Judging Beauty in Creation (2)

We continue with the next three aspects of experiencing beauty in creation.

Immediate Response

After contemplating beauty receptively, we experience an immediate response, which is usually unpremeditated and almost instinctive. This immediate response is not the final judgement of the soul upon what it is encountering, only its initial reaction. To take this superficial reaction as determinative of something’s beauty or value is the mistake of the immature, untrained, or even obtuse. Immediate responses are not carefully planned responses, and are therefore indicative of the already-formed character. When Christlike character is present, the more or less immediate responses are those that love what God loves and hate what God hates.

After perception and immediate response, the process of interpretation begins.

Interpretation

Beauty communicates meaning, and meaning must be interpreted. That meaning is discerned and understood by the faculty we call imagination. Through imagination, we understand patterns, metaphors, analogies, symmetries and the like. We are able to interpret what the beauty signifies. This step leads to the final step.

Evaluation

Judgement is necessary once one has interpreted the meaning of something supposedly beautiful. Since meaning is always present, an interpretation of meaning must necessarily lead to an evaluation. Is it true? It is false? Is it trivial? Is it banal? Is it misleading? Is it manipulative? Is it ennobling? Is it transformative? In short, is it good and beautiful? To refer to an object as beautiful or ugly is to refer to the quality of the object, while also expressing a positive or negative response to it and suggesting that others ought to respond in the same way.

Judgement is important to a Christian because it is sin that prefers the epistemological, moral and aesthetic relativism that nullifies judgement. If humans are indeed fallen, then they may be prone to deceive themselves about pleasure. Humans may like what they should not like, and hate what they should love.

T. S. Eliot reminds those desirous of good literary judgement that they need to be acutely aware of two things at once: “what we like,” and “what we ought to like”. These two levels of evaluation are crucial to distinguish. The first level has to do with a subject’s preferences. The second level has to do with the merits of a work. It is not inherently elitist to believe that some aesthetic judgements are better than others. Indeed, every artist, in striving for excellence, makes that assumption. An honest evaluation may recognise that a work of art is good, even though the subject finds no personal pleasure in it. This honest assessment allows those experiencing beauty to admit where their own preferences are perhaps immature or deformed, where some beauty appeals to parts of people that are underdeveloped in them.

Once this distinction is made, it follows that aesthetic discernment is something that can be learnt through diligent study, and even repentance. Just as no one is born wise, so no one is naturally aesthetically wise. Failing to see the necessity of growth in aesthetic discernment will keep people intractably committed to personal preferences, defending their likes and dislikes as if they are essential to their very identities. This explains why so many Christians have taught on the need for receptive perception, as discussed in the previous post. Without surrender to an artwork or a thing of beauty, one cannot see its merits; one sees only oneself and one’s own reactions. If those reactions are immature, one may prevent oneself from moving towards greater and more profound beauties, confusing superficial responses with the intrinsic truth, goodness, or beauty of a work (or lack thereof).

Island Culture

Le Mont-Saint-Michel is a tidal island off Normandy, France. Water levels have varied over the centuries, but at its highest, the island would be completely cut off from the mainland, and at low tide, foot traffic could recommence.
The tidal island is a decent illustration of the relationship between the church and its surrounding culture. The church is rather like the island, somewhat separate, but still somewhat connected to the dominant culture. The culture is like the mainland. The tides represent how accessible the one is to the other.

When the waters were low, it meant plenty of traffic between the Island and the Mainland. That meant people, art, language and even categories of thought travelled back and forth. The Island influenced the Mainland, and vice versa, and in times dominated by Christian thought, there was enough homogeneity between the two for there to be only a minor culture shock when going from the one to the other. People going from Mainland culture to the Island church didn’t feel like complete foreigners.

The rising waters of secularism mean that the traffic between the two diminishes, until friendly relations between the two are basically ended. Faithful churches become island cultures. Their identity, norms, loves, customs, and art forms become increasingly localised, with little counterpart in mainland secularism. The Island and the Mainland are increasingly distanced from one another, and become foreigners.

When this happens, churches have two choices. They can attempt to maintain enough familiarity with the Mainland, by importing various secular forms into their churches. Alternatively, they can put their heads down and cultivate Island Culture.

What does Island Culture look like? It means unabashedly perpetuating your own Christian culture in your local church, without respect to how many links it retains to secular culture. That includes the coveted links of relevance, novelty and recognisability.

For example, Christians do not worship the way they do or teach what they do because secular culture announces this week’s List of Relevant Topics. We teach what we do because God has already limited and bounded what will be perpetually relevant in a book called the Bible. Christians do not worship, disciple and shape church life with an eye to how new, updated, or contemporary they seem. Island culture means how old or new something is becomes of secondary concern. What we’re interested in is if something is True, Good, or Beautiful, regardless of whether it was made yesterday or in the fifth century. We have no irrational prejudice towards what is new, nor do we have some nostalgia about a supposed Golden Age of Christianity in the past, but we should not be surprised if much of what we use in island culture originated in eras where Christianity was far more fruitful and culturally dominant. When the bridges between the church and its society were wide and plentiful, the traffic brought both good and bad into the church, which we can continue to sift through. But there is no reason to feign shock that the best artefacts of Christian culture are often older than 100 years. This is Island Culture.

