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What’s the Use?

The nineteenth-century dramatist, satirist, and witty conversationalist Oscar Wilde once wrote, “All art is quite useless.” It might seem such a remark was intended to devalue art. But actually, in using the term “useless,” Wilde was bestowing his highest praise, for Wilde was a leading proponent of the movement known as aestheticism, a school of thought advocating “art for art’s sake.” This philosophy, which exalts beauty above all else, developed as a reaction against another movement of the nineteenth century: utilitarianism.

A philosophy popularized by the British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, utilitarianism judges the value of things by their “utility,” their ability to maximize happiness or effect “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In so doing, utilitarianism sacrifices the one for the many.

Such a philosophy is clearly unscriptural. The God of the Bible is a God who values every individual. Jesus taught, “If any man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go and search for the one that is straying? If it turns out that he finds it, truly I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine which have not gone astray” (Matthew 18:12-13).

Furthermore, in placing its highest value in “usefulness,” utilitarian ethical systems contradict biblical teaching on the sanctity of human life, for human life derives value solely in bearing God’s image. Within a utilitarian system, however, resources spent on those at the end of life are viewed as wasted, the death of a dying person is expedited to harvest organs that will improve the “quality of life” of others, and the unborn child is deemed expendable if embryonic stem cell research or abortion can achieve greater “happiness” for others.

Yet, utilitarianism’s creeping influence can be even more subtle than all this. For utilitarianism is an economic approach to life; it is quantitative rather than qualitative. Even well-intended people and programs that accomplish much good can get caught up in this sort of thinking. Architecture emphasizing function and sacrificing appearance, Bible studies centered on “optimizing” relationships, “value added” approaches to education, and ministries designed to attract quantities rather than cultivate quality are all instances of utilitarianism rearing its ugly head.

As Wilde’s reaction shows, utilitarianism makes no room for “useless,” unquantifiable things such as art, beauty, or human relationships. Yet, aestheticism is an extreme response to its polar opposite. In contrast to these extreme philosophies, God reflects in his creation a perfect balance between usefulness and beauty.

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There is, however, one area in which God upsets the balance. And when He does, it is significant to note that the balance shifts toward not utility, but beauty. That is, the beauty of His grace.

In its etymology, the word “grace” means “free” and “unearned,” or “pleasing.” It shares the same root word with “gratuitous,” which means “without reason or cause.” Truly, there is nothing more gratuitous, more unreasonable, more uneconomic, more “useless”—or more beautiful—than the grace of God.

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