The sacred and delightful pursuit of beautyWritten by Subby Szterszky
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“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” wrote the poet John Keats in his Ode on a Grecian Urn. And “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” said a whole lot of other people, ever since ancient Greek times. The two statements have become axiomatic in Western culture, to the point of sounding almost biblical.
They also sound contradictory. How can beauty be subjective and objective at the same time? What is beauty, anyway?
Aesthetic philosophers have tried to define it. Ascetics have run scared from it. But for followers of Jesus, the appreciation of beauty is one of the most sacred – and delightful – pursuits that life in God’s world has to offer.
Not only is it a mark of humanity’s role as God’s image-bearers. For people of faith, it also speaks to our appreciation of God himself, of his created order, and of the Gospel of his Son.
A neglected attribute of God
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. (Psalm 27:4)
Ask a group of believers from a variety of backgrounds to name the first attribute of God that comes to mind. Chances are his holiness or his love would top the list, and rightly so. There would also be a smattering of votes for his goodness, wisdom, sovereignty, justice and mercy. But it’s just as likely that God’s beauty would be conspicuously absent from the list.
As God’s relational creatures, we naturally think of him in terms of his active and relational attributes. We focus on what he has done, and especially on what he has done for us. But on the surface, his beauty doesn’t appear to fit those criteria, and is thus easier to overlook. Thinking about God’s beauty can even make us uneasy. It seems too sensual, somehow.
And yet, the Scriptures are brimming with expressions of God’s beauty. David and the other psalmists speak of God as the ultimate object of aesthetic pleasure, to be seen, tasted and savoured. The tabernacle and its trappings, which were meant to picture God’s presence among his people, were designed for glory as well as for beauty. Throughout his Word and especially through his Son, God presents himself as a desirable bridegroom and husband, calling his people – his bride – to enjoy and delight in him.
It’s clear that God’s beauty is no mere secondary trait. Consequently, its appreciation is not optional for those who bear his image.
An indelible mark of imago dei
When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him? Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings and crowned him with glory and honour. (Psalm 8:3-5)
From the beginning of Genesis, the first attribute of God on display is his creativity. And creativity is inseparably linked to beauty. It’s about making things that give satisfaction and pleasure to the eyes, the mind and the heart. This is precisely what God did during Creation Week, fashioning the various parts of the cosmos and then declaring all of them to be good.
The capacity to create, recognize and enjoy beauty is one of the most powerful evidences that humans are made in the image of God. It sets us apart from all other created beings in the physical world. Cats don’t aspire to write poems or paint landscapes or go to concerts. Dogs don’t care about programming computers or designing buildings. And no group of monkeys locked in a room would ever produce a Shakespeare play, or desire to do so, no matter how much time they were given.
Along with language and the mind itself, beauty is an indelible mark of the imago dei in human beings. All three faculties are difficult to analyze, or even to define, despite their obvious existence. Beauty offers the added paradox of being subjective and objective at the same time. There’s no razor-sharp line between what’s beautiful and what’s not. Different people find different shapes, sounds, ideas and faces attractive. And yet there are clear, shared, cultural standards of beauty as well – faces that only a mother could love, and faces to launch a thousand ships.
There’s a mystery to the existence of language, the mind and the appreciation of beauty that defies naturalistic explanation. Instead, these human faculties point to a divine reality – and a divine hand – behind them.
Woven throughout the cosmos
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end. (Ecclesiastes 3:11)
It’s not hard to discover expressions of beauty in the created order. In fact, it’s second nature for most of us, from as early as we can remember. Even as young children, we gaze up with a sense of wonder at the stars of the night sky or at the cottony layers of cloud on a summer day. We marvel at the variety of creatures, great and small, that we see in the world around us, on our screens or in our picture books.
As we grow older, our palette for beauty broadens to encompass different kinds of music and art, eloquent words and fine meals. It diversifies into regions not everyone would expect: systems and patterns, numbers and ideas. We come to see more and more of the vast beauty of the universe, from molecules to galaxies, its power and complexity singing to us of the glory of God.
Most critically, we learn to recognize beauty in the face, form and character of our fellow women and men, who share with us in the divine image. All of this beauty, and much more besides, has been woven by God everywhere into his cosmos. He has also put the desire for it into our hearts, along with a sense of eternity, so that we might look beyond the creation to delight in the beauty of the Creator.