But perhaps the hardest pill to swallow about Island Culture, and especially for pastors, is the matter of recognisability. A visitor to your Island Culture from secular mainland will increasingly find it all very strange, very unfamiliar, and quite unrecognisable. He will not recognise the way of singing, much less the music or the hymns. He will not recognise the authority structures, the way of praying or preaching, or the discipline of the church. It will seem very, very unusual. In fact, his first experience is that he will likely characterise it as “weird”, “abnormal”, “too traditional” or “a bit too sombre”. The unfamiliarity will make him feel awkward, and to most populist Evangelicals, that is just death. The thought of a visitor feeling out of place or uncomfortable fills many pastors with utter dread.

And therein lies the problem. Emerging from a long season where the Island and the Mainland were fairly connected, many pastors are unprepared (and some are unwilling) to embrace the realities of Island Culture. They’re convinced it is still possible to make a church feel familiar to a secular visitor. They usually make this attempt in the music, the outward presentation of the worship service, and in the trappings of technology, or lifestyle-based ministries or sermons. They will sometimes characterise these as “externals” or “preference issues”.

Such words are evidence of what psychologists like to call “confirmation bias”. The vocabulary is designed to reinforce a comfortable view: that there is nothing specifically Christian about music genres, affections, modes of worship, or various technologies; these are all blank hard drives, ready to be filled with Christian content. Actually, these hard-drives often carry powerful viruses of secularism that inevitably destroy the Christian nature of whatever is copied to them. They are artefacts of culture, which always shape the meaning of whatever we put in them.

What many such pastors do not realise is that this distance between us and secularism is not one created by a faithful church. It is created by a secular culture that is rocketing away from biblical norms. The faithful church is not trying to be deliberately odd. Even if it simply perpetuates Christian doctrine, worship and ethics within itself, the faithful church will find the distance increasingly growing between itself and the culture of Netflix, Apple, Amazon, Google, Hollywood and the secular elites. Rising tides don’t mean the island is floating away. It just means previously exposed bridges of commonality are disappearing.

To the degree you seek to make people immersed in secular culture feel at home on when they visit the Island is the degree to which you must import and naturalise ideas, morals, entertainments, dress, or music which are not simply non-Christian, but increasingly anti-Christian. And ironically, to the degree that you succeed is the degree to which you have failed: failed to faithfully preserve and perpetuate the faith.

I take it for granted that every church wishes to be warm and welcoming. I imagine every loving pastor wishes to reduce the awkwardness of unfamiliarity for secular visitors as a sheer act of hospitality and compassionate evangelism. All this is good and well. But the real problem is the pastor who thinks he can reduce the distance between the Island and the Mainland by importing Mainland goods, and baptising them as Christian.

He may see some successes. Unbelievers may feel that the church speaks their language, settle down, and assimilate into the church. On the other hand, what the seeker-friendly movement has abundantly shown is that too much of this simply colonises the Island for secularism. The natives on the Island superficially identify with Christianity, but everyone speaks with a secular accent. They may turn out to be long-term tourists, and not real residents. Again, too much success at this may actually be a sign of failure, given the growing distance between Christianity and secularism.

What then? We cannot control the tides. We cannot move landmasses. We must not turn the Island into a colony of the Mainland.  Conserving and propagating Island Culture is our only obedient option. What does that mean?

Embrace being unusual. Embrace the task of a lot of explaining for those who come to you as refugees from other churches. Embrace slower growth, and accept (with sadness) less return visitors from the neighbourhood. Accept some of the most likely candidates for getting and perpetuating true Christianity will be those who grow up in your church, if they have faithful and thoughtful parents who explain what is done and why. Accept you will be misunderstood as a hide-bound traditionalist, or as a wooden conformist to an old way without any sense of the times or the way to remain relevant. Accept that you will be caricatured as the stereotypical parson with an aversion to change, a suspicion of youth, and a perpetual scorn towards modernity. Accept that the only way people will really understand what you’re doing is if they spend a long time on the Island.

And then, put your head down, and work.

22. Judging Beauty in Creation

The two domains of God’s revelation are general revelation and special revelation. God has revealed Himself to all men generally through the created order, and God has revealed Himself specifically to some through His Word, mediated through various agents. If we wish to perceive the beauty of God, we will find it in both domains, though they will differ in the specificity of that beauty.

God’s beauty will not be of different kinds, for God is always God. But what can be perceived of God in nature, the human conscience, human culture, and human art will not be as clear or concrete as what can be perceived through language conveyed through angels, prophets, and apostles.

We should also expect that the approach to perceiving God’s beauty in creation will bear great resemblance to perceiving it in Scripture. And on close examination, we find it is just so. Many of the approaches to perceiving beauty in art find nearly exact counterparts in Christian worship and discipleship. In other words, the pagan who perceived true beauty in creation did so because he adopted a posture that mimics something found in Christian virtue. He did not know it, but he submitted to a pattern found within the Triune Godhead, and in doing so, he saw some of that glory.

