December 11, 2014

The Unexpected Nature of Beauty

A topic that came up during my presentation at the Worship Conference this summer was the nature of beauty. Is it objective, or subjective? Is it in the eye of the beholder? How do you define it?

A great deal has been written on the subject of beauty, by numerous authors of different theological stripes. And it's one of my long-term goals to read more on the subject in order to gain more insight. But there are things a Christian can infer from scripture with relative certainty, and depending on your upbringing, they may surprise you.

1. Beauty is not in the eye of the beholder.

With so many differing opinions as to what is beautiful, how can I say this with any certainty? The answer is that there is a theological certainty that underlies it: "In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth... And God saw that it was good" (Gen 1:1,10b). The first reason we know that beauty is not a subjective experience is that God created the universe. He did not create a cloud of unorganized matter that would later produce something that we now refer to as the universe. Rather, it was a creative work that was good from the very beginning.

How can a universe made of inanimate matter be either good or bad? The goodness of the universe in the first week of creation refers to its being in order—every molecule was in its place, fulfilling the purpose for which the Creator had called it into being, with no deviation. Every particle of light, every atom, was subject to natural laws that held it in place. And more than being good and orderly, everything was beautiful. That is to say, order and aesthetic beauty are intimately connected.

When a person says, "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder," he means that beauty isn't a quality of the object—it is a pleasant reaction of an individual (the subject) to the object. And if this is true, beauty isn't even a real thing, only an abstracted way of saying "I like that." The past century has taught us exactly how useless this subjective notion of beauty has become. There is no so structure so tasteless, no poem so mawkish, no song so insipid, or no painting so offensive that someone won't consider it beautiful. Christians must wholeheartedly reject this abuse of language and distortion of reality. Because there is a Creator, and because he "saw that it was good," we can be sure that there is absolutely such a thing as beauty, and it isn't a figment of our imagination.

If a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? We know from experience that it does, but it's impossible to prove empirically. Would creation be beautiful if no one was here to observe it? Undeniably. And although Christians can say this as a matter of fact, it doesn't hurt our position in the least to admit that a component of beauty could certainly be our ability to recognize and appreciate it. We know that God is a jealous God (Is. 42:8), and at least part of his purpose in creating a universe of beauty and order must be that we 1) recognize it, and 2) give glory to him who made it. Reflecting on the beauty of the human body, King David said, "I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made" (Ps 139:14). But my favorite example is arguably the first reaction to beauty in the Bible:
Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man. The man said, 
“This is now bone of my bones
      and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called ‘woman,’
      for she was taken out of man.” (Gen. 2:22-23)
Our former pastor paraphrased Adam's spontaneous poem to his wife as, "Now that's what I'm talking about!" God built into the first man the ability to immediately recognize that his wife was beautiful. Not beautiful in the same sense that the other creatures of creation were beautiful—she was his perfect help-meet, hand-crafted by God to be his compliment in every way. (We might say that Adam's reaction was part emotional-intuitive, and part intellectual.) In any event, Eve was objectively beautiful; Adam possessed the ability to recognize and fully appreciate her beauty, and glorified God as a result.

2. Beauty is corrupted.

The fact that God created the universe, and that it was created good, are widely denied, even by many Christians. Because if those statements are true, can we explain our present state where no two people can agree on what is beautiful? To be sure, if Genesis 2 was the end of the story, I think the disagreement over beauty would indeed be strong evidence that the Christian view of beauty is wrong. But of course, Genesis 1-2 it isn't the whole story.

Every truly Christian view of history must take into account that God created everything in perfection, but that creation is fallen from its perfect state. The Fall into sin and the subsequent Curse (Genesis 3) are responsible for a dual corruption of beauty. The beauty of creation is physically marred by thorns, disease, death, decay. But also corrupted is our ability to perfectly and immediately recognize the traces of beauty that remain. We can no longer agree on whether beauty exists objectively at all, let alone whether this or that thing is beautiful, and neither do we inherently recognize beauty as being a result of God's hand in creation. We have instead found inventive ways to explain how nature might have created itself.

