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Beauty and Christian Conversion

True Christianity

I've recently started reading a series of books introducing the life and works of the eminent theologian, Jonathan Edwards. The series is written by Owen Strachan and Doug Sweeney who are both worth looking up. The books are a combination of cultural critique, quoted Edwardsian texts, and commentary on those texts. Tiny little books. Well worth breezing through. Succinct, enjoyable yet powerful and necessary. 

There are six books in total, working through key themes that Edwards engaged with through his preaching and writing. The first book I've read, entitled True Christianity, seeks to show how Edwards tackled the problem of nominal Christianity within the church and to explain precisely what is the difference between true and false faith by giving an Edwardsian definition of just what true Christianity really is.

In summary, the crux of the matter for Edwards, seems to be rooted in one's conversion experience. And without negating the importance of intellectual assent and agreement to the objective facts necessary for true conversion and real saving faith, Edwards places a stronger emphasis than I think modern Christian culture does, on the subjective aspect of conversion and the individual's unique experience which is required for true Christianity. It's not that I think modern Christianity would disagree with the necessity for a particular subjective experience to occur at conversion, just that we perhaps don't know how to articulate it. Possibly because we don't have the right language, or possibly because we (especially in the west) have 'englightenment-ed' minds, trained to admire cold hard facts, naturally sceptical of unique subjective experiences as markers for truth. Possibly because we’re afraid that an over emphasis of the subjective experience might undermine the objective reality that we’re saved by Christ alone - an entirely objective historical occurrence which depends not a jot on how we feel about it!

But let’s take a look what Edwards writes about what Owen and Sweeney have quoted as ‘true sense’:

He that is spiritually enlightened truly apprehends and sees it, or has a sense of it. He don’t merely rationally believe that God is glorious, but he has a sense of the gloriousness of God in his heart. There is not only a rational belief that God is holy, and that holiness is a good thing; but there is a sense of the loveliness of God’s holiness. There is not only a speculatively judging that God is gracious, but a sense in how amiable God is upon that account; or a sense of the beauty of this divine attribute. (Works 17, 413).

Never so arrogant as to claim a comparable grandeur of intellect as Jonathan Edwards, yet of all writers, past and present, I find in him a kindred spirit, simply for his almost gratuitous use of the word beauty as a choice superlative when talking about God. He uses the word in the paragraph above to describe God’s grace. And, are not words like gloriousness, loveliness, and amiable - as well as words he uses immediately before the paragraph quoted above -  such as excellency, superlative and sublime, forms or various expressions of what we mean by the word beauty?

Edwards continues:

Thus there is a difference between having an opinion that God is holy and gracious, and having a sense of the loveliness and beauty of that holiness and grace. There is a difference between having a rational judgement that honey is sweet, and having a sense of its sweetness. A man may have the former, that knows not how honey tastes; but man can’t have the latter, unless he has an idea of the taste of honey in his mind. So there is a difference between believing that a person is beautiful and having a sense of his beauty. The former may be obtained by hearsay, but the latter only by seeing the countenance… ...When the heart is sensible of the beauty and amiableness of a thing, it necessarily feels pleasure in the apprehension. (Works 17, 414).

Again, there is a perspicuous emphasis on the subjective element of ‘true sense’ that Edwards talks about, as a sign and essential element of true conversion: saving faith.

And you know, this is why I love beauty. Firstly, because it is such a broad, generic term, that can refer to anything, including conversion, it proves to be really useful, especially in terms of application. Secondly, because a beautiful thing is one objectively so, it is thus able to legitimise the subjective experience involved when it is encountered, or, apprehended, as Edwards might say. And, although Edwards is talking about a distinctively Christian experience which I would agree is the special work of the Holy Spirit at work in a believer’s life (at point of initial conversion and throughout the live of a believer), he is still able to affix the generic terms pleasure (the experience) and beauty (the object of the experience) which are generic terms we could use to describe many things. And I believe that our experiences of beauty in day to day life are there to serve the purpose of helping us to identify in ourselves whether true conversion has taken place.

It is, therefore, worth an analysis of how we experience beauty generally, in order to delve deeper into what Edwards means when he talks about this subjective experience happening at conversion. Because, when properly understood, acknowledged and affirmed, how we relate to beauty helps us test the quality and even validity of our conversion. [It’s a teleological method for discerning if we are saved or not]. So, how does our interaction with beauty work? How does an encounter with beauty help us to assess our conversion?

