Beauty, The Law, and Meaning Without God

“The law of your mouth is better to me than thousands of gold and silver pieces!”

Psalm 119

“the ordinances of the Lord are true and righteous altogether. More to be desired are they than gold, even much fine gold, sweeter also than honey, and drippings of the honeycomb.

Psalm 19

Imagine walking down the street somewhere in America today and hearing the following, “wow, what a beautiful ordinance New York just passed!,” or perhaps “man, California really has the loveliest laws in the nation,” or maybe “boy, these new state guidelines are so delicious, I just can’t stop thinking about them!” Statements like these would sound quite bizarre to modern ears. Laws for modern man are not usually thought of in aesthetic or sensual terms like those found in the Psalms.

For the ancient Israelite, however, the law of God was more than just a series of practical guidelines or arbitrary, apodictic commands. Rather, “Torah” was something to behold, to gaze at, and to ponder. The Psalmist speaks of God’s law and His statues as having a quality about them which required the song writer to speak of them in aesthetic categories. Poetic metaphor was one way to talk of the Law. The Law was not just good, it was beautiful like a melody, tantalizing like honey, precious like the rarest metals. Today, however, while laws may be just or unjust, repressive or affirming, rarely are they likened as gold and silver to our eyes or honey to our lips. Why is this? What, if anything, has been lost to us in how we view law today compared with how the ancient Israelite viewed “Torah?”

Modern Man & The Loss of Aesthetic Ontology

In his magisterial work, A Secular Age, Charles Taylor explains the loss of the “ontic” in Western art, describing how in the modern era a universally accepted ontology, i.e., a shared metaphysical understanding of the cosmos, was no longer available to the contemporary artist. Rather than using common signs and shared imagery to point to the deeper realities of the created order and the “higher times”1 Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press, 2007), 54-59. of a divinely superintended history, artistic meaning no longer inhered in the metaphysical reference points these symbols represented. Meaning was instead relegated to the sensibilities of the artist himself:

We could describe the change in this way: where formerly poetic language could rely on certain publicly available orders of meaning, it now has to consist in a language of articulated sensibility….[Alexander] Pope, for instance, in his Windsor Forest, could draw on age-old views of the order of nature as a commonly available source of poetic images. For Shelly [1792-1822] this resource is no longer available; the poet must articulate his own world of references, and make them believable.

Taylor, A Secular Age, 353.

What had changed between Pope’s early 18th century world and Shelly’s early 19th century one to make it so that the artist himself had to not just render the publicly accessible signs, but also provide his own meaning for the signs rendered, is simple to articulate albeit daunting to grasp as a historical reality. The metaphysical view of the cosmos that had been taken for granted for millennia, an understanding of reality grounded in the Judeo-Christian tradition, classical Greek philosophy, and the biblical narrative, had gradually eroded and been lost. The given assumptions that the objects of artistic representation were real was no longer accepted. Whether those representations were scenes of biblical or classical history, e.g. stories of great heroes or saints, or of more abstract realities, e.g., the order and structure of the angelic realm, the artistic signs were no longer consider to point to actual ontological substances, transcendent realms, or even historical persons and events. From the time of the early enlightenment, therefore, the artist would no longer be able to specialize only in the technique of his artistic medium, the goal being to represent both immanent and transcendent features of cosmic truths, but instead to create his own cosmic truths to represent. This marks a fundamental intellectual shift in art from objective mimesis to subjective articulation—from artistic imitation to generation.

This loss of the ontological referent in artistic representation entailed the conceptual shift from understanding the work of art, e.g. the painting or concerto, as the subject’s expression about an object of affection (or contemplation), to seeing the work of art itself as the thing worthy of affection or contemplation. This process began first with the artist and then migrated into the art community, becoming a new “given” for how the culture understands the art it views. Once this philosophical transition had occurred in the mind of the common man, it was no longer to the deeper mystery of Christ’s atonement that say the Isenheim Altarpiece points its viewer, rather it is the Altarpiece itself which becomes the terminus ad quem. It, the work of art, points to nothing other than what it is. The piece of art is no longer an instrumental good aimed at some final cause, it itself is now seen as its own end.2 The impressionist phrase that captured this new philosophy of aesthetics was “l’art pour l’art.”

This, of course, does not mean that we still do not feel or sense something transcendent when we stand before Grünewald’s masterpiece, or when we hear a powerful rendition of Bach’s Cello Suite #1 in G Major. But, it does mean that we are left grasping for that which would explain why we feel transcended. As Taylor says about this “absolute” art, “it trades on resonances of the cosmic in us” while at the same time “the ontic commitments are very unclear.”3 Taylor, A Secular Age, 356. In other words, we feel something metaphysically real, but we wonder if that reality is external to us, or is it in the power of the artist himself to create such “realities?” Is the artist discerning some greater mystery, or is he just being mysterious?

Taylor goes on:

The idea is: the mystery, the depth, the profoundly moving, can be, for all we know, entirely anthropological. Atheists, humanists cling on to this, as they go to concerts, operas, read great literature. So one can complement an ethic and a scientific anthropology which remain very reductive and flat.

Taylor, A Secular Age, 356.

If it is the case that man is just being mysterious, i.e., acting mysteriously through his art, then a kind of poetic atheism is possible: itself an amazing phenomena should man turn out to be nothing more than the sum of his molecules—raw matter all the way down. Nevertheless, this loss of a metaphysical component or ontological referent to the artistic expressions of modern man goes beyond just leaving us with a sense of confusion as to the source of our wonderment. It touches upon the nature of morality as well.

The Beautiful and The Good

The relation of the aesthetic to the moral has been recognized since ancient times. In On Beauty and Being Just, Elaine Scarry highlights how the recognition of that which is beautiful acts as the catalyst for generating that which is good:

“The generation is unceasing. Beauty, as both Plato’s Symposium and everyday life confirm, prompts the begetting of children: when the eye sees someone beautiful, the whole body wants to reproduce the person. But it also—as Diotima tells Socrates—prompts the begetting of poems and laws, the works of Homer, Hesiod, and Lycurgus. The poem and the law may then prompt descriptions of themselves—literary and legal commentaries—that seek to make the beauty of the prior thing more evident, to make, in other words, the poem’s or law’s “clear discernibility” even more “clearly discernible.”

Excerpt From: Elaine Scarry. “On Beauty and Being Just.” Apple Books. https://books.apple.com/us/book/on-beauty-and-being-just/id719594134

Moral goodness then, in so many ways, is an expression of an aesthetic quality. The beholder of beauty longs to see it regenerated and further propagated in diverse forms. Most biologically, and concretely, in the reproduction of children. More abstractly and conceptually in the creation of just laws. The former act mirrors the divine act of creation itself, while the latter makes clear or discernible to the rational mind the harmony embedded in creation.

It is necessary at this point to note an important distinction, however, between articulations (e.g. laws or statutes) of “the Good” and aesthetic experiences of “the Beautiful.” This distinction lies in their varying modes of existence. Laws and statutes are propositional and must be formed and understood rationally through properly crafted linguistic structures. Aesthetic expressions are primarily non-propositional and usually engage the emotions. Poets try to split the difference between these two modes by using metaphorical and figurative language and concise verbal constructions to evoke emotions through “word pictures;” something that music and painting do through non-verbal means. Nevertheless, it has been shown that knowledge can be acquired both through the propositional and indirect as well as through the non-propositional and direct.4 see, for example, James O. Young, Art and Knowledge (London: Routledge, 2001) for an extended philosophical treatise on how art conveys knowledge.

