Tag Archive for beauty

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.

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.

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.

15. Beauty’s Difficulties: The Problem of Taste

After more than a century of grappling with Descartes’ division of knowledge into “subjective” and “objective”, eighteenth-century thinkers developed a way to rescue the concept of beauty. The conversation about beauty moved away from a discussion of harmony, proportion, or unity and towards the idea of taste. In fact, at this early stage, the attention to taste as a theme in the discussion of beauty was an attempt to prevent the complete subjectivisation of beauty, and to retain some level of objectivity by defining standards of taste. Even David Hume argued for refined taste: “In many orders of beauty, particularly those of the finer arts”, Hume writes in his Enquiry Concerning the Principles of Morals, “it is requisite to employ much reasoning in order to feel the proper sentiment; and a false relish may frequently be corrected by argument and reflection”.

Alexander Gottlieb Baumgarten (1714–1762) seems to have coined the term aesthetics. Baumgarten used the term to refer to judgement of good and bad taste, defining taste in his Metaphysica (1739) as the ability to judge using the senses and not the intellect. For Baumgarten, beauty was nothing less than perfect sense knowledge.

Though it had its opponents (notably the Earl of Shaftesbury), the Enlightenment departed from the classical and traditional Christian notions of beauty as being or as a property of God. A growing sense of the individual’s subjective consciousness and a growing awareness of cultural diversity further challenged simplistic ideas of equality, symmetry and harmony as the sum total of beauty. An increasingly secularised intellectual world was now struggling to account for taste apart from any theological moorings. The newly-coined term aesthetics was to become a distinct discipline within philosophy, focused mostly on the beaux arts, rather than a basis for ethics, or as one of three transcendentals that explained immanent reality.

This non-religious aesthetic form of art was soon to become valued for itself, creating “art for art’s sake”. Art was now on its way to becoming an autonomous entity, divorced from worship, ethics, or religiously useful effects on the head and heart. Instead, these works of art were valued as badges of social status, goods to be marketed or components of a growing “culture industry”.

Indeed, the avant-garde averred that taste for this new form of autonomous art would be contaminated by religious or moral interests. The taste for art was divorced from the spiritual taste that had been spoken of by believers for centuries.

In the same century, Edmund Burke defined taste in A Philosophical Enquiry into the Sublime and Beautiful as a complex of three factors: sensory perception, the pleasures of imagination, and the conclusions of the reasoning faculty.  Taste is the ability to rightly discern and respond to aesthetic qualities. He wrote,  “[I]t has three elements or facets: perceiving, enjoying, and judging”. Burke’s view assumes that there is a true beauty outside the observer that can be known.

If this is true, it is possible for taste to be better or worse, more discerning or less, acute or dull.  Aesthetic taste is a discipline that must be cultivated like any other. Taste goes beyond preference, for to call something beautiful is to say more than just, “I like it”, but to make that claim public, and expect agreement.

A difference in taste is more than a difference in preference. A difference in preference represents the symptom of differing taste, not its very essence. Differing taste produces differing preferences, but those preferences are not the sum and substance of differing taste. Differing tastes may, in the end, correspond to the difference between two sorts of beauty which themselves differ in kind. That is, bad taste is a taste for bad things, the love of what ought not to be loved.

This is a controversial claim. How do we account for widely differing tastes? Our next post will make some suggestions.

13. Beauty’s Difficulties: A Christian Response to the Subject-Object Dilemma

For a while, it seemed chic to be able to say the word postmodern in a sermon. The belief-system behind the word is rather drab. No God exists, no human nature exists, and no essences exists. As such, beauty is a fiction imposed upon reality by humans wanting to order their meaningless existence. Truth is no longer what corresponds to reality; truth is merely the internally coherent and practically useful understanding of a single human consciousness. Postmodernism is hardly friendly to Christianity on this score.

Modernism introduced the division between subject and object. Postmodernism erases the object altogether, at least as far as our consciousness goes. Christians have responded in at least four ways to this subject-object dichotomy.

Augustine and Pascal: Loving Intuition
Augustine of Hippo (354–430) and Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) are separated by more than a millennium, but are philosophically very close to one another. Augustine and Pascal held to a kind of affective rationality: the idea that right loves will correctly shape reason and further cognition. Subjects cannot know objects unless they are rightly related to those objects by loving them correctly. One cannot know how to love a single object without relating it to the universe of objects. One cannot know the correct ordering and relationship of all objects in the universe unless one loves the Author and Creator of all objects and loves objects for his sake. Humble, believing love toward God, in the right order, and to the right degree, is the basis of all progress in knowledge. We can know objects when we are in submission to God, the author of all subjects and objects.

