A Matter of Personal Taste

When we discuss matters of meaning or value, particularly in matters of art, the almost inevitable comment thrown in will be something along the lines of, “Well, that is a matter of personal taste”, or “That’s my personal preference”, or “I happen to like it”. This seemingly humble admission is often meant to say something else, namely that the thing under question should not be judged for its value. In those cases, what the commenter has done, in an almost knee-jerk fashion, is to reveal how post-modern his or her thinking is. Post-moderns believe that absolute truth does not exist in any real form except in the subjective, personal sense. As Christians, we have all heard post-modern unbelievers tell us that religion is fine if it works for you, or that all religions are personalised ‘styles’ of life, or that no one is authorised to say someone else’s faith is incorrect.

However, we do not escape this post-modernistic way of thinking in a day. We bring it with us into Christianity, and only the renewing of the mind with truth can rid us of it. Nowhere is this clearer than when a Christian says of things that can be ascribed a certain value, “that’s just a matter of personal taste”.

Now the problem with these kinds of statements is that they say something true while at the same time saying something untrue. The almost intuitively true statement about humans having different tastes and preferences seems so self-evident that it blinds us to its unstated post-modernistic conclusion, which is this: “…therefore, no judgement can be passed on the value of what I love.” Do you see the sleight of hand here? First, we have been drawn in to assent to something no one denies: human beings like different things. While staring at the fact of human idiosyncrasy, we have not noticed it has been swapped in for another idea: that no intrinsic meaning or value can be assigned to objects external to humans. If differences of personal preference exist, then no distinctions in objective value exist. This is pure post-modernism. “If I like it, it is true for me. If you don’t, then it is not true for you. The thing itself is neither true nor false.”

There is no question that judgement of the meaning and value of art is a matter of opinion, or a matter of personal taste. The point many fail to grasp is that such opinion can be right or wrong, and such tastes can be good or bad. The fact that one man has a taste for nail polish does not change its nature as a poor beverage. The fact that one man loves and enjoys rubbish dumps does not change the ugliness of the rubbish dump. In other words, Christians who believe in absolute truth must make a clear distinction between what is objectively true, lovely, beautiful or helpful in the universe outside ourselves, and our subjective taste for those things. God has created a universe which contains things that are objectively true, good and beautiful. He says so (Phil 1:9-11, 4:8). Whether or not I come to love what is lovely will not change the fact that such things exist. If I love what is ugly, it will not change the fact that they are ugly in God’s sight. Objective beauty exists, whether or not there were any observers around to perceive it.

And here is where we return to the truth of the statement, “It is a matter of taste.” It is a matter of taste. The question is, do I have a taste for what I ought to have a taste for? It may be that my tastes have been adjusted and shaped to love what is trivial, juvenile, clichéd and altogether unsuitable for spiritual and intellectual adulthood. In that case, to say “It is a matter of personal taste” is not only to state the obvious, but to act as if I am in denial of such things as objective goodness, truth and beauty. Christians ought to recoil when adulterous or immoral people defend their actions with the words, “It’s a personal choice.” Yes, but those personal choices are wrong choices. Likewise, we should not accept the same attitude in our own circles when objectively bad, ugly and false things are defended with the words “It’s just a style; it’s not about truth.”

Now two things need to be said further.

First, our tastes are malleable things. They are always in the process of changing, depending on what we expose them to. I have a taste for certain things that I had no interest in five years ago, and the opposite is true as well. We cannot change our tastes in a day. We cannot simply switch off what we like, and gain a love for what we don’t by an act of the will. However, we can begin to discourage exposure to that which we know is unhelpful to Christian thought and piety, be it immoral, trivial, banal, sentimental, brutal or clichéd. We can begin to expose ourselves to what we sense (or hear from our betters) is helpful to Christian thought and piety, be it beautiful, orderly, true, serious, ordinate, or refreshing. As we’ve said before, we must push out from where we are, not too far to where the things become foreign, impenetrable and uncomfortable,  for that will no doubt have a backlash effect. Yet we must push out far enough to grow, so that our tastes do not merely remain where they are.

Let me also add, that within the bounds of what is true, good and beautiful, there is room for varying preferences. Amongst good hymns each of us will have different favourites. Amongst beautiful music we will have our idiosyncratic delights. This is quite acceptable. Let no one claim that our argument leads to saying that we should all love precisely the same things in the same way, like automatons.

Moreover, to say that Christians might have differing preferences amongst the true, the good and the beautiful is not the same thing as saying that personal preferences make all value distinctions obsolete. To say that Christians might prefer one type of music over another amongst good music, does not mean that bad music does not exist.

Second, no one can give you an appreciation for what is beautiful or lovely by explaining it in a clinical, discursive or propositional fashion. Beauty is not formulaic (although it is orderly). If you want these things given like equations, you’re barking up the wrong tree.  Beauty is pointed to, and through continual exposure, recognised. It is part of your spiritual growth. Sadly, the impatient will not stand for this very process of the sanctification of their tastes. They decide that if no chapter and verse forbids their current loves, then only Pharisees will forbid them, and so they continue to love at the juvenile level.

Tastes must be grown. The same care and time we give to growing in objective truth, must be given to growing in affective truth, the understanding of what is true, good and beautiful. If God has made things objectively true, good and beautiful, it is the obligation of the believer to find out what truth, goodness and beauty are, so that he or she can recognise such things when seen or heard, and give glory to God.

Yes, much is a matter of personal taste and approval. The call of spiritual growth is to approve the things that are excellent.

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One Response to “A Matter of Personal Taste”

  1. Twitted by speterson24 Says:

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