A Sense of Style: Beauty and the Christian Moral Life

“At times, a sense of style really is everything.”

The Society of Adventist Philosophers celebrated the tenth anniversary of its founding with the inaugural offering of the James J. Londis and Family Lecture, by inviting David Bentley Hart to speak for its annual gathering, held November 21, at San Diego, in conjunction with the American Academy of Religion/Society of Biblical Literature meetings.

Hart’s presentation capped a day of papers on the topic of “Truth Matters,” an exploration, among other things, of epistemology—the study of what we can know and how we can verify it. Specifically, his paper addressed the relation of beauty to moral truth, and practically, how that relation can be expressed in our lives.

Hart is something of a gadfly in academe and is often paired in debate with opponents on topics such as capital punishment, abortion, religion and politics, and most recently, the judgment of God and universalism. His newest book, That All Shall be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation (Yale University Press, 2019), posits the idea that the only rational understanding that is true to God’s character is that all will be saved.

One senses that he is a writer first, a speaker second. His sentences are of paragraph length, invested with digressions and questions, and sparkling with enough neologisms and archaic word forms that one member of the audience began a question with the remark that he had to keep a dictionary handy when reading Hart’s books. He suffers from a condition that strains his voice so that he is forced to speak softly, which made it difficult for him to be heard farther back in the high-ceilinged room at the San Diego Community College where the meetings were held.

Nevertheless, what he offered was a stimulating reflection on the connection of beauty to the moral life. He confessed in the beginning to “a deep unhappiness” with “the alienation of the ethical from the aesthetic.” He lamented the fragmentary quality of thinking on the moral life “that has reduced ethical reasoning to a state of incoherence,” and hastened to add that his unhappiness “has nothing to do with some supposed decline of morality in the arts.” In a characteristic flash of wit he stated that “all ‘moral art’ is inevitably bad, and yet all bad art is somehow deeply immoral. There is in a sense more holiness in an elegant blasphemy than in a clumsy pious platitude.”

The modern conceptual temperament, he claims, finds that the pursuit of the Good is opposed to the pursuit of the Beautiful, as if hungering after Beauty were somehow trivial by comparison to striving for the Good. Kant becomes the epitome of this conceptual reticence. The beautiful, thought Kant, could be comprehended by our cognition; the Sublime exceeded our abilities to represent it, although not our ability to enjoy it. We are powerfully drawn to the sublime, despite our limits of comprehension and expression of it, and this presents modern ethical thought with an impregnable wall. We long for the union of the beautiful and the good, aesthetics and morality, but in Kant’s system his categorical imperative’s “pitiless demand for perfect disinterest”—the requirement to examine one’s ethical actions for any trace of an impure motive, such as a calculation of reward or benefit—makes that union impossible. The result in modern ethical thought, says Hart, has been that any sense of joy in exercising one’s moral will has been extinguished.

There is, says Hart, “something poignant in how thoroughly the prejudice in favor of total disinterest condemns us to a language of the ethical devoid of any real concept of moral character.” And, he asks, “should we not want to produce persons who by nature spontaneously delight in moral goodness?” In trying to make sense of the world we are instinctively stretching toward the truth as it may be found. “Every act of thought is purposive,” says Hart. All our striving for knowledge, our rational experiences, are “from the first a moment of rapture, of ecstasy, toward ends that must be understood as . . . nothing less than the perfections of being.” In essence and in experience, “the very structure of thought is an essential relation to God as its ‘natural’ end.” We desire to know and the goal of our knowledge is to know God. According to Hart, a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, the foundation of our knowing and willing is theosis, divinization. “The source of ethical existence is a tacit anticipation within us of coming to enjoy the bliss of the gods, and of becoming God in God.”