To put it another way, true beauty always requires it perceivers to be in some kind of union with it. They must humble themselves, pursue it, see it for what it is, and judge it with complete honesty. This kind of act is very close to self-giving love, as we’ll see. The pursuers of beauty, even if they are not regenerate, must get themselves out of the way, receive the beauty of a thing, and judge it fairly. By this act, the common grace of God allows the unsaved to know and experience the echoes of His glory in general revelation. Indeed, were the unsaved to keep using that approach to all of life, they would pretty soon bump up against the gospel and the claims of Christ. As we saw in the last post, most will flee before the light becomes that intense.

What is the procedure for seeing beauty in general revelation? John Witvliet summarises the approach as occurring in four stages: 1) perception, 2) immediate response, 3) interpretation, and 4) evaluation. We’ll take these in turn.

Perception

Perceiving beauty is the beginning of the encounter. Both Christian and no-Christian writers have been concerned to point out that true pursuer of beauty must have the quality of receptivity.
C. S. Lewis wrote incisively of this in An Experiment in Criticism. Lewis suggested that to receive a work, the subject must exert his or her senses to conform to the pattern created by the artist. Conversely, using a work of art is treating it as a mere aid to selfish activities. When art is used, it cannot introduce one to new worlds or transform; it can only brighten, relieve, or palliate one’s life. When one uses art for one’s own ends, a work of art has no chance to work on a person, meaning one meets only oneself in the work. Consumers of art do not lay themselves open to what the work in its totality might do to them; they merely treat it as a means to their own selfish ends.
True receptivity begins by laying aside individual preconceptions, interests, and associations. Positively, one must then look, listen, read, or feel, as the case may be. The seeker must go on perceiving until he or she has perceived what is there. This is essentially a form of surrender. Lewis writes, “Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out)”.

This kind of receptivity is contemplation, to be distinguished sharply from distraction. Roger Scruton, in Beauty, distinguishes the true work of art from the false by distinguishing the experience of the one from the other. In the true work of art, it is not one’s own reactions that are interesting, but the meaning and content of the work. Entertainment is not interested in cause, but only in effect—whether the work had pleasant effects on oneself. Though true art also entertains, it does so by creating a distance between oneself and what it portrays, allowing a disinterested sympathy for its subject matter, rather than evoking vicarious emotions of one’s own. This distance is what enables receptivity and contemplation. “The purpose of this distance is not to prevent emotion, but to focus in it, by directing attention towards the imaginary other, rather than the present self” (p. 104).

Contemplation is an act of attention that receives the artwork, or the thing in nature, or whatever the manifestation of beauty as a gift, not an object to be used, but as something to be meditated upon and lived with.

As you can see, the moral qualities of the beholder influence whether beauty is seen or missed altogether.

21. Beauty’s Description

Beauty defined may be abstract and remote; beauty described should be concrete. What does beauty look like? For that matter, since beauty is not only (or even primarily) visual, what does beauty sound like, feel like, or seem like? When we have encountered or experienced beauty, what is that experience?

The best approach is to start from the deepest reality and work outwards. If beauty is the ultimate ground of reality, the self-giving love of the Godhead to one another, then beauty in the created order will be a form, or an echo of that primary beauty.

Among rational, sentient beings, this beauty is seen in self-giving love. When free beings choose to willingly unite their wills with the good of others, this is the closest echo of Trinitarian beauty. Symmetry of wills is the greatest symmetry of all. No wonder that the Greatest Commandment is to love God wholeheartedly (unite our wills entirely with His glory), and the Second is like it, to love our neighbour as oneself (unite our wills with what will beautify and bless our neighbour). Those who live in this kind of love are simultaneously growing in knowledge of truth and goodness (Phil. 1:9-11). Furthermore, the more they pursue this beauty, the more they are “beautified” by it, and become rooted and grounded in, enabling even further knowledge of it (Ephesians 3:16-19).  And when this is the case, the soul being shaped into the beauty of God finds ultimate pleasure and joy in knowing and loving God (Ps 34:4). Harmony, symmetry, pleasure, truth and goodness (all the suggested definitions of love) find their manifestation in God’s love, considered objectively or subjectively.

When we move out from sentient beings to created material, beauty continues to be seen when it represents the harmony of wills. Whether it is the arrangement of sound, colour, shapes, numbers, words, or ideas, beauty is found in the combination and arrangement of disparate parts to make a unified whole. Whether found naturally, or re-shaped by God’s image-bearers, created beauty is a re-enactment of Genesis 1:2-3: order, harmony, equality is brought to bear upon what is without form and void, so that we can make the evaluation: “it is good”. Of course, that description of created beauty would need a lot of nuancing and explaining, given the complexity and variety in the created order. But it appears “approving what is excellent” is precisely part of the task of the righteous in this age.

