On Beauty

A reader asked me a good question about thoughts shared at my post “Why am I so Vexed?

“Is this any more complicated than saying that you personally prefer more traditional architecture to modern architecture? You do realize that there are people who disagree? I like the first church better than the second. I find it more spiritual. On what grounds do you say that I am wrong?”

We can, at least to some extent, define beauty objectively, just as we can define and know truth. There are guidelines that can help us form conclusions about what is beautiful and what is not. Of course there is also the validity of personal taste. The Stanford Library of Philosophy offers this helpful analysis in the entry “Beauty”:

However, if beauty is entirely subjective—that is, if anything that anyone holds to be or experiences as beautiful is beautiful —then it seems that the word has no meaning, or that we are not communicating anything when we call something beautiful except perhaps an approving personal attitude. In addition, though different persons can of course differ in particular judgments, it is also obvious that our judgments coincide to a remarkable extent: it would be odd or perverse for any person to deny that a perfect rose or a dramatic sunset was beautiful. And it is possible actually to disagree and argue about whether something is beautiful, or to try to show someone that something is beautiful, or learn from someone else why it is.

On the other hand, it seems senseless to say that beauty has no connection to subjective response or that it is entirely objective. That would seem to entail, for example, that a world with no perceivers could be beautiful or ugly, or perhaps that beauty could be detected by scientific instruments. Even if it could be, beauty would seem to be connected to subjective response, and though we may argue about whether something is beautiful, the idea that one’s experiences of beauty might be disqualified as simply inaccurate or false might arouse puzzlement as well as hostility. We often regard other people’s taste, even when it differs from our own, as provisionally entitled to some respect, as we may not, for example, in cases of moral, political, or factual opinions. All plausible accounts of beauty connect it to a pleasurable or profound or loving response, even if they do not locate beauty purely in the eye of the beholder.

The rest is here: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/beauty/

Aristotle’s definition of beauty also serves as my guide: beautiful objects have order and symmetry.

An ugly Catholic church can offer a small bit of consolation as there is usually a crucifix located on the central axis. Even if I am denied other forms of aesthetic pleasure, I can still find an anchor for my contemplation and cast my gaze upon the corpus and the cross. Though the lozenge shaped backboard, in this particular instance, is an odd distraction. And what are those pieces of cloth draped on the altar, err, I mean table: bath towels?

Saint Robert Bellarmine Church, Blue Springs, MO

Saint Robert Bellarmine Church, Blue Springs, MO

I respond favorably to objects that are symmetrical because they echo the human form. This is why I feel at ease and comforted by the presence of columns. The base of a column is referred to as a pedestal, a direct allusion to the human form (“ped” is the root of foot in Latin). When I visit The Palace of the Legion in Honor in San Francisco

palace of legion of honor

I experience a rush of visceral pleasure as I pass through the colonnade—my view is obscured momentarily as I proceed by each column. In rhythmical fashion I am once again rewarded with a slightly different vantage point at the furtherance of my movement through the colonnade. My vantage point of the San Francisco Bay, the skyline of the city or the other aspects of the building is revealed depending upon my position in relation to the columns.

The rhythmically ordered columns at Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, along with the The Palace of the Legion of Honor, also follow Aristotle’s definition that beautiful objects adhere to a plan of order and symmetry. The columns lead my gaze toward the front of the church, the classical grammar of the architectural elements connects me to two millennia of Christians who have worshipped in similar buildings.

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, Architect, Duncan Stroik

Our Lady of the Most Holy Trinity, Architect, Duncan Stroik

Yes, there is room for folks to disagree about beauty but as I further my exploration through reading, pondering and looking, I anticipate that I will continue to find grounds in which to state objectively that some things are more beautiful than others. I have just started reading Roger Scruton’s, The Aesthetic Understanding. I plan to share my findings in future blog posts.

Can we not agree that the Aztek is an ugly car?


Can we not agree that Chase Finlay’s beauty, in addition to his accomplishment as a dancer, adds an element of transcendence to his performance in Balanchine’s Apollo?

Sentimentalized Worship

English philosopher, Roger Scruton, illuminates the deceptions of the cheap substitute of sentimentality for love in his book Modern Culture:

Sentimental feeling is easy to confuse with the real thing, for on the surface at least, they have the same object. The sentimental love of Judy and the real love of Judy are both directed towards Judy, and involve tender thoughts of which she is the subject. But this superficial similarity marks a deep difference. The real focus of my sentimental love is not Judy but me. To the sentimentalist it is not the object but the subject of emotion that is important. Real love focuses on the other: it is gladdened by his pleasure and grieved by his pain. The unreal love of the sentimentalist focuses on the self, and treats the pleasures and pains of its object only as an excuse for playing the role that most appeals to it. It may seem to grieve at the other’s sorrow, but it does not really grieve. For secretly sentimentalists welcomes the sorrow that prompts their tears. It is another excuse for the noble gesture, another occasion to contemplate the image of a great-hearted self…

Sentimentality and fantasy go hand in hand. For the object of sentimental emotion is, like a fantasy object, deprived of objective reality, made pliant to a subjective need, and roughly discarded when the going gets tough. He is, from the beginning, only an excuse for an emotion whose focus lies elsewhere, in the great drama of which the sentimentalist is the sole enduring hero. Hence the object of sentimental love is given no security, and will find himself quickly replaced in his lover’s affections when the script requires it. The sentimental love of Judy pretends to acknowledge her value; but in fact he has assigned her a price.