Further, beyond the aforementioned desire to propagate that which is beautiful through various means, some more concrete, others more abstract, Scarry goes on to say that there is also a posture of reverence one takes when in the presence of beauty,

“The moment of coming upon something or someone beautiful might sound…like this: ‘You are about to be in the presence of something life-giving, lifesaving, something that deserves from you a posture of reverence or petition. It is not clear whether you should throw yourself on your knees before it or keep your distance from it, but you had better figure out the right answer because this is not an occasion for carelessness or for leaving your own postures wholly to chance.”

Elaine Scarry, Part I: On Beauty and Being Just

Encounters with beauty force the subject to acknowledge something beyond themselves that requires some kind of appropriate response, some “right answer.” Real beauty imposes normativity upon us.

We now begin to see what the Psalmist was getting at when he, under divine inspiration, waxed poetically about the Law. In the New Testament, St. Paul commends the church at Philippi to consider that which is beautiful as a way to know what moral excellence is, “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable—if there is any moral excellence and if there is any praise—dwell on these things.” (Phil 4:8-9) However, for both the Psalmist and the Apostle Paul, unlike for the post-Enlightenment artist, that contemplation of beauty had a clear object of reference, namely the Divine Nature itself, the very Being of God.

Schiller and Nietzsche: Conflicting Visions

For the post-Enlightenment Romantics the question then had to be raised: could the experience of beautiful phenomena, apart from a religiously defined ontological referent of that experience, “save us” from our existential crisis and provide a basis for our ethics? Friedrich Schiller thought that if the biblical view of God was no longer a metaphysical option for filling in the meaning of that which is beautiful, then the encounter with beauty itself must be the thing that could relieve us from our existential condition, as well as provide a moral foundation. For Schiller and other Romantics, morality is a kind of emanation of the beautiful, but where the beautiful is left impersonal and ambiguous. To be good is to create beautiful things or respond properly to those things that are beautiful. Taylor explains:

Schiller thus gave a wonderfully clear, convincing and influential formulation to a central idea of the Romantic period, that the answer to the felt inadequacy of moralism, the important defining goal or fulfillment which it leaves out and represses, was to be found in the aesthetic realm. This went beyond the moral, but in Schiller’s case wasn’t seen in contradicting it. Rather it complements morality in completing human fulfillment.

Taylor, A Secular Age, 358-359.


In other words, the specified moralities found in traditional religions like Judaism and Christianity, which trafficked in divine laws and moral commands handed down from a personal God, were stifling to the human subject; they were moralistic in that they warred against our more natural instincts and sensibilities. Eternal laws that were claimed to coincide with a divine will were too restrictive to the human creature, and, as such, the experience of beauty itself now became the grounds for ethical appeals. Christian and Jewish moral codes were seen as historically contingent, or so it was argued, and there was a higher law that those religions had perverted in their merely human attempts to articulate morality. Man had progressed and so too his moral sensibility.

However, this Romantic view presented a problem, one that lingers until today. For, as pointed out above, the thing that gives meaning to any beautiful phenomena, whether a feature of nature or artifact of man, was no longer to be found in something ontologically distinct from the subject, rather meaning was ascribed by the artist himself. As such, by collapsing moral goodness into aesthetics, Schiller, like his contemporary, Keats,5See “Ode on a Grecian Urn” where Keats famously says “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty. That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need know.” can now claim that “Beauty is what will save us, complete us.”6 Taylor, A Secular Age, 359. However, in doing this, he winds up conflating morality with the meaning-making will of the artist himself. Now, it is the artist who gives definition and content to what is moral by articulating the meaning of that which is beautiful, and not by recognizing something metaphysically distinct that gives its own meaning.

The historical consequences of this theory of morality was the aestheticism of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which gave rise to an artistic culture independent of any religious system of thought, but instead acted as a replacement for religion, “So created beauty, works of art, are not only important loci of that beauty which can transform us [into moral creatures] they are also essential ways of acceding to the beauty which we don’t create [i.e. Nature]. In the Romantic period, artistic creation comes to be the highest domain of human activity.7 Taylor, 359. Emphasis added. Later aesthetes like G.E. Moore would develop more philosophically rigorous systems to try and ground ethics in aesthetics.

Taylor goes on to say regarding Schiller’s theory, however, that while this conflation of the aesthetic with the moral is a far cry from the ancient and medieval notions of beauty and goodness (e.g. represented most vividly in the cosmological imagery of Dante), it still leaves some room for God as the ultimate author of beauty itself. A divine Creator of the world has not yet been entirely abandoned by the Romantics, even if particular religious dogmas about Him have been. Nevertheless, having arrived at Schiller, where the distinction between nature and nature’s creator has been significantly blurred, it is not long before we come to Nietzsche, whose rejection of the Creator will “set the aesthetic against the moral.”8 Taylor, 359.

For Schiller, the concept of beauty was still imbued with a residue of Christian morality and Christian virtue, in that “the Beautiful” is reflective of, or somehow still connected to, the notion of caritas, or charity. Love, light, harmony, order, and even selflessness are still the primary hallmarks of beauty. These moral and sensible notions are, even if now only vaguely defined by the artist himself, still thought of as the criteria for which something can be rightly called beautiful. Experiences of “play,”9Schiller’s term for the chief end of man on earth. and friendship, and what might be called the fullness of life are the chief ends of man on earth (and possibly the only chief ends, should earthly existence be the only one available to us). For Nietzsche, however, this kind of aesthetic humanism is still far too indebted to a Christian worldview. It neglects an entire range of human sensibilities, longings, desires and dispositions that are normatively no different than charity and altruism. These are the destructive, the chaotic, and otherwise dark powers of man.

Of course, for Nietzsche, these creative powers of man are not “dark,” in the sense of “wrong” or “immoral” or “deviant” from some standard that itself should be labeled “light” or “love.” No, rather these “dark” powers simply are— they are as human and as life-giving as any other impulse, if not more so. But, these creative energies have, through the rise of two particular worldviews: post-Socratic Greek philosophy and Christianity, become viewed as immoral, wrong, and worthy of marginalization and repression. For Nietzsche then, a return to the pre-moral aesthetics of Homeric culture in light of the decline of Christian metaphysics is the answer to what would otherwise be a plunge into nihilism. This longing for a purely aesthetic world, one unconstrained by Christian notions of morality (or enlightenment rationalism for that matter), can be seen in one of first major work, The Birth of Tragedy as well as in one of his last books, Ecce Homo. As Robert Wicks points out, Nietzsche “expresses his hope that Dionysus, the god of life’s exuberance, would replace Jesus, the god of the heavenly otherworld, as the premier cultural standard for future millennia.”10 Robert Wicks, “Friedrich Nietzsche” in The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 2017.

Unlike Schiller and the earlier Romantics who left open the door to a divine referent, albeit an ambiguous one, Nietzsche slams the door shut by making the creative will of man the sole locus of “goodness.” Where Christ subjects himself to the will of the Father, and Paul calls Christians to subject their will to Christ, Dionysus subjects his will to nothing and no one. The idea of divine moral laws, let alone divine moral laws that are experienced as beautiful and to which one should subject himself, is the sheer antithesis of the Dionysian spirit that Nietzsche proposes.

Conclusion: A Culture of Ambiguity in Art and Law


Fortunately, culture in the West has never embraced the fullness of Nietzsche’s vision, although some historians would see Nietzsche’s view of truth and the will to power (hint: they are the same thing) as intellectually funding, at least in part, the rise of National Socialism in Germany11Robert Wicks points out that Nietzsche’s sister, Elizabeth, who took care of her brother in his invalid years was closely associated with both Hitler and Mussolini in their rise to power in the 1930’s. Herself, an avowed anti-semite, may have thought her brother’s works could intellectually fund the rising nationalism. Some fascists at least were able to interpret Nietzsche in a manner that lent philosophical support to Nazism and the idea of national self-glorification. It is not hard to see how that could be the case. and Fascism in Italy. Also, current trends in American culture do make Nietzsche’s views seem more alive than ever, especially in the realm of art and personal self-expression. Is the creative will of man beyond criticism or reproach? Perhaps recent Super Bowl half-time shows might give us a partial answer to that question.

