The Useful and the Beautiful
July 17, 2017—One of the courses I most enjoy teaching is on educational philosophy. It’s a course that is always interesting and one I think, when it connects with students, yields enduring understanding. Recently a former student wrote me to share his frustration at the lack of an educational philosophy at his church, and the effects it has on the practice of Christian education. It’s gratifying when we see evidence that students have cultivated discernment and understand the importance of educational foundations—theory and philosophy.
The philosophical questions related to aesthetics—beauty—can be a challenge for students, and for the teacher attempting to teach about it. The starting point for conversations on the question tend to begin with the assumption that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Ultimately, it’s a matter 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 one friend who is enthralled with the beauty of motorcycles, those 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 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 in the December 2008 issue of Touchstone titled “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 need not be, and isn’t always 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 the Columbia Theological Seminary. Formerly, he was Dean at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond. He is the author of the bestseller, The Hidden Lives of Congregations (Alban), Perspectives on Congregational Leadership (Educational Consultants), and A Family Genogram Workbook (Educational Consultants), with Elaine Boomer and Don Reagan.
His books on Christian education include Mastering the Art of Instruction,The Craft of Christian Teaching (Judson), How to be the Best Christian Study Group Leader (Judson), Planning for Christian Education Formation (Chalice), and A Christian Educator’s Book of Lists (S&H), and Theories of Learning for Christian Educators and Theological Faculty.
Galindo contributes to the Wabash Center’s blog for theological school deans.