O Beauty Ancient

[Note: Originally posted July 2011.]

Whenever I speak at conferences or churches about the nature of the arts, I inevitably get bogged down about one third into my presentation.  Some daring soul near the back of the room will raise his or her hand—often a young person or college student—and ask a brutally honest question: “Isn’t beauty in the eye of the beholder?”  And that’s when the firestorm begins.

Many intelligent and inspired people far smarter than I have written volumes on the subject of beauty over the centuries.  So to attempt to speak on the subject of beauty is, by definition, to talk over one’s head.  I myself have written briefly about this issue in my previous book, Imagine That, and blogged and spoken on this issue a number of times.  Which is to say that I attempt to speak of things great and transcendent.  So these firestorms, when they happen, are often controversial and animated.  Specifically, what gets the dialogue going is the contention that beauty is an objective property (i.e., an intrinsic quality of a given thing) and not a subjective one (i.e., dependent on the capricious whims of the person who experiences it). In other words, beauty is not dependent on what you think about it.

Obviously, there are different schools of thought as it relates to beauty, and it seems inadequate trying to explain all of that here.  However, the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is a form of aesthetic subjectivism, which contends that beauty is dependent only upon the person experiencing the subject. Related to this is aesthetic relativism, a philosophical subset of relativism, which maintains that standards of beauty and art change over time, culture, and context.  In contrast to these two schools of thought is aesthetic objectivism, which asserts that beauty is an intrinsic quality of an object independent of the person experiencing the object, and defined in some way by some universal criteria.

A brief argument in favor of aesthetic objectivism would be the idea that the pentatonic scale, a five tone scale based on mathematical ratios of frequency, is found in music universally.  Ancient Greek, prehistoric Celtic, Hungarian, Indonesian, Andean, Ethiopian, Native American, Negro spirituals—from southeast Asia to western Europe and from ancient civilizations to modern jazz—all use the pentatonic scale in their music.

The reason why I think that this concept is so important is because, in my experience, the idea that beauty is subjective (and not objective) is quite pervasive in the western Church.  It has crept into our sermons and songs, attitudes and beliefs.  And it is a deadly idea as it relates to the arts in the church.  To put it simply and provocatively, the idea that beauty is subjective is—in my opinion—inconsistent with a theologically orthodox understanding of the God of the Bible.

In the first chapter of the book of Genesis, our Artist God creates the heavens and the earth.  In the sacred passage of those first days, He spins the cosmic architecture into shape.  He forms time and matter and energy and gravity, and the laws which bind them together, the very nature of all things seen and unseen.  He forms the earth, separates the land from the seas, colors the sky blue. He makes day and night, the plants and the animals, man and woman.  All of creation comes into being from nothing, the expanse of God’s ever-creative imagination filling the expanse of nothingness.  And at the end of this creative binge, “God saw all that he had made, and it was very good. And there was evening, and there was morning—the sixth day.”  (Genesis 1:31 TNIV)

Now the word, “good” seems to have lost it’s meaning in this day and age.  When we say that something is “good” now, we usually mean “okay” or “average” or “acceptable.”  Getting a “B” on an exam is good.  A fast food burger is good.  If your commute from work was uneventful, you might call it “good.”

But the word “good” in the Bible seems a much more muscular word.  When we say that God is “good,” we are saying that He is infinitely, immutably, essentially, and necessarily good.  We mean that He is perfect in all His ways, perfect in justice and morality, perfect in form and purpose, perfect in existence, the community of the Triune Godhead.  So when God looked upon all of creation and called it “good,” it was because it perfectly displayed His original intent of reflecting His nature, His aesthetic, His glory.

The psalmist declared, “The heavens declare the glory of God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.   Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they display knowledge. They have no speech, they use no words; no sound is heard from them. Yet their voice goes out into all the earth, their words to the ends of the world.”  (Psalm 19:1-4 TNIV)  God’s perfect aesthetic is imbedded into all of humanity, like a compass in our soul that always points true north.  It is still one more aspect of being made in the image of God.  And this soul compass reacts to beauty.  This is why we are emotionally and universally moved by the sight of a crimson sunset or a snow-capped mountain or a bouquet of flowers or a newborn baby.  All of these things reflect some aspect of “good,” some reflection of God’s glory through creation.

And this is why beauty is so important to understand.  Because beauty points to God.  More specifically, I contend that true beauty is defined according to God’s original intention of creation.  And as such, all true beauty points to God, because it hints at His fingerprint upon the universe. In this way, beauty and truth are related, in that they both originate from God’s purpose in action.  And there are hints of beauty all around us today, even as we as creators place our fingerprints upon God’s creation.

One of the confusions with beauty, I believe, has to do with personal preference.  We are highly opinionated people, with our double-cupped, triple-pump, venti no-whip soy lattes and our grande chai decaf frappuccinos®.  And beauty is a quality that provides a perceptual experience, so we experience beauty only through our senses.  So our experience of beauty is subjective, though the quality of beauty is not.  But just because we don’t like a particular style of music, or a particular artist, or a particular type of impressionism has little to do with whether it has beauty.  Beauty may have more to do with what inspires, what delights, what reflects God’s intention for us and His redemptive narrative.

