Towards a Divine Understanding of Beauty
A dappled sunset sends streaks of pink across the sky, set against a matrix of orange and red that emanates from that inestimable division of earth and sky known as the horizon. Such an image can be described using any number of vocabularies: plain descriptive, scientific, or poetic, just to name a few. Yet to the casual observer, each of these linguistic representations would prove woefully inadequate if no comment were made on the beauty of the display—on the serene power and awesome splendor that radiates forth from the majestic scene, tugging at once lightly and forcefully on some intractable hook deep within the human heart.
The concept of beauty is both highly intuitive and perpetually elusive to the human spirit. Though all people can identify objects, scenes, stories, and ideas that they would describe as beautiful, it is far more difficult to explain what beauty actually is—a dilemma compounded by the reality that identification of the beautiful is highly bound, at least in modern culture’s eyes, by human subjectivity. No two people will categorize the exact same set of phenomena as beautiful. However, though the vehicles that express beauty may shift depending on the observer, there do exist shared traits among the varied human experiences of beauty that, when culled together, reveal some working facts about beauty itself. Put simply, the quality of beauty is something that we as humans find appealing (often, but not always, in the realm of aesthetics). From this involuntary notion of fancy, there emerge twin senses toward the object of appeal: appreciation and awe. Appreciation, naturally, is the process by which the intrinsic value of something is recognized and affirmed, while awe is a sense of wonderment that is induced by an encounter with something greater than, as well as outside of, our human selves.
The most illuminating characteristic of beauty, though, is also its most fundamental reality: its attractiveness. Modern philosopher and natural theologian Alister McGrath notes that beauty “seem[s to have] the capacity to attract, bypassing the faculty of reason (why should we be attracted to this?) on account of the intrinsic loveliness of the beautiful.”[i] Beauty holds the power to draw attention and elicit appreciation and awe prior to any logical exploration of the attractive factor itself. After all, a young child recognizes the loveliness in a sunset the first time she sees it, years before she learns to appreciate the physics of light scattering. Moreover, beyond simply recognizing this loveliness, she finds herself drawn to it. The universality of beauty’s ability to draw people to itself indicates that humans have a desire for beauty— and moreover, this desire is woven into our essential identity as human beings.
Of course, all basic desires harbored within the human consciousness have been fodder for centuries of philosophical thought, religious discourse, and more recently, scientific study. All of these fields have attempted to give shape, explanation, and purpose to humanity’s basic desires, as well as their various objects. Beauty and the desire for it have been no exception. Indeed, the field of neuroaesthetics is just beginning to emerge as a specialized concern of neuroscience and evolutionary psychology.[ii] While this venture certainly springs from a materialist worldview, as opposed to the philosophical theories that shaped Plato’s fourth century BC writings on beauty, both exercises are driven by the same causal factor: a nagging curiosity about beauty, a dissatisfaction with leaving the experiences it imparts uninvestigated. Ultimately, humanity is on a constant quest to uncover the source of its own desire for beauty and to grasp exactly what the object of this desire is, and the multiplicity of attempted explanations indicates just how challenging it is to lasso beauty and drag it into the realm of comprehensibility. Do we, as humans supposedly bound by individual subjectivities, have the capacity to understand beauty as more than just an ineffably lovely something, and does any framework satisfactorily deliver such an understanding?
The Christian worldview has seen its share of struggles in locating beauty within God’s design for creation. Indeed, beauty is a question that consistently plagued some of the most influential Christian thinkers in the early centuries of the church (St. Augustine was fascinated and perplexed by the subject in his youth). Eventually, a dominant strain of thought emerged in theological discourse: beauty is a direct reflection of God himself. This strain of thought provides a unifying framework, undergirded by the foundations of the Christian faith, that addresses the key complications surrounding beauty and identifies its purpose as a messenger, meant to deliver an ephemeral sense of God—his character, goodness, grandeur, and perfection—to humanity. Experiencing beauty kindles desire for that which is perfect and greater than anything seen on earth, a desire only realized in God. The fact that all of humanity nurtures this desire is evidence for what mankind was designed for: relationship with its Creator. In the absence of this relationship, beauty triggers a subconscious intuition that something crucial to human existence is missing; within this relationship, beauty continually refines humanity’s ability to recognize God’s presence in the world. To understand both of these assertions, it is imperative to understand the premise that beauty is meant to point towards God, which requires careful discernment of the specific ways in which beauty touches, stirs, and agitates the human soul.
