Apr 27, 2005

Faith Seeking Understanding - Part 1

This week I want to give some thought to what it means to be a Christian Philosopher, perhaps in order to provoke those who read this to give some thought to the matter themselves. Many Christian philosophers of the past such as Augustine, Anselm, Aquinas, and many others up to the present day, have sought to live by the motto: "Faith Seeking Understanding." It is living by this motto that I take to be the essence of what it means to be a Christian philosopher. Of course, this slogan must be interpreted. What does it mean for faith to seek understanding? The answer to this question will depend to a large degree on what one means by the terms "faith" and "understanding." In part 1 of this blog I will define what I mean by "faith." Next week I will discuss "understanding."

By faith I mean "trust," as when I say, "I have faith in my wife," or "I believe that this person is telling me the truth." Specifically, for the Christian philosopher, as for the Christian, faith is trust in God. It is trusting God. It is having faith in him. To sound a bit more theological, I take faith to mean trusting the triune God who has revealed himself to me in Holy Scripture. Understanding faith this way has a few important implications. First, it implies that God has revealed himself to me. As Francis Schaeffer said, "He is there, and he is not silent." The Christian philosopher believes that God speaks to His people, and discloses true information about himself which provides a basis for their trust in him.

Second, this view of faith implies that God reveals himself in the Scriptures, that is, the Bible. As Paul says, "All Scripture is God-breathed..." More than that, this God-breathed Word is "living and active and sharper than any double-edged sword." When I read the Bible, I believe I experience what theologians call the internal testimony of the Holy Spirit, which assures me that this word is God's Word, and not merely the words of men.

Third, this view of faith implies that I trust what God reveals in the Scriptures. If the Bible is God's Word, then trusting God, who is the proper object of faith, implies that we trust what he says. And what he says is contained, at least primarily, in the Scriptures. So, "faith" in the phrase "Faith Seeking Understanding," I take to mean a response of trust to what the triune God has revealed to men in his Word. And this further implies, I take it, that I have confidence in the truths of the faith---the doctrinal content of the Scriptures, what it reveals to me about God, about Christ, about mankind and myself, about heaven and hell, and salvation.

Given all of this, I would say that Scripture (more particularly, the faith) provides what Nicholas Woltestorff calls "control beliefs"---beliefs which act as a filter for what the Christian philosopher will take as true in the course of his philosophical investigations; beliefs which may imply the rejection of certain philosophical theories. For example, if the Christian philosopher is convinced that the Bible teaches that humans have an immaterial soul (and I for one believe it does teach this), then this control belief will prevent him from accepting any materialistic view of human persons.

Apr 21, 2005

Christians and Art

Last week I received an email from a young Christian who is a film-maker and writer. His favorite literary and film genre is science fiction. Yet, for whatever reason, he had been led to believe that his Christian commitment and his love for science fiction were somehow incompatible. He was worried that if he wrote and produced science fiction he would be endangering his soul. The fact that this young man even worried about these things testifies to the sad state of the evangelical church regarding its relationship to society and culture. Most conservative Christians today have adopted an unbiblical dichotomy between the sacred and the secular, forgetting that this world matters to God and that Christians can and should involve themselves in cultural endeavors like art, literature, politics, business--and do all these things as spiritual activities to the glory of God.

Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, had the right attitude about these things, though today many Christians would think he was "worldly," perhaps even sacrilegious. When asked what he would do if he knew that the Lord was returning tomorrow, he said, "I would plant a tree." Luther knew that planting a tree, if done to the glory of God and out of appreciation for the beauty of His creation, was a spiritual and sacred act, no less so than preaching the gospel.

So, I told the young man that writing and producing science fiction books and movies was nothing to fret about, nothing that would endanger his soul, nothing that ought to call his Christian testimony into question. No doubt, of course, the Christian artist will do his art differently than a non-Christian. He will, for example, not promote philosophical and ethical ideas that are inconsistent with biblical truth. But, guided by Christian principles, he can produce science fiction to the glory of God. I also shared with him the following principles for creating and enjoying art that I have gleaned from sources like Michael Horton’s Where in the World Is the Church, Gene Veith's The State of the Arts, and Francis Shaeffer’s Art and the Bible. I hope these principles are helpful to other budding artists out there.