But here’s the rub. Since beauty is ultimately an echo of holy love, the moral state of the beholder influences the perception of beauty. If evil is a distortion of God’s love, then those who love to do evil have come to find pleasure in what God calls ugly. Or to put it another way, for evildoers, beautiful has become ugly, and ugly has become beautiful (Is. 5:20). This explains why Jesus says the real condemnation of man is not his ignorance, but his deliberate avoidance of God’s beauty and the contrast it will make with man’s ugliness (John 3:19-21). By contrast, the first mark of regeneration is a taste or relish for God’s beauty. Sanctification is a steady process of learning to hate what is unlovely to God, and love what God loves.

This does not mean that unbelievers cannot perceive or create beauty. As image-bearers, they can perceive truth, goodness, and beauty. They can find pleasure in it, depending on how much free reign they have given to their depravity (few reach the place of total demonic hatred of all that is good). And to the degree that they mimic (wittingly or unwittingly) the self-giving nature of love, they may both make beautiful things, and recognise beautiful things.

But as the beautiful thing begins to bear a more recognisable resemblance to God, conviction sets in, and the unbeliever will wish to flee. Only the overcoming grace of God will infallibly persuade and bring the fleeing unbeliever to finally embrace the source of beauty: God in Christ.

Should We Pronounce the Divine Name?

Most Christians know that in English translations of the Bible, the capitalised “LORD” stands in for the Tetragrammaton, the divine name, YHWH. Actually, the Hebrew people regularly pronounced the name until the destruction of the first Temple in 586 B.C. This is seen in the Lachish Letters, which were written before the Temple’s destruction, and contain the Tetragrammaton.

After the destruction of the Temple, and the end of the exile, Jews from about the third century BC began using the substitute Hebrew word for master or Lord, Adonai, when they read YHWH. Later Masoretic scribes took the vowels from Adonai, and placed them within the divine name to remind readers to reverently say “Adonai” instead of the divine name. This ended up looking like YeHoWaH to later medieval Christian scholars, who did not understand what this meant, and introduced the hybrid name “Jehovah”.

Later Jews took this even further, using Ha-Shem (“the Name”) to refer to God. For many, it is impiety to attempt to pronounce the name of God, as if it is a mystery lost in time. But the Jewish writer Louis Hartman writes in the Encyclopaedia Judaica:

“The true pronunciation of the name YHWH was never lost. Several early Greek writers of the Christian Church testify that the name was pronounced “Yahweh.” This is confirmed, at least for the vowel of the first syllable of the name, by the shorter form Yah, which is sometimes used in poetry (e.g., Ex. 15:2) and the -yahu or -yah that serves as the final syllable in very many Hebrew names.”

What then? While the name of God should be respected, it is hard to believe it was revealed so as to remain unpronounced. On good evidence, we know ancient Israelites pronounced it as Yahweh.

Because of changes in the Hebrew language too technical to go into here, we now pronounce with a v much of what was then pronounced with the sound. (That is, the letter vav in modern Hebrew was a waw in ancient Hebrew). For that reason, today we speak of the Levites, not the Lewites; King David and not King Dawid. To be consistent, today we would pronounce the Tetragrammaton as Yahveh.

20. Beauty’s Definition: What About the Cross?

If beauty is ultimately God’s self-knowledge and communicative self-delight, we can explain easily enough why other theories of beauty have defined beauty as harmony and symmetry, or truth and goodness, or pleasure and delight. For Trinitarian love is the ultimate and absolute form of harmony and unity, being a symmetry not of objects but of the will and love of the three persons. Trinitarian love is also truth and goodness: for God’s being is the ground of all reality (truth), the excellence of his being is goodness, and his knowledge and delight in himself is beauty. And as the multiple Hebrew words for beauty showed us, beauty is pleasure and delight.

For all that, there remains a wrinkle. What of ugliness? What of the disharmonious and the painful? Indeed, why should the Cross be central to the biblical message? Where does the gospel fit into a discussion of God’s beauty?

It appears that the answer may lie in the nature of triune love. Love within the Godhead is gratuitous self-giving.

Several Scriptures speak of the Father’s gifts to the Son:

All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Matt. 11:27).

The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand (John 3:35).

For as the Father has life in Himself, so He has granted the Son to have life in Himself, and has given Him authority to execute judgment also, because He is the Son of Man (John 5:26–27).

Father, I desire that they also whom You gave Me may be with Me where I am, that they may behold My glory which You have given Me; for You loved Me before the foundation of the world (John 17:24).

Therefore God also has highly exalted Him and given Him the name which is above every name (Phil. 2:9).

Likewise, Scripture reveals the Son’s gifts to the Father:

And all Mine are Yours, and Yours are Mine, and I am glorified in them (John 17:10).

Then comes the end, when He delivers the kingdom to God the Father, when He puts an end to all rule and all authority and power (1 Cor. 15:24).