Still, we are not where Nietzsche would have taken us, at least not yet. We may no longer see the moral law of the biblical God as beautiful to our eyes and sweet to our tongue, but neither do we really feel beyond morality as Nietzsche argued, ready to indulge in every desire and self-creative longing.12However, at this writing, a resolution (HR5) that would allow protections for biological men who simply through the act of self-identifying as women (and vice-versa) are treated legally as women has just passed the House and is waiting for approval in the Senate. In fact, it is hard to even think of what kinds of laws a Dionysian culture would require, if any at all?

It seems, therefore, that we still live, conceptually and existentially, somewhere between a cosmos where the moral law is beautiful because it proceeds from the nature and will of the biblical God, and Schiller’s vision of the moral law being an emanation from a beautiful but metaphysically ambiguous source. This Romantic vision is still a viable option for many, if not the cultural given against which we view morality and the laws we compose to try to articulate it. A vague sense of deity, the “therapeutic, moral and deistic”13The term “Moral, therapeutic deism” was coined by Christian Smith and Melinda Lundquist Denton in their 2005 book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers. god of America’s youth, seems to be about as metaphysical as our current culture can be. The art it produces is as ambiguous as its ontological commitments. We see this cultural ambiguity on display when we watch a classical depiction of moral beauty in films like Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,”14 We also see in reviews of Malick’s film how both the Nietzschean and the Schillerian mindsets react to its overtly Christian theme: see here for an example of both. on the one hand, followed by a Nietzchean glorification of man’s unconstrained creative will in Danny Boyle’s biopic “Steve Jobs”15The film ends celebrating Jobs not for his moral character, although there is an ambiguous attempt to try to show some kind of moral transformation at the end of the movie, but for his sheer creative genius, a genius that allowed itself the freedom to run rampant over the feelings and lives of many for the sake of “creating.” on the other. Between these two presentations of beauty and morality (or lack thereof) is about every Walt Disney film made since 1990, each of which tries to maintain the Schillerian middle ground. These films, like “Mulan” or “Lion King,” suggest something beautiful and mysterious about life, but in its ambiguity, leave interpretation of the experience open, allowing for the construction of one’s own personalized morality. No public ontological referent is on offer here, just vague mystery and personal decision.

In sum, law in the West seems to mirror the ambiguity of our art. Some particular laws appear outright Nietzschean in their intent and content, e.g. the recent HR5 Equality Act, others exist in a more Schillerian vein, the Dream Act?, while others, albeit increasingly few, may faintly reflect, like in a mirror darkly, our once very real belief in a transcendent God and the Christ who came to set us free from the law. However, like our art, the idea that the law is beautiful is an increasingly rare, if not extinct, notion–the triumph of function over form is nearly complete. Today’s laws exist merely to help us manage our social lives, not to illuminate us to the divine nature from whence they flow and to which we are meant to go.

To Have or Have Not?: The Problem of Possessing vs. The Gift Of Being

“Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?”

Matthew 6:25

In his commentary on the work of Gabriel Marcel, Oxford philosopher F.H. Heinemann1 Heinemann is a little known figure in philosophy, but seems to have been deeply involved with the existentialist movement on the European continent in its heyday. He also claims to have coined the term “Existenzphilosophie” in German, and knew many of the leading existentialist thinkers like Jaspers, Heidegger and Husserl personally. Thus, he has all the credentials of an expert in this arena of philosophy. suggests that for the French existentialist the source of ‘alienation’2 ‘Alienation’ is a fundamental concept and a technical term in 20th century existential thought. It is best understood as the individual person’s sense of being alone or isolated from God, others, and any telos or purpose in the world. for modern man lies in man’s “having” or “possessing” certain things or capacities or social functions. This inordinate focus on possessing or having alienates man from his authentic being. Unlike other existentialists of his day, like Sartre or Heidegger, the Roman Catholic Marcel saw the problem of possession as the core of our alienation from God and our true selves. Heinemann elucidates Marcel’s thought regarding the dangers of viewing our identity, our essence, in the act of “having”:

Objects which we possess, houses, books, factories, gardens, or ideas and opinions which we regard as our ‘possessions’, in a specific sense ‘have’ us. We are in danger of being imprisoned or devoured by them. People concentrating on having are in danger of becoming captive souls cut off from other persons and not responding to their ‘presence.’

F.H. Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, 143.

For Marcel, per Heinemann, the more one seeks to have or possess things for themselves, the more one does damage to his own being, to his own “ontology.” Man’s identity becomes confused with the concrete things he owns or even the abstract ideas he considers his own. According to Marcel, if we get lost in this project of having we “suffer a loss of being,” we incur an “ontological deficiency.”3 Heinemann, Existentialism and the Modern Predicament, 143. This having and the subsequent ontological damage it causes could manifest itself in very tangible things like the aforementioned “houses” or “factories” or in things like one’s own intellectual property or one’s success.

However, it is not just in a personal desire to have or possess that man begins to lose himself and his connection to God and his fellow man. Modern man, belonging to a world where the individual is increasingly ‘socialized,’ i.e., incorporated into an increasingly large, powerful state structure, has become a mere functionary (fonctionnaires) of that larger superstructure. In becoming more and more embedded in such a structure, genuine privacy, affection and relationship is lost:

An increasing socialization of life and the growing powers of the state are invading the privacy of the person and destroying the brotherhood of men and the fertile soil in which creativeness, imagination and reflection can flourish.

Heinemann, 143.

In addition, as the technology associated with this socializing process advances, the daily phenomena of human existence become mere “problems to be solved by reasoning and calculation.”4 ibid., 143. The vicissitudes of life all become obstacles to overcome rather than mysteries, i.e. “metaphysical problems,”5 Heinemann, 145. to be acknowledged and explored, let alone entered into.

Here, one could ask, “what happens if one applies Marcel’s concern over seeing things as problems to be fixed through instrumental reasoning, rather than as mysteries to be accepted and pondered, to concrete moral issues?” Instead of seeing moral attitudes or actions as either intrinsically right or wrong, good or evil, inherently dignified or mere means to ends, we see moral issues as primarily political ones; as technical deficiencies to be remedied through technological advances and legal revision. On this view, for example, abortion is not an inherent evil, i.e. the destruction of a mysterious being of incalculable ontological worth, but merely a sociological ill to be overcome through medical technology (e.g. RU-486) and better social policies (e.g. free health insurance).

We see this kind of pragmatic attitude among some Evangelical Christians today, who care less about overturning an intrinsically unjust (and evil) law in Roe v. Wade, or of pondering the great mystery of life more generally, but care only about finding means to dropping actual abortion rates.6 Which is, of course, one aspect of justice but not the whole story. As if the unjust “right” of abortion itself could stay on the books so long as no one actually exercised it. So long as the problems were not actual, it seems many would be okay with the idea that people could still believe abortion was morally justified. So long as we have through technology and social policy eliminated the need for anyone to have an actual abortion, it wouldn’t matter if they theoretically thought it was still a viable option. Nevertheless, this would be to go on thinking that the great mystery of life is itself subject to our possessing the knowledge and ability to destroy it should it ever become too bothersome to us. Few today however would apply this kind of thinking to something like the institution of slavery. After all, it is not okay to believe slavery is morally acceptable even if it is no longer economically viable and therefore not needed.