As a result, post-Christian Westerners have nothing to rely on but the chemical reactions and electrical impulses that occur in their brain matter. If my chemical reaction differs from yours, who is to say that yours is right and mine is wrong? And this kind of subjective thought is the crux of Postmodernism: there is no real beauty; there is no real truth; what's true for you is not true for me. Without a knowledge of the Creator, any pursuit of beauty eventually descends into hedonism—sensual self-indulgence.

3. Beauty can be ugly.

There is another kind of beauty that I hesitate to bring up, because it further complicates the point I am trying to make. (But art and beauty are complicated topics, so maybe it's best not to oversimplify on this point.) People often talk about something being beautiful whose subject is undeniably tragic, painful, or grotesque. Two things could be at work here. The first is that for hedonists who are looking to be thrilled, any strong emotion will do, even if it isn't a pleasurable one. This would accurately describe horror film lovers and sadists. But the second thing that could be at work is a reaction to the truth of an image. Gibson's The Passion of the Christ did not create particularly pleasurable feelings in me. Watching Jesus be torn to shreds and then be slowly asphyxiated wasn't—visually speaking—beautiful. But many, including myself, found the film to be a beautiful representation of that event. I'm pretty certain I'm not a sadist, and I despise gore. I think the film is beautiful because I knew it to be true on a deep, metaphysical level. The greatest act of love in history was fulfilled in blood and sweat and gore on the cross. No one who witnessed it would ever have called it beautiful. But poets and hymn writers down through the ages have done exactly that—not out of romantic ignorance, but because they knew how true it was.

There are many truths in this world that can only horrify us, so a thing does not become beautiful just because it is true. But a particular truth—to be specific, the gospel—has the power to be beautiful and ugly at the same time. Simul iustus et peccator. Strength made perfect in weakness, immortal hidden in mortal, beauty masked in crudeness. It's how God works. Death is never beautiful. But then again, we can say with Job, "though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God" (Job 19:26).

So perhaps I have watered down the issue by speaking about beauty in a sense other than aesthetic. But on the occasion that someone confronts the ugliness of the Christian life, or of the cross, you can describe to him the invisible beauty seen by faith in the Son of God.

4. I still can't define it.

When I actually sat down to write about it, I found that I know quite a bit about beauty. But I am still no closer to answering the question that was directly asked of me this summer: "What is your definition of beauty?" I can tell you what beauty is not. I can tell you that beauty is something that does objectively exist. I think we can increase our awareness of beauty by studying the arts and sciences. But I can't come up with a bulleted list. The universe is populated by too many beautiful things of a completely different nature to make a list of qualifications very useful. Besides, we're still under the curse of sin, and my ability to see and appreciate all of that beauty is feeble indeed.

It's as difficult an endeavor as trying to define truth as a set of characteristics. What would be the point? The things that are true are not true because they share similar characteristics, but because they are... well, true. "Quid est veritas?" We can discover whether some things are true or not. But as far as defining the whole truth? Only God knows.

When the question was asked of me this July, I felt like my answer left the group hanging (and probably thinking that I was grasping at straws). When I said that beauty is not in the eye of the beholder—that it's an objective reality—that led some to conclude that there must be a set of finite qualifications. So when I was asked, I stumbled around for a while. I touched on the topics of goodness and order, but I eventually said, "You know it when you see it." Which in hindsight was the wrong answer. When asked about objective beauty, I gave them a subjective answer.

The right answer was probably the one that seems most like a cop-out. I should have said, "I can't do it," or "There is no practical definition of beauty that would satisfy a Christian worldview." Or if I wanted to be cheeky, I could have asked, "What's your definition of truth?" Or to grossly oversimplify, maybe I could have said that beauty is God's signature on his creation. Any of those would have been a better answer than the one I gave.

All of this just reinforces the fact that I need to study this in more depth. I'm curious to discover what other artists, theologians, and laymen have written about beauty. Maybe they've come closer to the mark than I have. To that end, I'd love input from my readers, too. Are these points accurate? Are there some I missed?