspect of humankind, and, when lost, humans ceased bearing the image of God. The world is not where God is to be found. Only in contemplation can one encounter God. As Thomas wrote, “the contemplation of divine truth…is the goal of the whole of human life…[because] the contemplative life is according to what is most proper to man, namely his intellect.”[4] Downplaying work and activity in the world, Thomas wrote, “The active life impedes the contemplative, because it is impossible for anyone to be involved in external works and at the same time give himself to divine contemplation.”[5] This withdraw-from-the-world theology explains the rise of the monasteries and nunneries, places where people could separate themselves from the world to avoid the desires of the “flesh” to seek purification and virtue.[6]

Reformed theology rejected this dualism by positing that nature has its own integrity, that it does not require a superadded supernatural category to be good. Grace is only necessary as a means of restoring the integrity of creation. Thus grace is a post-lapsarian necessity; it was not an original part of creation and will not remain part of creation after the return and consummation of Christ. Furthermore, the Reformers rejected that true contemplation of God could occur apart from creation. God is not found in “vain speculation” but through experiencing creation, beholding the works of God where his divine glory is shown. The Belgic Confession, one of the earliest confessions of the Reformed faith, stated, “the universe is before our eyes like a beautiful book in which all creatures, great and small, are as letters to make us ponder the invisible things of God.”[7] It is not by denying the senses that one comes to know God, but by using them. Calvin said, “As soon as we acknowledge God to be the supreme architect, who has erected the beauteous fabric of the universe, our minds must necessarily be ravished [rapi necesse est] with wonder at his infinite goodness, wisdom, and power.”[8] Since most people know Reformed theology through either Jonathan Edwards’ sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” or Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter the following quote from Calvin should be surprising:

We see, indeed, the world with our eyes, we tread this earth with our feet, we touch innumerable kinds of God’s works with our hands, we inhale a sweet and pleasant fragrance from herbs and flowers, we enjoy boundless benefits, but in those very things of which we attain some knowledge, there dwells such an immensity of divine power, goodness, and wisdom, as absorbs all our senses.[9]

As Calvin suggests, creation is not simply a display of God for the purpose of causing wonder and amazement. Nature actually communicates the character of God to his image-bearers. The Puritan poet, Anne Bradstreet, wrote the following lines:

I wist not what to wish, yet sure thought I,
If so much excellence abide below,
How excellent is He that dwells on high,
Whose power and beauty by his works we know?
Sure he is goodness, wisdom, glory, light,
That hath this under world so richly dight;
More heaven than earth was here, no winter and no night.[10]

The experience of nature produces knowledge of the divine and, prior to the Fall, it was effective to produce sufficient knowledge for humankind. The English Puritan, Joseph Caryl proclaimed that “All creatures have a teaching voice, they read us divinity lectures of Divine Providence.”[11] Again, Calvin wrote, “the elegant structure of the world serv[es] us as a kind of mirror, which we may behold God, though otherwise invisible.”[12] Prior to the Fall, humankind was in no need of divine grace or assistance to know God; God was known in his works. Humans were in-tune with creation, being created themselves and integrally emplaced with the rest of creation.  Humans, when emplaced in creation as created beings, naturally, when not tainted with sin, will sufficiently know God apart from a non-creational supernatural act of God. This “knowing” of course is not knowing God’s essence, but is knowledge of, as Jonathan Edwards put it, his “condescension….for nothing on earth can entirely represent the glories of heaven.”[13] Because the creator/creature distinction is a qualitative distinction, there is no hierarchy of being or quantitative separation between God and man. As Karl Barth would latter emphasize, God is “wholly other.”[14] But creation is a condescension, an accommodation to humankind’s limitedness. Calvin even said, with strict qualification, that “nature is God.”[15] God is present in the things he has created. It is not his exact presence, but an analogical presence.

Humans can never know the essence of God, and to seek the essence of God is fruitless and vain. Communication of the divine attributes, as discussed above, requires some accommodation to humankind’s creaturely limitedness. God’s original revelation of himself to creation is creation itself, and this creation is an analogy of God’s nature. The communicable power of God that we observe is not univocally God’s omnipotence. In other words, the relationship between the power on display and God’s divine power is not a univocal relationship. It is an analogical relationship. Lightning and thunder is an analogy of God’s power. A beautiful landscape is an analogy of God’s beauty. We can say, “God is like this or that beautiful thing” without identifying the thing itself with God (univocal) or calling God wholly other to the thing (equivocal). Along these lines Edwards writes,

There is really an analogy, or consent, between the beauty of the skies, trees, fields, flowers, etc. and spiritual excellencies…When we behold the light and brightness of the sun, the golden edges of an evening cloud, or the beauteous bow, we behold the adumbration of [God’s] glory and goodness….There are also many things wherein we may behold his awful majesty:….in comets, in thunder, in the towering thunder clouds, in ragged rocks and the brows of mountains.[16]

