As Christians talking about beauty, we must begin with the Apostle Paul’s exhortation to stop being conformed to this world. We are to have transformed minds, renewed by thinking on God and His ways. Only then will discernment reign, and only then will our lives be marked by beauty.
First, let’s begin by stating the problem. Defining beauty is like nailing Jell-O to a wall. We have all heard the dictum, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” and certainly there is truth in this. However, modern denial of objectivity runs to an extreme. Artist Paul Klee said, “Beauty is as relative as light and dark. Thus, there exists no beautiful woman, none at all, because you are never certain that a still far more beautiful woman will not appear and completely shame the supposed beauty of the first.”
Are we lying to ourselves when we describe something as beautiful? Is beauty a concept imposed on objects with no objective reference point? Are we left to wallow in the mud of aesthetic relativism?
The answer to the problem is theological. Christians need not apologize for finding God at the center of the discussion. A helpful structure for understanding beauty is found in the three-fold division of creation, fall, and redemption. All things were created by God, and everything created was good (Genesis 1:31). However, the fall desecrated the good creation. Corruption runs through the fiber of all creation (Romans 3:9-18). The good news of the Gospel is redemption for fallen humanity through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. He ushered in the kingdom of God, and yet a final redemption awaits creation in the day of the Lord (Romans 8:19-23).
So we find ourselves in the middle of salvation history. The kingdom has arrived, but it is not yet all that it will be. And in the midst of this unfinished business we find ourselves having a conversation about beauty.
In talking about beauty and culture, we face two temptations. On one hand we could deny that beauty is even possible for the unredeemed. This error denies the common grace of God (Matthew 5:45). Augustine said, “Beauty is indeed a good gift of God; but that the good may not think it a great good, God dispenses it even to the wicked.” The fall has corrupted but not destroyed human ability to recognize and produce beauty.
On the other hand, we could naively accept the world’s definition of beauty. Believing beauty is only opinion, Christians often go with the flow of worldly thought and accept aesthetic relativism.
This is where God’s Word breaks in. The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament shows His handiwork (Psalm 19:1). Creation speaks of God who loves beauty in color, in performance, and in orderliness.
First, we see beauty in the color of creation. A pink and orange sunset, wildflowers blooming, and the plumage of tropical birds all reveal God’s love of color. God could have created a black and white world, or given us color-blind eyes. Splashing beautiful color upon the world is divine grace.
Second, we also find beauty in the performance of creation. Consider the graceful flight of a soaring eagle. Be captivated by the graceful sprinting of a deer, the grandeur of a waterfall, or the delicious smell of a warm spring rain. God created beauty in the very performance of nature.
Third, we discover God’s love of beauty in his ordering of creation. Consider the beauty found in the symmetry and strength of a spider web. Praise the mind which created a double-helix strand of DNA. Carl Sagan’s “cosmos” does not compel Haley’s comet to come back for another visit. It returns because God has given the universe a system of organization and order. Orderliness is a facet of beauty.
Ultimately, beauty can be evaluated only in comparison with God Himself. Theologian Wayne Grudem says, “God’s beauty is that attribute of God whereby He is the sum of all desirable qualities.”
The Psalmist said, “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) Also, “Splendor and majesty are before Him; strength and beauty are in His sanctuary” (Psalm 96:6).
But how do we compare the infinite beauty of God with the beauty found in a fallen world? How do we evaluate if a work of art is pressing towards the divine character of beauty? The answer lies in the connection between truth, beauty, and goodness.
True beauty is only found where truth is loved. True beauty is only found where goodness is prized. In God’s evaluation, aesthetic beauty cannot abide on a canvas alongside falsehood or evil. A painting may depict evil, but it must not convey that the evil is good. A sculpture may speak of falsehood, but there must be the aroma of divine judgment against the lie. Admittedly, this is not an easy task, and quick evaluations often miss the mark.
Auguste Rodin, the famous sculptor of The Thinker, ironically did not think rightly about beauty. He said, “There should be no argument in regard to morality in art. There is no morality in nature. Great art is beyond moral judgment. In art, immorality cannot exist. Art is always sacred.”
Rodin was wrong, and lived a lecherous life apart from God. His soul now resides in a place where beauty is absolutely absent. Heaven knows no ugliness. Hell knows no beauty.
In conclusion, on this side of heaven we will not always think rightly about beauty, nor will we always produce beauty in our lives and work. However, we must press on with Christian mind-renewal and refuse accommodation to the world. Our longing must be for heaven’s aesthetic, for “Out of Zion, the perfection of beauty, God shines forth.” (Psalm 50:2) For the glory of God, may the beauty of God in Christ sanctify our vision, our affections and our lives.