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Along the Journey  |  

Aesthetics or Functionality?

One of the courses I most enjoy teaching is on educational philosophy. It’s a course that is always interesting and yields enduring understanding when it connects with students. 

A former student wrote me to share his frustration at his church’s lack of an educational philosophy and its effects on Christian education. Seeing evidence that students have cultivated discernment and understand the importance of educational foundations—theory and philosophy- is gratifying.

The philosophical questions related to aesthetics—beauty—can challenge students and the teacher attempting to teach about it. The starting point for conversations on the question tends to begin with the assumption that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Ultimately, it’s too subjective to allow one to plant one’s feet and insist one way or another. Yet it’s a question that moves quickly from the philosophical to the pragmatic when students grapple with the question in the context of worship and liturgy.

I have a friend enthralled with the beauty of motorcycles, machines that can invoke feelings and sentiments beyond their mere utility. I have another friend who appreciates the craft of the handgun. Listening to him describe a pistol can make one eye the object with an appreciation for its craftsmanship and aesthetics and put aside, if only for the moment, associative feelings of fear or antagonism for what “guns” may represent.

One of the things I do in the philosophy course is share contemporary articles that deal with the perennial philosophical questions of ontology, epistemology, and aesthetics. A willful technique for saying, “See, people still ask these questions!”

Peter J. Leithart has a short commentary (“Music of the Gears”) that touches on the aesthetic question:

All things made by God are beautiful and pure,” Athanasius wrote, “for the Word of God made nothing useless or impure.” Note the contrasts: Pure-impure is obvious, but the contrast of beautiful-useless expresses a sensibility we have almost entirely lost.

For moderns, the beautiful isn’t opposed to the useless. The beautiful is the useless. At least since the Romantics clashed with the Industrial Revolution, we’ve conceived of engineers and artists glaring contemptuously at one another across a razor-wire boundary.

This is only sometimes true. It is not too hard to find engineers in rhapsodies over the elegance of their design or poets who think of themselves as technicians of language. But in the popular imagination, the useful and the beautiful are opposed, and we will go some ways toward regaining cultural health and integrity when we have ears to hear the mush of well-fitting gears.

Israel Galindo is Associate Dean for Lifelong Learning at Columbia Theological Seminary. He directs the Pastoral Excellence Programs of the Center for Lifelong Learning.

Along the Journey Dr. G. & Friends