Returning to the more general problem of alienation from God, our true self, and others through the elevating of “having” over “being,” C.S. Lewis echoes Marcel’s thought (independently I believe), in The Screwtape Letters when he writes about the kinds of possessive claims we make on our lives. These include claims about our bodies and even time itself. Regarding time, Lewis has the elder tempter, Screwtape, advise the younger Wormwood:

They [interruptions] anger him [the Christian man] because he regards his time as his own and feels that it is being stolen. You must therefore zealously guard in his mind the curious assumption ‘My time is my own’. Let him have the feeling that he starts each day as the lawful possessor of twenty-four hours. Let him feel as a grievous tax that portion of this property which he has to make over to his employers, and as a generous donation that further portion which he allows to religious duties.

In deceiving the individual into believing he or she possesses the very time that passes, any intrusion upon one’s time by one’s neighbor (let alone by God) is seen as an offense, a “tax” upon one’s property. This opens up the door to various kinds of conflict between the individual self and “the other,” as human pride is further fueled by the enemy and every inch of “our” lives becomes a battlefield. After all, the notion that man possesses time itself can only be the height of hubris!

Regarding the body, it is much the same. The sense of “having” or “owning” a body is the source of incredible pride and egocentricism:

Much of the modern resistance to chastity comes from men’s belief that they ‘own’ their bodies—those vast and perilous estates, pulsating with the energy that made the worlds, in which they find themselves without their consent and from which they are ejected at the pleasure of Another! It is as if a royal child whom his father has placed, for love’s sake, in titular command of some great province, under the real rule of wise counsellors, should come to fancy he really owns the cities, the forests, and the corn, in the same way as he owns the bricks on the nursery floor.

C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters

It is this “sense of ownership,” this claim to “having rights” over everything from tangibles like houses and motor-cars,7 for Marcel avoir-possession, or “possessing having” to even the physical pains and pleasures of “those vast and perilous estates” that are human bodies8 for Marcel, the avoir-implication, or “implicit having” that enslaves us. Only when we realize that none of these things are appropriately ours, even if we experience them as such, but instead are part of the Divine life, can we begin to relinquish this false self, and in doing so participate in the life of God. In letting go of our ownership, our “having,” we can really start to be, and having found our identity in Christ, we can truly begin to “be in Him.” Rather than being creatures who possess things, we are transformed into creations that participate in the grand drama of Being itself.

Applied concretely, this would also put us as a society on a much better track than we are currently on, for our goals would not be economic, i.e. related to everyone “having” an equal amount of x, y, or z; but rather ontic, i.e. related to everyone being together and being fundamentally equal regardless of what they have. Perhaps then we would better understand Christ when he says “you are the salt of the earth…you are the light of the world.” Why allow a false notion of possession spoil the salt or hide that light?

“For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him…”

Ephesians 3:8bff

Being Good Without God: A Recipe for Fools

In his Dialogue with Trypho, the 2nd century Christian apologist, Justin Martyr, summarizes the Christian life:

And we who were filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness, have each through the whole earth changed our warlike weapons,–our swords into ploughshares, and our spears into implements of tillage,–and we cultivate piety, righteousness, philanthropy, faith, and hope, which we have from the Father Himself through Him who was crucified; and sitting each under his vine, i.e., each man possessing his own married wife. For you are aware that the prophetic word says, ‘And his wife shall be like a fruitful vine.’ Now it is evident that no one can terrify or subdue us who have believed in Jesus over all the world. For it is plain that, though beheaded, and crucified, and thrown to wild beasts, and chains, and fire, and all other kinds of torture, we do not give up our confession; but the more such things happen, the more do others and in larger numbers become faithful, and worshippers of God through the name of Jesus.

For Justin and the earliest Christians, several things about their newfound, and newly founded, faith were still obscure, e.g. the nature of the Trinity, the union of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus, the role of the Holy Spirit, etc. However, other things were crystal clear, e.g., that Jesus was God (somehow), that He rose from the dead, and that any virtue that could be attained by man, was attainable only by the grace of God, who was crucified for mankind. “Piety, righteousness, philanthropy” and even “faith, and hope” are all “from the Father Himself” through Christ. The virtues of man are not generated by man’s own powers, nor do they emerge from some inherent goodness in him. Also, because of God’s grace it was possible not only for men to become moral creatures, but it was God’s grace which also allowed them to live freely, to be truly liberated from the powers of supernatural oppression (Ephesians 6:12ff) and the oppressive weight of sin. In this freedom, the Christian had no fear of losing his head (literally), being thrown to wild beasts, put in chains, crucified, burned alive or otherwise tortured. God’s grace provided the path both to virtue and to victory over death.

There was no place for victimization in the thinking of the early Christians. Their oppression was God’s glory, and in spite of every torture and malice of the Roman “system” in which they lived, a system that was objectively oppressive, they saw themselves everywhere free. Nothing and no one in the early church believed in the need to overturn the system in order to be truly liberated. Liberation had already occurred, and the rest was the charitable outworking of that reality.

A New Vision of Man

Fast forward roughly 1600 years to early-modern Switzerland (“Helveticus” in Justin’s day). A philosopher named Jean-Jacques Rousseau says famously, “Man is born free, yet everywhere finds himself in chains.” For Rousseau, and the multitude of disciples who followed his theory of man, man is not “filled with war, and mutual slaughter, and every wickedness” at birth, the way Justin and the early martyrs believed. Rather, it was the imperfections in man’s government, in man-made systems, that corrupted and oppressed the otherwise “free” and moral individual. Other men followed in this interpretation of human nature, men of great historical influence like John Stuart Mill, Condorcet, and Robespierre. For these there was nothing inherent in man that prevented him from being virtuous in his own power; man could attain virtue unaided by any divine or extra-mundane force. Rationality and reason alone, and human effort, could generate virtue—the kind of virtue needed to perfect government and its institutions, and most especially its laws. All that was required on this vision was an intellectual elite that could put the institutional pieces together in the right way, and, upon doing so, set free the inherently good will of “the people.”

Thomas Sowell in his book, A Conflict of Visions, contrasts this “unconstrained” view of man proposed by Rousseau and his intellectual successors, with that of others like Hobbes, Adam Smith, and Edmund Burke, who saw man “constrained” by an inherently flawed nature. On the constrained view, this human nature would inevitably produce evil in any system it built or constructed. An evil that could at best be extenuated or curbed through social institutions and processes, but that could not be eliminated or excised completely from the individual or the institutions he creates. On the unconstrained view man was perfectible and only the right solutions had to be developed to solve our societal ills. On the constrained view, there was no perfection that could be attained by man alone, and therefore social and economic trade-offs had to be made to prevent the worst from happening. The unconstrained view sought political and economic answers to man’s human condition, the constrained view sought best practices in light of that condition. Sowell describes the constrained view of Adam Smith this way:

The moral limitations of man in general, and his egocentricity in particular, were neither lamented by Smith nor regarded as things to be changed. They were treated as inherent facts of life, the basic constraint in his vision. The fundamental moral and social challenge was to make the best of the possibilities which existed within that constraint, rather than dissipate energies in an attempt to change human nature—an attempt that Smith treated as both vain and pointless.

For those of the “unconstrained” party, however, this was just negative thinking, archaic pessimism grounded in atavistic religious dogma. It was this cumbersome inclusion of past knowledge, of unenlightened thought, that hindered man from becoming the kind of exceedingly rational and virtuous creature he otherwise is by nature. The progressive vision of man becoming fully authentic and actualizing all of his potentials, thus entailed the renunciation of any notion of an inherently flawed nature, and, consequently, any need for some kind of divine influence to aid that nature. We could, if we just tried hard enough, really do it ourselves.