Reformed theology also recognizes that creation speaks, and that this voice of creation demands a response. The Psalmist says that “hills are clothed with gladness” and valleys “shout for joy and sing” (Psalm 65:12.13). Calvin continues these thoughts: “The little birds that sing, sing of God; the beasts clamor for him; the elements dread him, the mountains echo him, the fountains and flowing water cast their glances at him, and grass and flowers laugh before him.”[17] All of creation is meant to sing together in harmony to the glories of God, and humans, as we shall see, are an integral part of that choir. The activity of the world, in all its awesome splendor, is a form of speech and demands a response. When sin is not present, this speech is effective to produce what it demands. God declares his love for and rejoices in his works, his works respond with activity, and this activity would naturally cause a human response to conform to it and, in conformity to it, praise God. But this is how sin corrupts nature: Sin throws off the conversation and puts the sound of the creational orchestra into dissonance or incompleteness. Anne Bradstreet wrote:

I heard the merry grasshopper then sing.
The black-clad cricket bear a second part;
They kept one tune and played on the same string,
Seeming to glory in their little art.
Shall creatures abject thus their voices raise
And in their kind resound their Maker’s praise,
Whilst I, as mute, can warble forth no higher lays?[18]

This is why “as all the elements in creation groan and travail together with us…they may reasonably rejoice in the restoration of all thing according to their earnest desire.”[19]

If sin had not entered the world, Scripture would be unnecessary. The revelation naturalis would be sufficient to preclude the necessity of a revelation verbalis. But since sin entered the world, Christians must say with David, “Thy Word is a lamp unto my feet” (Ps. 119:105). The verbal revelation serves as a republication of the creation law, a codification of God’s glory and righteousness. Thus to see God clearly in nature one sees it best through the Word of God. The problem is not that humankind has lost the image of God, but that the whole person is depraved. Man is not utterly depraved (as in, as sinful as can be), but totally depraved. All the faculties of humankind are diminished, everything from desires to rationality. So God’s condescension in nature is an accommodation to creaturely limitedness and his condescension in scripture then is a further accommodation to humankind’s depravity. The message of creation and scripture is essentially the same, except that scripture contains the story of the restoration of humankind through the person and work of the second and final Adam, Jesus Christ.

II. Humans as Vice-Regents of Creation

Given the previous discussion it may come at a surprise that creation, in Reformed theology, is in a sense anthropocentric. As image bearers of God, humankind is the “illustrious ornament and glory of earth.”[20] There is much discussion on the phrase “image of God,” and one aspect often discussed in Reformed theology is humankind’s vice-regency. In Genesis 1, Adam is commanded to “be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth, and subdue it.” As many commentators have argued, this mandate includes working to make the world habitable for humans. There is a certain wildness to creation and Adam and his progeny were to put the “finishing touches on the world God created…by making it a livable place for humans.”[21] Humans then are agents of creation in the world, those who would “reflect [God’s] glorious image in extending his sacred presence outward into the wider regions of the earth.”[22] This priestly role charges humans with the task to mediate the glory of God by their work. God works for six days, and then he rests. Humankind, as the image-bearers of God, continues that work to make habitable places for God’s glory to shine in and through human settlement. In the Ancient Near East, ancient kings would erect images of themselves in distant lands in order to declare their presence-from-afar and their kingship.[23] Humankind is the image declaring the kingship of Yahweh over all the earth. By making the earth habitable, humans would spread the shalom of God throughout the world, bringing rest to all of creation. And by bringing rest, all of creation–both the image bearers and the non-human creation–would rest together in harmony with each other and in harmony with God. God, his image bearers, and the rest of creation would live in perfect relational harmony.

There are a few implications to this. The first is that man is created to work. Work, despite what the classical Greeks thought, was a good thing. In fact, to be truly human is to work. Failing to work is to be disobedient vice-regents. Second, it implies that though wildness (or wilderness) is good (God declared it “good” prior to creating humankind) cultivated land finishes creation. Wildness is meant to be tamed. Human interaction with the natural environment therefore does not necessarily desecrate the goodness of creation. Since humans are meant to subdue, cultivation is good, and perhaps even better than wilderness.

The mission of Adam was not simply to “sacred-ize” the landscape with temples, shrines, monument, and monasteries, but to make culture conducive to human flourishing. They were not to be miserable servants, but to build societies beaming with life, love and happiness. The mandate to build is a mandate to create culture, to name things, to discover things – to act creatively. As Al Wolters writes, “From now on the development of the created earth will be societal and cultural in nature. In a single word, the task ahead is civilization.”[24] But all of this activity is to conform to nature. Congruity and harmony must occur. There is no “man against nature.” All creative activity must assume that man is part of, yet over, nature. Humans are the shepherds of nature while being in it and part of it. The human relationship to nature is like a ruler being under the rule of law. Humans and the rest of nature are subject to natural or creation law. Everything that humans do must conform to this law.

Of course, Adam failed to live up to the law. He and Eve ate the forbidden fruit and fell, bringing his offspring with him. But this sets the stage for God to set things right, personally. The entire divine drama of redemption by Christ is meant to restore and accomplish what Adam failed to do. Jesus Christ is the second and final Adam who both bore the sin of the first Adam and accomplished his task. “In the cross,” Calvin wrote, “the whole world has been renewed and all things restored to good order.”[25] Christ did more than just save a people; he saved the whole world, all of creation. He reconciled humankind and nature. In the Book of Revelation, we read of the descending of the “New Jerusalem” from heaven to earth (21:2). It is a final consummation of all things in Christ. Creation is restored and peace covers the earth.

