To love the true, the good, and the beautiful

The great classical thinkers assumed that true virtue lay in loving the true, the good, and the beautiful; that the virtuous man would center his affection on this triumvirate of excellence, and that such attention would itself foster growth in virtue. During this morning’s sermon Pastor Phillips explained how love of what is true, good, and beautiful is also central to the Christian walk, and, this being a topic dear to my own heart, I was inspired to write something of my own on the subject.

As Christians, we have many compelling reasons to intentionally cultivate a love for all that is true and good and beautiful. To begin with, all such excellences ultimately originate with God. Some directly, such as a rainbow, the song of a thrush, or the sweep of constellations in a night sky, and some indirectly, like good music, a well-made meal, pleasant comradeship, or a thought-provoking book. Whether God created the good or created the creator of the good, ultimately all goods are His gifts. “Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights.”

No one who considers the impractically extravagant beauty of a butterfly, or the utterly unnecessary pleasure produced by certain combinations of sound, can doubt that God takes pleasure in His creativity. And what creator does not delight in the delight of others? God did not invent flame so that it could be put under a basket, but so that it might dance upon the lampstand and give light to all who are in the house, that they might see it and glorify their Father who is in heaven.

When we delight in what is true, and good, and beautiful, we worship God. “The heavens are telling of the glory of God; and their expanse is declaring the work of His hands.” Furthermore, such appreciation actually shapes us to love Him more and better.

Our every choice, our every affection, shapes us in some way. We become what we do; we become what we love. This is why Paul tells us, “Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” As our love of God shapes us to love what is good, so also our love of what is good shapes us to love God, the author of these goods, more and more fully.

This is a point that is perhaps most easily seen in the negative. Most would agree that a man who shuts himself up in a dank apartment, reading twisted novels and listening to dark music, is cultivating a spirit that is less open to the Father of lights. If our loves can draw us away from God, surely they can also draw us nearer, when we love those created goods through which “His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature” are revealed.

It is important to add a caveat here. Whenever one speaks of loving created things, there is a natural shrinking away on the part of the Christian: “Idolatry!” In fact, Augustine famously defined sin as nothing other than loving what is less above what is greater. Clearly, disordered affection – love of creation over Creator – is a deadly error. Yet, Augustine himself notes that the sin lies “in deserting what [is] better,” rather than in the love of created things themselves.

The error here lies in deficiency rather than excess of love. If a woman buys her husband a new car, then complains a few months later, “You love that car more than you love me!” it is unlikely that promising to love the car less will really address the heart of the problem. We want our gifts to be loved, and to be loved for themselves. In a healthy relationship, there is no fear that even the most wonderful gift will overwhelm the recipient’s love for the giver – on the contrary, such gifts illustrate and reinforce that love.

If we find that our love of created things, whether food, nature, or family, has come to exceed our love of God, trying to tamp down those loves is approaching the problem from the wrong direction. One cannot treat the disease by attacking symptoms. Instead, we must choose to love God first, to restore Him to His proper place in our lives. When we call upon Him, the God who once taught us to love Him is always ready to go over the lesson again. And once He is restored to pride of place, all our other lesser loves fall naturally into their appropriate positions as well. So long as we do not allow love of God’s gifts to distract us from love of the Giver, there is no reason to fear that they will separate us from Him. In fact, a proper love of what is true and good and beautiful may help us avoid those things which threaten our relationship with God.

There is much that is bad and unhealthy without being outright evil. Many books, movies, conversations, images, and thoughts sit just outside the boundaries of objective, clear “wrongness,” just far enough away that we feel justified in partaking. We don’t have to touch what is unclean, but we get used to the smell.

It’s hard to draw clear boundary lines in such cases. When we try, too often we swerve too far in the other direction and become legalists. Like the Pharisees, we “weigh men down with burdens hard to bear,” taking it upon ourselves to remedy the deficiencies in God’s commands. Some movies are bad, so we don’t watch movies. Drinking may lead to drunkenness, so drinking is banned. Dress may be provocative, so women should be unkempt for Christ.

Torn between two negative extremes, how much better to have something excellent for which to aim. I observed earlier that we become what we love; it is worth noting that we also love what we love. And the more we love what is good, the more we hate what is not. When God commands us in Amos, “Hate evil, love good,” He’s actually just repeating Himself. This is why a God of love can also hate, and hate passionately; in fact, a God of love must hate if He truly loves.

Better one love than a hundred laws. A man can try to avoid being drawn into pornography by carefully deciding exactly how many square inches of exposed skin and how provocative a pose it takes to make an image unacceptable – or he can teach himself to love purity and beauty. A woman can draw a flowchart to determine when conversation turns to gossip – or she can cultivate a fierce love for her neighbor. A parent can diagram exactly which words and chords makes music out-of-bounds for his teen – or he can teach him to love music that is good and beautiful. (This is not to suggest that rules are unnecessary. Objective boundaries are often valuable and helpful as we seek to grow in virtue, but without an organic foundation of love we will always end up spilling over into either corruption or legalism.)

It may seem odd to suggest that cultivating a love of botany or astronomy would help a man resist pornography, but that is in fact exactly what I am suggesting. Beauty is beauty and goodness is goodness, whatever form it takes. The more our very soul embraces what is truly beautiful, the more naturally we will respond with revulsion to what is filthy and perverted. Love of one good translates to all others. Show me a man who has cultivated a love of true womanhood, of purity, and of beauty, and I’ll show you a man who will find it far easier to resist the lure of pornography or other sexual impurity.

As Christians, we have every reason to cultivate a love of all that is true, all that is good, and all that is beautiful, for our good God gave us these gifts for our delight and to teach of His nature. This is the world which the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.

