Have you ever experienced something so beautiful that you felt as though it deserved your adoration? Perhaps it was a work of art, a song, a sunset, or the smile of a loved one. I've experienced that many times.
The feeling that such experiences evoke in us is not merely one of subjective, individual taste. Rather, it is a strong conviction that the thing (or person) we are beholding is objectively beautiful, and therefore worthy of praise and appreciation. In the moment that we are transfixed by beauty, we no longer believe the cliche, "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Nor do we believe that beauty is merely a cultural construction instilled in us by society. Rather, in that moment, we are firmly convinced that beauty is "out there."
If materialism is true, however, beauty is not out there -- it is all in our head (or our DNA). In other words, if God does not exist, then beauty is merely an illusion.
The late philosopher of art Denis Dutton articulated the materialist view of beauty quite well in an animated TED Talk. In it, he claims that beauty is a "trick" that evolution plays on us, in which things that aid in our survival and reproduction --things such as nutritious foods, green savanna landscapes, and fertile members of the opposite sex -- are made to "exert a kind of magnetism to give you the pleasure of simply looking at them." In other words, evolution has created the illusion of beauty to lure us toward things and potential mates that will make it more likely for us to survive and reproduce.
If God does not exist and materialism is true, then the Darwinian theory explained by Dutton is probably the best explanation for beauty that we have. But notice, in order to accept the Darwinian theory of beauty, you must deny your first-hand experiences of beauty. You must deny your conviction that beauty is really "out there," and accept that there is nothing objectively deserving of adoration. That is a high price to pay; too high, in my opinion. I take our experiences of beauty quite seriously. In fact, not only do I believe beauty is really "out there," I'd go so far as to say that our experiences of beauty can tell us profound truths about ourselves and about ultimate reality -- namely, God.
What Beauty Tells Us About Ourselves
When we encounter beauty in whatever form -- whether it’s music, a painting, the ocean, or dust floating in a sunbeam -- it transports us outside of ourselves, even if for just a brief moment, and causes us to feel that there is more to reality than the here and now. Beauty gives us a profound feeling of transcendence and awakens something deep in our being. It causes us to feel a kind of pleasurable ache in our soul -- a longing that we cannot fully explain, and that we cannot fully satisfy. The hardest part about beauty is that it is fleeting and always leaves us wanting more.
C. S. Lewis was fascinated by the longing beauty evokes in us. He actually thought it presented evidence of a supernatural realm. This led him to formulate his famous “argument from desire.” In Mere Christianity, he said:
Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for those desires exist. A baby feels hunger: well, there is such a thing as food. A duckling wants to swim: well, there is such a thing as water. Men feel sexual desire: well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.
If we have a desire for something spiritual, perhaps that means there is a spiritual reality that corresponds to our desire, Lewis suggests. This would make sense of why nothing in our temporal world is able to satisfy it.
Writer and pastor Tim Keller agrees with Lewis. He adds:
[J]ust because we feel the desire for a steak dinner doesn't mean we will get it. However, while hunger doesn't prove that the particular meal desired will be procured, doesn't the appetite for food in us mean that food exists? Isn't it true that innate desires correspond to real objects that can satisfy them...? Doesn't the unfulfillable longing evoked by beauty qualify as an innate desire? We have a longing for joy, love, and beauty that no amount or quality of food, sex, friendship, or success can satisfy. We want something that nothing in this world can fulfill. Isn't that at least a clue that this "something" that we want exists? (The Reason for God, p. 139)
What Beauty Tells Us About God
If there truly is a spiritual reality that corresponds to our spiritual longings, then what is it like? And why do things in the temporal world evoke that longing in us? Christianity provides a compelling and elegant answer to these questions. If we were to ask, “Where did all the beauty come from?” the Christian answer would be, “God’s very nature.” When we reflect on the qualities of beauty that transfix us the most, we discover that they also happen to be divine attributes:
God’s Infinity: God is eternal, all-powerful, all-knowing, etc. He is infinite in about every way—he’s the greatest conceivable being. Beauty often captivates us the most when it touches on the infinite. This is why we love to stare at the ocean, the sky, or at images of outer space. We are transfixed by their expansiveness. Seeing the vastness of the universe makes us feel close to the infinite. Infinity is beautiful to us. It is also an attribute of God.
God’s Triunity: The Christian scriptures reveal a God that is three persons in one unified being. In other words, in God there is both unity and diversity . This is a key aspect of beauty. Think of music: it’s comprised of diverse elements — rhythm, melody, harmony, etc.— all unified into one cohesive whole. Or think of light, it appears colorless, transparent, homogeneous; yet, shine it through a prism and a rainbow of diverse colors appear. Or think of a community of people from all different backgrounds, cultures, and beliefs, all coming together for one purpose. These things captivate us. Yet the essential ingredient common to all of them -- unity in diversity -- was part of God first.