Though Christ accomplished all of this already, there is a significant element of not-yet. The second coming of Christ is the event in history when all things will be renewed, but in the meantime those “united” to Christ share in his resurrected life (Rom. 6:1-11). Christ, as the wellspring of life, is the source of redeemed life and redeemed activity for those united to him. In this age, prior to his return, Christians being united to the second Adam are agents of creation in the same way Adam was. Wolters writes, “It still is humanity that plays the pivotal role. Just as the fall of man (Adam) was the ruin of the whole earthly realm, so the atoning death of a man (Jesus Christ, the second Adam) is the salvation of the whole world….The Adamic human race perverts the cosmos; the Christian human race renews it.”[26] The Christian duty then is to continue the work originally mandated to Adam, namely, to create civilization conducive to human flourishing and in harmony and in conformity to nature. We are not to exploit, rise above, or separate from nature, but conform to it and shape it. In a word, we are to rule it while being ruled by the creation Lawgiver.

Our discussion so far has concerned a few elements in Reformed theology that need to be integrated. God created a world that manifests his character by proclaiming God’s character. The motions, colors, sounds, smells, towering heights, awesome displays – everything shows forth and communicates God to those able to observe and contemplate. This creation was an act of divine condescension to his image-bearers, so that they would sufficiently know him. But these people were not simply to contemplate God’s works, but work themselves. They were to take this already-perfect and already-beautiful creation and make it better, to finish creation by making places for their benefit. They were to shape nature by creating civilizations with fields, buildings, art, and music. They were to cultivate space into place, and, in obedience to their priestly role, spread God’s glory throughout the earth. The glory of God is best manifested not in untouched creation but in cultivated creation, places shaped for the flourishing of human life.

In the Reformed theological literature, the two themes discussed so far (creation as an analogy of God’s character and humankind’s role as cultivator) rarely spark further consideration. It is the contention of this paper that there is a serious implication when these two are considered together: if creation’s wonders originally served as a means of knowing God sufficiently and that it continues to exercise this function, and if humans are to cultivate this creation by creating their own things conducive to human flourishing, then the cultivation of humans must contain these wonders as well. If humans are to know God and gain knowledge of God by experiencing, for instance, the beauty of creation, then humans must create beauty in order to maintain this function of creation. In other words, the mandate to create includes a mandate to create in conformity to the purpose of creation itself, namely, to display the glory of God. The aesthetic is part of the ethics of the developed environment. Stated differently, if uncultivated creation has a “voice” that calls us to praise and obey God and if we are called to cultivate this uncultivated creation and live in our cultivation, then what we create must have such a voice that calls us to praise and obey God. This means that the aesthetics of particular developments and the town/city plans matter. If we fail to develop the world in conformity to creation or nature, then it will harm people and society. Building in conformity with nature is not simply a form of evangelism or proselytization to a lost world, but is a fundamental part of loving one’s neighbor. Regardless of one’s relationship to God, Christ, or the Gospel, each person is meant to be in harmony with nature. Each human is designed for this purpose. To love every person is to care for every person’s relationship to the created order. When we develop and fail to truly cultivate, we are harming people.

III. Separated from Nature

Unfortunately, I suspect that this principle of conformity to nature is lost in the modern world. When most Americans think of nature, they imagine trees, dirt, bushes, birds, and wild animals in some forest. Or maybe they think of the smells and the sounds or panoramic views of their favorite hiking location.  Regardless of where our imagination or memories take us, the thoughts and images are typically outside of human civilization, places untouched by human development. Americans think of the wildness of the wilderness. We think of nature as having a quality of otherness, something separate from humanity. We understand nature as being the pristine forests, deserts, and the ocean. It is where humans go to contemplate the world, the universe, or their own existence. On a popular level, nature is for recreation: hiking, backpacking, hunting, scuba diving, and swimming. But I suspect there is more to it for us: It has cosmic meaning for us as well. The untouched objects of nature represent something about the world that is pure, unsullied, and right. Pristine nature exposes to us the inner workings of the universe, something we cannot see after human development. In nature, we see cosmic harmony, order, and beauty. To us, the unsullied forest seems to be how things ought to be. We cannot help but feel separate from this nature, that any attempt to be part of these cosmic dimensions can only be imitative, not genuine or true. In a sense, we view nature as something that transcends humanity. We think that we cannot truly participate in its cosmic character. We can only contemplate it or damage it, but never conform to it. Our desire for the contemplation of nature is not for a contemplation of a personal, immanent God revealed in it. It is a contemplation of an otherness, something humans cannot conform to.

Humans must live and develop where they find themselves and, because all things at least originate as wilderness, we think that out of necessity we must sully it for practical purposes, namely, survival. But if our practical concerns require the damaging of nature, this calls into question humanity’s place in the world. If human development is a form of corruption and yet we must develop, then our existence has little cosmic purpose, cannot contribute to aesthetic harmony, and every result is necessarily less than beautiful. Divorcing humanity from nature, divorces humanity from cosmic meaning. It is as if we are meant to destroy.