Perhaps it is not beauty that is subjective, but our response to it, which is another aspect of free will.  The human figure is classically understood to be a subject of beauty; it is the perversity of our free will that turns the human form into pornography.  Perhaps also a certain maturity—spiritual as well as artistic—is necessary to see and comprehend the divine fingerprints.

The arts have the capacity for implying, reflecting, and restating this beauty.  Not that all art is beautiful nor tries to be.  But the arts have the capacity for reflecting God’s grace, truth, and glory beyond the spoken or written word.  As such, the creation of beauty is an act of revelation.  When the church doesn’t understand this, it is easy to dismiss the arts because beauty is not equated with truth.  And if we can believe that beauty is relative, it is a small, slippery step toward the belief that truth can be relative also.   But when the church does understand that the arts have the capacity for revealing the glory of God through beauty, there is suddenly the possibility of great art—in the church, and from the church.

Thomas Dubay, in his book The Evidential Power of Beauty, states: “The acute experience of great beauty readily evokes a nameless yearning for something more than earth can offer.  Elegant splendor reawakens our spirit’s aching need for the infinite, a hunger for more than matter can provide.”

I think about certain moments in my life when I was moved to tears or silence or thanksgiving or undignified emotion.  Sitting in a darkened and reverberant Catholic church as a young teenager, holding the hand of my freckle-faced girlfriend, listening to a professional symphony for the first time in my life, the violins and French horns and timpani washing over me like a river of glory.  Leading a large multi-ethinic group of blue-shirted convicts gathered in a small prison chapel, singing an a cappella version of “Amazing Grace,” and realizing that they meant it in ways deeper and more profound that I could imagine.  Sitting for hours in the Sistine Chapel, quietly taking in the breath-taking beauty of the frescoed art of the walls and ceiling, like the very words of Scripture had come to life around me.  And the holiest moment of my life, the day my first son was born—ten weeks premature—and I held him in my hands for the very first time.  As I gazed into his perfectly formed face, I could swear I could hear the angels singing.  These were all instances when I experienced beauty and art in a transcendent way.  In a sense, I took a step into the holy of holies through the gates of beauty.

Dubay contends that there is a special word that the Bible uses for Divine beauty: Glory.  “The divine radiance and loveliness are so endlessly beyond anything we can imagine or experience that revelation chooses a special term to speak of it,” Dubay reveals. “That term is glory, a word that occurs repeatedly in Scripture.”  Beauty—and the art that has the capacity to unleash it—is a means upon which God’s glory can be revealed and experienced.  True beauty reveals truth about God, and points us to Him.

One other thing about beauty.  God takes great pleasure in beauty.  He is a great fan of the arts.  As we aspire and attempt to create beauty as artists, we remind ourselves that, “For Thy pleasure they are and were created.” (Rev 4:11 KJV) For as God takes pleasure in the act of creation, He also takes pleasure in seeing us express ourselves in our creations as well. If for no other reason, the church needs to unleash the artists in our churches simply because it puts a smile on God’s face.  The Divine Trinity meets us in our art—the Holy Spirit in the inspiration, the Son in the incarnation, and the Father in the expression.  And it is the Divine smile that makes it all worthwhile.  I have experienced the smile of God many times in ministry and in my expressions of the arts.  It is simultaneously humbling and joyous.

We all implicitly understand the deeply interior longings we share—for purpose and significance, for love and acceptance, for truth and for beauty.  All of these things are universal, and I believe, related.  Our longing for beauty is an attempt of our hearts to align with God’s heart.  In beauty, and through the arts, we can find our sympathetic resonance with God.

Saint Augustine, in his Confessions, knew of this beauty, longed for it, and after a life lived poorly, eventually found it.  And it was this beauty that pointed him to Jesus.

Too late have I loved you,
O Beauty so ancient, O Beauty so new.
Too late have I loved you!
You were within me but I was outside myself, and there I sought you!
In my weakness I ran after the beauty of the things you have made.
You were with me, and I was not with you.
The things you have made kept me from you,
The things which would have no being unless they existed in you!
You have called, you have cried, and you have pierced my deafness.
You have radiated forth, you have shined out brightly,
And you have dispelled my blindness.
You have sent forth your fragrance, and I have breathed it in, and I long for you.
I have tasted you, and I hunger and thirst for you.
You have touched me, and I ardently desire your peace.

8 thoughts on “O Beauty Ancient

  1. I don’t think I’ve ever read a more amazing exploration of beauty. “The Divine smile makes it all worthwhile.” Thank you, this article made me cry… it is beautiful!

  2. Great article. Gave me lots to ponder. The idea of beauty being only subjective is disturbing to me. It seems to make value subjective too… Things we consider “ugly” are invaluable to us when maybe they shouldn’t be. And, things that should not be considered beautiful or valuable – things that are, in fact, just a sad reflection of our broken, fallen world become objects of value and adoration. What a skewed perspective. I have seen some fairly grotesque things laid out as art… Intellectual sounding people talk about how it exposes the beauty of violence or death etc. as people press against the exhibit ropes to see if they can “see” it . Reminds me of the crowds lined up to see the Emperor’s New Clothes. As Christians I think we need to know God well so we can know what is valuable and intrinsically beautiful (because God made it that way). As artists, we need to create out of a desire to capture some portion of that. And, we all need to be willing to call out the truth to a crowd that may have been taken in, “Hey! That guy’s just naked!” :)

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