Meet the New Boss, Same as the Old Boss

In every generation the unconstrained impulse, the impulse of man to believe in his own righteousness, and to act upon that belief, rears its head. Today we see it in the radical Leftist agenda in America, an agenda fueled by ambiguous intellectual movements like Critical Race Theory, which seeks not just to find flaws in the system and continue to slowly rework areas that can be reworked, but cries out for the system’s total destruction— to “tear the whole thing down!” The forces of those who hold to the unconstrained vision, who reject any need for divine aid or help, and who really believe, and always will believe, that a new revolution can solve the problem, are once again at work. Trade-offs are unacceptable for the advocate of the unconstrained view, only total solutions are acceptable. Perfection is within our grasp, if we would only reach out and grab it. But perfection is a high bar, and any identifiable flaw in the fabric of society must inevitably spur on the next revolution.

The problem of course with this view, a view that Justin and the early church Fathers would have roundly decried as heretical, is that it does away with what it sees as the most detestable doctrines of the Christian faith: original sin and man’s desperate need for grace. Conversely, it was these doctrines that the classical conservatives like Smith and Burke maintained in their political and economic thinking, regardless of their understanding of the doctrines source. Man, apart from God’s grace, was sinner, not saint. To fail to recognize this double problem of man, i.e., our own inherent corruption and the need for God’s saving and sanctifying grace, is to fundamentally mis-analyze the human condition. It is in this manner that Smith and Burke were far closer to Justin, and St. Paul (Romans 5:12), than Rousseau, Condorcet, or later legal philosophers like Ronald Dworkin.1 see Sowell, A Conflict of Visions, chapter 5: Summary and Implications.

For Justin, then, three things are clear: 1) man before Christ is sinner, prone to war and wickedness and “mutual slaughter,” 2) any virtue in man is a gift from God, and 3) it is in our cultivation of these gifts that we are liberated from the world’s system, and that to the point of even welcoming our own persecution, which is God’s glory and the glory of His Church.

The alternative to this anthropology is that of the progressive minded man, who believes with all sincerity that he has the capacity “in himself” to be perfecter of his own nature and of the society in which he lives. Which of these comes first, however, he hardly bothers to contemplate. But, if one were to guess, one would guess the latter, for to point to the external problems of “the system” will always act as a way to relieve oneself of personal responsibility and one’s own sense of moral guilt. If only we could change the system, then we ourselves would be changed. Indeed we would return back to the Eden of our youth, frolicking in our original sinlessness!

Of the unconstrained view and its perennial attempts to fundamentally transform society, Roger Daltrey put it best in one of the greatest rock anthems of all time,

I’ll tip my hat to the new constitution
Take a bow for the new revolution
Smile and grin at the change all around
Pick up my guitar and play just like yesterday
Then I’ll get on my knees and pray
We don’t get fooled again…

Meet the New Boss
Same as the Old Boss

The Who, “We Won’t Get Fooled Again”

Are we praying that “we won’t get fooled again?” If not, perhaps we should start.

Dialogue without End?: The Prideful Doctrine of “Intellectual Humility”

“But whenever you enter a town and they do not receive you, go into its streets and say ‘Even the dust of your town that clings to our feet we wipe against you. Nevertheless know this, that the kingdom of God has come near.’ I tell you, it will be more bearable on that day for Sodom than for that town.”

Luke 10:11-12

There is seemingly harmless tactic the devil uses to slowly infiltrate and change from within the people of God. This tactic is often presented to us as a call for “continued dialogue” or “more engagement” with those who hold to abjectly unbiblical teachings, or who openly embrace and act upon unbiblical moral orientations. We could call this tactic the doctrine of “endless dialogue,” a perennial politicking over unpopular historical dogma, a hallmark of any church about ready to capitulate to the pressures of the culture and embrace the norms of its day. The idea being that if we are good “Christ-loving” people, we must always be open to conversing about the same issue over and over, and over again. Dr. Geoffery Kirk explains the need to call this liberal bluff,

In the culture wars which have ravaged Europe since the seventeenth century, the principal tactic of the Left (to use the term broadly) has been entryism. This has been particularly so in the Churches. More recently WOKENESS in the guise of ‘inclusion’ has sought to replace the Christian virtues of tolerance, hospitality and forgiveness. This was never more true than in the cases of women’s ordination and the approval of gay marriage…What liberals want is endless conversation, dialogue without terminus. What they cannot stomach is a blunt recognition of their own apostasy.

https://ignatiushisconclave.org/2019/10/31/call-my-bluff/

This tactic of endless dialogue could be especially tempting in the world of Christian scholarship, where philosophers and theologians are specifically trained to charitably engage with their interlocutors, to “steel man” their opponents views, or otherwise remain open to alternative opinions or doctrines so as to never appear intellectually arrogant or epistemically confident. While all of these approaches in themselves are right and good, there is potential for the Christian academic to make the approaches themselves the ultimate ends. “Intellectual humility” is a big catchword in the arena of Christian academics,1 After writing the first version of this essay, I received some valuable feedback from a Christian philosopher who assured me he was not aware of any of his colleagues who held to this view of ‘Intellectual Humility.’ I see that as good news. even though its biblical roots as a virtue are questionable. “Wisdom,” or sophia, is clearly biblical, and certainly humility is as well, and love too. If we pursue these we will likely be less arrogant in how we present our arguments for what we hold as true, that is sure.

However, if one interprets “intellectual humility,” as some may be tempted, as the need to always remain open to other viewpoints, even ones that have consistently been adjudicated as unbiblical or biblically immoral, then one has to wonder if the Christian intellectual has lost his or her capacity to simply bear a conviction in the face of social pushback and scholarly peerage. Or, paradoxical as it may sound, perhaps the Christian scholar professing the virtue of intellectual humility is really not as intellectually humble as they present themselves. For it is one thing to appear intellectually humble before one’s peers and colleagues and another thing to be intellectually humble before the Word of God. Could it be that many who are engrossed in the life of the mind, nevertheless are unwilling to submit their mental life to the authority of the Bible?

In The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis presents us with a vivid image of the kind of person who remains ever open to endless dialogue about God, yet who can never just accept God for who he is. We discover this Episcopalian theologian as a passenger from hell visiting heaven, a place he ultimately finds far too stilted for his own intellectual freedom, a freedom which demands that he never take too firm a stand on a biblical doctrine, especially a doctrine like hell, but rather always allows his mind to be open to other possibilities,

“Ah, but we must all interpret those beautiful words in our own way! For me there is no such thing as a final answer. The free wind of inquiry must always continue to blow through the mind, must it not? “Prove all things”…to travel hopefully is better than to arrive.”

One can easily imagine that on earth this theologian would have been seen as quite “intellectually humble,” always looking but never finding a “final answer.” How beloved he must have been by his colleagues! However, Lewis’ intuition is correct, for the day will come when such dialogue ends, and the monologue of the Word of God will be proven absolutely true. There will not be debate over God in the presence of God, nor over the validity of His moral law.

Christians who think that the need to engage in endless dialogue over immoral teachings like same-sex marriage, abortion, or transgenderism, or to submit endless research papers on more abstract doctrines like Christian physicalism, the reality of Hell, or now Critical Race Theory, should consider Lewis’ intuition above. We should be careful that when we speak of “intellectual humility” we first mean humility before the authority of the Word of God, and only then humility before the conjectures and views of men. If not, we may find ourselves one day, in the very distant future, still thinking about God but never knowing Him. A dialogue without end may sound humble, as many progressives will make it sound, but unless we realize that the Word is the End, then it is the height of arrogance.

Becoming Sin: The Picture of Dorian Gray and The Ontology of Evil

One of the most terrifying works of art ever conceived in the mind of a man and executed by the skill of his hand, is the 7-foot tall painting of Dorian Gray by the 20th-century artist Ivan Albright. This monstrosity hangs in the halls of the Chicago Art Institute, and it may be warranted to say that any observer who can withstand looking at it for longer than a few minutes might rightly be suspected of either having some form of mental disorder or some serious moral defect. For to gaze too long upon Albright’s “masterpiece,” is quite literally to gaze at an image of human corruption and decay that, in its extraordinary arrangement of matter and form, embodies what could be best described in theological terms as “sin.”

