10 Things You Should Know about Beauty, our Aesthetic Sense, and the Glory of God
Today we turn our attention to the issue of beauty. What is it? Can it be defined? What does it mean to have an aesthetic experience? Is God beautiful, and if so, how does it relate to his glory?
(1) After creation, when God looked upon his handiwork and said “It is good,” we must understand that this was more than a moral judgment. It was also an aesthetic judgment. God was saying, “This is beautiful. This is lovely. This is pleasing to me.” My point is that God is more than a creator. He is an artist. God didn’t simply call the material universe into existence out of nothing. There was a design in his work as creator. He called everything into existence for a purpose. He took what might otherwise have been a random collection of atoms and quarks and he shaped them into something that brought him pleasure. Thus, the simplest answer to the question, Why art, or Why Christian art, is that we are ourselves created in the image of the consummate Artist, God.
(2) What this first point means is that in creation God did not call everything into existence fully formed. He never intended that the material creation described in Genesis 1-2 remain as Adam and Eve found it. He commanded them to tend the garden. That means rearranging flowers and planting seeds for new plants and reconfiguring everything in it with new shapes and combinations.
Consider this. When God created flowers he did not create bouquets. When he created trees he did not create national parks. When he created sound he did not create operas. When he created human breath and various hard metals he did not create a French horn into which a person would blow. When he created ivory he did not create piano keys. Although God created paint, he did not create portraits. God gave us words, but not poetry. God created wood but not tables and chairs. God’s intention in creation, in bringing into existence what we might call raw materials, was that we, who are in his image as artists, would take the variety of physical materials and shape them, combine them, re-mix them, to bring into being artifacts that go beyond mere physical reality, artifacts that speak truth and communicate ideas and elicit responses of awe and pleasure.
(3) Since God in the most literal sense of the term alone “creates” things, we must always view ourselves as creative only in a secondary and derivative sense. Even though we take sound and compose a symphony or take paint and draw a picture or make use of words to express an idea, we must never forget that our sounds and pictures and words exist by virtue of the exercise of God’s providential and sustaining power. As Paul said in Colossians 1:16b-17b, “all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” What we do with colors and rhythms and melodies and clay and granite and words cohere to make an object of artistic expression only because God exerts power to uphold and sustain these physical elements to remain in the shape and sound and form in which we place them.
(4) Paul says in Colossians 1:16b – “all things were created through him and for him.” Thus, contrary to everything you’ve ever heard from philosophers and artists of every conceivable sort, art never exists for its own sake. It always exists for God’s sake. Paul said the same thing in Romans 11:36, “For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen.”
Most philosophers of art insist that for an experience to be authentically “aesthetic” it must never be thought of in utilitarian terms. In other words, if you look at an object or listen to a song or contemplate a sculpture as a means to another, higher end, the work has ceased to be a work of art. Art is never instrumental. It is always an end in itself. A work of art is always, or so they say, autonomous and self-contained. Your observation of the object and your experience of it must be free from profit, possessiveness, or any utility or use to which the work might be put.
If the Apostle Paul is correct in saying that “all things” were created “for” God or “to” God, which is to say, they exist to awaken us to his greatness and glory and power, then the only legitimate response to Pierre Auguste Renoir, my favorite impressionist artist, is first to thank God for having blessed him with such a remarkable talent and then to marvel at the beauty of color in creation and the joys in my heart that I must attribute to the work of the consummate artist, God himself. In other words, the aesthetic joy I feel while standing in the presence of Renoir’s work is designed to elicit worship, not of Renoir, but of his Creator!
Art doesn’t exist for art’s sake. Art exists for God’s sake. Every musician, every painter, every poet, every sculptor, every dramatist, every author, has been given by God a gift or talent or capacity to take what God originally made and shape it into something that has for its ultimate aim the praise of the One from whom it came: God.
(5) It’s important to remember that as best I can tell Renoir was not a Christian man. But he is, in my opinion, unparalleled in his artistic talent. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was not a Christian. But few, if any, could compose music the way he did. Countless other examples could be given. What I’m suggesting, then, is that even unregenerate pagans can be blessed by God with remarkable skills, insight, and artistic brilliance. Theologians refer to this as common grace. It is the enabling, empowering grace of God that does not save a human soul but equips it and enables it to produce stunningly beautiful music, painting, poetry, and other expressions of human creativity.