Central to his case about the relation of beauty to the good or moral, is that notion that beauty affects us through sheer delight, rather than through a sense of obligation. To appreciate something beautiful is to be instantly drawn to it, not as a result of grinding our way through a moral structure or cobbling together some sense of beauty based on duty. Thus, we know we are cultivating true virtue when we delight in goodness and find our joy in loving others. Our ethics and morality, says Hart, can spring from our desire and happiness in doing good because goodness springs from finding our heart’s desire in God.

With that, Hart turned to “the delicate matter of taste, whether good or bad.” Ethics, for him, is about cultivating good taste, and while taste cannot be argued about, Hart believes that our ability to recognize beauty is not simply a matter of how we were raised or our aesthetic education, “but of one’s moral aptitude for the splendor of the good.” A bad education may play a role in our inability to perceive beauty, but for Hart the beautiful has the power to attract anyone who is open to it and to move that person to spontaneous expressions of love. If we allow it, the beautiful can draw us to love.

Our experience of beauty necessarily raises the experience of judgment, “not the judgment we pass on the beauty we encounter in the world, but the judgment it passes on us.” Hart see this in the Gospels, particularly in John, where Christ is the light that has come into the world. Our reception of Christ, our ability to see him as the light, reveals us to ourselves. Even more, the allegory of judgment in Matthew 25 shows us that Christ is in the faces of those we served or ignored. “One’s failure to recognize the face of Christ . . . in the abject and oppressed, the suffering and disenfranchised, is the revelation that one has chosen hell as one’s home.” This calls us to a radical reorientation of what is beautiful: what the world scorns and oppresses is the very locus of the beauty of God in Christ. In a striking passage, Hart summarizes this vision: “It requires a cultivation of perception so capacious in its aesthetic sympathies that it can find within every concrete reality, however disfigured by sin and death, an icon of transcendent beauty.”

How is this to be accomplished? Hart offers up his singular vision which rejects “ethics” and particularly “Christian ethics,” if that means that we operate morally through “precise prescriptions and prohibitions.” Instead, he puts his trust in a sense of style, which he describes as “the cultured ability to recognize, appreciate, imitate, develop, and vary certain forms of living in this world, certain seductive fashions.” For the Christian, this necessarily entails living a life that imitates Christ’s, and by trying to capture something of his unique style, exemplified in his interaction with the woman caught in adultery in John’s Gospel.

Hart describes, with admiration and affection, Christ’s actions as “the grand character of the effortless beau geste, a nonchalant display of the special privilege belonging to those blessed few who can . . . confidently violate any given convention simply because they know how to do it with consummate and ineffably accomplished artistry.” Finding and acting in this style is difficult, of course. “Christ demonstrates how a single graceful gesture, performed with sufficient moral and aesthetic skill, can express all the dimensions of the beauty of charity.”

Goodness, says Hart in conclusion, is eternal beauty, and therein lies its power to draw us to action and draw us to Christ. “At times, a sense of style really is everything.”

Barry Casey taught religion, philosophy, ethics, and communications for 37 years at universities in Maryland and Washington, DC. He is now retired and writing in Burtonsville, Maryland. More of the author’s writing can be found on his blog, Dante’s Woods. Email him at darmokjilad@gmail.com. His first book, Wandering, Not Lost: Essays on Faith, Doubt, and Mystery, is now available.

Photo courtesy of Barry Casey.

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/10048
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Barry Casey’s report on David Hart’s presentation for the James J. Londis and Family Inaugural lecture is not only accurate and insightful, it is written with a “style” Hart himself would commend!! Thank you Barry for this.

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I would have to say that I’m somewhat disappointing in his position on this, given that I followed some of his other work that has more depth. He has all of the prerequisites to see the nuances that he seems to avoid for the sake of getting to his premise faster, but in doing so he undermines the premise instead of strengthening it. I think there’s a more precise and more coherent way of getting to the same premise, but it doesn’t result in problems I’ll address below.