Creation itself is primarily a gift of glory from the persons of the Godhead to one another. Jonathan Wilson, in God’s Good World, describes it as follows:

“In the life of the Triune God, the Father freely gives himself to the Son, so that he is both fully and eternally the Father and the Son is fully, eternally the Son. Likewise, the Son gives himself freely as the Son to the Father, so that each is fully and eternally Son and Father. Their giving to each other is the life of the Holy Spirit, who in receiving from and giving to the Father and the Son, is fully and eternally the Spirit. Moreover, the Spirit is the very gift that the Spirit gives to the Father and the Son, desiring that the Father and the Son love each other. From this mutuality of giving and receiving, which simply is life, and which may also be named as love, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit give life to something other than God: creation.”

Further, the Fall, Redemption, and Consummation are part of a plan to return the gift increased in value and more reflective of the Godhead than even at its pristine creation.

It seems that this self-giving love is best understood with the backdrop of sin, suffering, and evil. Not only does the evil provide a contrast to the goodness of God, but it provides a stage for impossibly opposed things to be reconciled and brought back together into beautiful harmony. In Edwards’ sermon “The Excellency of Christ”, he shows how “there is an admirable conjunction of diverse excellencies in Jesus Christ”. That is, seemingly differing attributes such as justice and mercy, majesty and meekness, dominion and submission are found in Christ. The attributes of humility and submission seen in Jesus in particular illustrate the trinitarian love that existed in eternity past. This is part of the beauty of God: God’s self-giving glory, which the Incarnation gave spectacular shape to.

Through the grand message of redemptive and doxological history, God’s self-giving love is understood by men and angels in ways they could not otherwise know. I’ve suggested this poetically. Humility, self-denial, the cross, begets exaltation, joy and resurrection. To know the self-giving love of the Trinity, sinners must come and die with Jesus, and so rise with him and know His beauty. At the heart of beauty, both in its nature, and it its perception is the most repeated saying of Jesus: “Whoever seeks to save his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it.” (Lk. 17:33). Self-giving life is the deepest reality of all.

19. Beauty’s Definition: Addenda

Jonathan Edwards combined insights from each of the theories of beauty, while being primarily theological. His theory was different from his Christian forbearers, though. Instead of resting on the medieval idea that God’s beauty was equivalent to his being, Edwards insisted that the beauty of God is God’s interaction with his being. Beauty is not a static property: it is God’s dynamic, give-and-take of pleasure and excellence in himself and all that reflects him.

Of course, for Edwards, God’s “consent”, or loving union, is not grounded on consent, for that would lead to infinite regress. God does not “love His love”. God’s love rests not on His love, but on His being itself. God’s being “simply considered”, as Edwards put it, is what God knows, loves and thus communicates. God delights in his own being in its undivided, infinite essence. Necessarily, God’s undivided essence includes God’s love. But God’s beauty is God’s “godness” in dynamic self-appraisal. Love and delight are the glory that illuminates them, as white light gives colour to objects. God’s beauty is then “the Most Lovely loving the Most Lovely”. When God delights in his being, and celebrates and radiates pleasure, this is his beauty. God’s essence irradiated in delighted self-communication is God’s beauty and God’s love.

In one sense, God’s being simply considered is precisely what finite, immanent beings can never know. Only God can know God in this way. But the result of God’s self-knowledge of the truth of His being and the goodness of His being is the love that communicates and shares. This is glory, or beauty: the radiance of all God is, but lovingly shared and communicated, first with himself, and then with creation.

This loving, harmonious sharing of himself is the pattern for all forms of created beauty. The symmetry and harmony of beauty is an analogue of God’s delighted harmony in himself. The pleasurable variety or surprising diversity in a scene, or a musical composition, or a mathematical theory simply echoes the infinite God beholding himself, communicating this in the Son, and reciprocal delight proceeding in the Spirit. The life of the Godhead is ultimate truth, goodness and beauty.

This leads us to a few unusual observations about beauty.

First, beauty is personal: it describes something persons recognise with pleasure or something in persons that is pleasurable. With Edwards, one can agree that beauty is not a static property, but a composite experience requiring both subject and object. God acting as both subject and object is possible only in the Christian expression of the Triune God. God’s delight in God is not a static property of God, but in the incomprehensibly myriad splendours of his being expressed and given to one another in the Godhead. The refulgence of his given character, and the reciprocal delight in this refulgence, constitute God’s beauty. Beauty then cannot exist outside of persons, for observers and delight are essential to its existence. God’s beauty cannot be abstracted from his person, or his personal approbation of beauty.

Second, God’s beauty is an axiomatic first principle. That which is beautiful in God is beautiful because it is in God. It cannot be referred to a standard outside and above God to which he conforms. God is beautiful because God is the object of God’s love and because God is the subject of God’s love. He is beautiful for those qualities in himself that merit his love, and he is beautiful because he loves those qualities.

Third, beauty is dynamic: a reciprocal experience of beholding, partaking, and delighting. Beauty cannot exist apart from objects that signify and subjects that parse meaning. Static, unrecognised, unknown beauty does not exist in a universe created by an omnipresent, omniscient, and triune God.

