Reflection on the nature of beauty has a rich precedent in the Christian tradition, and for good reason. The Scriptures are replete with judgements about the beauty of objects as diverse as landscapes (Jeremiah 3:19), cities (Psalm 48:2; 50:2), priestly robes and clothing (Exodus 28:2), virtuous character (1 Peter 3:3-4), and persons—whether human (Genesis 29:17; Esther 1:11; 16x in Song of Solomon), angelic (Ezekiel 28:12-17), or divine (Psalm 27:4; 96:6; Zechariah 9:17). In general, then, Scripture attributes beauty to both physical and spiritual realities, whether the high heavens or the hidden person of the heart (1 Peter 3:3-4).
But what exactly is beauty? In the Christian tradition, beauty has been integrally connected with the concepts of harmony, proportion, symmetry, and integrity. An object is beautiful to the degree to which it displays an appropriate interrelationship between these concepts. But let me back up a bit since the beautiful is traditionally thought to flow from the true and the good.
In the most general sense, something is true when it properly conforms to the nature of some particular aspect of reality; a true word spoken is a word that accurately represents the way the world is, and a true friend is someone who embodies all that a friend is and ought to be. Something is good to the degree to which it properly realizes the ends or goals it has by nature. The pen is good to the degree to which it writes well, and the human being is good to the degree to which it fulfills its chief end, to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
“Beauty,” as Peter Kreeft puts it, “is the bloom on the rose of goodness and truth, the child conceived by their union.” Beauty is the true and the good on display; the manifestation of what is and what ought to be. Beauty is like the melodic sound of the multi-part orchestra of truth and goodness acting in seamless harmony. This is precisely why beauty is so alluring and draws us in. It is also, I believe, why Scripture speaks of holiness—whether human (1 Peter 3:3-4; 2 Peter 3:11) or divine (Psalm 96:6,9)—as beautiful, radiant, and full of splendor; it is the resonance of a kind of life that is both true and fulfilling in the deepest sense.
According to the Christian story, God Himself is the supreme locus and source of all that exists, including all that is true, good, and beautiful. As is always the case in thinking about fundamental philosophical questions, Trinitarian doctrine lies close at hand. The interrelations of the divine persons are the ever-flowing fount of all that is true, good, and beautiful. As C.S. Lewis put it, “In Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.”
The great 18th-century puritan Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) referred to the triune God, this glorious and eternal divine dance, as the supreme harmony of all. And as the supreme locus and wellspring of all that is beautiful, God naturally delights in creating a world that reflects the glory and radiance of His own triune being (Genesis 1:27; Proverbs 8:22-31). In Edwards’ sacramental view of creation, every creaturely beauty (what he called “secondary beauty”) images or reflects the spiritual beauty of the triune God (what he called “primary beauty”); the world is truly enchanted, with each created thing being a signpost pointing to the radiance and beauty of God. As Edwards puts it, “All the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of the Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.” The beauty and integrity of creation images the glory of God (Psalm 19:1) and invites each of those who attend to it to join in the triune dance, the supreme harmony of all.
In our current cultural moment, there are many rival stories about the true, the good, and the beautiful that compete for our hearts, minds, and imaginations. One such story is what philosophers call philosophical naturalism, the view that the physical universe is all there is, was, or ever will be (to quote Carl Sagan); all of reality is confined within the walls of the physical cosmos, a world of disenchantment devoid of windows or skylights. Philosophical naturalism yields an alternative story—or what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “social imaginary”—regarding the nature of beauty, meaning, and purpose that makes no appeal to God or transcendence. Taylor refers to this rival story as “exclusive humanism” and argues that such a view has captured the imaginations of many who inhabit our current age of disenchantment.
As a way of constructing meaning and purpose apart from divine transcendence, exclusive humanism arguably entails the view that all aesthetic judgments are grounded solely in individual preference or sentiment, purely in the eye of the beholder; creaturely beauty no longer finds its ultimate anchor in the reality of the divine dance. With the loss of any transcendence to anchor creaturely beauty, what was once a secondary image has become the primary substance; in a world devoid of windows and skylights, radiance and light must come exclusively from the inside.
In a subsequent post, I’ll explore how, in spite of the baseline cultural narratives of philosophical naturalism and exclusive humanism, we continue to be allured by beauty that is not purely in the eye of the beholder, beauty that is intricately woven throughout the created order (in particular fundamental physics and the language of mathematics). And just as we might trace a stream of water or a sunbeam back to its physical wellspring, we can arguably trace such deep, alluring beauty in the world back up to its spiritual wellspring, the divine dance.
Augustine, Confessions 4.13.20; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 39, Article 8; Jonathan Edwards, Works 6:332.