Harmony as an intellectual virtue


What role does the aesthetic aspect of reality play in everyday life? As a musician, this question is obviously close to my heart. Herman Dooyeweerd identifies the intellectual virtue associated with the aesthetic as ‘harmony’, while Calvin Seerveld, an thinker in the same tradition who wrote extensively on art, prefers ‘nuance’ or ‘allusiveness’. Whichever term you use, this virtue draws our attention to the richness of God’s creation and the perfection of His works, in a way that goes beyond rational understanding and into awe, enjoyment and peace. Andrew Basden talks about a ‘delight that seems non-necessary’, which is a great summary of this virtue; a harmonious life is saturated with an awareness of God’s grace, which gives us not mere existence but life in abundance.

Scripture is full of aesthetic contemplation. It’s there in the places you’d expect, like the psalmists’ joy over God’s works, or the warmth and delight of the Song of Songs. But it’s just as present in the Law, where God’s commandments about the Israelites’ various festivals add up to rituals that encompass every sense; or in the Prophets, whose exhortations to God’s lost people draw on every metaphor available (some quite shocking!) to portray their desperate state. It’s even there in Paul’s letters, where statements about God’s character and actions are punctuated by outbursts of poetic wonder and praise.

How can we bring harmony to our lives and work as Christians in the academy? Here are a few principles:

  • Remember the limits of rationality. In a world increasingly obsessed with objective measures – league tables for schools and universities, headlines dominated by (often misunderstood) statistical judgements – it is important to remember that God’s ways are higher than ours, irreducible in their multi-dimensional richness. Alongside the pithy clarity of his teachings on subjects such as prayer, giving, or forgiveness, Jesus’ parables stand as miracles of allusiveness that bewildered his audiences and provide food for years of contemplation even today. The Pharisees, with their dogmatic insistence on the letter of the law, lost the harmonious whole. We too need to be careful not to elevate our own rationality above God’s plans.
  • Harmony is not always easy. Debates around modern art often revolve around the contrast between provocation and entertainment, with some wanting artists to break every taboo, and others seeking out aesthetic experiences as an escape from the difficulties of everyday life. This dichotomy is one that we can challenge as Christians. Jesus entered into the darkest places of the world and suffered so that we can know him in the midst of joy and pain alike. The harmony of God’s plans is not undermined by the reality of our broken world, and we do need to run from this brokenness; nor do we need to surrender to it.
  • Research can be beautiful. There are many pressures on researchers to justify the value of their work in a host of different ways, whether economic or social or ethical. Each of these is important, of course, but it can be easy for the aesthetic dimension of research to be forgotten in the scramble to be clear, to be useful, to do good. Understanding our research as an act of worship, an outburst of praise at God’s gifts and His work in creation, can give us a fresh perspective on its intrinsic value and protect us from burnout or discouragement.


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Thanks, Mark; I like your post.

Overestimating rationality bad news, indeed. Danie Strauss, whose analytic capacity is just about the most sophisticated I’ve come across, makes a valuable distinction between the ‘concept’ and the ‘idea’. So many things defy conceptualisation, (‘grasp’, ‘capture’) in analytic rational terms. The ‘idea’ transcends such terms and allows nuance and image and more to be part of our true knowledge. Without this distinction, the life of faith can be both insufferably arrogant and very fragile.

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