The fall of man from nature is apparent in our use of the word “nature.” Since the 18th century, the word has referred to the “material world beyond human civilization or society.”[27] Prior to this, it denoted the principle of cosmos, primarily in reference to Aristotle’s use of the Greek word φύσις (“physics”). Echoing Aristotle, Aquinas said, “There are three principles of nature (natura): matter, form and privation.”[28] Certainly this usage includes humans as part of the world, but the content of this definition lacks the concepts of purity, pristine, harmony, order, and beauty we find in today’s usage of the English word. Hume and Kant, following Newton, thought of nature as purely mechanistic; and Kant’s nature/freedom dualism, an attempt to solve the problem of freedom and moral worth in a mechanistic universe, continues to shape modern philosophy and modern theology. Rejecting this mechanistic view of nature, the Romanticists and the American Transcendentalists in particular began attributing to it more elegant and aesthetic terms. Thoreau proclaimed in a chapter entitled “Solitude” in Walden, “The indescribable innocence and beneficence of Nature, — of sun and wind and rain, of summer and winter, — such health, such cheer, they afford forever!”[29] While these thinkers continued to recognize various attributes of nature, they also developed a quasi-religion. Emerson, for example, often talked of an “Over-Soul…within which every man’s particular being is contained and made one with all other.”[30] The religious aspect never became popular, but certain secular aspects did. Americans today consider the forests, deserts, ocean and other untouched places as how things ought to be, something pure and unadulterated.

The Transcendentalists did not alone shape public opinion. Conservation activists in the late 19th and early 20th centuries adopted much of what Transcendentalism had to offer and are responsible for the diffusion of the modern idea of humankind’s separation from nature in America. These conservationists in principle thought humans could harmonize with nature, but practically viewed human involvement in landscapes as nothing but damaging, as a form of desecration. To them, humanity is practically separate from nature and inimical to it; human interaction with the world is necessarily damaging of its aesthetics, order, and perfection. John Muir once said, “All wildness is finer than tameness.”[31] These conservationists and their contemporary followers have continued to call for the expansion of wilderness areas, where human interaction is reduced to contemplation, not cultivation.[32] Their work contributed to the formation of the first national park in 1872: Yellowstone was designated “as a public or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”[33] Only limited, recreational facilities were permitted in the parks. The Sierra Club, established in 1891, has continued to exert influence to extend and preserve wilderness areas having almost total isolation from human development.[34]  It has advocated for the following definition of “wilderness”:

A region which contain no permanent inhabitants, possesses no possibility of conveyance by mechanical means, and is sufficiently spacious that a person crossing it must have the experience of sleeping out. The dominant attributes of such an area are: first, that it requires anyone who exists in it to depend exclusively on his own effort for survival; and second, that it preserves as nearly as possible the primitive environment. That means that all roads, power, transmission and settlements are barred. But trails and temporary shelters, which were common long before the advent of the white race, are entirely possible.[35]

US Congress has used this definition (and others like it) as the basis for wilderness policy and the creation of numerous wilderness areas around the United States.[36]

Many in these groups were not shy in describing the connection that pristine wilderness has with the cosmos. Kenneth Brower, a former head of Sierra Club, said: “In wilderness we can see where we have come from, where we are going, how far we’ve gone. In wilderness is the only unsullied earth sample of the forces generally at work in the universe.”[37] In other words, the work of humanity cannot be part of the forces at work in the universe; they are hostile to its pure workings. Thus humankind’s daily existence must be relegated to its own, degenerate sphere separate from the harmony and beauty of the cosmic order. This low view of humankind’s place in the universe is throughout the radical conservationist literature. One well-known conservationist said, “I would rather kill a man than a snake.”[38] The Sierra Club regularly published and advocated such views argues landscape historian John Brinckerhoff Jackson: “The Sierra Club… not only endorsed these notions but published them, and there has emerged a body of anti-urban, anti-technological, anti-people, anti-history books and pamphlets, all anthrophobic.”[39] In other words, radical conservationists relentlessly proclaimed humans as the agents of desecration in the natural world.

In more subtle language, the US Government legislated the humankind’s separation from nature into law. The Wilderness Act of 1964 stated, “[wilderness is] land designated for preservation and protection in their natural condition…an area where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled[40] by man [and] generally appears to have been affected primarily by the forces of nature, with the imprint of man’s work substantially unnoticeable.”[41] We see here that under law, man is separate from the natural condition of the universe, man’s life is separate from the community of life, and man’s work is separate from the forces of nature. The conservationists were successful in making the separation official United States policy.

Despite their influence, the various conservationist groups were only partially successful in their efforts to ensure a human-free wilderness. Complete restrictions on cultivation, private ownership and limited access (in most cases) were secure through the jurisdiction of the Department of Interior, but the national parks and the wilderness areas were largely treated as recreation sites. Many of these locations, often catering to the local population, have been developed extensively into regional parks and have lost their status as pristine nature. They are easily accessible. They have nearby parking lots, playgrounds, man-made ponds and mowed fields for recreation. A visitor will often smell barbeque and hear music from radios. One will see frisbees, soccer balls, and footballs bouncing around in the fields. One can play golf or ride a bicycle on a bicycle path. In essence, the landscape has been designed for human recreation. To most, this design seems harmless as long as the development expresses a degree of harmony. But the ideology of the radical conservationist precludes any considerations of harmony: No wilderness should be designated, let alone designed, for recreation. Only contemplative disinterestedness avoids desecration.

The diffusion of the separation through American thought formed three modes in which humans relate to nature: otherness (contemplation), recreation (play), and exploitation (consumerism). For the radicals, these are the good, the bad, and the ugly. To their displeasure, the separation encouraged recreation despite their being adamant to the contrary. When wilderness is the otherness and the common human existence is the exploitive, there will be a great demand for the domestication of the otherness and escape from the exploitive. Vacationers rarely want to “rough it” to the degree of Sierra Club members. Wilderness receives the attribute of “vacation location.”