Our Experience of Pleasure

I’ll borrow the word pleasure from Edwards. At the end of the second quote above, he uses it to describe what happens when we ‘apprehend’ or we could say encounter beauty. In place of pleasure I think we could use many other words. Joy, satisfaction, delight come to mind, as well as happiness and contentment. I’ll stick with pleasure whilst writing. The experience of beauty as pleasure (or however you want to describe it) is the indication that beauty has been experienced. Yet, being subjective, there is great variation possible between these pleasure experiences which could be briefly summarised as intensity, durability and progression.

  1. For sure, there can be greater or lesser intensity in the experience of pleasure we have in relation to the beauty we encounter. If we believe the thing encountered to be exceedingly beautiful, the pleasure experienced will be great and if the thing encountered is something we believe to be only somewhat beautiful, then the experience of pleasure will be less. For instance, when I behold the countenance of my wife, I am moved with an intense experience of pleasure. When I write in a brand new notebook with a freshly sharpened pencil, I also encounter beauty (through sensation), though, being a lesser beauty (in my estimation), the experience of pleasure is less. This is true especially in comparison to a greater beauty, such as my wife). (Having written that, however, pencil experience has become somewhat diminished on account of the pencil, as it turns out, was too sharp and it pierced and ripped the paper).

  2. The experience of pleasure also varies in its durability or longevity. I’m sure you’ll be aware of encounters in your own life that have produced pleasure experiences that last a long time or just a short time. And I don’t just mean the experience of the initial encounter, but the ongoing affection that you could have beyond an encounter, which may happen frequently or infrequently. Perhaps music is a good example here. There are plenty of records and songs that I enjoyed with much intensity as a teenager, that I no longer derive the same amount of pleasure from, if any. Beauty was experienced for a time and the pleasure has since faded. Conversely, there is plenty of music that I enjoyed as a teenager that I still enjoy now. Sometimes even more so that I once did. Which brings us nicely to development.

  3. The pleasure we experience upon an encounter with beauty often develops over time. Sometimes the pleasure comes instantly. Perhaps in the apprehension of a beautiful face or in the first mouthful of a luxurious desert, or the first note of your favourite song. A pleasure experience can overcome us in an instant. Sometimes, though, the experience builds over time, like most romantic relationships. (It’s not that I don’t believe in love at first sight, even love that can last a lifetime, far from it. It’s just a bit Hollywood, isn’t it?). To my mind, jazz music, olives and whisky are prime examples (substitute your own). There are some things that we take great pleasure in, aren’t there, that you just didn’t enjoy with a hearty passion upon first encounter. Likely even finding something about them rather unpleasurable. Yet, there was something about their beauty which did, in fact, keep drawing us back for more. Even if incrementally. And do not those slow-burning experiences often end up providing us with some of the most profound pleasures we ever enjoy.

Teaches us what we Love

So, as we consider the nature of these pleasure experiences, are we not talking about the experience of falling in love? Buddy Holly once sang ‘It’s so easy to fall in love’ and I think he’s right. It is. All these pleasure experiences we have are actually love instances. And, if you’ve ever been a teenage boy or girl, you know exactly where Charles was coming from (Charles is Buddy Holly’s real name, fyi). Who hasn’t been a secondary school student and fallen in love 1000 times? If you’re ‘single’ at that stage of life, every other member of the opposite sex is a potential new romance. Now, of course, we don’t put much weight of emphasis on a lot of those types of love instances. We use words like infatuation or even lust in order to nuance those particular flash-in-the-pan moments. Beauty experiences, for sure, but not ones we pursue beyond the reaction to an encounter or acknowledge to be of any value or significance to us. So we categorise them slightly differently, not using the word, love, but reserving that term exclusively for the beauty we find most worthy of it. So it is that beauty (as we perceive it) and our experience of it is on a sliding scale. And of course, beauty being both moral and aesthetic, means our intellect does also come into play to help inform us of the most worthwhile beauties to pursue and how far to pursue them and in what way. Yet the beauties we dismiss as quickly as we discover are beauties nonetheless and in our encounter of them, the basic conditions for love were met, even if for a moment. The things we decide/are compelled to pursue beyond an initial encounter, those things which we have an ongoing, lasting, curious passion for, those things for which we develop, quickly or slowly, an affection for, are the types of things we end up saying that we love. And our definition of why we love them would be because we experience them to be beautiful. The experience we get when we encounter them is a pleasure experience, as in that Edwardsian way I have used the term so far.

How does this help?

So, if pleasure is the indicator of a beauty experience and we can experience pleasure in many different things as described above, how does this help us to assess the genuineness of our conversion? If, as mentioned above, we love many different things, which is Biblical assumption, by the way, how does this become a guide to the state of my relationship with God?