Jonathan Edwards: Consenting Sensibility
Edwards (1703-58) agreed with Pascal and Augustine in saying that humble, believing love is the basis of right perception. Yet he went beyond them in stating that such love is the creaturely mirror of the love God has for himself and his works. Beauty and the sense of beauty are not divided. The perceiver is fundamental to recognising God’s beauty, but the perceiver must have been brought into a loving state in relationship to God, which he called “consent”. God’s beauty is “objectively” real, but only perceivable by the one beautified with the consenting disposition. Further, Edwards’ view of love pushes one beyond desire and delight into the concept of union. “Consent” is not simply pleasure, but the desire for compete conformity, for total union of wills and desires. Beholding beauty cannot be separated from becoming part of that beauty.

Owen Barfield and C. S. Lewis: Imaginative Rationalism
Owen Barfield (1898–1997) and C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) were British intellectuals of the twentieth century. Lewis and Barfield can both be called imaginative rationalists, for both saw the place of reason (and used it persuasively), but both saw reason functioning only when in the service of a greater organ of truth: imagination. Perception is not passive, but an active construal into a “grid”, which is the imagination. Lewis and Barfield understood that this grid of pre apprehension is fundamental to reason functioning properly. Imagination, understood as the active lens of the interpretive perception of reality, is fundamental to knowledge. This lens is to be shaped by those forms that appeal to imagination. When the Christian imagination is in place—understanding the universe as God has revealed it to be—it will participate in that moral universe with ordinate affection towards it, and so rightly judge its truth, goodness, and beauty.

Michael Polanyi: Personal Knowledge and Indwelling
Michael Polanyi (1891–1976) was a Hungarian-British physicist and philosopher. Polanyi taught that people can know the world, not infallibly or with omniscience, because they are both part of the world and are able to transcend it through perception, imagination, and reason. Polanyi also spoke much of personal knowledge. By this he meant that human knowing is always an exercise of personal responsibility. Instead of Enlightenment philosophy’s notion of minimising or even eliminating the personal responsibility of the knower (by calling it “objectivity”), Polanyi insisted the knower must submit to reality as a responsible knower. He also spoke of “indwelling”. Indwelling is loving in order to know. By empathetically putting oneself inside the thing one wants to know, and taking it inside, one extends welcome, trust, and caring attentiveness.

These four proposals give us four distinctives necessary to a Christian realist correspondence model for beauty. First, the need for faith and love in one’s approach to God. Second, the necessity of a Christian imagination: a faith-filled grid that views reality primarily as a creation by a Triune Creator parsed by creatures who are subcreators. Third, the essentiality of union: union in being and in attitude with the object of knowledge is necessary to properly love, know and understand it. Fourth, the necessity of illumination. God’s voluntary self-disclosure and enlightenment of the heart and mind is fundamental to understanding God’s beauty.

With modernism, Christians agree that there is beauty, whether subjects perceive it or not. The rainbow is there as a phenomenon of light and water vapour, even if observers are not present. With postmodernism, we agree that beauty requires subjects to perceive it. The rainbow requires human eyes to be perceived as a rainbow. With premodernism, we agree that we must be in the right posture toward God and creation to properly perceive beauty. The rainbow must be seen at a certain angle and position, for not all can see it. Nevertheless, the rainbow is real, as is true beauty.

12. Beauty’s Difficulties: Subjective vs Objective?

Perhaps the most frequent objection levelled at those wishing to see beauty restored to a central place in Christian thinking is that beauty represents “subjective” knowledge: inward experience known only to a perceiving subject. Thinkers in the modernist tradition still hold that some forms of knowledge can be known objectively, while transcendental values such as beauty, cannot.

Conversely, those in the postmodern tradition take subjectivism to its logical conclusion. According to them, whatever is outside the consciousness of the subject cannot be known independently or separately of that subject; indeed, any claim to “objective” knowledge would once again originate from within a subject, meaning the claim would be circular or incoherent. A claim to know anything comes from a subject; how then could any subject claim access to a knowledge independent of his or her own cognition?