And it was for this very purpose that the artist, Albright, was commissioned. Albright, who learned his macabre talent for portraying human flesh sketching battle-inflicted wounds in France during World War I, created the portrait for a 1945 film version of Oscar Wilde’s modern novel about the inner corruption of man, The Picture of Dorian Gray. Taken together, what Wilde captured in word and Albright in paint and canvas, makes for a vivid reminder of a very uncomfortable biblical truth, namely, the reality of human depravity and the corrosive effects of sin. Wilde’s story about Dorian Gray— the handsome youth who makes a devil’s pact to pursue without regret his every lustful and wicked desire— as well as Albright’s depiction of the inner man that Dorian becomes, also act as a type of apologetic for the traditional view of Hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment— a doctrine often neglected due to modern sensitivities, but that still maintains dogmatic status in most church traditions. For it makes little sense to hold to such a harsh doctrine of damnation, unless we truly believe that man not only does evil, but can become it.

The Wild Life of Oscar Wilde

The dandyism of the 19th century author and poet Oscar Wilde is renowned in literary history. But it was not just his flamboyant dress and sharp tongue that made him stand out. Wilde’s sexual escapades were as jarring as his external appearance and as unbound as his creativity. But, those escapades were consistent not just with personal taste but with a particular worldview he held. Wilde’s libertine lifestyle was borne out of both his metaphysical and moral perspective of the universe, one not unlike that of his literary successor, Aldous Huxley, who once, with great transparency, explained his own rejection of God’s authority and design saying:

I had motive for not wanting the world to have a meaning; consequently assumed that it had none, and was able without any difficulty to find satisfying reasons for this assumption. The philosopher who finds no meaning in the world is not concerned exclusively with a problem in pure metaphysics, he is also concerned to prove that there is no valid reason why he personally should not do as he wants to do, or why his friends should not seize political power and govern in the way that they find most advantageous to themselves. … For myself, the philosophy of meaninglessness was essentially an instrument of liberation, sexual and political.

Huxley, Ends and Means

Like Huxley, Wilde too was both sexually and politically offensive in his day and age. Of course, in 19th century Ireland, the domains of sexual morality and politics were still fused together by laws of conduct, a notion increasingly alien to many westerners today. As such, Wilde was eventually tried and convicted for the sin of sodomy, a sin, moreover that he enjoyed with both under-aged boys and egomaniacal relish. Summing up Wilde’s life, fellow Dubliner, George Bernard Shaw, said this:

Oscar seems to have said: ‘I will love nobody; I will be utterly selfish; and I will be not merely a rascal but a monster; and you shall forgive me everything. In other words, I will reduce your standards to absurdity, not by writing them down, though I could do that as well—in fact, have done it—but by actually living them down and dying them down.

Shaw, “My Memories of Oscar Wilde”

But, aside from some particular lack of moral development, it was again a philosophical view of the world that Wilde held which facilitated and justified this debauchery. Wilde, like many at that time, embraced fully, indeed more fully than others in the same intellectual circles, the practical outworking of the philosophy of aestheticism. Late 19th and early 20th century aestheticism was best articulated by the British philosopher, G.E. Moore, in his book Principia Ethica. Alasdair MacIntyre, commenting on Moore’s aestheticism, sums up its core tenets:

It turns out to be the case, in the sixth and final chapter of [Moore’s] Principia Ethica, that ‘personal affections and aesthetic enjoyments include all the greatest, and by far the greatest goods we can imagine… ’ This is ‘the ultimate and fundamental truth of Moral Philosophy’. The achievement of friendship and the contemplation of what is beautiful in nature or in art become certainly almost the sole and perhaps the sole justifiable ends of all human action.

MacIntyre, After Virtue

For the aesthete of Wilde’s day, there was nothing more than, or beyond, the relishing of friendships and the contemplation of art and nature. These are the “sole justifiable ends of all human action.” While not bad things in themselves, and to some extent worthy of pursuit, nevertheless this pursuit of sensible beauty is teleologically a far cry from that say of the Westminster Confession (or the Roman Catholic Catechism), which state that the chief end of man is “to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.” Or, as Christ taught in a very particular order, that the two greatest commands are to love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength, and then to love one’s neighbor as oneself. For the aesthete the first part of this command is meaningless, for God is not a reality that can be loved. The second becomes therefore primary, as the creaturely is elevated in value to that of Creator, an exchange the apostle Paul warns about in the opening salvo of his letter to the Romans (see Romans 1:18ff).

In Wilde’s own writing, which is best understood as the literary embodiment of this Anglo-philosophical aestheticism coupled with the moral philosophy of Nietzsche, he describes this stance in the preface of Dorian Gray:

The artist is the creator of beautiful things….Those who find beautiful meanings in beautiful things are the cultivated. For these there is hope. They are the elect to whom beautiful things mean only Beauty. There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.

The last few sentences of this passage evince Wilde’s Nietzschean bent. Here morality no longer means the “slavish” moral values and obligations of the Judeo-Christian revelation, but the aesthetic aspirations of the Homeric mytho-poetic world. Beauty versus ugliness is the “good versus evil” in Nietzsche’s moral universe, and as well as Wilde’s. Wilde’s “wild life” was thus not predicated on the reality of a divine Nature or the essence of a good God who issues divine commands, instead it was predicated on the generative powers of man to create his own heavenly realms, and the hope of becoming his own god (Nietzsche’s Übermensch) over the realms he creates. In attempting to live like his own god, and under his own authority, Wilde produced his most famous work, Dorian, itself as close to an autobiography of the Irish upstart as one can find.

The Picture of Dorian Gray: A Study in The Ontology Of Sin

In Wilde’s story Dorian’s physical beauty acts as a mirror to his purity of soul and moral innocence. That is, until the antagonist, the arch-hedonist Lord Henry Wotton, friend of the portrait’s artist, Basil Hallward, corrupts the young Dorian by inciting in him the innate, yet latent, narcissism common to man. The scene takes place in Hallward’s studio, itself described with saccharine flourish, where everything sensual is enhanced for maximum effect. Here, the artist’s world of words expresses Wilde’s own inner proclivities and orientation, that of the aesthete who is also the moral nihilist. Wotton’s character speaks for Wilde as the civilized version of an ancient evil. He is the Mephistopheles of the late 19th century—the tempter in the garden of earthly paradise.

Through Wotton’s influence, Dorian makes an impulsive wish—that the portrait of himself, Basil’s finest work, be the thing that ages and corrupts over time, while his real-life material body remains forever young. Wotton has tempted Dorian to unleash an infernal wish, one that will make him the center of his own world, a pure sinner, yet who also bears no consequences or punishments for his sinfulness. The painting will bear all the visible marks of Dorian’s inner corruption, while Dorian’s outward appearance stays uncorrupted, the horror of what he has become ever obscured to the outside world.

This transference of the substance of evil from person to painting, is the central idea that makes Wilde’s book a modern day classic, even if the theme is old. Another great Irish author, C.S. Lewis, reflected on this ontology of sin in his most memorable sermon, “The Weight of Glory,” when he said:

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.

For Lewis, like Wilde, the outward appearance did not do justice to what might be inside of the person, it did not necessarily reflect the structure or content of one’s soul. As such, what might be revealed at the end of days, may indeed be the most shocking revelation of all, at least after the greater revelation of Christ Himself.