Why do people want to escape from their usual existence? From what specifically are they escaping? The separation, I contend, did more than make the wilderness a place of escape and recreation. It paved the way for the loss of the aesthetic sense in common experience and everyday life; the loss of a self-satisfying community; the loss of a sense of place; and the rise of ugliness, artificiality and kitsch. Reformed theology predicts this. When humankind divorces itself from nature and thinks of itself as a necessary agent of destruction, then ethical principles of aesthetics will be ignored. If a community is satisfied with nature because they have “protected” it somewhere in the form a national or regional part, then the places of human development have no requirement to serve any function but the exploitation of resources for the wants of consumption. If the bald eagle population, for instance, is making a comeback, then we’ve done our duty to nature. This way of thinking is rooted in our understanding of a separation of humankind from nature. If “that over there” retains its pristine state, then we have done our part for nature.

What is perhaps the most destructive consequence of this separation is its elevation of the principle of economic efficiency. Since nature is “over there” being controlled and regulated by the experts in the government, the space for human activity is less sacred. The built environment then becomes the place for the homo economicus, a place of strict zoning regulations: The residential is separated from the commercial. Thus we have the rise of the automobile and extensive road and highway networks. Where you live, you cannot work, shop or socialize. Every activity of humans–be it economic, social, or culture–is separated with distances too far for walking.

There is no better example of the use of extensive road network and the centralization of commerce than the American suburb. The flight of people from urban areas to the suburbs was not due simply to the rise of the slums and the middle-class. As the living conditions of the city worsened or failed to improve sufficiently, the middle class sought the means of working in the city without living in it. The free market could not provide for this migration, but the government could by subsidizing the roadways necessary for it. By building roads and highways, the government provided the middle class with the ability to commute to the city for employment while residing outside the city. Thus the suburb is a government-funded refuge from the city for the middle class.

Figure 1: Suburbia

Any hope that the city could be revitalized into a center of healthy social life vanished. As Lewis Mumford wrote, “Under the present dispensation we have sold our urban birthright for a sorry mess of motor cars.”[42] The suburb perhaps had some potential to restore, or at least mimic, the medieval town. The dimensions could be within “human dimensions”: the limits of the town extended no farther than a mile from its social and economic center, allowing the park, market, church, and pub to be within walking distance of the suburb dwellers. If this was the intent of the suburb, it proved to be a colossal failure. The suburbs were not designed around the human scale, but through top-down zoning restrictions making vehicle ownership a prerequisite for economic activity (See Figure 1).[43] This led to the consolidation of economic activity to huge, impersonal conglomerates, such as Wal-Mart. Huge networks of space-consuming roadways are laid and artificiality pervades the landscape. Mumford writes:

The ultimate outcome of the suburb’s alienation from the city became visible only in the twentieth century….In the mass movement into suburban areas a new kind of community was produced, which caricatured both the historic city and the archetypal suburban refuge: a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless pre-fabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold, manufactured in the central metropolis. Thus the ultimate effect of the suburban escape in our time is, ironically, a low-grade uniform environment from which escape is impossible.[44]

The whole design of the suburb represents our hopeless alienation from nature and each other—from beauty, order, and harmony. Much of suburbia is artificial and, even worse, it is harmoniously artificial. The immaculate front yard law, the planted flowers, the hedged bushes, the kitsch fountains and the garden gnomes all fit together. All is imported; all is foreign. The primary aesthetical criterion is the “cute.” Their purpose is often not meant to harmonize with some regional ecology or collective and spontaneous culture, but to conform to the expected artificiality. It’s a pseudo-harmony. Many subdivisions are filled with monstrous architectural design, few trees and plenty of power lines. The streets are filled with parked vehicles and one cannot escape the ever-present hum of human arrogance vicariously expressed through unnecessarily loud vehicles. The market—where the butcher, baker, grocer, dairyman, and other tradesman have conglomerated into namelessness—is miles away. Even the neo-pub, the coffee shop (Starbucks), is rarely within walking distance. In addition, apart from an enduring intentionality, one cannot know his or her neighbors. It is a concession that community is utopianistic and that art and aesthetic creativity is meant for museums, not the public.

We so often pass by ugliness without even recognizing it. The typical commercial district of a city, where everything one needs for modern life (car lots, fast food, banks, super markets, etc.) is conveniently located on one main street, often stretching for miles (See Figure 2).[45]

Figure 2: Commercial District
Figure 2: Commercial District

The illuminated signs for various chain restaurants fills the driver’s view (there are few pedestrians). It is ugly, but we accept this, thinking that such development does not violate cosmic principles any more than any other human development. Even when one recognizes its ugliness, it is considered a necessary ugliness: We need the occasional ugly in order to maximize market efficiency. Beauty, so we are told, is found in the efficiency of markets, not in the products of the markets. This sort of thinking is only possible with the man/nature separation mindset.

