By Brewer Eberly
Carl R. Trueman recently offered yet another characteristically surgical takedown of contemporary culture over at First Things—this time biting into the Oscars and Western aesthetics. It is worth reading here.
Trueman argues that events like the Oscars will show yet again how Western aesthetics are beating (and to an extent, determining) Western ethics. In fact, Trueman is concerned that the West is identifying aesthetics with ethics. This is a problem because what the West thinks is “aesthetic” tends to mean whatever the West thinks is “physically attractive” (see: “sexy”). Thus, the Oscars highlight a particularly troubling aesthetic consequence of our current age in which ugly things like divorce and misogyny are dusted under the red carpets of entertainment and celebrity. Trueman writes,
“Compare, for example, the sight of some Hollywood couple on the red carpet with the sight of an elderly husband caring for his wife of fifty years, upon whom Alzheimer’s disease has inflicted its carnage. Surely the latter is more beautiful; and yet in a world dominated by the goal of personal satisfaction, the point needs to be asserted with vigor.”
Surely indeed. In 2018, Rembrandt’s “The Jewish Bride” (honoring two unknown, unattractive folks timidly joining in marriage) is probably already a meme somewhere, whereas the sight of Beyoncé and Jay-Z on the red carpet probably constitutes modern iconography.
Trueman is arguing that the physical aesthetic of Hollywood makes known a certain conception of the good that we Westerners are then compelled to orient ourselves around. In other words, the Hollywood aesthetic becomes an ethic. In response, Trueman suggests that Christians should exercise and emphasize “discrete” ethical teaching and aesthetics—neither identifying aesthetics with ethics nor strengthening their connection.
But I think Christians should do those things. In fact, Trueman does this in his article. The Hollywood aesthetic leads to an ethic of “betrayed friends, broken marriage vows, [and] wrecked homes,” precisely because the beautiful and the ethical are interwoven—not merely because the West is identifying aesthetics with ethics. It isn’t about Christians exercising discrete aesthetics and ethics, it’s about clarifying what we mean by “what is beautiful” and “what is good,” and emphasizing how the answers to those questions are inevitably bound together because the “Beautiful” and the “Good” are united in the attributes of God.
It is for this reason that William A. Dyrness can claim in Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue that beauty and goodness are “fundamentally identical.” (Peter Kreeft echoes this, explaining that the Greek word for beauty, kalon, means “the good and the beautiful.”) Dyrness is skeptical of the dichotomy between the objective, Platonic conception of Beauty as an external ideal and the modern, subjective account of Beauty as an internal preference (“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”). In The Oxford Handbook of Systematic Theology, he suggests that a Christian aesthetic enjoys both an “intensive” and contemplative character alongside an “extensive” and objective component that demands practical, outgoing moral action (in other words, an ethic). David Bentley Hart (an aesthete if there ever was one) also shows in The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetic of Christian Truth that Beauty implicitly invites a desire for moral action in the world precisely because it is not “disinterested” (in the infamous language of Kant). When ancient Christian contemplatives practiced the theoria physike (“seeing God’s Creation”) and prosoche (“the art of attention”), their attending to physical beauty aesthetically meant attending to physical brokenness ethically.
In fact (and with yet another nod of gratitude to Dyrness), words found in Scripture that carry an aesthetic component, like prosphilēs (Philippians 4:8) and kalos (Matthew 3:10, 13:24; John 10:11,14; 1 Timothy 4:4), are also backlit by ethical duty. “Whatever is prosphilēs (“pleasing,” “lovely”)…think about these things.” “Every tree therefore that does not bear kalos (“good and beautiful”) fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” The aesthetic presses into the ethical. As Dyrness quips, when God turned to Creation and said, “It is very good,” he was making an aesthetic and ethical judgment.
But perhaps it is Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just that makes the connection between aesthetics and ethics most clear:
[Beauty] actually assists us in the work of addressing injustice…requiring of us constant perceptual acuity—high dives of seeing, hearing, touching. …we move from ‘eros,’ in which we are seized by the beauty of one person, to ‘caritas,’ in which our care is extended to all people.
For Scarry (who isn’t arguing from a Christian perspective), the experience of Beauty can’t stop at beholding something physically attractive in sterile contemplation on our couches on Oscar night. Beauty is “a call.” It is receiving a gift while being pulled into another world that compels a response. The fear which Scarry corrects is that Beauty distracts, causing something like “lateral disregard” for our neighbor. Indeed, lateral disregard might well happen in Oscartide as we reflect on lovely people we have almost nothing in common with while forgetting our isolated neighbors we have much in common with.
But Scarry shows that Beauty can engender something like lateral regard, precisely because when we encounter Beauty, the experience causes us to be caught up in a beautiful thing while simultaneously moving toward our neighbor in invitation (Did you read this poem? Have you tasted this cocktail? You need to listen to this song). She writes,
When we come upon beautiful things—the tiny mauve-orange-blue moth on the brick, Augustine’s cake, a sentence about innocence in Hampshire— they act like small tears in the surface of the world that pull us through to some vaster space… letting the ground rotate beneath us several inches, so that when we land, we find we are standing in a different relation to the world than we were a moment before. It is not that we cease to stand at the center of the world, for we never stood there. It is that we cease to stand even at the center of our own world. We willingly cede our ground to the thing that stands before us.
Scarry calls this process “radical de-centering.” Beauty humbles, sensitizing perception of what-is-not-you. It heightens our sensitivity to what is around us—including what is ugly, unjust, or unethical. Therefore, as Dyrness writes, “exercising one’s tastes for beauty activates sensitivities that also oppose injustice.”
Of course, all this depends on what we find beautiful and ugly in the first place. We need to be constantly reminded of what is truly beautiful and truly good while participating in both. Thankfully, and as Trueman points out, we don’t have to be groundbreaking with this. Beauty and Goodness are found in God, the cross, and everyday life. Worshipping “in the beauty of holiness” means something like picking up your cross and moving toward your neighbor—whether they’re a Hollywood elite, an unknown, unattractive everyman, or a spouse with dementia.
If it’s true that Balthasar reversed the Kantian hierarchy of the transcendentals—from truth, goodness, and beauty to beauty, goodness, and truth—then now more than ever, Christians need to be very clear, very serious (and very tasteful) about how we speak of, create, and sustain beauty. Christians don’t need to separate aesthetics and ethics. Rather, we need to ask the difficult questions about what we find beautiful and what we find good, emphasizing that what we find aesthetically pleasing will form (or malform) what we find ethically fitting—and vice versa.
Nicolás Gómez-Dávila wrote, “Ethics ought to be the aesthetics of behavior.” We might echo that with “Aesthetics ought to keep our behavior ethical.” The question is not, “What ethic does the Oscars offer?” but rather “Are the Oscars beautiful? And if so, what does The Shape of Water teach us about the good and the true?”
John Brewer Eberly, Jr. is a fourth-year medical student at the University of South Carolina School of Medicine and a fellow of the Theology, Medicine, & Culture Fellowship at Duke Divinity School. He will practice obstetrics and gynecology, and is interested in medical student formation, theological approaches to bioethics, and the philosophy of beauty. His writing has appeared in JAMA, First Things, and Mere Orthodoxy. He lives in Columbia, South Carolina with his wife, Dendy, and son, Jack.