Actually, the problem is mostly a 500 year-old Western problem. Premoderns did not wrestle with the question of the conflict between subjective and objective knowledge. The ancients understood themselves as participants in reality, and they understood that sense perceptions of the world outside the observer were conjunctions between reality and the perceiver. For example, the phenomenon of a rainbow is real and is perceived as such by a subject, but it does not represent a concrete object with independent existence outside of the observer. It requires a subject to perceive the phenomenon of a rainbow. And yet the phenomenon is not merely a psychological one; it represents something real in the world. Subject and object combine. Premoderns saw all sensory experience like the rainbow.

Plato’s theories were similar. Plato understood that knowledge of the external world is verified through access to permanent, unchanging universals. In other words, certainty is not obtained through an interrogation of particular phenomena, but by knowing to what ideal form or essence the material phenomena correspond. This view of “metaphysical realism”, that there are ultimate realities, such as truth, goodness, and beauty, prevailed through the Middle Ages.

The rise of nominalism in the thirteenth century changed all that. Originally an attempt to preserve God’s absolute freedom, nominalism severed the link between ultimate realities (such as beauty), and their presence in our world. All that remained were concrete instances of things, to which we gave the name (or the descriptor) beautiful. This would develop into the rationalism of Descartes. Descartes’ scepticism about the reliability of the senses leads to the idea that perception and reason are entirely different. The Cartesian view is one of the great disintegrating philosophies of all time, setting the mind against the sensory and the intuitive. Participation is all but dead: objects exist without observers, subjects perceive passively and then choose to interpret these perceptions. Meaning is moved from the world to the mind. Meaning no longer inheres in things, it becomes a property of minds who perceive or judge meaning internally. External objects may be a catalyst for perceiving meaning, but the meanings are self-generated by the subject.

You can see what this means for beauty. Beauty cannot be a universal or transcendant property instantiated in our world. Instead, all that exist are objects upon which we project the notion of beauty. Beauty exists not jointly between subject and object, but solely in the subject.

This would develop into the empiricism of Locke and Hume, where transcendentals like beauty are all but fictions we impose upon our experience. Immanuel Kant attempted to come to the rescue, suggesting a two-storey approach to knowledge: matters that can be empirically and rationally proved (phenomena), and those that cannot (noumena), such as morals and beauty. Unfortunately, Kant did not solve the debate; in many respects, he created a permanent wedge between subjective and objective knowledge. Positivists were willing to go beyond Kant to abandon the concept of the noumenal altogether. Whatever cannot be verified by empirical means may be, for all practical purposes, non-existent. Romantics, on the other hand, felt that science had discredited Christianity and saw Kantian noumena as the epistemological way out. Kant’s upper story of the noumenal could be safely protected from the lower story of empiricism, rationalism and materialism.

The result of the Enlightenment was a two-storey view of truth: an objective category for matter, subject to empiricism’s exacting methods; and a subjective category for mind and transcendentals, subject to an increasingly existential outlook. Beauty had gone from a real universal, to a property of objects understood by the mind, to a relational property sensed by those with taste, to a construct of the mind imposed upon objects. Kant’s early transcendental idealism would blossom into the existentialism of postmodernism: a full blown subjectivism and an anti-aesthetic. What are the Christian responses to this dilemma? We’ll consider that next.

11. Beauty’s Difficulties: Philosophy versus Biblical Authority

The question of beauty among Christians is often stymied before it starts. Some of this is due to a long-standing suspicion towards philosophy felt by many Christians. From Tertullian’s “What hath Athens to do with Jerusalem?” to Luther’s denunciation of the Scholastics to evangelicalism’s embrace of Common Sense Realism, there is some considerable water under the bridge when it comes to Christian skepticism of philosophy. For many Christians, if an idea seems more coloured by the speculation of intellectuals and philosophers, it is looked upon with some suspicion.

Beauty is likely a casualty here, too. This is because the Bible’s treatment of beauty overlaps with philosophy’s treatment of it, but they are not identical. They differ in at least two ways.

First, even though the Bible uses the word beauty, and many synonyms for it, Scripture never discusses beauty in the abstract the way philosophers do. The Hebrews were largely a pre-speculative society, concerned with action, consequence, virtue, and honour. Solomon is as close as we get to Hebrew speculation, but even there, the accent is on “the whole duty of man”. The Bible has no chapter on aesthetics or on explaining the concept of beauty.