Consider, though, how such images would strike us if we identified the ground on which they rest as sacred and if we considered ourselves cultivators and stewards of that sacred ground. It is hard to imagine we would find such places acceptable. But the separation from nature, by strictly separating human development from sacred space, leads to the typical ugly commercial district. It de-spiritualizes everyday life away from a harmonious understanding of our place, away from following the cosmic principles of order and beauty. When humans cannot cultivate sacred space and maintain or transform its sacredness, then the space in which we develop (out of necessity) has every reason to look ugly.

IV. The Reformed Solution

Quite often the Reformation and the Reformers are assigned blame for this modern world. The Radical Orthodoxy movement says this frequently. John Milbank, one of the chief proponent this theology, argues that “in modernity…there is no mediation of the invisible in the visible, and no aura of invisibility hovering around the invisible. In consequence there is no beauty.”[46] The solution he suggests that “to see…the beautiful is to see the invisible in the visible…hidden divine source irradiating the finite surface.” He and others, echoing Neo-Platonism, say that humans “participate” in the divine through creation. One common argument against the Reformation is that it expanded the role of the subject, setting the stage for Kant and Schiller. There might be some truth to this, as Reformed theologians have admitted.[47] But the concept of the covenant in Reformed thought, though seeking to avoid any platonic dualisms, has all the practical benefits of the Radical Orthodoxy’s participation in the divine.[48] Milbanks’ discussion of beauty, quoted above, bears a striking resemblance to statements by Calvin, Edwards and many other Reformed theologians. The principle of conformity to something outside of the subject is present throughout the Reformed literature. The subject might be the “place” where God’s acts on a person, but the experience of beauty naturally beckons and produces an external response of objective conformity. Whatever theological resources Radical Orthodoxy has to deal with the present crisis of modernity, Reformed theology has as well.

Reformed theology, in the way I’ve presented it, demands that every development of humankind reflects the intended purpose for creation, not only out of duty to God and creation, but also out of love for the people intended to live in such a creation. Not only is beauty a means of knowing the beautiful character of God; is it a necessity for human flourishing. Beauty must not be private, nor only be in a museum; it must be public. Public beauty proclaims divine love and demands that the viewer or hearer be lovers of the public good. In beauty we find peace in our place in life. It is God telling us that we belong in his creation. Though not Reformed, philosopher Roger Scruton expresses it well:

We can wander through this world alienated, resentful, full of suspicion and distrust. Or we can find our home here, coming to rest in harmony with others and with ourselves. The experience of beauty guides us along this second path: it tells us that we are at home in the world, that the world is already ordered in our perceptions as a place fit for the lives of beings like us.[49]

To restore the primacy of aesthetics we must view our activity in the world as cultivation, as a cultus. The Latin cultus means “care, labor; cultivation, culture; worship, reverence.”[50] This is not worship of nature, but the reestablishment of a proper relationship to it, knowing that humans are rightfully the agents of conservation for and cultivators of sacred ground. This is our mandate. Cultivation recognizes the importance of human creativity in sacred ground where human-wrought beauty, harmony and order are possible. As Reformational theologian Gordan Spykman wrote, “With all our potentials – our rationality, imagination, feeling, culture-forming activity – we are called to play our servant roles in creation.”[51] The result of cultivation is a sense of place. It is a sense of belonging to the space in which we dwell. Heidegger writes, “The relationship between man and space is none other than dwelling, thought essentially.”[52] We cultivate so that we can dwell, and in the process we realize our full humanity.

What Reformed theology demands is the creation of the beautiful. And this beauty is the manifestation of a beautiful community. What I mean by this is similar to how some philosophers of music have described dance. “It is through ‘taking up’ a work of music in our own response to it that we show our grasp of its expressive power.”[53] The visual manifestation of music is the human response to it, namely, dancing. The moral nature of the music itself is revealed in how one is naturally inspired to dance to it. My contention is that the unseen and intangible spirit of love for place and each other is displayed by the beauty of its inhabitant’s built environment and, in turn, the beautiful built environment forms a spirit of love among its inhabitants.

The world is the theater of God’s glory, and man is to shape that already-perfect world into a place of places that retains that glory. The cultivation of creation then must produce communities in loving harmony with each other, the created order, and God himself. Anthony Hoekema writes, “God has placed man into a threefold relationship: between man and God, between man and his fellowmen, and between man and nature….God has placed man into all three of these relationships; we can neither exist nor function properly without any one of them.”[55] This threefold relationship (God, created order, and humanity) would be a visible expression of the glory of God on earth. Hoekema continues: “[This] is a reflection of God’s own being. Man’s responsibility to God and conscious fellowship with God is a reflection of God’s fellowship with and love for man. Man’s fellowship with his fellowmen is a reflection of the inter-Trinitarian fellowship within the Godhead…And man’s dominion over the earth reflects the supreme dominion of God the Creator over all that he has made.”[56] From this threefold relationship arises the fullest expression of God’s own condescension in creation.

But we live in a fallen world, a world of beauty and ugliness. If one accepts the argument thus far, it is clear that one ought to create beauty. But what do we do with ugliness? I doubt that ugliness has any place in the eschaton, but can it serve a beneficial purpose in this time of the already and not-yet? I propose that there is a place for ugliness in this time. While the beautiful is an analogy of what God is, the ugly is an analogy of what God is not. In Romans 3:5, the Apostle Paul says that unrighteousness serves to “show” the righteousness of God and “through [a] lie God’s truth abounds to his glory.” This suggests that it can be beneficial to use an analogy of what God is not; it can even be glorifying. There are certain limitations to this though. The first is that the ugly must be called what it is. If the ugly is not called what it is, we risk misidentifying the beautiful. The ugly is a thing that will forever pass away in the age to come. The beautiful will never pass away. The second limitation is the function of these objects: We should not situate the ugly in places where people live. Living in ugliness can do nothing but harm people.