This relation of beauty to goodness is as old as human culture, something Nietzsche rightly recognized, even if he rejected what had become of it through the emergence of Socratic philosophy and ultimately Christianity. The medieval doctrines of the “beatific vision” also attest to this deep understanding of the moral Good and transcendent Beauty being one and the same in God. It is Wilde’s sundering of this relationship that makes Dorian Gray’s story on the one hand so shocking, yet, on the other, so realistic. For how many of us truly know our neighbor just by his looks or outward presentation? In the novel many are fooled by Dorian, just as we are often fooled in the real world. Indeed, some contemporary scandals in the church today1 One cannot help but mention sexual predators like Ravi Zacharias and Jean Vanier, men who used their roles as spiritual authorities and Christian leaders to entrap victims. have revealed to us how the cancer of sin often goes unseen in the outward appearance, or speech, of men. Many apparently solid edifices are only as real as Hollywood stage sets. Only later, sometimes too late, do we recognize sin’s true effects on one’s soul.2 This was definitely the case in both Zacharias’ and Vanier’s stories, as each seems to have died without repentance. An incredible breakdown in moral accountability.

Ultimately, Wilde’s story ends when Dorian, having now descended into every form of narcissistic iniquity, including murder, is confronted with the hideous painting, which, in its grotesqueness, crystalizes each of Dorian’s atrocities. In the last chapter, after a paltry attempt to turn over a new leaf after his life of evil, Dorian rushes to the painting to see if his newfound “desire” for morality has perhaps already altered the painting for the better. But, it has not. For even Dorian’s thought of becoming good was one born out of self-preservation and pride. The desire was not pure, but itself a sin of “cunning hypocrisy.” Now, only because he could no longer endure the endless experiences of pleasure, the Schadenfreude that attended each evil act, he wrongly thinks that trying to be moral will fix his dreadfully boring life. He thinks he can try on virtue, the way a vain teenager tries on a trashy prom dress. Wilde’s Dorian is not Dickens’ Scrooge, who is touched by the divine and transformed. Dorian is a man whose attempt at goodness would be no better than the whitewashed hypocrisy of the scribes and Pharisees. It is a goodness of his own design conceived for his own benefit.

Finally, Dorian succumbs to his hatred for himself and the painting, which provides the only evidence of the true nature of his soul. He tears into the canvas with the same knife that he used to kill its creator, his old “friend” Basil Hallward. Upon slaying the picture, the picture returns to its original state, a portrait of a handsome, young, and innocent man. Found dead on the floor is a withered, and decayed old man, knife in heart.

Albright’s Imagery, Metaphysics, and The Reality of Hell

Albright’s portrait of Dorian Gray appears only a few times in the movie, however, director Albert Lewin filmed the revealing of Albright’s picture, which comes toward the film’s end, in full color. The only color scene in the otherwise black-and-white movie. The reason is obvious, as it is not enough to say that Albright’s use of color is “vivid,” rather, it is “painful” to the eye. For again, this is no Botticelli figure or Poussin landscape meant to enchant us and woo us into wanting to “be in the painting” as opposed to observing it from without. No, Albright succeeds in his intent to present the repulsive in material form. As mentioned above, to not be repulsed at this “after” image of Dorian is to be either insane or immoral. There is no beauty to be found here, only horror. Photos of visitors to the Chicago Art Institute in the early days of the paintings public release demonstrate what can be called the “right” reaction to Albright’s work.

But, what is it about Albright’s work that makes us convulse and turn away? Like one of his own favorite artists, the 16th century German master, Albrecht Dürer, Albright seems to capture in his art something that is, on the one hand, entirely realistic as all of his objects can be found in the same spacetime reality we occupy. But, on the other hand, this realism is imbued with something quite mystical, or better said, something quite metaphysical. One German art critic referred to Albright’s style as “Magic Realism,” but it might be the philosopher or theologian who can better articulate the “quiddity” that Albright has rendered through his composition, i.e., its Metaphysical Realism.

Although Metaphysical Realism has been the underdog in philosophy departments since Hume’s skepticism and Kant’s critique of metaphysical knowledge, there has nevertheless always been a vibrant strain of Metaphysical Realism in Christian philosophy, especially in the neo-Thomism of 20th-century Roman Catholic and Evangelical theology. In more technical areas, Metaphysical Realism deals with intricate notions about the existence of things like universals and properties, but in a more basic sense it affirms the reality of substances, to include immaterial substances like angels and demons, minds or souls. In philosophy these are considered concrete objects, not abstract ones, since they possess not only existence but also have causal powers and even moral natures.

The genius of both Wilde’s novel and Albright’s portrait inheres in the demonstration of this dynamic between material body and immaterial, yet substantive, soul. The nature of the soul, its moral structure and causal powers, is affected by the conscious choices it makes—choices that are instantiated in the physical world through the body. Dorian’s sordid intentions, his lurid thoughts, and most depraved fantasies, all of which are immaterial, are actualized in the physical world through his embodied acts. For Wilde, these immaterial desires are transmitted to his physical form. He does not just commit sins, he literally becomes sin.

In his own modern classic, The Great Divorce, C.S. Lewis presents us with a similar take on the ontology of sin. In that book, ghostly figures who linger in the “Gray Town” are transported in an angelic bus up to heaven to see, if given one more chance at redemption, whether they might choose God’s grace over their sins. In the end, none but one does. In several places Lewis displays this understanding of sin as an ontological substance, as something we are, or become, not just as something we do. In one scene, he portrays a woman who has through her sin of protesting, in the book “grumbling,” become not just one who protests, but one who is a protest! An image perhaps quite relevant in lieu of our current political culture. The grumbling woman has, or, as the plot goes, is on the brink of becoming a grumble. Alternatively, the lustful man of chapter eleven, the only one who receives salvation, is shown being united to that which was once his sin, but now, being redeemed, both are transmogrified into rider and stallion; united in their redemption in Christ. The new man is now one with his virtue as ungodly lust becomes glorious power.

Still, does this idea of sin as an ontological substance make the doctrine of Hell more palatable? After all, are not Wilde’s and Lewis’ novels and Albright’s art mere imaginations from the minds of men? Perhaps.

However, if the metaphysical realist is correct, and if we take the biblical texts seriously, let alone the atrocities of our own times, then the reality of sin and its effects on the very substance of our souls should also be taken most seriously. The doctrine of eternal, conscious torment may indeed be a hard doctrine to deliver to contemporary culture, but, just because it is difficult to convey, does not mean it is invalid or untrue. In fact, as Lewis also points out in “The Weight of Glory,” it is the abrasive and bizarre doctrines we find in Scripture that further evidence its divine origins, “If our religion is something objective, then we must never avert our eyes from those elements in it which seem puzzling or repellent; for it will be precisely the puzzling or the repellent which conceals what we do not yet know and need to know.”

That Hell is both a puzzling and repellent doctrine is certainly the case. However, what would the just person say if one day, standing in Gallery 262 in the Chicago Art Institute, she saw Albright’s Dorian slowly emerge from its canvas and move toward her, and perhaps her toddler standing at her side? Is it so hard to imagine she might scream out “Oh God, please damn that thing!”?

Would she be wrong to do so?

History testifies that Oscar Wilde was accepted into the Roman Catholic Church through a valid baptism just days before his death. Only God knows the status of Wilde’s soul now, but at the end of his physical life he seemed to die within the safe havens of the church. But, if that is not always the case, what else might we conclude about the final destination of the “dead?”

Coda: A Personal Story of Encountering Evil

It could be argued by someone reading the above article that this is all fine and good, but it is abstract and unscientific. After all, we are talking in non-empirical terms about images from literature and art or theorizing in philosophy and theology. The question is begged: How do we know that these “realities” are real? While epistemic certainty is rarely attainable in this life, allow me one personal story that might help make more concrete this theory about sin and hell.