For example, he throws this idea out:

This would be a typical misreading of Kant on this subject, since it has to be contextualized in the “motivational structure” for the agent. Kant doesn’t say that we can’t have any layered motives that may align with certain duty. He merely points out that duty must be a dominant motivation in the bundle if we are to consider it to be moral, so that when other motivations are removed… then agent would still go through with that moral duty.

For example, I may feel if it’s my duty to save a drowning man, and there’s an added bonus of being considered a hero that’s layered on top of it, but if that bonus was removed, I’d still save the man. If I wouldn’t, then morality of my actions are questionable. Kant’s moral experiments are all about shifting various contexts, playing with variables, and tracing results.

So, I disagree with that particular reading of Kant, and it’s really disappointing that this becomes the fulcrum upon which the rest of the premise hangs.

The above view presents a dilemma that may be very much a false one. Whether you agree or disagree with Kant, what he correctly pointed out is that there isn’t some singular “beauty” or “duty”, and it’s merely an abstract category that we dump a great number of similar concepts into. He’s done some work into splitting these apart, but not enough IMO.

If we further contextualize this idea via modern neurophysiology and psychology, there isn’t some consolidated and “free range” mechanism of psyche. Instead there’s a number of competing mechanisms that end up piping some “weighted decision” to our conscious awareness, in which there’s some sense of comparative qualia. So, we can say that this picture is beautiful (pleasing to the senses), but not as pleasing as a picture of my daughter, or wife, or a dog. And we can arrange these from more beautiful to least, if we have to.

So, we can’t ignore the hierarchical nature of beauty, and we can’t ignore the hierarchical nature of duty… which leads me to the central question as to how these are related?

And if Kant got to circle back to write some notes for future revisions of his work, I’d say he would contextualize beauty and duty in personal experience that’s layered on top of certain teleological hierarchy of ideals that don’t exist as “ideal forms” as per Plato, but rather certain set of ideal parameters that we reference as we get to parse reality around us. And these parameters determine the placement in hierarchy of one’s values when one sees certain context or subject.

In that sense, beauty is a judgement of perceived and parametrized ideal, while duty is an inversion of that, it’s a response to remedy a less than ideal context. In one case we get to stand in admiration or perhaps seek to preserve and protect it, while in other we get to act and shift it closer to our ideal preferences, or imagine where such comparative ideal resides on the scale of hierarchy of such ideals.

With that in mind, it’s merely a different facets of the same judgement mechanism.

My personal problem with the above is that it’s too detached from the above-described mechanisms that we can demonstrate to be such.

It’s a very convoluted and flowery way of saying that what we consider to be God, is typically a personification of ideals that sit at the top of the hierarchy of a wide range of such ideal concepts that we consider to be desirable. And again, this isn’t like some Platonic realm of ideal pictures stored in our head, but more of a parametrized functions that look for certain qualitative markers. So, our sense of ethics, morality, and beauty is driven by recognizing attributes as opposed to 1-to-1 comparison.

Hart labels that as “style” (those parametrized attributes) as opposed to an exact copy, which I agree with. Although I wouldn’t get there the same way he does.

Just to balance my review with an essay of Hart’s that I find very deep and on point… I’d recommend:

There was a huge freak out over it among evangelical theologians. While I don’t agree with many of his assumptions, I think the idea that we should read Biblical narrative from the POV of the people it was written to is something that tends to be lost with pastors today, who read it as thought few sentences they pluck were put there by God himself for such a time as this.

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When and if the entire lecture is printed, I would be interested in knowing whether or not you derive a different sense from his thoughts. Kant in particular received much longer treatment, which does not mean he interpreted him correctly. I for one have not worked diligently on Kant since graduate school, so would defer to any Kantian scholar (including yourself) who has worked through the antinomies carefully, and nuanced Kant’s insistence (at points) that the good will operates from a sense of duty (alone? or primarily is my question also).