Indeed, when beauty arrives, it does not bring peace—at least, not in any permanent sense. An experience of beauty is never an guarantor of lasting satisfaction, but instead serves to gradually inflame the pangs of what is lacking. McGrath develops this idea by claiming that “an appreciation of the beauty of nature can be interpreted as a transitory intuition of what is eternal, an experience signifying yet not delivering something of immense and transformative importance, and thus creating a sense of absence […] in the human soul.”[iii] This idea is evident in the inability of beautiful objects to satisfy the yearnings they elicit. Vehicles for beauty are impermanent; a piece of art once seen as gorgeous can lose its spark with time, natural scenes erode and fade away—even the allure of a significant other can wane with age and familiarity. Desire for beauty is the expression of a deeper desire for something that is lovely, pure, and true in the fullest sense of those words. Indeed, it expresses the desire for perfection, though beauty is often sought in things that are imperfect. Yet if beauty is understood as a glimpse of God’s glory, the distinction between beautiful objects and beauty itself becomes clear. While God did intend to use creation to reveal his glory to humanity, he remains fundamentally separate from his earthly vessels.vi God is infinite; creation is not. Indeed, for something to be perfect necessarily implies that it must be transcendent, above and beyond the finite limitations of the universe observable by humans. Beauty is responsible for delivering faint glimmers of that transcendence to the finite world, but it is imperative that beauty’s earthly vessels are not mistaken for the real transcendent entity to which beauty points. The beautiful things in this earth are not ultimate, but “the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”[v] The more humans become acquainted with earthly things, the more apparent it becomes that these things cannot sustain beauty forever. Instead, they are temporary caretakers of beauty, which is itself a signpost pointing to the one Being who never loses his energy, vibrancy, and loveliness.
But what of the nature of the desire that this signpost prompts? In twenty-first-century Western society, the term “desire” is loaded with a messy mixture of positive and negative connotations. The word often evokes the notion of a self-centered impulse to possess an object, which generally indicates that the possessor sees the object as less valuable than herself—a mindset that is not inherently problematic if the object is, for example, a sandwich, but becomes morally complicated if it is directed towards a significant other. Yet, desire can also refer to a longing that appreciates the object of desire for its intrinsic value and worth. This longing does not seek to possess, but instead yearns for a deep level of connection and interaction. The desire for beauty has this latter character; it is concerned with the appreciation of beauty as its own entity. Careful discernment reveals this reality when one considers how humans wish to interact with beauty. C.S. Lewis, in his extensive writings on beauty’s central role in human life, addresses this abstract concept: “We do not merely want to see beauty…we want something else which can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.”[vi] Essentially, we long for union with beauty—the absence of distance, the deepest level of connection. Yet this longing is inherently paradoxical, because distance itself is what allows people to glimpse the fundamental otherness of beauty. When a single human observer beholds beauty, it is only in distance that he comprehends all the glorious ways in which beauty is different from himself.[vii] This distance is primarily categorical rather than physical; beauty, as all things, is identified relative to a reference point. That reference point is the human observer. If the observer entered into a complete union with beauty, the boundaries between beauty and the reference point would fade; they would become the same. The unique otherness that allowed the observer to recognize beauty as beauty would be gone—as would his own unique sense of self. This is clearly undesirable. So, humanity has a conundrum: the desire to unite with beauty in the absence of distance, yet with it and us both retaining our unique qualities and identifications.
Christianity resolves this conundrum by understanding beauty as a glimpse of God’s glory on earth, which reframes the desire for beauty as an expression of desire for relationship with God. In this framework, the desire to unite with beauty is, in actuality, a yearning to fulfill humanity’s design for relationship with the Creator—a design that originated with that same Creator. So, if relationship with God is the beginning and end of human existence, then naturally it will feel as if a crucial piece of ourselves is missing until that relationship is restored. Moreover, God, in His original intent for humanity’s design, is able to resolve the paradox of a relationship founded on complete union without the erasure of both parties’ unique identities. Indeed, His solution perfectly fulfills all the nuanced yearning contained in the desire for this particular relationship. The solution is simple: love.
While this solution may seem trite, it is necessary to distinguish divine love from the broken human understanding of love. It is nearly impossible to give an exhaustive account of all human conceptions of love, but an underlying theme is present in the majority: human love is always imperfect. Even in its most beautiful expressions, something is lacking—the ideals of consistent selflessness, unbroken adoration, and perpetual satisfaction never quite fully manifest in real-life scenarios. The type of love that exists in the mind of God, however, lacks nothing. It achieves the balance that human love cannot, embodying “eros and agape at once: a desire for the other that delights in the distance of otherness.”[viii] Though a full treatment of the doctrine of the Trinity is beyond the scope of this discussion, it is significant to note that God has existed since time immemorial as the Three-in-One: a triumvirate that is at once a singular entity and three entities, forever delighting in one another while retaining their distinct identifications. This is the divine template from which God derived his design for the love that is meant to flow between himself and humans—a design that was broken at the Fall, yet continues to manifest itself, however fleetingly, when humans interact with beauty. The pangs elicited by beauty are the pangs of a love that sleeps within the soul, a love that humans cannot properly express or receive. It is presently unfulfilled, yet perpetually felt. Beauty and love are conjoined.
