Not too long ago, I spent a day in the Louvre, that famous Museum in Paris. I must confess, I do not have an eye for high art. I wasn’t trained for it, I haven’t developed a taste for it, and I don’t specialize in it. I spent two hours around the Mesopotamian Code of Hammarubi and another five simply strolling through the other areas. Despite not being able to cover the whole Museum, I spent a substantial amount of time around the artifacts and documents of Babylonian civilization more than I did around the magnificent displays of French, Italian, and Spanish paintings: all because, again, I grasp the literature contemporaneous with the biblical era in a way that I do not grasp the visual arts.
I appreciate art – I can tell that the works displayed signify a high degree of talent, sophistication and hard work. I know why these works are (rightly) called classics, symbols of high culture and human achievement. But I don’t have the eye for it – I can’t tell why one painting deserves more attention than another, nor can I fathom the sort of thing required to create a work of art that refined.
Sometimes I even find myself thinking (as it often happens): well, if I can’t appreciate it, surely there is nothing appreciable there. Or, then, the inner (less sanctified!) pragmatist in me springs up: what’s the point? No painting is going to feed the poor, or make the person next door any more rich – nor would it (on a superficial reading) contribute to the nation’s economy. Surely, that artist could’ve spent his time working on something else – something worthwhile, something tangible. As I walked around, I noticed some tourists had the same idea. If poetry written about the poor, one may say, can make a difference, I’d read one every day.
Pragmatism. There, indeed, is the root of misunderstanding. Pragmatic utility is often indispensable. Feeding ourselves, making a profit, producing tangible and instant results, are often necessary. But to concede to the necessity of pragmatic choices is not the same as pragmatism. This necessity is so palpable that one of my best friends, a businessman, once said “school is completely superfluous – all one needs are lessons in basic survival – and the continuation of one’s genealogy.” Who needs to go to college, if one’s family connections already enable one to begin or continue a successful, profit-earning, enterprise? Who needs to learn art if one can already put food on the table? Unless something is of tangible and immediate use, the pragmatist reasons, one does not need to learn it.
But here, a presupposition behind the pragmatist is revealed: the presupposition that bare existence is the goal of our human living. It is the view that all one needs is the capacity for the furthering of one’s progeny or the extension of one’s age. This may all work well with a naturalistic worldview that cannot account for human creativity or flourishing apart from a bare notion of survival, but it simply cannot be in line with what we so ordinarily know and take for granted, given that we are all living in God’s universe, as creatures made in his image. That is, the goal of human life, the life prior to sin, is not a meant to be a striving for mere existence – humans were created to enjoy fellowship with God, and not only that, fellowship with Him in the highest sense of the word. In other words, one is created to be blessed, to live in flourishing bliss with the Triune God, in harmony with one another and the whole of creation, enjoying the fruits of one’s labor, and fulfilling one’s potential.
This, indeed, is what motivates all human achievement – I would argue, it is that which drives even the most pragmatic individual: the search for meaning, for true human flourishing – it is why we delight in a beautiful piece of music, a wonderfully written essay, or a cleverly crafted book – imagine the novels of Camus without the angst, the papers of Lewis without the wit, or the reflections of Augustine without his eloquence – human life is not here for the bare communication of words and existence – the creation of life is so that one may enjoy the full splendor of one’s creative capacities. It is why we get shivers at the end of a movie, a play, or at the sight of a masterful work of visual arts. No matter where one comes from, each culture displays the traces of that human desire for the fruit of life, to enjoy a glorious life in creation with God.
This, indeed, is the purpose of education. Consider Wolterstorff’s insight, here, as he seeks to understand why it is that theoretical knowledge (philosophy), and art are so crucial within the educational curriculum:
“In my view we should not argue that the worth of [theorizing] lies in making us better persons; often it does not. Neither should we argue that it is indispensable for becoming critical thinkers; there are other ways. Nor need we argue that it is indispensable for certain professions, though it is. All that need be said is that science and art enrich our lives. When science opens our eyes to the astonishing pattern of creation, and when music moves us to the depths of our being, then we experience some of the shalom that God intends for us. Art and theory are a gift of God in fulfillment of our humanity. A life devoid of the knowledge that theorizing brings us, and of the images that art sets before us, is a poor and paltry thing, short of what God meant our lives to be.” Nicholas Wolterstorff, “The Mission of the Christian College at the End of the Twentieth Century,” in Educating for Shalom: Essays on Higher Christian Education, ed. Clarence W. Joldersma and Gloria Goris Stronks (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2004), 29-30.
In other words, the works of human theorizing, the pursuit of truth, of knowledge and wisdom, find their worth simply because they signify the highest points of human flourishing, and are intrinsically good because of that. One pursues the necessities not simply so that one can keep existing, but so that works of art, of philosophy, of systematic theology, can exist.
Likewise, consider Herman Bavinck’s words on the pursuit of eloquence in one’s theological speech: “A person shall be eloquent, thus, if his word once again becomes the bearer of godly content, if it (in a creaturely sense) becomes what the Logos is in the divine being: both light and life. In order to speak well, one must exist well.” Eloquence (trans. James Eglinton).
Indeed, the crafting of eloquence is only made possible, and is, in a certain sense, a purpose of a well-developed existence – a human being made in the image of God and reflecting that image to the utmost. Human discourse ought to match the eternally eloquent intra-Trinitarian speech of God.
It is in these ways, then, that pragmatism, so embedded within Confucian philosophy and Western capitalism, cannot but reflect a naturalistic worldview. It has no higher sense of divine purpose, no resources to account for the human craving of meaning and purpose. In a thoroughly naturalized and capitalistic worldview, apart from common grace, no work of scholarship would be truly forthcoming, no work of art to be found. Perhaps then, asking questions of whether a work of art can feed another is missing the point: we feed others because we want others to flourish, to be able to pursue their deepest talents and purpose – to glorify God by enjoying the fruits of one’s labor.