Imagine the most beautiful thing you’ve ever encountered.
It might have been a diamond necklace, the Mona Lisa, a Bengal tiger, or Beethoven’s “Moonlight Sonata.”
How is it that these things, which bear no resemblance to one another, can be described by the same word? How is it possible that beauty — a singular characteristic — can charm us, inspire us, soothe us, cause us to laugh, or trigger a heartfelt cry? And how is it that beauty, whether discovered in a forest or at the Louvre, is always impossible to ignore?
Goodness, truth, and beauty — long ago deemed the transcendentals of the Christian tradition — “are the three things we all need, and need absolutely, and know we need,” writes Christian author/philosopher Peter Kreeft. “Truth relates to the mind, goodness to the will, and beauty to the heart, feelings, desires, or imagination.” These, Kreeft says, are the only three things we never get bored with; they’re attributes of God, and therefore of all God’s creation. Which means everything in every category participates in them to some degree.
“This practical modern world is prone to conceive of beauty as an extraneous luxury. We do not think of it as an integral and inseparable element of our living, as did the Greeks; or as did the Christians for many centuries.”
Even so, our relationship with beauty may be more difficult than with truth and goodness. On one hand, all humans, because we’re the image of God, yearn for beauty. It’s in our DNA; we can’t help but admire it. On the other hand, we routinely destroy it. We build high-rise condominiums that block the view of the beautiful ocean. We build roads through woodlands and wetlands. We’re surely addicted to the strip malls that litter the landscape with bright-colored logos from fast-food restaurants, mattress stores, Target, Walmart, and Costco. They make one city indistinguishable from any other, and make portions of them all equally, monotonously ugly.
We yearn for beauty yet create and consume music that celebrates violence. We watch senseless videos that have “gone viral.” People spend good money on mass-produced prints of Republican presidents playing poker, and the T-shirts in the next aisle that insist, “Old guys rule.” Such things, even when fun, belittle the proper role of beauty in our lives and culture.
Beauty: Objective Reality, a Matter of Taste, or Culturally Conditioned?
Our relationship with beauty is also complicated by the fact that we’re not quite sure how to define it. “Where truth can be verifiably established through clear, material evidence, beauty is perceptual and experiential,” says Anglican speaker and writer Kate Harrison Brennan. “It is not written into the physical laws of the universe, which begs the questions: Is it, then, a mere trick of the eye? Or can it disclose something true?” The questions matter, Brennan argues, because, “When beauty is uncoupled from truth, we potentially distrust our own perception of beauty — the beauty our eyes see, or our ears hear. What we then experience is not seen as disclosing anything beyond the individual person.”
It hasn’t always been this way. The late theologian Edward Farley, in his book “Faith and Beauty: A Theological Aesthetic,” argues that our understanding of the beautiful started to unravel in the 18th century. It was then, Farley argued, that “beauty came to be seen as mere passion and sensibility.” In other words, beauty, once thought to be an objective reality, had become “in the eye of the beholder.” It became “fleeting” and “only skin deep.” Which means, says philosopher Roger Scruton, that beauty no longer has a rational foundation. To some, the painting of Republican presidents is beautiful. One person may like Mozart while another favors Cardi B. It’s simply a matter of taste, and who’s to say what’s beautiful and what’s not?
A little more than a century ago, Charles G. Osgood, a Princeton scholar, saw this transition unfolding. In his book “Poetry as a Means of Grace,” Osgood observed, “This practical modern world is prone to conceive of beauty as an extraneous luxury. We do not think of it as an integral and inseparable element of our living, as did the Greeks; or as did the Christians for many centuries.”
Evidence suggests that the trend has accelerated. In 2016, Elizabeth Farrelly, a newspaper columnist in Sydney, Australia, observed, “We don’t talk about beauty anymore. Beauty doesn’t figure in the public debate. It’s wholly absent from our politics and rarely championed by those professions (architects and artisans) for whom it is called a business.”
Practically speaking, then, beauty has been divorced from truth; culturally, it no longer reveals a greater reality beyond one’s subjective, personal taste.
And yet, we crave it. Even as we build strip malls and produce kitsch, we grieve beauty’s loss. Somewhere inside — our gut or maybe our heart — we know something’s missing and that we’re poorer for it. Still, it’s hard to define, which makes it hard to retrieve, which makes it difficult to reincorporate into our lives and culture.
Beauty Is Something We Share
Luci Shaw, the esteemed Christian poet, gets us moving in the right direction. Shaw concedes that beauty is personal, and she grants that we all have different tastes and varying standards. And yet, she says, “I love to think of beauty’s universality.” She talks about how we all gasp at the sight of ocean waves, how we breathe in the silent greenness of a meadow after rain, with its moist fragrances, how we marvel at the icy glory of the Antarctic.