Second, the Bible has similar, but not identical, ideas to those of classical philosophy when speaking of beauty. Biblically, beauty means something like pleasure, desire, loveliness, attractiveness, splendour, honour. Glory carries the same idea, with the emphasis being on weighty splendour. Philosophically, beauty means something like harmony, or pleasure, or goodness. Philosophy is concerned with how abstract notions such as unity, plurality, equality, symmetry, or the one and the many combine to explain the phenomenon of beauty. A similar difference in definition exists with the subjective experience of beauty: love. Biblically, love means union, desire, delight, and trusting loyalty. Philosophically, love seems to mean something like unselfishness and benevolence.

So what to do? Is beauty a philosophical idea of little interest to believers? The answer is that philosophy and theology are friends that do not need reconciliation. They need only a proper hierarchy.

Philosophy exists for many reasons. Some have been hostile to biblical faith, but not all. Some of it exists because man, made in God’s image, has been concerned to get past his own perceptions, and to know reality as it is. The presence of the common grace of God in human culture means that truth can be found in both believer and unbeliever. It is entirely possible for unbelieving philosophy to recognise and even expostulate on truths found in God’s universe. We who believe in sola Scriptura do not hold to nuda Scriptura. We believe that Scripture holds the final authority to rule on all knowledge, but we do not believe it is the lone authority. Unbelievers can speak truly, and even discover truths hidden from believers. What unbelievers lack is the comprehensive explanation of Truth: God’s ultimate explanation of reality, revealed in Scripture.

Revelation is then always the key for understanding beauty as it relates to God. We must not begin with philosophy or even nature, and then reason our way to God and His beauty. We must begin with God and his revealed truth. God’s Word sets the overall interpretive grid to understand the idea of beauty.

With that in place, we can freely allow philosophy to speak for itself. We should not despise it, nor pretend that we are pure “biblicists” with no use for philosophy.  In reality, Christians who speak that way merely smuggle in their philosophy and consider it biblical. We all use philosophy, whether we realise it or not.  For example, as theologians point out, the Trinitarian categories of ousia or essentia and hypostases or personae were not biblical words, but categories borrowed from philosophy as helpful constructs to explain the biblical data. Philosophy not only affects Christian thought, it has proved itself indispensable to categorise and helpfully understand biblical revelation.

Yes, Christian discussions of beauty can fall prey to mere speculative reason. We can give Plato a place that should be reserved for Paul. But if we are committed to biblical authority, there is no reason not to hear what unbelievers from Heraclitus to Hume have said on beauty.

 

10. Beauty and Motivation

As surprising as it might sound, beauty lies at the heart of motive. Why we do what we do is a question of desire, and desire is rooted in what we think is good and beautiful.

Jonathan Edwards tackled the questions of motive, desire, and freedom in his work The Freedom of the Will. There Edwards argued that the strongest inclination is the choice one makes, and that choice is the same as the will. There is no neutral “deciding faculty” within us, independent of beauty. Whatever the mind perceives as the greatest apparent good, the heart chooses.

In Edwards’ view, the human will is not the faculty that decides, it is the decision itself. The mind knows the objects of desire, and the heart chooses, or loves what it desires as the greatest good. The greatest motive always prevails as the thing chosen. In other words, what the will chooses is precisely what it loves. This is why it is not strictly correct to speak of “choosing to love”, for one is really thereby saying “choosing to choose” or “loving so as to love”.

The will does not choose to love; the will chooses what it loves. Your chosen desires reflect what you think it best to choose. Loves can be formed and shaped, but they cannot simply be willed into being.  You always love what you think is most beautiful; or to put it differently, best.

Lying at the heart of human action is then a picture of beauty: what the good life is, what is most pleasurable valuable, reliable. Every one of us is inclined towards a vision of something we believe is good. J. K. A. Smith writes, “Our ultimate love is oriented by and to a picture of what we think it looks like for us to live well, and that picture then governs, shapes, and motivates our decisions and actions.” This picture is not a set of abstract ideas, as much as it is an aesthetic idea, an affective, sensible picture of what reality is really like or should be like. This is the telos to which the human heart is inclined; it is its treasure, to which you will always find the heart inclined (Matt. 6:21).

Here is another reason why beauty and morality are intertwined. Those who are hardened sinners do not only do what is evil, they “also approve of those who practice them.” (Rom. 1:32) That is, they delight in sin. They “love darkness, because their deeds are evil” (John 3:19), and they “take pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thes 2:12). For them, their sin is beautiful. Evil is aesthetically pleasing to them. Wickedness is something to be gazed at, admired, courted, pursued, coveted, memorialised, shared, and celebrated. When you love or desire what God hates, then what is ugly to God has become beautiful to you, and what is beautiful to God has become ugly to you. You have inverted good and evil, beauty and ugliness (Is. 5:20).