Figure 3: Jeff Koon's Kitsch
Figure 3: Jeff Koon’s Kitsch

We’ve discussed the beautiful and ugliness, but what about that dreaded third category? Kitsch is neither beautiful, nor ugly. It is merely, “nice” or “cute.” It demands nothing from those who view it, and it can be discarded without a thought. Scruton is right to call kitsch a “disease of faith.”[57] He further says, “The world of kitsch is…a heartless world, in which emotion is directed away from its proper target towards sugary stereotypes, permitting us to pay passing tribute to love and sorrow without the trouble of feeling them.”[58] When we litter our world with kitsch we say that his world can be thrown away and forgotten. It is like “cheap grace,” as Bonhoeffer would put it. Kitsch is like “grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ ware…grace without a cost.”[59] It is a symbol of mass production, not one of care, cost and love. If kitsch breaks, you buy a new one. It demands nothing costly from the viewer. Kitsch is an affront to nature and the Creator. The work of Jeff Koons (see Figure 3) is more offensive than Dada and the shock art. Koons monstrous kitsch is a symbol hatred to the community. It is a celebration of the death of nature’s God, and humankind’s alienation to anything beyond themselves. His work makes fun of his neighbor, drives humanity from any sense place in creation, and dismisses God as an idea long dead. But we ought to keep in mind that Koon’s kitsch is just our kitsch blown up to a colossal size. His large litter is our small litter. His work should not cause us to respond with “well, isn’t that neat” (as he would like you to respond). It should cause us to see our own cheap relationship to so many things around us. It should cause us to desire the things that would break one’s heart to throw away.

V. Renewal

There have been recent attempts to construct a developed environment on the human scale with consideration for beauty and harmony. Some have tried to restore the human art of cultivation by rejecting zoning restrictions and implementing cultural restrictions on buildings and roadways. Leon Krier’s design for Poundbury in Dorset, England tries to conform to these ideas (See Figure 4).[60]

Figure 4: Poundbury
Figure 4: Poundbury

This high-density urban city is not suburban, having been designed around people, not cars. The result is no traffic congestion, because the necessities of economic and social life (market, church, school, pub, friends, etc.) are within walking distance. It has no zoning or publicly owned buildings. All proposed building projects must be approved by the community. The result is a town with a harmonious and successful aesthetic.

The greater public often fails to notice those working to build a beautiful community and the fruit of their labor. When one explores certain urban and suburban neighborhoods, small pockets of intentional communities can be found. The explosion of farmers markets, the Slow Food movement, and the Buy Local movement are indications of this. Micro-breweries and independent coffee shops are opening everywhere. Many young people, who likely could find riches in the corporate world, are opening small and creative shops and restaurants hoping to produce a vibrant community of life.

In our fallen state, it is difficult to precisely state what a beautiful developed environment looks like. Here I have presented what I see as the theological groundwork for a further inquiry into a Reformed public aesthetic. I hope to continue this project and with more detail.[61] I suspect that we can learn by doing. The attempt to do what Adam should have done is itself a teacher of righteousness. In seeking the beautiful, we discover not only how far we have fallen short, but also that God gives us the grace to live and act in his theater of glory.


[1] John Calvin Sermon 96 on Job, The Works of John Calvin in 59 volume, eds Wilhelm Baum, Edward Cunitz, and Edward Reusss (Brunswick: A. Schwetchke and Son, 1863-1900), 34:439. Quote in Belden C. Lane, Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (New York: Oxford University Press), 18.

[2] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Psalms (95-150), Vol. VI (Edinburgh: Baker Books), 145.

[3] Thomas wrote, “This perfection does not belong to created good according to their essential existence, but because of something superadded, which is called their virtue.” In Selected Writings (London: Penguin), 159.

[4] Summa II. 2nd, Q. 180, art. 4 and Q. 182, art.1

[5] Summa II. 2nd, Q. 182, art. 3 Concerning commerce, Aquinas even said that there is “something shameful about it, being without any honorable or necessary defining goal.”

[6] They still conducted work, but the material result was unimportant. Work was a means of enhancing other-worldly contemplation, not an end in itself.

[7] The Belgic Confession can be found at (accessed December 12, 2003).

[8] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Psalms (1-94), Vol. IV (Edinburgh: Baker Books), 308. Calvin commenting on Psalm 19:1.

[9] Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Genesis, Vol. I (Edinburgh: Baker Books), 57. This is from the argument.

[10] Quoted in Robert Daly God’s Alter: The World and the Flesh in Puritan Poetry Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978), 90. Emphasis mine.

[11] An Exposition upon…the Book of Job, 206, 211. Quote by Lane 116.

[12] Institutes of the Christian Religion, trans. By Henry Beveridge (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company), I.V.1

[13] Jonathan Edwards, “Nothing upon Earth Can Represent the Glories of Heave,” The Works of Jonathan Edwards, in 25 volumes, general editor, Perry Miller (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1957-2006), 14:139-140. Quotes in Lane 203.