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Thank you for your critique and viewpoint. It’s entirely possible that in my attempt to condense and synthesize his discussion of Kant that I misrepresented his position. More than half the paper was on Kant, rather excessive in my view for the occasion, but I appreciated his portrayal of Christ’s action and “style” in his interaction with the woman. If you email me, I will send you his paper (darmokjilad@gmail.com).

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His view of Kant isn’t really a problem for me, since he merely structures an antithesis for his thesis, so it’s more for illustration than anything else. I was merely pointing out this issue for the sake of demonstrating that making this point around Kantian philosophy can have problems.

My disappointment was largely due to this subject being much broader than Hart unveiled it to be. And merely focusing on it from perspective of allowing beauty to unveil ethics may not reveal these issues.

I’ll try to explain in the most condensed way possible. There’s a direction in modernist art and architecture that’s eerily similar to the tendencies we find in the revivalist theology of the Great Awakening of the same era.

For example, consider “Ornament is Crime” sentiment of the modernist art and architectural movements, and compare it to something like “Jewelry is sin” in Adventist beliefs.

Another example, consider “Form must follow function” ideals and consider comparable Adventist “dress reform”.

Of course, these concepts are not limited to Adventism, but there’s a cultural trajectory towards oversimplification, and abstract approach to beauty that’s detached from the natural context that we previously find it. After all, ornaments generally are representation of the complex natural beauty, which was traded for a more sterilized and controlled environments and art that reduced complexity to symbolism.

Consider exhibit A:

This is SDA church explaining who they are:

https://players.brightcove.net/4276901726001/rkxwreua_default/index.html?videoId=4475928098001

You can call this presentation to be clear. You can call it engaging. You can call it interesting. But, you can’t call it beautiful. There isn’t beauty in it. In fact, the only arguably beautiful thing about it was pushed to a washed out background setting, I’m assuming because the marketing department was terrified to incorporate any traditional Catholic imagery.

So, the broader point is that corporate culture that spearheaded modernist conventions and approach to design robbed us of beauty, and by extension robbed us of access to transcendent . And that’s what we are left with today - oversimplified iconography that structures easily-identifiable branding, which is specifically designed to be a dumbed-down information medium that treats everyone like children who are not able to grasp complexity.

And that’s the state in which we find the modern culture, and that’s the state that we find the modern church. As Hart points out, it’s unable to communicate beauty, because beauty can’t be constrained to a symbol. The beauty has its interpretive component that may be subjective, but there’s a broader transcendent component that can’t be verbalized or “understood” through reason. Beauty is an emergent property as we perceive it consciously. But, that seems to be something church abandoned entirely. One may argue that there’s a remnant aspect of poetic music, and I may agree to a point, but it’s a very distant aspect of the “borrowed past” that has no alternatives in modern repetitive and oversimlified praise context.

And it’s a pity, because someone like Tarkovski drawn almost entirely on Eastern Orthodox perspective on art as it relates to transcendent, and watching his films invokes the same feeling of sublime awe as it unraveled into some very deep philosophical position that broadened one’s perspective on reality of “spiritual”.

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Let’s just start with - BEAUTY IS SUBJECTIVE, to state the obvious. Along with that, we need to say the “past” comes to us as in a mist that covers up the stark edges, molding what we see (perceive) in an inexpressible crescendo of feelings. This is, perhaps why the past always seems somehow better, tastier, more meaningful. This is perhaps why we react emotionally to the inside of a cathedral, calling it beautiful, as apposed to a 1950’s Adventist church with the only attempt at beauty being the colourful window or painting above the baptistry.

There is really so much in this whole presentation here, it’s hard to know how to respond, if at all. Taken in step, I’ll begin with that “sense of holiness”. “Sense” says it all. It’s what we feel that makes anything holy; and that feeling comes out of our own past. But let’s say there’s beauty in anything that is elegant and stands true to its form. “*More sense of holiness in elegant blasphemy than a pious platitude” * is right on target. Sometimes, “damn” is the only honest reaction to a situation - can’t say it’s beautiful, but it is honest. Maybe “honesty” is beautiful.