If what motivates you is something God condemns, you are doubly condemned: you commit acts of evil, and you do so because you treasure what God abhors. On the other hand, if your heart finds joy and delight in holiness, you will pursue those things, and find joy in them. A background vision of God’s holiness, harmony and happiness will explain what a holy man pursues and why.

6. The Value of Beauty

What possible value can the study of beauty deliver? Isn’t this fiddling while Rome burns, counting daffodil petals while barbarians lay siege to the city? In times of apostasy, false teaching, deception and darkness, shouldn’t aesthetics go to the bottom of the priority-pile?

When caricatured as effete aestheticism, then yes, beauty will seem to be of little value. But when understood as a deep property of being, something like God’s glory, beauty has nearly unsurpassed value as a study. We can easily suggest four questions that beauty answers.

First, beauty deals directly with the nature of reality. Is the universe essentially material, an impersonal collection of atoms that accidentally produced minds, or is the universe essentially personal: a meaningful and therefore beautiful communication from the eternal Mind to ours? Beauty cannot be consistently upheld in an atheistic worldview. Atheists may agree that beauty exists, as they might agree that goodness exists. But they have no real basis in reality for such things: a sterile universe doesn’t have rules, and a dead cosmos doesn’t try to please and delight. Beauty, if it exists, is essentially supernatural: a pattern of pleasure and harmony from Designer to His creation, where both the message and the ability to read it are placed there by the Creator.

Second, and consequent upon the first point, beauty deals with morality, ethics, and evil. Beauty and morality are not separate domains, but deeply intertwined. Good souls love beautiful things; depraved ones love what is despicable. Think of the horror of people loving torture, rape or child pornography. Yet people do: they even film it, laugh at it and share it. Such people are finding pleasure in what is wicked and ugly. Sin’s deforming power leads souls to love what is ugly, and to even despise what is beautiful. For them, ugly has become beautiful, beautiful has become ugly: they love darkness, for their deeds are evil (Jo. 3:19).

True beauty humanises the soul, and to the degree that one is growing in Christlikeness is the degree to which he loves the beautiful (Phil. 1:9-11). The kind of judgement one uses for ethical judgements is very similar to the kind used for aesthetic judgements. Indeed, the problem of evil (where evil came from, why it exists, why God allows it) is best explained in light of beauty: the most beautiful angel (Ezek 28:12) seeking glory that belongs to the Beautiful God. The creature with greatest original beauty becomes the most deformed one of all, his love becoming more and more corrupt and corrupting. His temptation and deception of the race made in God’s beautiful image is his way of turning an effigy of God into an ugly parody of God’s beauty.

Third, beauty explains the problem of knowing. For the last 500 years, the West has struggled with how subjects can know objects outside of themselves. How do we know what we know, and how can we verify anything we know? Should we use reason, experience, tradition, faith, imagination or authority to know certainties? Can we know anything objectively, or is all knowledge purely subjective? Beauty actually provides a compelling answer. On the one hand, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. On the other, that can be the fault of the beholder: beauty exists and some fail to perceive it. This shows that reality is both independent of observers and yet rightly or wrongly perceived by those observers. When the heart possesses the fear of the Lord, it is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom. Beautiful souls will perceive the beauty that is there.

Finally, beauty appears to be at the heart of motive. Human action has beauty at its core: people are moved and inclined towards what they think is beautiful. That is not to say that all agree on what beauty is. Indeed, this comes back to ethics: bad people are motivated by evil things (Ro. 1:32). However, if beauty is that which provides most pleasure, that which best harmonises and unites sense experience, and that which seems most real (true) and good (best), then one can easily see how beauty is at the heart of all action. People pursue what they think will bring them pleasure. People are moved by what they think is best. People are motivated by what they think is the most comprehensive explanation of reality. Once again, the nature of the heart will then determine what is pleasurable, real, good, and symmetrical. In other words, the love will correspond to the idea of beauty. However grotesque, however bizarre, however irrational, the behaviour of a human can be explained by some inner idea of something as beautiful.

Each of these four is worth considering in a little more detail. We’ll deal with these in turn.