Sunday, September 14, 2008

Moral Duty to Think About the Lovely, Etc.

“Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable- if anything is excellent or praiseworthy- think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me- put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”Philippians 4:4-9

It occurs to me as I read this again that this is not a suggestion, but an exhortation. It is a moral duty. The notion I used to hear growing up that a thing was “just entertainment”, as far as it at times seems to have meant an amoral sphere, a place to suspend our critical faculties, seems anathema to what is said here. Even entertainment that does not try to stimulate our baser “instincts” but that is simply not lovely, noble or good takes up our day and absorbs from our limited span of energy, postponing a closer communion with truth, keeping God in the waiting room of our lives.

Matthew Arnold, a poet and literary critic, a deep and brilliant man, advanced an idea of culture in his book Culture and Anarchy that is, it seems to me, idolatrous. However, I think in the following quote the sentiment expressed is very compatible with Philippians 4. Culture, he wrote, is ‘the pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought or said in the world; and through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits, which we now follow staunchly but mechanically, vainly imagining that there is virtue in following them staunchly which makes up for the mischief of following them mechanically.” –Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy, p. 6.

The concept he means by perfection, if I understand him right, is that of developing a thing to the fullness of its kind, its given nature, in accordance and harmony with what God has wrought. I think of a plant. Beneath my dubious care a plant has grown up scraggly and ugly. The same breed of plant under my friend Br. Dunstan’s consummate care has flourished until its similarity to the other plant in kind is hardly recognizable. Br. Dunstan’s stewardship of the plant has brought it to a kind of perfection. What Arnold means by perfection here, with a special focus on the mind, is bringing the mind to fullness of fruition by humble attentiveness and application to that which harmonizes with what God has made.

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