In one of the episodes of “Mash” the group found out that one of the close-knit crew had been killed in a plane crash on the way home. The “gang” met together, and gave tribute in a silent salute as they raised their “glasses”. I remember getting teary despite the list of Adventist prohibitions dangling in my head. It was a beautiful moment.

Subject: Goodness being “goodness” only when not deliberated. OR, is “morality” the same moral duty? There was that guy in the icy Patomac who kept giving the life-saver to anyone struggling beside him. Those of us old enough remember that plane crash, and the fact this man died while saving a number of lives. The water was just too cold for “goodness” to be rewarded. For me, this has cemented the idea that “goodness” is true goodness only when we act with Godly action without thinking. As soon as we identify our actions as being good, it ceases being good. (But I’m still deliberating that one.) We can still do a good thing as a choice, as well as it being automatic.

It seems that imitating Christ’s style is also a “prescription”. Isn’t “style” a combination of acts, plus personal perception?
@Arkdrey

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Thank you for the Hart essay. It makes perfect sense to me, though others might find fault with it. “Diversity” defined the early church as well as Judaism in that period. Hart’s discussion is a reminder that we need to view the canonical writings they way they would have, and not the way we have read it through the accretions of millennia.

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Thanks, Dr. Casey, for the recommendation of “That All Shall be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Universal Salvation.” Dr. Hart’s writing style alone is reason enough to recommend the book and the author, but there is much more.

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I don’t think that’s the dominant reason why we long for the past.

Philosophy and religion today are attempting to cast the understanding of the present into conceptual paradigms of the past. And it’s problematic, because we no longer think that way. Our writing and thought process became gradually more specialized, fragmented, and simplified. And it’s evident in shifting from Scriptio continua in the West to all the way to Twitter-form of isolated blurbs.

While removing these conventions democratized written language and made it more accessible, it likewise arguably created an illusion of disjointed reality in which objects and people exist autonomously, much like words in this sentence.

The irony of religion in that context is that its self-described (religio) purpose is to link everything back together , and reveal that hidden continuum to transcendent divine. But it arguably began the trend with it’s attempt to “essentialize” belief, which resulted in chunking up the text for references, and that impacted even broader cultural direction of conceptual 180 turn.

Religion became means of separating and isolating, instead of linking. “Holy”, derived from “Whole”, became “set apart”, and At-One-Ment became “compensating for wrongdoing”. God, or unifying good that we recognize… became separate from everything else. The entire conceptual structure of religious teleology was turned on its head.

I think there’s a longing for the past, precisely because the past was longing for unity, in which we could recognize beauty as a holistic “texture”.

Sometimes it’s really as simple as trying to derive the meaning of the word. We can’t be holy if we are incomplete, or fragmented. That’s why we seek knowledge. That’s why we seek social approval and feedback. And more generally, that’s why we seek “religion”, even in the example you outlined below.

I would disagree, but largely because I try to maintain that conceptual continuum as to how this particular term progressed through ages to what we have now.

it’s assumed to come from ged (proto-indo-European), meaning unite or fit > to Proto-Germanic godaz, with similar meaning > to reduction into god in old English > and subsequently to good we have today.

It relates to this concept of unity, but more in a “fitting” context. So, what we find “good” is what we find “fitting” into broader coherent unity.

I considered that too at first, but style isn’t prescriptive in a scene that it exists in a scope of voluntary alignment to something that you recognize as desirable. In some modernist sense, the style exists as distinction, but it’s actually quite the opposite in its teleological orientation to unite people who recognize and embrace that style as a part of their collective identity.

Consider any modern music artist that has distinct style. First of all, the style targets, it doesn’t really exists arbitrarily. It exists as an unspoken appeal that people respond to and adopt. But, there isn’t some prescription for you to adopt that style. The style itself is an appeal.