Christian Principles for Involvement in Art
1. Recognize that art is a sovereign sphere of culture under God in which all humans, through common grace, may meaningfully participate. This implies that that Christians may participate in art for arts sake. They may even see art as a vocation for glorifying God. And their art need not have overt Christian content or be designed for evangelism or to teach morality, though it can do these things if the artist wants it to. It can be designed purely for entertainment and pleasure (Exod. 25:9, 18, 31-33; 28:33; 2 Chr 3:6; 4:3-4; 1 Kings 10:18-20; 2 Sam 1:19-27 [a secular ode!]; Note also David’s music!).

2. Acknowledge that beauty is not relative. From a Christian perspective, there is such a thing as real, objective beauty and real ugliness. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder. [Phil 4:8-9; Exod. 28:2]. This does not mean, of course, that we will always agree on what is beautiful.

3. Art does not have to agree with Christian truth and Christian morality in order to be good art. That is, good art does not have to be consistent with the Christian worldview. Its message can be contrary to the Christian worldview and still be good, valuable, and enriching. Sartre’s novel Nausea teaches nihilism, but as Horton says, it is a masterpiece! It’s message is not good in the sense of being morally good or philosophically true, but the work itself is aesthetically good. Michaelangelo’s statue David teaches a humanistic view of man, as Schaeffer points out, but who can reasonably say that it isn’t a great work of art?

4. The Christian artist should never abandon his Christian convictions in doing his art. Though a Christian artist does not have to do explicitly religious art, he will not teach through his art things that are inconsistent with the Christian worldview or portray that which is evil as though it were good. So, for example, if a Christian produces a movie, that movie may portray an act of adultery, but it won’t portray it in such a way as to glorify it or approve of it.

5. Recognize that good art does not always have to be beautiful to be good art. Good art can express truth, for example, by portraying ugliness, and thereby be good art because it expresses truth about that ugliness; or the ugliness in the art may genuinely express the artist’s view of reality [e.g. Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, Picasso’s Les Demoiselles d’Avignon].

6. Recognize that there are no exact criteria for distinguishing good art from bad art, but there are criteria. Though beauty is objective, there are degrees of beauty, and a large gray area in which our finite minds may have trouble deciding whether a particular piece of art is good, true, or beautiful. This calls for humility, patience, and a willingness to be gracious toward those with whom we disagree. However, just because there are no exact criteria does not mean there are no criteria. Francis Schaeffer in his little booklet Art and the Bible, sets out four criteria for making aesthetic judgments:

a. Technical excellence—Is the artist a skilled craftsman?
b. Validity—Is the artist honest to himself and his worldview?
c. Intellectual content—What worldview is expressed in the art? Is that worldview true?
d. Integration of content and vehicle—Is there a fitting correlation between the content of the art and its style?

7. Good art can be representational, abstract, or symbolic—the Bible contains all three! (Exod. 26:1; 1 Kings 7:15-22, 25; 28:15-29)

8. We must distinguish between secular and sacred art. Though we cannot draw this distinction too rigidly, as we have said before, it is still the case that art created for art’s sake and to be enjoyed by all is not the same as art created to aid the church in worshipping God. We might draw the distinction by using the terms "holy" and "common." Most art is common, created for common use by everyone. But, some art is designed to be "holy" [i.e., set apart for use in worship; see Horton, pp.85, 83-84]

9. Enjoy good art without guilt as a gift from God---even when it is purely secular! Good art is a gift from God because God gifts artists with the ability to produce good art, even unbelievers. And why shouldn’t Christians enjoy it? So, herein lies the Christian basis for enjoying good movies, going to art galleries, and ballets, and concerts, reading War and Peace and Lord of the Rings, and doing all these things that Christians often feel they have to apologize for because they are not "spiritual."

Apr 19, 2005


I am new to the world of blogging, but soon I will have additional links, book recommendations, and articles posted. Check back often.