[14] See his Church Dogmatics, esp. Vol II.1.

[15] Institutes I.V.5. He continues, “it is accurate and harsh. (Nature being more properly the order which has been established by God.)”

[16] “Miscellanies” 108, Works, 13:278-279. Quoted in Lane 201.

[17] Preface to the French translation of the New Testament by his cousin, Pierre Robert Olivetan, in Works 9:795. Quoted in Lane 74.

[18] Quoted in Daly 120.

[19] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Psalms (95-150), Vol. VI (Edinburgh: Baker Books), 58. Calvin is commenting on Psalm 96:11.

[20] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on the Book of Psalms (1-94), Vol. IV (Edinburgh: Baker Books), 401. Calvin is commenting on Psalm 24:1.

[21] G. K. Beale The Temple and the Church’s Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2004), 82.

[22] Ibid

[23] Ibid. “After conquering a new territory, the Assyrian king Shalmanesar ‘fashioned a might image of my majesty’ that he ‘set up’ on a black obelisk, and then he virtually equate his ‘image’ with that of ‘the glory of Assur’ his god.” (p. 82).

[24] Al Wolters Creation Regained (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1985), 42.

[25] John Calvin, Calvin’s Commentary on the Gospel According to John, Vol. XVIII (Edinburgh: Baker Books), 73. Calvin is commenting on John 13:31.

[26] Wolters 72-73.

[27] Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “nature,” (accessed December 12, 2013).

[28] Aquinas 20.

[29] Henry David Thoreau, Walden and Civil Disobedience (publication place: Empire Books, 2011), 125.

[30] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Essential Writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson, 2000 Modern Library (New York: Modern Library, 2000), 240.

[31] John Muir, “Wild Wool,” Overland Monthly 14 (1875). Quoted in Lane 45.

[32] John Brinckerhoff Jackson, A Sense of Place, a Sense of Time (publication place: Yale University Press, 1996), 87.

[33] Transcript of Act Establishing Yellowstone National Park (1872) (accessed December 4, 2012).

[34] Stephen Fox, John Muir and His Legacy: the American Conservation Movement (Boston: Little Brown & Co, 1981), 125-129.

[35] Marshall, The Problem of the Wilderness. The Scientific Monthly (1930), reprinted in The Living Wilderness 40:31-35. Quoted in Alan E. Watson, The Evolving Relationship Between Wilderness and the American People. Trends 26(3): 23-28. Italics added.

[36] Watson, 24.

[37] Quoted in Jackson, 87.

[38] Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire: a Season in the Wilderness, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Touchstone, 1990), 18.  It is ironic that the previous line is “I’m a humanist.”

[39] Jackson, 88.

[40] The word “untrammeled” is significant here. It does not denote “avoidance of trampling”, but “unconstrained freedom” or the “avoidance of hindrance.” It seems the US government has adopted the more radical idea that hindrance of nature in any form is a violation of nature. Hindrance is just as desecrating as trampling. I discuss desecration below.

[41] The Wilderness Act, (accessed December 4, 2012). Italic added. The Act also lists recreation as a goal of federal wilderness preservation.

[42] Lewis Mumford, The City in History: Its Origins, Its Transformations, and Its Prospects. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., 1961), 511. 

[43] David Shankbone, “Suburban development in Colorado Springs, Colorado” Wikimedia Commons (accessed December 4, 2012).

[44] Mumford, 486.

[45] “cranbury Strip” (accessed December 11, 2012).

[46] Milbank, “Beauty and the Soul,” in John Milbank, Graham Ward, and Edith Wyschogrod, Theological Perspectives on God and Beauty (Harrisburg, Pa.: Trinity Press, 2003, 1-2. Quote in Dyrness, William A. Poetic Theology: God and the poetics of everyday life (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2011), 15.

[47] Dyrness 18.

[48] Horton chapter in Smith’s book.

[49] Scruton Beauty 174.

[50] Online Etymology Dictionary, s.v. “Cultus,” (accessed December 4, 2012).

[51] Gordan J. Spykman, Reformation Theology, Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1992, 250.

[52] Building. Dwelling. Thinking 1957. Hebel der Hausfreund Pfullingen. Germany: Neske. 359 Quote in Bartholomew, Craig G. Where Mortals Dwell: a Christian View of Place for Today, Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic, 2011, 12.

[53] Roger Scruton, Understanding Music (London: Continuum, 2009), 51.

[54] Edward S. Casey, Getting Back Into Place: Toward a Renewed Understanding of the Place-World (Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana University press, 1993), 175.

[55] Anthony Hoekema, Created in God’s Image (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1986), 75, 81

[56] Ibid, 81.

[57] Scruton 191

[58] Ibid

[59] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, (New York: Touchstone, 1959), 43.

[60] “Poundbury from above” (Accessed December 4, 2012).

[61] Concerning the built environment, Eric O. Jacobsen has written a useful and engaging book from a Reformed perspective Space Between: A Christian Engagement with the Built Environment (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2012.

3 replies on “Groundwork for a Reformed Theology of Public Aesthetics”

  1. Excellent post! You beautifully wove together so many essential yet often neglected concepts of the Reformed worldview. Really solid groundwork for further studies in aesthetics in general. BTW, ‘Koon’ should be Koons and ‘out’ should be ‘our’ in the last paragraph.


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