There remains one final question for the Christian perspective of beauty to address: the apparent subjectivity at work in perception of beauty. This concern is resolved through the distinction between relative and absolute beauty. It has been established that the beauty seen on earth is a reflection of God. This reflection is made apparent through a wide variety of vessels. Such an arrangement is possible because the shards of beauty on earth point to the absolute beauty of God—a kind of beauty that is eternal and unchanging, because it is contained within a God that is likewise eternal and unchanging.[ix] Yet a reflection of this absolute beauty is not the same as absolute beauty itself; it must be lesser, just as an image in a mirror must be lesser than what it reflects, for it does not contain all the substance of the thing itself. Thus, the beauty seen on earth is not absolute; it is relative to the absolute beauty that is contained in God, a beauty that is fully of him, the Source of all things.[x] The beauty of earthly things is not truly of those things, but it is relative to the Source from which it springs. Because the Source is not directly expressing this beauty, instead revealing it through broken and finite vessels, this beauty cannot be experienced as absolute. Thus, each instance of earthly beauty is not a summative reflection of God’s absolute beauty. God’s reflection is scattered throughout a multiplicity of earthly vessels, a number that is only limited by God’s creativity—which is, by definition, limitless. Moreover, as people are also products of that boundless creativity, different individuals are more receptive to certain vessels of beauty than others. This receptiveness is by no means rigidly defined; just as beauty can seem to fade from objects with time, it can also appear where previously absent. This reveals that perception of beauty can be cultivated throughout life, a reality that indicates beauty’s intended function in human life once its link to God has been realized.[xi]
Though beauty is the focus of perpetual human desire, it is often overshadowed in the world by ugliness, decay, and violence. The effects of the Fall permeate human sight and arrest it, creating a blindness to the staggering depth of beauty that is present in the created order. Moreover, this blindness obscures the full measure of God’s presence within creation, actively working to maintain and redeem what has been eroded. Once an individual’s relationship with God is restored and beauty’s nature is realized, beauty maintains an active role in growing that relationship by revealing the depth and breadth of God’s redemptive presence in the world. Creation is suffused with beauty—it is expressed through nature, literature, science, art, and everything in between. Though the human sense of beauty may be initially limited, “to come to see the world as beauty is the moral education of desire, the redemption of vision.”[xii] To see beauty is to experience the goodness of God that humanity was created to experience, to love, and to delight in. As humanity grows in its ability to sense beauty, so too does it grow in its ability to sense and love God in accordance with His original design for relationship. While this growth will never be completed on earth, neither will it ever be exhausted, for beauty is infinite within an infinite God. Thus, the “redemption of vision” is an ever-occurring process, one in which there will always be more beauty to glimpse, more goodness to encounter, and more love to cultivate. Meditating on beauty is an exercise in preparation for fully living humanity’s original design for love of God when the gift of unity with Him—complete unity that preserves the individual identities of the unified parties—is perfectly realized in heaven.
Beauty’s existence in the realm of intangible feeling often makes it a difficult subject for critical thought, but the Christian worldview provides a cohesive framework that synthesizes the seemingly disparate elements of the human experience of beauty into a unified whole. The innumerable forms of beauty apparent on earth are connected through the shared yearning they elicit, a yearning that exerts such a palpable effect within the human heart and consciousness that it must have a source and an object; the Christian God fills both roles simultaneously. Beauty evades definition on its own terms but becomes intelligible when related to the divine. The power of the sunset to enthrall is no longer an inexplicable mystery, but the call of the Creator to a host of listening hearts, including those that do not recognize the caller. The desire for beauty is evident within the human race. The fact that it cannot be sated on this earth is powerful evidence for the existence of a transcendent glory that humanity was designed to know and love.
i. Alister McGrath, The Open Secret: A New Vision for Natural Theology (Malden: Blackwell Publishing, 2008) 283.
ii. Anjan Chatterjee, The Aesthetic Brain: How We Evolved to Desire Beauty and Enjoy Art (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014) xiii.
iii. McGrath, 282.
iv. Romans 1:20 (NIV).
v. C. S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory: and Other Addresses (New York: HarperCollins, 2001) 31.
vi. Lewis, 42.
vii. David Bentley Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Grand Rapids: W. B. Eerdmans, 2003) xxxv.
viii. Hart, xxxvi.
ix. Hebrews 13:8 (NIV).
x. Habip Turker, Sharing Poetic Expressions: Beauty, Sublime, Mysticism in Islamic and Occidental Cultures, ed. Anna-Teresa Tymieniecka (Dordrecht: Springer, 2011) 76.
xi. Hart, xxxvi.
xii. Hart, 221.
Jake Casale ’17 is from Redmond, WA. He is a prospective major in Psychology, with a double minor in Theater and International Studies.Alister McGrath, Augustine, beauty, CS Lewis, love, mathematics, philosophy, Plato, reason, wonder