God for God’s sake: Learning theology from aesthetics

In a previous post, I wrote about having the joy of reading Aesthetics in a redwood forest in the hills near Santa Cruz. It was a great way to pass the time as my wife was on a photo walk with a group of photographers. As I was reading, an old concept hit me in a new way. I’m not sure why. Maybe it was because I was reading in such a sublime location. Or, because my current work requires that I think about aesthetics in a more theological way. Either way, as I read something really hit me.

Disinterested contemplation

In modern art, there has developed the concept of disinterested contemplation as the purpose of art. This concept tends to be the most prevalent when thinking about the “high arts.” I would argue, though, that it is, at least in part, applicable to any art form. The phrase “disinterested” often throws people for a loop. Why would someone want to contemplate what doesn’t interest them? But that isn’t what it means. Essentially, it means that the contemplator is contemplating the object for its own sake not because of what they can get out of the object. I’ll use my favorite car, the Aston Martin, as an example. The Aston Martin is a profoundly elegant and beautiful vehicle. A sculpture on wheels.

I can look at the Aston Martin and contemplate every aspect of its aesthetic appeal. When I do so, I am certainly interested in the car but only for the pleasure that the form of the car gives me. This is disinterested contemplation. On the other hand, I could look at the car and contemplate the pleasure I would get from the prestige of owning such a wonderful vehicle or the joy of driving 150 mph down a long stretch of highway. That is interested contemplation. I thinking not just about the vehicle’s inherent merits but about what it does for me. In the fine arts, disinterested contemplation is often known by the simpler motto, Art for Art’s Sake.

Theological insight from aesthetics

Some theorists have been troubled by disinterested contemplation. However, it occurred to me that if applied to faith disinterested contemplation is actually true faith. We live in a culture that is often far too interested in what we can get out of things. This sort of thinking has also bled over to the church. There is a feeling among many in the church that we should follow God because he will bless us with wealth, peace, comfort, or any number of other desirable things.

I remember this struck me powerfully when in Graduate School (the first time) at the Pratt Institute. I went to the Christian student group, which was mostly undergraduates, and was struck by how the presentation of the Gospel given essentially argued that we should follow God because following God works. If you want “the good life” here is a way, the best way, to obtain it. That really struck me as wrong.

Disinterested faith

I believe we should follow God because we believe He is true not because we believe we will gain benefit from following Him. I am not saying that God does not bless those who follow Him. Indeed, at times he does. But at the same time, scripture is replete with examples of those who followed God only to face great challenges or be killed. What happens to those who choose to follow God because “it works” when they face challenges? Is this sort of gospel at least part of the cause for the type of attrition rate we see in the church today?

What the church, all too often, teaches is a sort of interested contemplation when it comes to God. We think of Him to get something from the experience… peace or comfort or blessing of some sort. Those are all possibilities for those who have faith. But, true faith is disinterested contemplation… God for God’s Sake. True faith is loving and following God not because it works or because of what He can do for us. We follow Him because He is true and right and of incomparable value… for His own sake.


This essay is from our Anastasis Series where we resurrect articles from the past that are either still relevant today or can be easily updated. This piece was first published on April 22, 2013, and has been lightly edited and updated.


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  • Carolyn Fahm says:

    Your wife let us know about this post via G+ and your thoughts coincided with some that I had after I watched a video about the early writings that did not make it into canon. What came out loud and clear is that, for the early Christians, their acclaimations of faith often lead them to martyrs death in the most horrible ways. I cannot say that my faith is strong enough for that, but I do sometimes wonder if praying for particular things implies that I need to let God know what He needs to take care of, which doesn’t make sense, when you think of it. This is a thorny issue, but I do believe that there is a deep mystery in this, where we come to God in our need because we have no one else to turn to. Thank you for your thoughtful essay. It helped me formulate these thoughts that have been churning away, unformed and unuttered.

    • Thank you so much Carolyn. I really appreciate it. The controversial posts always get the most attention but it is posts like this one that mean the most to me. This was a realization that really struck me and means a lot to me.

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