I said,

As soon as we identify our actions as being good, it ceases being good. (But I’m still deliberating that one.) We can still do a good thing as a choice, as well as it being automatic.

You said,
"I would disagree, but largely because I try to maintain that conceptual continuum as to how this particular term progressed through ages to what we have now.

it’s assumed to come from ged (proto-indo-European), meaning unite or fit > to Proto-Germanic godaz, with similar meaning > to reduction into god in old English > and subsequently to good we have today.

It relates to this concept of unity, but more in a “fitting” context. So, what we find “good” is what we find “fitting” into broader coherent unity."

And I say there is too much deliberation in all this; or, is all of it subliminal… What I meant was once we make goodness a choice we introduce ego.

Once upon a time I did a good thing against my conscious will and with great deal fo difficulty. In fact I was surprised at the words coming out of my own mouth as I agreed to do it. Later, someone said what a wonderful thing I had done. I was very upset at that praise. It made me focus on what I did. Before, I had just been busy doing it. What I was thinking about at the time was, how much I didn’t want to do this.

I’m thinking I’m out of my league with this. Your post isn’t computing as an answer to mine.

I don’t think there’s enough :slight_smile: It’s noteworthy to see that something that began with idea of “holism” and “unity” progressed to mean the opposite.

Who we? Is ego not “you”? Do you think that ego isn’t automated to some degree? To which degree do “we” get a choice to whether introduce or not introduce the ego? Why is ego there?

So, it seems that you have a problem with doing good you don’t want to do, but that’s forced on you?

Why would focusing on your accomplishments be problematic? In ANY scope of goals, the driving mechanism is some feeling of satisfaction form accomplishing these. That’s how your dopamine mechanism works.

There’s a false equivalence between receiving praise as a positive feedback mechanism, and something that builds arrogance and selfishness. That’s not the case. That’s why children seek praise from their parents. They seek positive feedback as they are learning to navigate reality. Selfishness and arrogance is a completely different aspect of dominance-seeking psyche.

The simple point is that goodness, beauty, God, and religion are all tied to the concept of holism as opposed to isolated function that one mechanically executes. Good can’t exist apart from the context it belongs to that makes it “fitting” in a constructive way.

Do you think that ego isn’t automated to some degree? To which degree do “we” get a choice to whether introduce or not introduce the ego? Why is ego there?

Who we? Is ego not “you”? Do you think that ego isn’t automated to some degree? To which degree do “we” get a choice to whether introduce or not introduce the ego? Why is ego there?

OK, I feel like there should be a couch here somewhere. Yes, ego is always there. which is natural and healthy as far as it goes. If we’re talking about “love your neighbour as yourself”, and “do unto others as…” then ego seems to negate the good that flows from it. If we’re going down lists of sins to be shunned, and the good to be done, we’re acting out of self interest rather than the love for others it’s supposed to be coming from.

I forced it on me, with all the problamtic ramifications of that decision swirling in my head. Not until it was pointed out that it was all a good thing, did the ego kick in overtly. I like to believe that I did it under some kind spiritual influence, but now I’m not convinced. When religion focuses on our behaviour it’s difficult to not involve the ego. The question is - is it really goodness.

I don’t think I agree. I don’t think there is any context in which “good” does not belong in a fitting way. Even a choice between two really bad choices makes the choice “good” coming from selfless place - (assisted suicide)? Now there’s a topic to tackle. :thinking:

Well it wouldn’t belong in any context in which judgement of such context is absent.

For example… exploding star in a galaxy we never observe… good or bad?

All evaluations (judgments) have a context. An exploding star is out of our immediate sphere and without context for us, other than what we know about the universe through scientific theory. If fractals are any indication of truth, everything in nature is tied to everything else. In fact, on the quantum level, separated particles still react to each other no matter the distance or time. So, if that star exploding was part of the creation process then it was good, elegant, and beautiful - as we come to know about it. It needs to be noticed to have value for us.

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