Well, there are quite a lot of places we could go in the Bible, but I think Matthew 10:37 is a great place to start. To paraphrase, Jesus says that to love ANYTHING more than him makes a person unworthy of him. Again, note the assumption here that others things are and will be loved suggesting that they legitimately can be (in fact, in Matthew 22:39 we learn that we are required by the law to love others, so this is even necessary). Yet, Jesus must be the supreme love in our lives. He must be the one in whom we find the most beauty and thus the most pleasure. That is the aim and that is the desire of the converted person. So when we think of our more generic beauty experience, noticing the different places we are able to find pleasure and begin to love, we must fit Jesus into that framework and ask ourselves, is the pleasure I find in Jesus greater than all of those other things. Do I get better pleasure from my relationship with Jesus than I do with my… spouse, children, job, hobby etc? Because if we don’t, then we may well have cause for concern. Note that I said may, but also note that this word, that Jesus leaves out of his command in Matt 10:37, does not undermine what he says.Psalm 51 helps us understand why.

David, in Psalm 51, prays that God would restore to him the joy of salvation. He is suggesting to us that joy in salvation is a key component. (And I do wonder if David would consider him a saved person if God does not grant to return that joy). He is also demonstrating that joy can evade even a saved person - note how he says in that psalm the joy of my salvation. He has salvation. He lacks joy. It’s very likely in that moment that there are things David loves more than God. Indeed, he would not even be in this situation if he had not loved Bathsheeba and her physical beauty above God. But David is still saved. So how do we reconcile this lack of joy, if indeed joy is necessary for salvation? Well, I’d like to suggest that the very fact that he pursues joy, requesting a fresh measure of it from the Lord, is the indication that he values the glory of God and his relationship with him above all else. You see, in a world where there is beauty everywhere, beauty that we are designed to take pleasure in, because we are sinful, fallen people, the wealth of beauties out there end up competing for the place of primary affection in our hearts. Beauty is never a bad thing. And whilst, as described above, the experiences we have of the various different beauties we find pleasure in varies greatly, even more than what I’ve mentioned. Yet the beauties we know are the beauties we love the most are the ones we pursue most hard after. There are so many factors beyond the object of beauty itself that can actually affect our experience of it. And the way we experience beauty one day might not be the same way we experience that same beauty another day. Yet it is how hard we pursue a continued experience of a particular beauty that demonstrates how esteemed it is by us.

For instance, the experiences we have of food or music may change greatly. There is music that I enjoyed as a teenager that I no longer enjoy and I have no desire to work hard at cultivating a fresh desire for, because it matters not to me. Nothing important to me relies on my experiencing pleasure in it again. Yet there are some things, like a marriage relationship or, more topically, our relationship with God that require fervent pursuit of that pleasure experience. Especially knowing that we ourselves as entities that experience beauty can be the cause of a diminished experience when encountering beauty. If I’m anxious there is certain music that I do not want to listen to and certain music that I really do want to. And so as we evaluate the experience we have of the beauty of God I endeavour to do what it takes to maintain that joy (not that it comes from me, but prayerfully, like David, whilst acknowledging that how I live is part of the means God uses) by cultivating a lifestyle that seeks to train me to find beauty in God, thus providing a pleasure experience that transcends all others. This is conversion.

You see, with God, our hearts and sinful natures are instinctively opposed to him. And we have to fight. Yet with the Holy Spirit within us (Galatians 5) we get to experience God as the greatest pleasure out there, genuinely. We get to have an actual experience of that. But because the sinful nature still lingers, I need to build a big picture that feeds into helping me enjoy God himself. This can be things like thinking of the pleasure of heaven, the gift of repentance, enjoying fellowship with the saints, contemplations of the beauty of the sacrifice at the cross. And these things I can experience beauty in, in and of themselves, but they will, in the converted soul, eventually build up to an initial or restored joy of salvation. It’s hard work often, to love God above ALL else, but other loves can help feed my love for him because they wouldn’t exist without him and they all point to HIM! Knowing and experiencing this we pursue him. In fact, we pursue him even more when we sense the joy lacking or diminished in some why. If in our pursuit the joy never comes, we have grave cause for concern about our souls, yet the great tell, like with all other experiences of beauty, is what do we do when the joy diminishes? Actually, though the experience diminishes it becomes clear that because we choose to pursue a beauty, that we esteem it higher than others even if there may be more active joy in other less beauties we would never pursue once the joy in them does go. Just like David, the converted soul requires joy, and thus pursues it when it’s gone. David doesn’t just rest on belief in God, which I don’t for a second thing would disappear if his joy never returned. He may learn to hate God if that were the case, but never disbelieve. Joy in salvation is ESSENTIAL. And to be familiar with how we experience the less beauties of the world will help us to understand what’s going on in our hearts as we grapple with the sinful nature in competition with the Spirit.


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