The Good, the True, & the Beautiful?  

Posted by Denis Haack in , , , , ,

On his new Facebook page, my friend Ellis Potter asks an intriguing question. “Which is more humanizing: The Good, the True and the Beautiful or the Gratifying, the Affirming and the Empowering? Which set is more self-centered?” It’s also a timely question since it touches on some of the swirling eddies of ideas and values that compete for attention in our postmodern world. Perhaps compete for attention is the wrong way to express it—it’s more like a series of eddies that suddenly twist into a vortex that pulls us under before we a fully conscious of the change.

The categories of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful are profoundly clarifying and helpful. They help us think about reality in a more full-orbed way, and provide ways of naming things that otherwise would be difficult to talk about. Just the fact that they have stood the test of time for over 2 millennia means we must take them seriously. For Christians, of course, there is an added attraction. Not that they form a trinity, for certainly they together point to aspects of the being of God rather than describe separate members of the Godhead. God the Almighty is the essence of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Yet there is, I think, a flaw. I stumbled upon it several years ago when I set out to do a biblical study of the Beautiful. An easy enough task, as far as that goes, because art, creativity, and comeliness are themes that are woven throughout the Scriptures. But then I hit a snag. Using my concordance to identify all the biblical texts in which “beauty” and “beautiful” appear, I discovered there were very few. I dug deeper and discovered the Hebrews didn’t talk and think about Beauty: they were concerned for Glory. A concordance search for “glory” and “glorify” brought an overwhelming flood of references.

This discussion brings us to a significant difference between the Greek and the Hebraic worldviews. The Greek categories of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful are so very helpful, but are also pagan in origin, and are in the final analysis abstract, cerebral, and impersonal. The Hebrew categories of the Righteous, the Wise, and the Glorious, on the other hand, are rooted in the nature of the biblical God, and are always revealed to be concrete, practical, and personal.

This is not a criticism of Ellis’ good question. It is a good and insightful question that people should reflect on it carefully. Nor am I suggesting that the Good, the True, and the Beautiful are categories that we should somehow avoid. But I would argue that as categories they are in a crucial way insufficient and incomplete. In the end, the Righteous, the Wise, and the Glorious contain all that the Greek categories included, but sweep on past them to be demonstrated and rooted in the revelation of the infinite, personal God, in creation, Scripture, and ultimately the living Word.

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Sue @ Grace Corner  

Denis, it bothers me to see these categories placed in oppositional sets, as if we must choose one and reject the others. It seems to me that a redemptive perspective encourages us to bring them into dynamic interplay rather than drawing abstract lines between them. Embodied in the trenches of life, they often fruitfully coexist, enriching, tempering, and informing each other. Affirmation and truth may intertwine to bring healing to a broken heart. Empowerment and righteousness may fuel the righting of grievous injustices. Beauty IS gratifying when it is rooted in the glory of God.

The question that comes to my mind is, in the moment of application, are these values-in-action shot through with love of God and love of neighbor? Surely they all bear that potential.

November 21, 2012 at 8:40 PM

Hi, it's good to have a few minutes to catch up on your blog. As always, I come away thinking more deeply than I have for several days.
I'm not sure, though, that I'm finding a significant difference between "good" and "righteous", "beautiful" and "glorious, or how "true" and "wise" are disconnected. The discussion intrigues me, but I want to make sure I understand your usage of the terms.

November 25, 2012 at 11:40 PM

I agree with you that these two sets—the Greek Good, True & Beauty, and the Hebrew Righteous, Wise, and Glory—should not be placed in opposition. The Greek insight arose, it seems to me, from natural revelation through careful reflection on God’s word revealed in what he has made. The Hebrew insight embraces and includes this, and does not deny or oppose it, but at the same time adds another dimension of richness because it arises from God’s word concerning himself revealed in Scripture and Christ. This added dimension includes personhood.

I would note that Calvin Seerveld, long a professor of aesthetics and author, most famously, of Rainbows for a Fallen World, a superb book, if I read him correctly, seems to disagree in his A Christian Critique of Art and Literature. Speaking of Plato’s idea of Beauty, Seerveld argues, “Plato's dogma of Beauty, apriorized, universalized, Christianized, naturalized, homogenized! however you serve it up, even in the respectable American transcendentalist Emerson: Platonizing thought on Beauty is a tradition of men which (mathematically) misreads the divinity of God visible in creation...” His thinking is stimulating even when I disagree with his conclusions.

I would agree with Clyde Kilby: “To believe in God involves accepting Him as the sovereign perfection, not only of truth and goodness but also of beauty, thus establishing the highest possible conceptions of excellence. Whatever the difficulty of actual application, the standards remain, and the believer orients himself toward them.” And, I would add, the biblical or Hebrew worldview provides a deep understanding of the Good, True, and Beautiful not simply as intellectual categories but as fully lived and personalized virtues expressed as Righteousness, Wisdom, and Glory.

Thanks for joining the conversation.

November 27, 2012 at 11:19 AM

24/7 Mom:

Thanks for asking, and for your kind words.

I was not trying to give some sort of final statement about all this (which would require a book length treatment), but to provoke thinking. And to provoke it in the direction of seeing that though the Greek legacy of thought is rich, full of insight, and helpful, the Hebrew/biblical tradition of thought helps us to see even more deeply into the nature of things.

My point was simply that the Greek categories, helpful as they are, still remain abstract ideas that may be applied to persons (she is beautiful, he is truthful, etc) do not require personhood per se. They can be discussed forever simply as ideas. The Hebrew view of life and reality, on the other hand, begin with an infinite personal God as the creator and sustainer of all that is, so that what is "really real" is actually personal. Thus, Wisdom, Righteousness & Glory embrace and contain all that is included in True, Good, & Beauty but places them in a context where they cannot be understood apart from personhood.

So, to give an example, using Beauty. Beauty by definition (Websters) is "the quality attributed to whatever pleases or satisfies in certain ways, as by line, color, form..." Or as Aquinas defined it, the "beautiful is that which pleases us upon being seen." Though this is a useful category of thought, beauty is limited from a Christian perspective, since even Christ himself, we are told, "had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him" (Isaiah 53:2), yet John could speak of having "seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only" (John 1:14).

This should not be taken to mean Beauty and Glory are in opposition but that one completes and enriches the other.

Hope this helps.

November 27, 2012 at 11:39 AM

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