(6) There is in every human heart a clamoring, incessant desire for unending beauty. When I first stood in the presence of Renoir’s painting, Luncheon of the Boating Party, I was awakened in a fresh way to the role of wonder, awe, and amazement in life, and the power of the aesthetic dimension to transform the human heart. I’m not alone in this. Beauty has a universal reach. No human is immune from the magnetic appeal of whatever he/she regards as beautiful. In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoyevski placed on the lips of one of his characters the observation that “beauty is the battlefield where God and Satan contend with each other for the hearts of men” (cited in Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty [San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1999], p. 20). The one, God, is supreme glory and splendor. The other, Satan, is supreme ugliness and perversion.
Someone once said, “I can’t define ‘obscenity,’ but I know it when I see it!” The point is that there is often an intuitive recognition of what we otherwise struggle to put into words. We don’t always know how to articulate the concept but we instinctively feel its power in our hearts. If the ugliness of obscenity is whatever evokes revulsion and moral disdain, perhaps we could define beauty as whatever stirs delight and moral approval.
Beauty is shrouded in mystery. We can’t easily explain why something is beautiful, why it captivates and tantalizes. We simply are drawn by it. We are entranced. It touches something deep in the soul that we can’t express or put our finger on. It stirs thoughts and emotions and passions and desires and joys that can’t be expounded. Beauty has the strange capacity to arouse the soul in a way that little else can. The experience of it is lucid testimony to our having been fashioned in the likeness of a God who himself embodies quintessential aesthetic glory.
My point is that our capacity to create beauty and to enjoy it is a reflection of what it means to be shaped in the image of God. We are more than cerebral, thinking creatures. There is more to the divine image than simply the capacity to exercise reason or make moral judgments and decisions. God is also a volitional being who deliberates and chooses. He is a moral being who burns with holy anger against unrighteousness and rejoices in the good. He is a self-reflective God who contemplates his own existence and the eternal purpose he is pursuing in Christ. And he is an aesthetic being. As his image-bearers, we reflect these capacities in our experience as well.
God has built into every human soul the capacity to recognize and rejoice in beauty, and our failure to do so is simply a reflection of the distorting and perverting influence of sin in the human heart. In other words, because God is himself inherently aesthetic, we are inescapably aesthetic. We’ve been hardwired both to discern the presence of beauty in God and his creation and to delight in it. God is himself the consummate artist whose creativity transcends our wildest imagination. We share in this divine capacity both to create (in a secondary and derivative sense) and celebrate beauty. Sin has distorted, but not destroyed, this facility in our souls.
(7) Are there any limits to our creativity as artists? Yes. The limit, however, is not the boundaries imposed by what Scripture explicitly describes or commands. Some would argue that what the Bible itself describes is the limit of what is available to us. But I would argue that the boundaries established by Scripture are moral and theological. They are principial in nature. By this I mean that we are free to express our “secondary” creativity in any way as long as it does not violate anything explicitly stated in Scripture. We are free to express ourselves in any way that clearly serves to exalt Christ and all that God is for us in him.
(8) Let’s return for a moment to Renoir. Is there something intrinsic to The Luncheon of the Boating Party that warrants predicating beauty of it? Is its beauty an objective property, always present irrespective of the opinion of people like you and me? Or is this painting beautiful because I regard it as such? Simply put: is The Luncheon of the Boating Party beautiful because of something intrinsic to it, or because of something intrinsic in me? Would beauty still be an appropriate word should someone else regard this painting as banal or unimaginative (pity the soul who thinks it such!)?
I’m asking whether beauty is in things, be it a painting, a sunset, a garden of flowers, irrespective of human opinion, or does human opinion create beauty by attributing to things the power to please? Do things evoke pleasure because they are beautiful, or is beauty the pleasure that things evoke? Philosophers refer to the former as objectivism and the latter as subjectivism.
The fact that people disagree both about the criteria of beauty and whether ascriptions of beauty ought to be made is often used as an argument against objectivism. But aesthetics is not like mathematics. Aesthetic qualities are more subtle and elusive and more difficult to describe than scientific formulae.
Other visual properties, whether hue or structural harmony or brilliance, have the power to evoke in our hearts an intuitive delight. People often apply the word “beauty” to audible properties such as melody, pitch, rhythm, harmony, and resolution. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos immediately come to mind. There is also a sense in which the concept of beauty evokes thoughts of a sweet, pleasing aroma. The scent of a flower. The fragrance of perfume. The aroma of incense. It’s less common, but I’ve heard chefs and connoisseurs of fine food predicate beauty of the flavor of their favorite entrée or perhaps a perfectly aged wine.
Might we speak of certain intellectual properties or theorems or ideas as beautiful? The 2002 academy award for best picture was given to the Ron Howard film, A Beautiful Mind, and rightly so in my opinion. I see no reason to restrict beauty to merely physical properties of inanimate objects. Some predicate beauty of whatever soothes the soul or challenges the imagination or stretches our powers of perception or stirs the depths of our senses. Mathematical formulas and scientific theories and the plot complexities of a John Le’Carre novel might all embody characteristics that we call beautiful.