Fourth, one can say further that beautiful minds (those that recognise beauty) are simultaneously truthful and good. Simply put, who or what God is brings delighted pleasure to those pursuing goodness and truth. Beauty is inescapably moral in nature. God’s beauty, then, describes a personal, dynamic, and moral delight of God in his own excellence. God’s beauty is his radiant delight in his uncompounded being. Created or secondary beauty is all that reflects this excellence of God’s being, which beautiful beings will love.

18. Beauty Defined (With Some Help From Edwards)

How do we decide between these competing definitions of beauty? As Christians, we would firstly say that we cannot be satisfied with a definition of beauty abstracted from God. Beauty must be defined in relation to God. For that reason, special revelation (Scripture) must define beauty in general revelation (nature and art), not the other way around.

With this qualification in mind, we can evaluate the four definitions of beauty. Is beauty the harmony or proportion so loved by Platonic aestheticians? It certainly explains much, particularly in visual perception, in the beauty of intellectually elegant ideas (in mathematics, for example). For all that, beauty-as-harmony fails to deal adequately with the phenomenon of unitary beauty, such as light, or colour. The pleasure obtained by beauty cannot be finally reduced to admiration of symmetry, for some beauty is the beauty of the simple, or the sublime, or even the tragic—in which the disharmonious nevertheless attains a beauty in our eyes.

Is beauty equivalent to truth and goodness? Certainly beauty as some kind of ultimate value must place it into relationship with other ultimate values such as goodness or truth. Again, this definition, by itself, falls short. Beauty, as the Hebrew writers showed us, is more than a philosophical construct or abstract notion. Beauty is a reality to be known and experienced. It might do to say that apprehending God’s beauty is apprehending the truth of God’s being and the goodness of God’s being, but this only pushes the question one level back. One is still forced to ask, what is the nature of that goodness? What is the experience of apprehending the true reality of God’s being? This definition has the drawback of the dictionary’s circularity where we try to define words with words, and land up where we started.

Is beauty simply one’s pleasure in a subject? Beauty may represent a phenomenon in a perceiving subject, but that phenomenon corresponds to something outside the subject. It may be true that no beauty exists without beholders; it is equally true that beholders do not create beauty out of themselves. One must examine the subjective experience of beauty, but Christians must insist that a real phenomenon exists outside the subject, in recognisable properties in the object.

Perhaps these definitions find partial vindication in some theological definition of God’s beauty: His attributes, His glory, His being, or His trinitarian relationships.

Is beauty another name for God’s uncompounded, infinite being? To say that “Godness” equals beauty does not explain everything. Defining beauty as equivalent to God’s being creates its own problems. If beauty is God’s being simply considered, and God’s being is the ground of all being, how does one then explain ugliness in the order of things? Medieval Christianity foundered on this point.

Is God’s beauty one of his attributes, or the sum total of his will and ways? Is God’s beauty the name for when God’s glory is displayed and experienced? A tentative answer may agree that this is a generally safe assumption, since Scripture does link God’s beauty with his glory (1 Chr. 16:29; Job 40:10; Ps. 29:2). Yet to say that God’s beauty is God’s glory is merely to substitute a biblical word for a philosophical one, and merely drives one to define both more explicitly.

What of the idea that the Trinity’s life is the essence of God’s beauty? Is God’s beauty particularly related to the Trinity: the symmetry of relations, the harmony of three who are one, or the relationships of love with one another? If God’s beauty represents not merely his essence or being, but the refulgence and pleasurable splendour of this essence, then God’s delight in God would be one of the strongest contenders for a definition of God’s beauty.

This was Jonathan Edwards’ solution, when he defined beauty as “being’s cordial consent to being in general”. This consent is benevolence, union, or love: the benevolence of God toward being in general and specifically toward other benevolent beings. Here Edwards defines beauty as God’s response to his own being, agreeing with medievalists that God himself is the ground of beauty, not a concept that could be abstracted from God. Yet God’s beauty is not merely his being in some static, abstract sense. The beauty is how God dynamically responds to His own being. God’s dynamic benevolence, as inclined and expressed to himself and his works, is beauty. Trinitarian love is at the heart of what God’s beauty is. Edwards has perhaps the best theological definition of beauty, combining essence with dynamic response. Remarkably, Edwards has also assimilated the other three definitions into a theological definition.

By using the word “consent”, Edwards is nodding to the idea of harmony and symmetry. Edwards also assimilates the transcendental definition by combining truth, goodness and beauty by defining beauty as “true virtue”, i.e., true goodness. Finally, Edwards makes room for the subjective definition, for he defines true virtue—subjective love of God’s beauty, or holy affections—as the beauty of God, the saints, and the angels. When a moral being finds pleasure in God’s beauty, that pleasure and desire constitutes his or her spiritual beauty. God is ultimately beautiful because of what he loves and because of what he is. He is the Most Lovely Perfectly Loving the Most Lovely.

17. Beauty’s Definition

Defining beauty is no easy task. A definition of beauty or the beautiful has eluded the grasp of those who wish a definition with mathematical precision. This more than two-millennia-old discussion remains open, and no definition has satisfied its perennial participants or become the final word.

