The fierce poet of the Middle Ages wrote, “Abandon hope, all ye who enter here,” over the gates of the lower world. The emancipated poets of to-day have written it over the gates of this world.
But . . . we must erase that apocalyptic writing, if only for an hour. We must recreate the faith of our fathers, if only as an artistic atmosphere. If, then, you are a pessimist . . . forego for a little the pleasures of pessimism. Dream for one mad moment that the grass is green. Unlearn that sinister learning that you think is so clear, deny that deadly knowledge that you think you know. Surrender the very flower of your culture, give up the very jewel of your pride, abandon hopelessness, all ye who enter here.
― G. K. Chesterton
Many of the aesthetic norms which have characterized Western society have come as a direct result of the Christian worldview being deeply saturated in the fabric of our cultural ethos. Although the doctrine of the image of God as well as the doctrine of God’s common grace mean that unbelievers are capable of producing artifacts which truly reflect divine beauty, over a long period of time non-Christian cultures generally tend towards ugliness – a corollary of the relativism necessitated by the rejection of any final standard of truth. A world without God is an ugly and frightening place. Indeed, if there is no God, then beauty is but a transitory parenthesis in a world in which the ugliness of chance, chaos and death have the final say over all of us. Medieval cathedrals, with their spires pointing to the heavens, were the appropriate artistic outworking of the Trinitarian worldview, while nihilistic art, with its hopelessness and celebration for the ugly is a consistent outworking of a world without God.
Conversely, over long periods of time Christian cultures tend to increase in beauty. That is what happened in the Christian West, which gave rise to the symphony, polyphonic harmony, perspective in painting and many other developments that have made the world a different place, to say nothing of specific creative geniuses from Bach to Michelangelo, from Shakespeare to Beethoven. Some of these men may not have been believers, but they lived, worked and breathed in a civilization that was built (albeit imperfectly) on the Christian worldview. Whether or not every great composer, artist or poet explicitly acknowledged that worldview, they worked on the basis of presuppositional aesthetic norms which arose out of the West’s Christian orientation. Long after our society threw off this heritage, these norms continued to operate like a lizard’s tail which continues to twitch even after it has been severed from the body. But a severed lizard’s tail will not twitch forever.
[T]his belief [in God] is vanishing from the human mind… and if one assumes that no sanction can ever be effective except the supernatural one, it is clear what follows. There is no wisdom except in the fear of God; but nobody fears God; therefore there is no wisdom. Man’s history reduces itself to the rise and fall of material civilizations, one Tower of Babel after another. In that case we can be pretty certain what is ahead of us. Wars and yet more wars, revolutions and counter-revolutions, Hitlers and super-Hitlers — and so downwards into abysses which are horrible to contemplate…
Notes on the Way, 1940
Man has always lost his way. He has been a tramp ever since Eden; but he always knew, or thought he knew, what he was looking for. Every man has a house somewhere in the elaborate cosmos; his house waits for him . . . But in the bleak and blind hail of skepticism to which he has been now so long subjected, he has begun for the first time to be chilled, not merely in his hopes, but in his desires. For the first time in history he begins really to doubt the object of his wanderings on earth. He has always lost his way; but now he has lost his address.
What’s Wrong with the World