Janine Langan, professor emerita of Christianity and Culture at the University of Toronto, is thinking along the same lines. In her view, beauty is “one of the deepest experiences of community.” And while some may value the painting of presidents (or dogs) playing poker, Langan points out that we know the difference between a private pleasure and rejoicing in beauty; we know that our personal taste is different — and something much smaller — than a moment that, in the words of Pope John Paul II, “unites humanity, one in admiration.”
That explains why we can’t wait to show somebody — even a passing stranger — the eagle soaring overhead. It’s why we must grab someone — anyone — and point to the pod of dolphins who, like synchronized swimmers, simultaneously surface for air. It’s why we point to the deer grazing in the forests and whisper to anyone who’s in range, “Over there.”
We burst with wonder at the sight of such things. We long for loved ones to be by our side because we know — down deep — there are things too splendid, too glorious, too magnificent for our eyes alone.
“Beauty is real. It has substantive meaning. It is not ephemeral, as in the passing, subjective taste of an individual or the fleeting feeling evoked by a sunset.”
Delight in beauty is not self-indulgence, Langan says. It is a most sensible and realistic response to the reality around us.
Kate Harrison Brennan takes us a step further. Brennan makes the case that if beauty, goodness, and truth are “transcendental,” then, “Wherever we find or create beauty, we’re participating in God’s own self. On this account,” she continues, “beauty is real. It has substantive meaning. It is not ephemeral, as in the passing, subjective taste of an individual or the fleeting feeling evoked by a sunset.” Rather, “each moment or instance of beauty points to further beauty to be found. It stands for something about our reality.” Real, transcendent beauty, then, has a sacramental quality, meaning it points beyond itself to something larger, truer, and more powerful.
Like what? What is it that lies beyond the waves, the meadow, the frolicking dolphins?
In Luci Shaw’s opinion, beauty, like few other things, calls us back to God. “It reminds us that a standard of goodness, vitality, and reality embodies the beautiful,” she says. And in that, it’s redemptive and powerful. Beauty makes us aware of the world — of constellations, the rhythm of the tides, hummingbirds, golden retrievers, and daffodils — of a thousand sights, sounds, and smells that delight us, warm our hearts, and fill us with awe.
Dallas Willard, the now-deceased Christian philosopher, expanded on the same idea when he vowed that he’d never cut himself off from beauty. “For me, it is part of the way of celebration,” he said. “It is God’s grace in action, the invisible made visible, the Word made flesh and dwelling with me, grace in astonishing three-dimensional color with better-than-Dolby sound, and fragrance, taste, and texture thrown in.”
A Gratuitous Gift of Pure Grace
If Shaw and Willard are right, then, in a sense, beauty is gratuitous — and marvelously so. The world, the solar system, the cosmos — it doesn’t need to be beautiful, Shaw says. Which means that beauty is a gift of pure grace — one that gives us pleasure, makes us more alive, more aware, and more connected to the world God made. We hear it in music, ocean waves, and singing birds. We see it in the mountains, zoos, art galleries, and the flower gardens of our own backyards.
We caress silk. We warm our hands around a cup of just-poured coffee. We pet soft, furry cats. We smell honeysuckle and fresh-cut grass. We savor the taste of chocolate, fine wine, and buttery biscuits. Our appreciation of beauty begins with our senses, but it takes us further. “Beauty is also a sign of what’s just beyond our senses,” said the late Christian philosopher Eugene Peterson. In his book, “Leap Over a Wall,” Peterson explained that there’s more to beauty than we can account for empirically. And it’s there — in the more and beyond — that we discern God.
When we’re in the presence of authentic beauty, we respond in delight, he said. We want to be immersed in it. We’re eager to come near, to enter in. We can’t help but tap our feet, hum along, touch, kiss, believe, pray. It begins with our physical senses, but it penetrates deeper. It draws us further and further into whatever’s there: scent, rhythm, texture, vision. “Beauty in bird and flower, in rock and cloud. Beauty in ocean and mountain, in star and sand. Beauty in storm and meadow, in laughter and play.” Instinctively we recognize that there’s more to beauty than what we discern with our senses. It’s then that we know beauty is never “skin deep”; that it is always revelatory of goodness and truth. Beauty, Peterson says, “releases light into our awareness so that we’re conscious of the beauty of the Lord.”