Among those who venture to define it, we can find roughly four kinds of definitions: classical, transcendental, subjective, and theological definitions.

Classical Definitions
Classical definitions use some form of the classical theory of beauty, which originated in Pythagoras and was developed by Plato, and later Platonists. Christians influenced by Plato developed similar versions of the same idea. Classical theories define beauty as essentially proportion. At the heart of this theory is the idea that the distinctive pleasure of beauty is the harmony of parts to a whole. Beauty is symmetry between composite parts or elegant relationships between parts that combine to make a unified, whole form. This symmetry is what provokes pleasure in the human who encounters it. Whether it is visual symmetry, or musical harmony, or mathematical elegance, this theory identifies the heart of beauty in a human’s desire for order, patterns, symmetry, unity and equality.

Transcendental Definitions
The triad of transcendentals is “truth, goodness, and beauty”. Transcendental definitions of beauty define beauty in relation to the unseen and ultimate qualities of truth and goodness, or as some combination of these. If truth is what corresponds to reality, and goodness is how reality ought to be loved, then beauty is some combination of these. It is truth and goodness radiating out or proclaimed. It is either a synonym for what is good and true, or the result of their synthesis. The transcendental theory has the power of explaining why beauty seems to have much to do with fittingness, and excellence. The overlap between goodness, which is to say, what ought to be, and beauty, shows that beauty must have a strong relationship to truth and goodness. This was well understood by the Greeks who fused the two concepts of goodness and beauty and coined a term which embraces both: kalokagathía, or beauty-goodness. Transcendental definitions emphasise that beauty has to do with reality and morality: what truly is, and what it deserves.

Subjective Definitions
Some definitions define beauty almost entirely as its effects or experience within the perceiving subject. These definitions expound beauty in terms of the peculiar aesthetic pleasure, or its ethical effect upon the subject. Of course, it raises the question: what are the attributes outside of the observer that provoke the response of pleasure? To be clear, proponents of this definition do not necessarily deny that objects of beauty have outward qualities that might be construed as beautiful. Rather, their claim is that beauty itself must be defined as the subject’s response to these qualities, not as something that exists entirely independently of observation or inherently in the unperceived object. Perhaps one might summarise the valid insight of this definition thus: what is experienced as beauty may exist separately from a perceiving subject, but it does not truly exist without a perceiving subject. That is, while beauty is not merely the inner experience of perceiving subjects, something’s beauty is impossible to speak of without perceiving subjects.

Theological Definitions
Theological definitions take God himself as the foundation of beauty, or as the ultimate instantiation of it. In these definitions, beauty is either an attribute of God, or a way of speaking of God’s being or relations. Importantly, theological definitions insist upon defining beauty with God’s revelation in Scripture, not primarily with philosophy or aesthetics.

This takes a few forms. One is to define beauty as being, or existence. Understanding beauty as being, and God’s being as the ground of all being, makes beauty equivalent to God. The idea of beauty as being prevailed in medieval Christendom.

A second is that beauty is the glory of God. Karl Barth saw the beauty of God as the more precise designation of the glory of God, “the sum total of the divine perfection in irresistible self-manifestation”. Beauty is the nature, character and will of God.

A third form of theological definition of beauty focuses on the Tri-une nature of God: seeing in the unity and harmony of persons in the Godhead the ultimate instantiation of harmony and symmetry.

A fourth form suggests that it is the relations within the Trinity that define beauty. Here, proportion, radiance, perfection, and pleasure can be united in light of the reciprocal love of the Godhead. In The Beauty of the Infinite, David Hart argues that “true beauty is not the idea of the beautiful, a static archetype in the mind of God, but is an infinite music, drama, art, completed in but never bounded by the termless dynamism of the Trinity’s life”.

Theological definitions then insist that beauty is defined derivatively from what God is: his being, attributes, or relations. Beauty cannot be a concept to which God conforms; the very concept must be derived from the perfection within God.

All of this presents us with a bewildering array of options. How shall we decide between them? With Scripture as our final judge, and the intellectual and Christian tradition to draw on, we can suggest a definition which seems to unite these ideas in one. We’ll consider that next.

Tattoos: To Do or Eschew?

The Christian life is meant to be a life of obedience grounded in discernment. “Test all things; hold fast what is good.” (1 Thess. 5:21) Such discernment is not simply an inner sense of confidence, or a feeling of sagacity, but an active judging of all things for their meaning. The pursuit of meaning is the only way to obey in a world where meaning itself changes. A good test case for what this looks like is the question of tattoos.

There are a few lazy ways that Christians could attempt to shortcut the process of scrutinising the meaning of tattoos. They could ask the loaded question, “Would Jesus have worn a tattoo?” This hardly helps, because it trades on whatever mental pictures we have of Jesus, which usually excludes tattoos. The very foreignness of the idea excludes a positive answer, and ends the debate unfairly.