The dangers of risk-avoidance

Kids sometimes get hurt playing in treehouses. If we create exacting national safety standards for treehouses, fewer kids will get hurt. That can only be a good thing, right?

Medical researchers in Ohio published a paper this month suggesting national safety standards for treehouses after statistics showed that 2,800 children a year are hurt in accidents linked to them. The injuries ranged from bruises to broken bones, but all were serious enough to send the children to the emergency room.

It’s the same instinct that motivated this lady’s neighbor to call the police because her children were climbing a tree.

A woman, upset, saying, “You could fall and get hurt and not be able to walk again!”

So I approached her and said, “It’s okay with me if they climb the tree.”

“It’s not okay with me! They could get hurt!” She repeated some variations on this theme.

I agreed: “You’re right. They could get hurt. It’s still okay with me.”

“It’s not okay with me! I’m calling the police.”

Because if you aren’t in a tree, you’ll never get hurt falling out of a tree. It’s a simple, feel-good solution to an obvious danger. And because it’s so obvious, we never consider the hidden costs. In Last Child in the Woods, Richard Louv writes,

One U.S. researcher suggests that a generation of children is not only being raised indoors, but is being confined to even smaller spaces. Jane Clark, a University of Maryland professor of kinesiology (the study of human movement), calls them “containerized kids” – they spend more and more time in car seats, high chairs, and even baby seats for watching TV. When small children do go outside, they’re often placed in containers – strollers – and pushed by walking or jogging parents. Most kid-containerizing is done for safety concerns, but the long-term health of these children is compromised. In the medical journal the Lancet, researchers from the University of Glasgow in Scotland reported a study of toddler activity where the researchers clipped small electronic accelerometers to the waistbands of seventy-eight three-year-olds for a week. They found that the toddlers were physically active for only twenty minutes a day. […]

As the nature deficit grows, another emerging body of scientific evidence indicates that direct exposure to nature is essential for physical and emotional health. For example, new studies suggest that exposure to nature may reduce the symptoms of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), and that it can improve all children’s cognitive abilities and resistance to negative stresses and depression.

Leonard Sax points out another hidden cost of risk-avoidance in Why Gender Matters.

Let’s go back to Lizette Peterson’s study, where she rigged up a stationary bike so kids could “ride” through a hazardous environment. Peterson then asked asked all the parents whether their kids had ever been injured riding a bike, injured badly enough to require medical attention. She found that kids who had been injured were less fearful doing the simulation than kids who had never been injured – even after controlling for the degree of confidence kids felt riding bicycles. She calls this the “invulnerability” effect. When a kid has fallen and (let’s say) scraped a knee or gotten a cut, they recover. One week later that kid is thinking, “Hey, that wasn’t so bad. I got hurt and now I’m fine.”

Child psychologist Wendy Mogel has written a charming book called The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Without mentioning the theory of learned helplessness, she points out that shielding children from injury makes them more risk-averse. And, letting them explore their world – at the cost of a few scrapes and cuts – builds their character and gives them self-confidence, resilience, and self-reliance.

If children never climb trees and are only exposed to industrial-strength treehouses “lower than 10 feet up, [with] several inches of soft mulch below it and using solid, 38-inch-high barriers instead of guardrails,” they well be very safe. They may be physically and emotionally weaker and less capable of healthy risk-assessment, but they will be very, very safe.

Dirt, worms, and health

From The New York Times,

In studies of what is called the hygiene hypothesis, researchers are concluding that organisms like the millions of bacteria, viruses and especially worms that enter the body along with “dirt” spur the development of a healthy immune system. Several continuing studies suggest that worms may help to redirect an immune system that has gone awry and resulted in autoimmune disorders, allergies and asthma.

These studies, along with epidemiological observations, seem to explain why immune system disorders like multiple sclerosis, Type 1 diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease, asthma and allergies have risen significantly in the United States and other developed countries.

“What a child is doing when he puts things in his mouth is allowing his immune response to explore his environment,” Mary Ruebush, a microbiology and immunology instructor, wrote in her new book, “Why Dirt Is Good” (Kaplan). “Not only does this allow for ‘practice’ of immune responses, which will be necessary for protection, but it also plays a critical role in teaching the immature immune response what is best ignored.” […]

Dr. Weinstock goes even further. “Children should be allowed to go barefoot in the dirt, play in the dirt, and not have to wash their hands when they come in to eat,” he said. He and Dr. Elliott pointed out that children who grow up on farms and are frequently exposed to worms and other organisms from farm animals are much less likely to develop allergies and autoimmune diseases.

Who needs buttercups or bishops when you have broadband?

The Telegraph reports on the latest update to Oxford University Press’ children’s dictionary:

Oxford University Press has removed words like “aisle”, “bishop”, “chapel”, “empire” and “monarch” from its Junior Dictionary and replaced them with words like “blog”, “broadband” and “celebrity”. Dozens of words related to the countryside have also been culled.

The publisher claims the changes have been made to reflect the fact that Britain is a modern, multicultural, multifaith society. […]

“We have a certain Christian narrative which has given meaning to us over the last 2,000 years. To say it is all relative and replaceable is questionable,” said Professor Alan Smithers, the director of the centre for education and employment at Buckingham University. “The word selections are a very interesting reflection of the way childhood is going, moving away from our spiritual background and the natural world and towards the world that information technology creates for us.”

An analysis of the word choices made by the dictionary lexicographers has revealed that entries from “abbey” to “willow” have been axed. Instead, words such as “MP3 player”, “voicemail” and “attachment” have taken their place. […]

Anthony Seldon, the master of Wellington College, a leading private school in Berkshire, said: “I am stunned that words like “saint”, “buttercup”, “heather” and “sycamore” have all gone and I grieve it.”