An Encounter in Munich

Of course, no one looks like [Albright’s painting of] Dorian Gray. The evil that resides in human beings usually doesn’t show its full face to us.

Years ago as a much younger, and more wicked man, I lived in Munich, Germany. My roommate at that time was a journalist working in television for one of the major news networks in the country, RTL. My friend was approached one day by a male prostitute who worked the Munich Hauptbahnhof (Central Station) underground. Anyone who knows Europe, knows that some of the most vile acts of humanity, and, if this essay is correct, demonic ones as well, are centered in the major train stations of Europe’s most illustrious cities. Certainly some are better than others, but when I lived in Germany, many of the Hauptbahnhöfe were absolute cesspools.

This male prostitute, call him Carlos, had had enough of seeing minors trafficked in his area of work. His conscience stung him: too many children being raped. He wanted to help. His solution was to start a non-profit and then seek out journalists who would expose this horrid underworld of the otherwise quaint and idyllic Bavarian capital. What lie underneath the famed Marienplatz with its Glockenspiel was foul, and few knew of it, American tourist and Münchener alike. Like in Wilde’s novel, the outward presentation of the famed city covered up the corruption that permeated its soul.

Eventually Carlos found my friend, call him Thomas. They got together and set up a sting operation in Carlos’ apartment, just a few minutes walk from our own. They outfitted the place with secret microphones and hidden cameras. They were going to entrap predators (they were not law enforcement, however, so the only goal was to expose the truth, not convict anyone of crime; that would hopefully follow).

After two weeks of putting ads into an underground newspaper, in which Carlos pretended he was holding captive a 14-year old boy named Stephan, with whom anyone with the right amount of money (old German Marks, or the newly installed Euro, it didn’t matter) could do whatever he wanted, my friend came home one afternoon. I myself was still enrolled at university at that time, and my dissertation topic, which I never finished, was on the concept of evil in post-WWII German literature—not a pleasant or uplifting topic, to be sure. My friend challenged me: “why don’t you come and see what we are doing? We are catching so many people, several every day. It is incredible. You wouldn’t believe the kinds of people who are coming: young, old, couples, men and women.”

I hesitated. Did I really want to see this? After some inner wrestling, I decided that I had to see if my theorizing about evil was actual. I told my friend I would go the next day. The next day came, and I went.

For several hours we sat in the back room, where the mythical “Stephan” was supposed to be chained to the bed rails, ready to be tortured for someone’s pleasure. In reality it was my friend, his cameraman, and sound man who were set up in the bedroom. Carlos waited in the living room receiving calls from potential customers who had seen the fake ad. Carlos also had a dozen or so video cassettes, all of which were blank, but that had provocative titles labeled across the sides. The idea was to offer the tapes first, make a monetary exchange, then ask the customer if they wanted to proceed into the back room to be with the fake “Stephan.” If the customer bought the tapes and agreed to go back to the bedroom to fulfill his carnal desires, Carlos would say a code word, letting us know to come in and spring the trap (the team could not see the video of the camera. Live stream technology was not available to them at that time).

Thomas gave me an extra headset as we heard the doorbell ring. The first, and for that day, only customer had arrived. I could listen in to the conversation (this, of course, was all in German, but my German at that time was near perfect). As the conservation unfolded, my heartbeat quickened. I began to sweat. Carlos managed to get the customer to accept the videos, 500 German Marks, a pretty penny for evil. The next step would be to see if the man (from the audio it was clearly a male voice) wanted to go in and be with Stephan. But first Carlos had to lure out from the customer what kinds of things the man wanted to do with (to!) the boy. We needed to hear his inner most fantasies on tape.

How I wish I had not.

My muscles tensed as I heard this voice in the other room agree to all kinds of lurid tortures. Objects were involved. Beyond this I will say no more. My mind raced and my moral compass split into two distinct directions: fury, and fear. One part of me felt more than justified rushing into the room, and pounding that evil thing, for in my mind it could not have been a mind, into submission with brute force. The other just wanted to run away, and not be near such monsters. Like a child, I did not want to see what was in the closet. Before I could know which impulse was right, as if I have figured it out today, the code word was given. My friend, Thomas, and his team gave a quick “auf geht’s” as they rapidly deployed into the next room, camera light glaring and microphone at the ready. I followed in tow.

Before entering the room that day I had never felt evil before, at least not demonic evil. Of such things I had only read in books. Everything changed that dismal afternoon in Munich. Still, if I thought I would burst into that room and see Beelzebub himself, red horns, hoofs and fangs, I was wrong. What sat before me was nothing of the sort, at least, not externally. There before us sat a pitiful old man, probably in his mid to late 60’s. Someone’s grandfather perhaps. At least, he looked innocent enough to be one. He nervously smoked a cigarette and looked up at the camera now like a deer in the headlights. What an unassuming and non-threatening little thing he was. Had my ears deceived me? Could such a simple looking creature really be a mutilator of children?

No, my ears were not deceived. This was a vile thing before me. A man desirous, intent, on torturing a child today. After a long awkward series of questions, lasting a few minutes but feeling like an hour, the man finally caught on to what was happening. He stated he now felt uncomfortable and wanted to leave. Again, being only journalists, my friend and his team made the way clear for him to go. Carlos returned the money for the tapes, and as he absconded from the scene I was the last one he passed on the way out the door. The scene seemed to be over. Was it real? Had I really just seen evil in the flesh?

But, it was not even over yet. Who knows how much time passed, several minutes at least. Thomas and Carlos and the team were already reviewing the video footage and the audio. They seemed so professional about it. How could one talk about video quality and sound fidelity after something like that? But, then again, they had been doing this for weeks now. Perhaps they were already inured. Of course, Carlos must have been to some degree inoculated, having seen so much in his own life. Even if now there was an awakening in his own soul.

But, in the middle of this “tidying up” and evaluating, it came. A knock at the door. Everyone looked at each other, bewildered. No one else was expected today, who could it be? Perhaps it was the police? Perhaps they heard about the exposé, and wanted to shut it down. Perhaps one of the past “victims” had claimed that there were some journalists conducting an illegal entrapment operation? But, it wasn’t the authorities. It was the same man. The same, rotten, vile, pitiful old man.

“Can I still buy the videos?”

We all stood shocked.

What Kind of Creatures?

I did not convert to Christ that day, although I should have. But, the reality of evil was shown to me, in the mundane, that day. Nothing, not prison, not public exposure, nor any worldly loss was going to stop that horror from getting what it wanted. He did not care about those things, he wanted what he wanted. The lust of the flesh was insatiable.

The exposé eventually aired on RTL, a few weeks later. I didn’t go back to the apartment with Thomas or his team and was satisfied to watch their finish product on TV. How much effect it had on sex trafficking operations in Munich I never really found out. Around the same time as the report aired, however, Carlos called me (he had gotten my number from Thomas), asking if I could help him translate some documents. I was working part-time as a business translator at a local Siemens office in those days. I agreed.

Carlos came to my apartment and told me more about his plan to create a Verien (in German, an “association” or “legal entity”) aimed at increasing awareness of child trafficking. I did what I could to help him and translated some of his work. I think we met once or twice, and then I never saw him again. I sometimes wish I had found out more about him, someone who was selling his body for sex yet whose conscience had been awakened to an evil within an evil. Was this a new beginning for him: a journey out of the dark of the train stations and undergrounds and into the light?

God only knows.

My own conversion would come years later while in the Army. My encounter that day led me only so far as to know that everything is not as it seems, and that the reality of good and evil was substantial. It also raised in me the question “What kind of creatures are we?” My answer now would echo Lewis’ then: truly there are gods and goddesses among us, some light as angels, others dark like nightmares.