In my last article I made the claim that the core of Christianity is beauty and not doctrine – that those who find Christianity beautiful have the best grasp on it. Replacing doctrine with beauty is the sort of thing I expect to get flak for. We tend to see doctrine as objective and therefore more real while beauty is subjective and not real. As I’ve discussed before our modern world is one in which we over-value things that are easy to explain to others and under-value things that are hard to express. I believe that this tendency has some serious consequences when it comes to Christianity.
Suppose for a second that I am correct about the true nature of Christianity, that Christianity is about beauty and character and justice and redemption and unfathomable contact with the divine and that doctrine is only there to play a supporting role. If this is all true and yet we undervalue anything that feels subjective to us we will undervalue the core of Christianity. Some people will take this a step further and will claim that what I’m really saying is that Christianity is a nice thing to think on but that it’s not real. I would say, of course, that these people are improperly perceiving the nature of reality.
The normal way we approach this question is backwards. I’ve discussed this before as well. We tend to come out of the gate “knowing” some parameters rather than looking to find them. In the modern world the parameters that we already know include things like “measurable data are better than personal impressions”. Certainly they are for many of our modern tasks (including my own job). However, undervaluing the subjective elements of the world is dangerous. These elements include everything that gives our lives meaning.
Imagine that a friend of yours takes a nasty spill down a steep slope and injures their arm. The doctor examines your friend and gives you his assessment of the injury. If the doctor says, “It’s really bad,” we would tend to think of that as less informative than if the doctor said, “He’ll lose 80% mobility in that arm for at least three months.” Obviously, the doctor’s “really bad” might be different than yours, or mine, or that of a doctor who deals mostly with battlefield injuries and who may think any injury that lets you keep a working arm can’t be all that awful. “80% mobility loss for at least three months” on the other hand is more objective. The doctor’s “80% mobility loss for at least three months” is the same as yours, mine, and everyone’s. It refers to some measurable external criteria that we all share. In this manner our sense that “80% mobility loss for at least three months” is a more factual diagnosis is true – it’s much less likely that we’ll miscommunicate that fact. However, there’s a trick to this. When you hear “80% mobility loss for at least three months” you don’t just file that fact away. Instead, you translate that into some other forms of data (images of your friend using an 80% restricted arm, if you’re me), think about what that means for your friend, and then give that data meaning by assigning it a mental tag like “really bad”.
This is the funny place we find ourselves in as humans. The things that matter most to us are the things that are hardest to communicate. Objective facts are stripped of value judgments but nothing has any value without value judgments. We tend to talk about objective facts in the public sphere more because they are easier to transfer between people but ultimately the world we live in is the world in our head where everything is value-labeled.
When I suggest that a criterion like beauty is important to Christianity I am not suggesting that Christianity is mostly non-factual or otherwise mentally lax. Instead, I’m suggesting that Christianity takes seriously the difficult world of value. Christianity is not primarily about objective, value-stripped facts but about a set of values that come attached to facts and those things are crucially important.
Let me put this a different way because it’s actually something I talk about here all the time: when we find that Christianity is really about things that are intimately tied to value judgments we should not strive to make Christianity into something else, to strip off the value judgments and hold up a skeleton of facts as if that was the most important part. Sure, it looks good in our modern world to talk about facts more than ethereal things like beauty, complex and subjective things like character, and ultimate but frequently-disagreed-upon things like goodness, but we shouldn’t be reshaping God’s revelation to suit our world. Instead, we should realize that we tend to write off our internal world (mostly because it’s hard to talk about) and that maybe we should take it a lot more seriously.
This spills over elsewhere. I write a lot about narrative when I write about how to read the Bible. This irritates some people. Narrative is hard to pin down. Why not talk about cold hard facts instead? Because Christianity is more about narrative. Yes, narratives are tricky beasts but they are the more important beast here because narratives are about assigning value to facts. Our tendency is to read the Bible wanting the facts to come first and the narrative to find a way to make sense given a certain presentation of the facts required by the law of our modern world. When, in fact, these standards are violated (as in the gospels where material is clearly taken out of chronological sequence so that it sits near related material) we tend to get nervous. Is the Bible really true? Well yes, of course it is. But since the Bible is primarily about narrative and not about an “objective” presentation of the facts it makes sense that if the Bible is doing its job it will allow for such breaks in objective decorum. After all, the whole point of the Bible is to convince you of the correctness of a set of values. The historical facts that we love are supporting players.
None of this is to say that Christianity isn’t true or that facts don’t matter. What I want to do instead is point out that facts require an extra dimension – value – before they have any meaning to us. Our modern world is very interested in facts and less interested in value. Value is pre-established (often in anti-Christian ways) and then ignored. Christianity, on the other hand, takes value very seriously. Now, value comes in part from facts. If Christ did not rise on the third day valuing what He did and does is actually pretty stupid. However, if you believe that Christ rose on the third day and don’t give a rip there’s no point in that either.
It is only Christian to give value an equal seat at the table. We must believe that there is a need to take truth, goodness, and beauty seriously, not as asides to the facts but as the things that are just entirely real in and of themselves.