The Ethical Dimension of Aesthetic Experience

Editor’s Note: This is the second installment of a four-part series by Jim McCullough that will look at the ways in which art contributes to faith


As a field, theological aesthetics received renewed attention in the late 1960’s into the 1970’s from members of what is sometimes referred to as the Yale School, or Neo-liberalism. Neo-liberals sought to reinstate the normative role of Scripture and the tenets of classical Christian doctrine within Protestantism where the liberalism that had funded much of 20th century mainline church life had been seemingly exhausted. Yale Seminary Neo-liberalism is generally identified as one source for what became known as Narrative Theology.

Among the 60’s-era Yale seminarians was Stanley Hauerwas. In a review of the work of the British ethicist Iris Murdoch, Hauerwas announced what would become a primary aspect of his whole career. Joining Murdoch in a critique of the Kantian ethics that mainstream Protestantism had absorbed, Hauerwas writes:

Modern moral philosophers have failed to understand that moral behavior is an affair not primarily of choice but of vision… When we assess other people, we do not consider just their solutions to particular problems; we feel something much more elusive which may be called their total vision of life…Our morality is more than adherence to universalizable rules; it also encompasses our experiences, fables, beliefs, images, concepts, and inner monologues.[1]

Because Christian morality has more to do with vision as occasioned by indwelling ‘fables, beliefs, images, concepts and inner monologues,’ Hauerwas proposes that the moral life is ‘better understood on the analogy of the aesthetic mode of seeing and beholding than in terms of action and decision,’ and that art can catalyze such growth because ‘great art show[s] us our world with a clarity which startles us because we are not used to looking at the real world at all.’[2]

I am unaware of any further publications on art by Hauerwas. However, one fellow student from the same generation of Yale seminarians did pursue this basic line of reasoning in greater depth and sustained dialogue with the arts. Writing a dissertation that was published in 1966 and recently reissued, David Baily Harned’s stated aim is to renew for Protestant orthodoxy a form of natural theology, one that doesn’t seek to provide foundations for initial faith in God but rather reinstates the significance of the natural in the process of Christian discipleship and formation. And it is in the arts, Harned proposes, that humans have recourse to fresh encounters with the natural that is often obstructed beneath the miasma of the quotidian:

Some men make artifacts that we call works of art. They are created for many of the same reasons effective in the development of language. They initiate us more fully to the particularity of the things and situations we confront and the emotions we feel. We must have such knowledge, but language alone does not provide it. The principle service of works of art lies in their compensation for the deficiencies of the linguistic process in clarifying the inner life of man and mapping his world.[3]

It is the “artist’s venture,” Harned writes, to rub us “up against the stubborn whatness of things”[4] which we might otherwise wish to avoid or deny, such as uncomfortable topics, difficult dilemmas, and troubling images, as well as fresh encounters with beauty and meaningfulness in the midst of suffering. One thinks of how Harriet Beecher Stowe’s pre-Civil War novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) enabled readers to see America’s ‘peculiar institution’ in a vivid manner and to identify with those caught within it. Pablo Picasso’s painting ‘Guernica’ (1937) enabled audiences to see mechanized warfare in a new and compelling way. And the actor Sidney Poitier was the first black man many white Americans really saw in a poignant way through his films of the late fifties and early sixties.

Another iteration of this basic line of thought is found in Timothy Gorringe’s Earthly Visions. Picking up on an undeveloped metaphor from Karl Barth, Gorringe proposes that art (he refers primarily to painting) can function as ‘secular parables.’ Jesus’ parables were, of course, about the Kingdom of God, and Gorringe proposes three ways in which various aspects of the Western painting tradition provides ways of encountering this Kingdom in refreshing ways. The first is that, like Jesus’ preaching of the Kingdom, painting emerges from an eschatological hope—that is, from a vision of an alternative future. Some paintings provide idealized, refracted perspectives on the present that suggest possibilities for the future. Wassily Kandinsky, for example, seems to have thought of his experiments in abstraction as an anticipation of future revelation.

‘Guernica’ by Pablo Picasso ©

A second way is by simply contributing to human flourishing by providing aesthetic delight. It is okay to enjoy the arts. They provide refreshment, pleasure, rest from normal pressures and anxieties, and contribute to the beautification of the world. Finally, echoing Hauerwas and Harned, Gorringe affirms how the arts train viewers and audiences in the task of moral attentiveness:

Third, art teaches us to see differently. The great French thinker Simone Weil argued that attention lay at the root of prayer and others have extended this to both personal and political virtues. If attention is key to all forms of learning then artists might be seen as tutors in seeing each other and ourselves. ‘To be just in our seeing requires a long apprenticeship, learning from those with practiced eyes, and alert to the ways in which our vision is laden with interests, theories, and many-levelled associations.’[5]

How, then, does art contribute to faith? The emphasis of the ethical dimension is that the arts help us to ‘see,’ to carefully attend to what is before us, and provide new images and concepts of life than what we considered before, all of which funds a greater capacity to effectively respond to life.


[1]Stanley Hauerwas, “The Significance of Vision: Toward an Aesthetic Ethic” Sciences Religieuses/Studies in Religion 2 (1972), 36-49; 38. Emphasis added.
[2]Ibid, 40.
[3]David Baily Harned, Theology and the Arts (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2014), 30.
[4]Ibid, 9.
[5]T.J. Gorringe, Earthly Visions: Theology and the Challenges of Art (New Haven: Yale University press, 2011), 22, quoting David Ford, Self and Salvation: Being Transformed (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).


  • James McCullough is a graduate of ITIA, completing a PhD in 2013 under the supervision of David Brown. He is the author of Sense and Spirituality: The Arts and Spiritual Formation (Cascade, 2015), and more recently, with Philip Krill, Life in the Trinity: The Mystery of God and Human Deification (Wipf & Stock, 2022). He currently teaches theology, literature and music appreciation in the Archdiocese of St Louis.

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