These insights apply not only to the sentimentalizing of persons but also to the deity. Sentimental worship is cheap and self-referential. It is more about the subject than the object; more about the worshiper than the worshipped. Some Evangelicals who revel in emotion-based, sentimentalized worship are moving toward the Emergent church which may just be a stop on the path to secularity. I experienced this in my start-up post-Evangelical/Emergent church before converting to Catholicism. Attendees still had a form of worship but they were tired of God being so uptight about how we comport our bodies. Worship was about expressing affection to The-Big-Happy-Daddy-in-the-Sky who was cool with whatever we wanted to do as long as it made us happy.

I compared this to the Catholic conception of God which acknowledges God as Other. Compare and contrast this:

To this:

Unfavorable Exchange Ratio

nun and child

Rodney Stark analyzes the inevitable decline of the postconciliar church from a sociologist’s perspective in The Churching of America: 1776-1990 Winners and Losers in Our Religious Economy:

 In the early 1960s, the American Catholic Church appeared as solid as ever. During the fifteen years following World War II, the church had undergone a new period of growth. From 1916 through the 1930s, Catholic adherents had hovered between 150 and 160 per 1,000 population. But the combined effects of the baby boom and the resumption of immigration from Europe caused the Catholic market share to jump to 190 per 1,000 by 1950 and to 235.9 by 1960.

Then, in 1962, Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, gathering all of the bishops of the church in Rome to reassess and restructure doctrine and practice.

For four years the church fathers met periodically, making decisions that resulted in many far-reaching changes. The mass was no longer to be said in Latin, but in the local language. The faithful were no longer prohibited from eating meat on Friday. Many other prohibitions on Catholic behavior were also relaxed, and many traditions were greatly deemphasized. Moreover, the council stressed a new spirit of ecumenism.

Noting that Pope John XXIII not only had called his bishops to a Vatican Council, but had at the same time appointed a Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, [Martin] Marty remarked: “ His action made John XXIII the most recognized ecumenical leader of his generation and made ecumenism a household word.” Could a really successful ecumenical age be far away?

Oddly enough, Will Herber—the Jewish spokesman who played a major role in mounting the ecumenical movement of the 1950s—warned vehemently against too much aggiornamento. Speaking before a national convention of Catholics belonging to the Newman Apostolate, Herberg criticized the many Catholic intellectuals who urged the church to “slough off its old ways and bring itself up to date by adjusting itself to the spirit of the age. I say just the opposite: in all that is important, the Church must stand firm in its witness to the truth that is eternal and unchanging; it needs no updating… If it is to remain true to its vocation, it must take its stand against the world, against the age, against the spirit of the age—because the world and the age are always, to a degree, to an important degree, in rebellion against God”.

… but we will argue that the decreasing demands in other areas were as important, and probably more so for reducing the commitment of Catholics. As Iannocone has commented, “the Catholic church has managed to arrive at the remarkable, ‘worst of both worlds’ position—discarding cherished distinctiveness in the areas of liturgy and theology, and life-style, while at the same time maintaining the very demands that its members and clergy are least willing to accept.

The distinctive sacrifices and stigmas of being Catholic were abandoned (without replacement) by the reforms of Vatican II.

Faiths that impose high costs offset them by providing high levels of reward. Hence, when people cease choosing to sacrifice we must suspect that they no longer are getting a good deal—or at least that no longer perceive the exchange as favorable…

Are the American Catholics going to go the way of the Congregationalists, Presbyterians Episcopalians and Methodists? Will they come to be just another mainline body specializing in comfortable pews, while slowly sliding downhill? Can the process somehow be reversed? We believe that in principle people can always reverse themselves and make different choices. But often they do not, and this makes it difficult to anticipate history. Nevertheless, some aspects of the future of American Catholicism seem relatively clear.

Unless the church is able to re-establish greater tension with its environment it will not be able to restore the reward needed to maintain high levels of sacrifice by the religious. It takes a vivid conception of active and potent supernatural forces to motivate people to make major sacrifices on behalf of faith, because only such active forces can plausibly deliver the great rewards on which a favorable exchange ratio rests.