They could also simply quote Leviticus 19:28 : “You shall not make any cuttings in your flesh for the dead, nor tattoo any marks on you: I am the LORD.” Note, I do not mean it is lazy to quote this verse, as if it is meaningless or inconsequential to the debate. I mean it would be lazy to quote this verse as if it settles the debate. The use of a verse from Israel’s law brings with it a host of interpretive questions: what commands to Old Testament Israel apply to the New Testament Christian in the same sense? Just one verse earlier, Israelite men were told not to trim the edges of their beards or shave around the sides of their head. Does that apply? For that matter, all Israelites were to wear tassels with a blue cord on all of their clothes (Num 15:38). Are these laws fulfilled in Christ or not? Are these “moral” laws or ceremonial laws? Leviticus 19:28 is not a smack-down prohibition against tattoos. On the other hand, the burden of proof lands on those Christians who favour tattoos to explain why God did not want the Israelites to mimic the Canaanite practice, if the whole thing is amoral. Before you get a tattoo, you should have a pretty robust theology of how Leviticus 19:28 relates to the New Testament Christian.

Thirdly, lazy people could also quote Romans 14 and say “this is a matter of liberty and preference”. Says who? How is that determined? If a man wears a Speedo swimsuit to church, is that a matter of liberty and preference? If a member smokes legal cannabis outside the building prior to the Lord’s Supper, is that a matter of liberty and preference? We would have to say that even if such things are, they are more than that. They involve questions of wisdom, prudence, love for neighbour, and appropriateness. In other words, questions of meaning again surface.  Indeed, all matters of conscience and preference remain matters to be judged for their meaning. Saying tattoos are matter of liberty or preference does not exempt us from doing the hard work of discernment; it actually makes it all the more urgent. To properly answer the question of tattoos, we have to ask, what do tattoos mean?

On the most superficial level, tattoos mean what their wearers say they mean: a quote, a name, a Bible verse, a symbol of identification, or simply an adornment they find attractive or enhancing to their appearance. Wearers decide on what they want the tattoo to say or symbolise.

On a deeper level, tattoos mean what they do. Tattoos are a mark of identification. Tattoos have been used for centuries as a visible sign of tribal membership. To get a tattoo is to get a permanent, public symbol of belonging. Here, the Christian should ask, “belonging to what?” A hundred years ago, almost no Christian would be found volunteering for a tattoo. What has changed? It has become cool, which is to say, fashionable. Christians may or may not adopt some of the world’s fashions, and will eschew others. The difference between being attractive in a modern world and being worldly is an important distinction. We must ask, when does the belonging identify you with an entire system devoted to the superficial, the sensual, and the self-glorifying (1 John 2:15-17)? We should always be careful of identifying with something which is passing away (1 Cor 7:31). The multi-million dollar industry of tattoo removal is testimony to how perspectives change when people reach a certain age and realise that they no longer want a permanent mark. Christians are marked by baptism, which is interestingly not a permanent, outwardly visible mark.

On a third (and related) level, tattoos mean what they are associated with. Associations do change with use, but that change is never overnight. For many years, tattoos would have associated you with Maori tribesmen or the counter-culture rebellion of the 60s and the decades that followed. In other words, the cultures that produced tattoos typically did not live under the lordship of Jesus Christ. Granted, evangelical copycatism is absorbing something associated with unbelief into the world of the church, so the association is no longer a clear violation of Ephesians 5:11 or 1 Thessalonians 5:22. But it is at least ambiguous. Those Christians who are prone to be early-adopters should ask if the association has genuinely changed so that their tattoo does not associate them with unbelief, and thereby confuse the conscience of either believer (1 Corinthians 8:10; 10:28).

On the fourth and deepest level, tattoos have an intrinsic meaning. This is the hardest meaning to discern, but yet it is the most universal across cultures, because it has to do with the very nature of a thing in God’s world. The meaning of colours, facial expressions, tones of voice are examples of intrinsic, natural meaning. Here we have to ask, what does it mean to permanently mark the human body? A theology of the body includes questions of modesty in dress, food and drink, sexuality, burial vs. cremation, rest and work, and embodied living. When it comes to marking the body permanently, we should ask, is this mark adornment or defacement? Does it consecrate the body to God or desecrate the appearance of an image-bearer? One way to ask this is to consider: will God raise our bodies up with the tattoos on them, or will He erase them? If God will erase them, what is meant by a permanent mark that will be erased by resurrection? Are we are cross-purposes when we make permanent what God will erase?

In eternity, there will be only one resurrected person who will permanently bear the marks of a body pierced: Jesus Christ. Memorials of His wounds will remain forever, so that we, His perfected people will rejoice and weep and give thanks. Through His eternal marring, our bodies will be eternally perfect. In other words, only one Person on heaven will have scars. We’d do well to ask if scarring our bodies with ink represents this pattern.

For the Christian who got a tattoo before salvation or during a time of immaturity, there is no condemnation in Christ. God receives you in His Son, and takes you as you are. Heaven will perfect our souls and bodies. But for those still considering it, you would be wise to ask questions of meaning. What does a tattoo mean stipulatively, conventionally, associatively, and intrinsically?