Beauty Begets More Beauty
That may explain why we feel such satisfaction in our creation of beautiful things: a scarf, a portrait, a story or song of our own making. With such work, Shaw believes, we form a bond with God. That bond springs from the reality that “God was the first Quilter (of prairies), the primal Painter (night skies, snow on cedars), the archetypal metal Sculptor (mountain ranges, icebergs), the Composer who heard the whales’ strange, sonorous clickings and songs in his head long before there were whales to sound them, the Playwright who plotted the sweeping drama of Creation, Incarnation, Redemption, the Poet whose Word said it all.”
Beauty, then, begets more beauty. It prompts the creation of new things, says Brennan. We hear beautiful poetry and we’re stirred to put pen to paper, to take an idea deeper and further; thus, new poems are born. We hear a new melody and something inside begins to stir; we become aware of something different, something more, something that’s never before been known.
“Beauty may then be considered objective,” Brennan says. “[It’s] something we experience that is independent of individual, subjective taste, something that when encountered raises our eyes above the material world.”
For our benefit, then — for our inspiration, happiness, and health; and out of sheer gratitude — we ought to slow down, to hear it and see it; to pay attention. To show indifference to beauty is to neglect its Creator, says Shaw. It is to disregard the fingerprints of God on the natural world, “and in human beings who reflect the Creator’s identity.”
Beauty matters to God. “Why else would he shape and color fish, birds, insects, rocks, plants, and people with such rich diversity?” Shaw asks. She quotes her friend Elizabeth Rooney, who said, “Imagine making something as useful as a tree, as efficient at converting sunlight into food and fuel, as huge and tough as a white oak that lives 300 years, and then decorating it in spring with tiny pink leaves and pale green tassels of blossoms.”
The writer Annie Dillard brings added perspective. When interviewed by Life magazine several years ago, Dillard told the interviewer, “We are here to witness and abet creation. To notice each thing so each thing gets noticed. Together, we notice not only each mountain shadow and each stone on the beach, but we notice each other’s beautiful face and complex nature so that creation need not play to an empty house.”
The Redemptive Power of Beauty
In his “Nobel Lecture,” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said, “Dostoyevsky once dropped the line, ‘Beauty will save the world.’ What does it mean? For a long time it used to seem to me that this was a mere phrase. Just how could such a thing be possible? When had it ever happened in the bloodthirsty course of history that beauty had saved anyone from anything? Beauty has provided embellishment, certainly, given uplift — but whom has it ever saved?”
Later, Solzhenitsyn reflected on the idea that there’s “a special quality in the essence of beauty,” and particularly in the status of art. A true work of art, he said, “tames even the strongly opposed heart.” That’s because art speaks to us differently than, say, a political speech or a persuasive editorial. Such things may be expertly crafted. They may be logical, with one assertion cogently leading to the next. They might possess an enchanting rhythm and cadence, thereby mesmerizing their audience. But they can still be false. They can be wrong, dishonest, or the product of the writer’s or speaker’s twisted thinking. They can, therefore, lead their audience astray. What’s more, Solzhenitsyn argued, the counterargument can be just as convincing — and every bit as wrong.
Roger Scruton calls this the “subversive nature of beauty. Someone charmed by a [lie] may be tempted to believe it, and in this case beauty is the enemy of truth.”
But Solzhenitsyn believed a work of art is less likely to deceive. When distorted concepts or mistaken ideas or outright lies are presented as images, they “somehow fall apart and turn out to be sickly and pallid and convincing to no one,” Solzhenitsyn argued. On the other hand, “Works steeped in truth and presented to us vividly alive will take hold of us, will attract us to themselves with great power — and no one, ever, even in a later age, will presume to negate them.”
In a culture where truth has become relative and where goodness is a matter of endless debate, there may be a rekindled and essential role for beauty. Solzhenitsyn wrote, “If the crests of these three trees (goodness, truth, and beauty) join together, as the investigators and explorers used to affirm, and if the too obvious, too straight branches of Truth and Goodness are crushed or amputated and cannot reach the light — yet perhaps the whimsical, unpredictable, unexpected branches of Beauty will make their way through and soar up to that very place and in this way, perform the work of all three.” And in that case, it was not a slip of the tongue of Dostoevsky to say that “Beauty will save the world,” but a prophecy.
Philippians 4 tells us, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble … whatever is lovely … think about such things.” Beauty cannot be merely ornamental. Nor can it be viewed as expendable or as an extravagance. The secular journalist Elizabeth Farrelly makes a valid theological point when she argues, “Beauty is a necessity, fundamental to civilized existence — and, no, that’s not a joke. To take something beautiful and make it ugly (or, worse, boring) … is amongst the vilest sins, since it takes the axe to the heart of what makes us human.”
What makes us humans is the image of God. Which is why beauty points us to something beyond itself; to something larger, truer, and more powerful.
Richard Doster is the editor of byFaith magazine.