I don’t hesitate to predicate beauty of human compassion or generosity or the dedication of a missionary that may well lead to martyrdom. Moral excellence can be as beautiful as Niagara Falls. Marital fidelity can be as beautiful as the expanse of the Pacific Ocean. Is it not a “beautiful” thing when justice prevails in our world (infrequent though it be), or when truth is vindicated or moral valor rewarded? Beauty is whenever what ought to be, is. TV news broadcasters often warn us in advance of “an ugly scene” in the inner city where gang warfare has escalated or a domestic disturbance has disrupted a neighborhood. All this points to what we sense in our spirit, that beauty is found in racial harmony and peace and calm and reconciliation and reciprocity and compassion. Ugliness is the distortion of moral order and the violation of basic principles of right and wrong.
(9) What of God? Might we speak of him as beautiful? Yes, we must! You will search in vain in most theology books for a section on divine beauty. It is typically omitted from the traditional list of divine attributes. Most concede that God is, at minimum, the cause or source or origin of beauty. But Augustine rightly insisted that God is beauty itself, referring to him as “my Father, supremely good, beauty of all things beautiful” (Confessions, 3.6).
God’s revelatory manifestation of himself in creation, in providence, in Scripture, and pre-eminently in the face of his Son, Jesus Christ, is designed to evoke within the breathtaking delight and incomparable joy of which God alone is worthy. Beauty is that in God which makes him eminently desirable and attractive and quickens in the soul a realization that it was made for a different world.
God has sovereignly pulled back the curtain on his glory. He has disclosed himself on the platform of both creation and redemption that we might stand awestruck in his presence, beholding the sweet symmetry of his attributes, pondering the unfathomable depths of his greatness, baffled by the wisdom of his deeds and the limitless extent of his goodness. This is his beauty.
Divine beauty is absolute, unqualified, and independent. All created reality, precisely because it is derivative of the Creator, is beautiful in a secondary sense and only to the degree that it reflects the excellencies of God and fulfills the purpose for which he has made it. Perfect order, harmony, magnitude, integrity, proportion, symmetry, and brilliance are found in God alone. There is in the personality and activity of God neither clash of color nor offensive sound. He is in every conceivable respect morally exquisite, spiritually sublime, and aesthetically elegant.
The Spirit of God communicates God’s beauty to this world through creation, the latter a reflection of divine glory. But whatever beauty we see now is but a faint echo of the invisible archetype from which it came, a dim foretaste and anticipation of the beauty of the consummated and transfigured world of the age to come. God never intended for me to worship Renoir or the work of his hands, but to see in and through the latter a glimpse of the glory that yet awaits me. C. S. Lewis reminds, dare I say warns, us that
“the books or the music [or paintings] in which we thought the beauty was located will betray us if we trust to them; it was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things – the beauty, the memory of our own past – are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself, they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshippers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never visited” (The Weight of Glory, 29).
(10) The aesthetic experience of God, the encounter of the human soul with divine beauty, is more than merely enjoyable, it is profoundly transforming. It has the power to persuade and to convince the inquiring mind of truth. It may well be the Spirit’s greatest catalyst for change. Paul alluded to this in 2 Corinthians 3:18 when he said, "We all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another." The point is that what we see is what we be! We do not simply behold beauty, beauty takes hold of us and challenges the allegiance of our hearts. It calls us to reshape our lives and exposes the shabbiness of our conduct. It awakens us to the reality of a transcendent Being to whose likeness of beauty we are being called and conformed by his gracious initiative. It has the power to dislodge from our hearts the grip of moral and spiritual ugliness. Beauty elicits love and forges in us a new affection that no earthly power can overcome.
Beauty also rebukes by revealing to us the moral deformity of those things we’ve embraced above Jesus and by exposing the hideous reality beyond the deceptively attractive façade of worldly amusements. We are deceived by the ugliness of sin because we haven’t gazed at the beauty of Christ. Distortion and perversion and futility are fully seen only in the perfect light of integrity and harmony and purpose which are revealed in Jesus.
Observe the unitary, single-minded resolve of King David. “One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the Lord and to inquire in his temple” (Ps. 27:4; emphasis mine). He makes his point yet again in Ps. 145:5, declaring: “On the glorious splendor of your majesty, and on your wondrous works, I will meditate.” The object of David’s pursuit, is the incomparable, transcendent, all-satisfying, sublime beauty of God. I hope and pray it would be ours as well.