Different faces, different guises
Can you draw out Leviathan with a fishhook or press down his tongue with a cord? Can you put a rope in his nose or pierce his jaw with a hook? Will you play with him as with a bird, or will you put him on a leash for your girls? (Job 41:1-2,5)
As a rule, we tend to limit our concept of beauty to things that are pretty or pleasant or safe. But there are many things in God’s creation that are none of the above. And it won’t do to simply dismiss these as by-products of the Fall. At the end of the book of Job, God offers a litany of his natural wonders, some of them quite dangerous or frightening: ice storms and blasting hail and bitter cold; lightning and thunder strikes; the ocean’s dark, inhospitable depths; and of course, the dreaded, mysterious sea creature Leviathan.
None of these are presented to Job as judgments or curses, but as evidences of the power and wisdom of God. And all of them possess their own undeniable beauty – perhaps craggy or bleak or terrible, but beauty nonetheless.
Beauty indeed wears many forms and faces in God’s created order. Blue skies and warm summers are lovely, but so is a crisp, snow-covered winter night. The sun may be the source of light and heat for our world, but it’s also a massive, roiling ball of burning hydrogen that would destroy anything within a few million miles of it. Closer to home, we may appreciate the beauty of a cat or a dog or a horse – but what about a shark? As the poet William Blake remarked, God made the lamb, but he made the tiger, too.
The variety of beauty in God’s creation may suggest the need for broader standards of beauty in human creativity as well. Historically some faith traditions have limited art to religious subjects, or to styles deemed realistic and inoffensive. But non-religious or abstract art is no less beautiful, nor is art that addresses dark or difficult themes with honesty and integrity. In fact, such works can be far more beautiful – and truthful – than empty expressions of sentimentality that often plague religious art. In the words of Francis Schaeffer, “The Christian is the one whose imagination should fly beyond the stars.”
The fleeting and the permanent
Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! (Luke 12:27-28)
Along with the paradox of being both subjective and objective, beauty offers up another mystery, that of being fleeting as well as permanent. On several occasions, the Scriptures compare human beauty – and by extension, human flourishing – to the beauty of flowers and grass in the field, which is here today and gone tomorrow. Solomon indicates that God has made everything beautiful in its time – with the implication that its time is limited.
This isn’t just the testimony of Scripture. It’s also the universal experience of the created order. Everything wears out, grows old and dies. Men and women enjoy a few prime years of physical health and beauty, followed by a slow, inexorable decline. In this fallen world, nothing lasts forever.
But that’s not the entire story, of course. Jesus came to redeem his creation, and he uses the image of transient grass to point to something far more valuable and permanent. He argues that if God lavishes stunning beauty on flowers that exist for a moment, much more will he care for and beautify the lives of women and men who trust in him. He uses the lesser, fleeting beauty of the natural world to direct his followers to the greater, lasting beauty of God. The grass may wither and the flower may fade, but the beauty of God (and of those who belong to him) is everlasting.
Jesus and the Gospel
For he grew up before him like a young plant, and like a root out of dry ground; he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. (Isaiah 53:2)
Seven centuries before the coming of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah drew an amazingly detailed portrait of the Messiah and of his redemptive mission. Most amazing of all may be the prophet’s claim that Jesus would be physically unremarkable, with “no beauty that we should desire him.” This runs contrary to many of the standard visual representations of Jesus from throughout church history. It also subverts the natural human desire for leaders who are attractive and charismatic over those with more substantial qualities of character. As God told Samuel at the anointing of David, “man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”
Nevertheless in every way that matters, the Scriptures depict Jesus as infinitely beautiful. As God in the flesh, he possesses all the sovereignty, wisdom and power of his Father. As a man, he is perfect in his kindness, courage and humility, in the authority of his teaching, and most of all, in his ultimate act of love, dying to save his people from their sins. It was these qualities, and not his appearance, that drew people to him while he was on Earth and has continued to do so in the centuries since.
Jesus’ death on the cross was simultaneously the most terrible and the most beautiful event in history. It not only secured the salvation of all the men and women who would put their trust in him. It also redeemed his cosmos from its futility and decay, from its fading beauty that is doomed to vanish. It ensured that the mortal would put on immortality, and that the corruptible would be clothed with incorruptible beauty in the presence of God.
It’s not enough to merely acknowledge such truths with the mind. They must be embraced with the heart and enjoyed with an eye for beauty. Only then will redeemed women and men be able to sing with King David, “You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore” (Psalm 16:11).
© 2018 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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