God’s Other-centeredness: God is an “other-centered” being. Each person of the Trinity lovingly pours himself out for the other two, and is likewise filled by the outpouring of the other two. There is no self-centeredness in God, only other-centeredness. This is why scripture says God is love — literally. God’s very nature is how we define and measure self-sacrificial love. This kind of other-centeredness transfixes us. When we see heroes (either in fiction or reality) who suffer for others, it moves us. When we see the selfless devotion of people like Mother Teresa, it captivates us. When we see an older married couple that have fought and sacrificed for each other over a lifetime, putting the other before themselves, it is beautiful to us.
Augustine argued that the beautiful things of this world are only a reflection of their source -- God. Like a single candle in a hall of mirrors, we can reach out and try to touch one of the million reflections, but their heat will evade us. Only when we get a hold of the source will we truly feel the burning flame. Similarly, the finite beauty of the things in our world is a reflection of their infinite Creator. In his Confessions, Augustine wrote:
What am I loving when I love you [God]? Not bodily beauty nor the gracefulness of age; nor light’s brightness, so dear to the eyes of mine; not the sweet melodies of song, nor the fragrance of flowers, or perfumes, of aromas; not manna nor honey; not the body so dear to the embraces of the flesh: no, these are not the things I love when I love my God. And yet in a certain sense I do love light and sound, smell, food, and embrace of my inner being.
There [in God], a light shines for my soul untrammeled by space; there, I hear a sound that does not disappear into time; there, I smell a perfume that the wind does not carry off; there, I savor things that no gluttony makes sick; there I experience an embrace never to be broken by [excess]. All this I love when I love my God. So then I asked the earth, “What is all this?” and it replied: “It is not me.” And all the things on earth gave me the same answer. I quizzed the sea and its depths, the living things that move there, and they replied: “We are not your God, seek higher.” … And then I said to all those things seated before the door of my senses, “If it is not you, tell me something about my God, speak to me of him.” And with a mighty voice all cried: “He is our creator.” I looked at the creatures, and asked; their beauty was their answer. (Confession X, 6, 8)
Ultimately, beauty provides a similar reason to believe in God as moral values do. Without God, there is no transcendent grounding for beauty to have any objective status - it is either a matter of personal subjective taste, a matter of cultural conditioning, or a psychological illusion of our evolutionary programming (or a combination of all three). Just as claiming that something is good or evil is to claim that it conforms to, or falls short of, an objective standard of goodness, likewise to say something is beautiful or ugly is to claim that it conforms to, or falls short of, an objective standard of beauty. If the physical universe is all that exists, however, there is no transcendent standard (either of beauty or goodness) for things to conform to. It follows that there is no such thing as beauty in the objective sense, there is only taste. If there is no God, there is no beauty, just survival and reproduction.
A summary of the argument:
- If God does not exist, then objective beauty does not exist.
- But objective beauty exists.
- Therefore, God exists.
Keep in mind, it is entirely possible that premise 2 is false and objective beauty does not exist. But, remember, accepting that requires us to deny our first-hand experiences of beauty, and forces us to admit that there is nothing that is objectively deserving of our adoration. That's a pretty bleak and depressing view of reality, in my opinion. It's possible, but bleak. However, in light of all the other independent reasons to believe God exists, why ought we accept the dismal view that beauty is an illusion? If God exists, his nature provides a transcendent grounding for beauty. In that case, we can take our encounters of beauty seriously, and see where they point us to.
1. Everyone disagrees on what is beautiful. Therefore, beauty is in the (culturally conditioned) eye of the beholder. Three things: First, it is not true that everyone disagrees on what beauty is. As Dutton explains in the TED Talk mentioned earlier:
Taste for both natural beauty and for the arts travel across cultures with great ease. Beethoven is adored in Japan. Peruvians love Japanese woodblock prints. Inca sculptures are regarded as treasures in British museums, while Shakespeare is translated into every major language of the Earth. Or just think about American jazz or American movies -- they go everywhere. There are many differences among the arts, but there are also universal, cross-cultural aesthetic pleasures and values. [emphasis mine]
Secondly, even if it were the case that everyone disagreed on what beauty is, it does not logically follow that no one is right, or that everyone is right, or that there is no objective beauty. That's faulty reasoning.
Thirdly, it's possible that appreciation for beauty grows more precise and universal with experience and right perspective. Just as an experienced chef will have a more refined palate for what tastes good than someone who eats at McDonald's everyday; likewise, it's possible that appreciating objective beauty becomes easier with the right experience. In fact, many people experience a kind of aesthetic "awakening" as they mature into adulthood, where certain types of music or art that they thought was repulsive they now see is beautiful.
2. Beauty can be objective without God's existence. Not if materialism is true. There needs to be some sort of transcendent grounding for beauty to be objective in the sense I'm referring to. If the physical universe is all that exists, then there is nothing that transcends space and time, and the best theory we have is the Darwinian view explained earlier. However, there is a form of atheism that does accept that transcendent things exist -- it's called platonism. According to this view (derived from Plato) there is a transcendent realm where "abstract objects" exist -- a realm where things such as numbers, shapes, ideas, and perhaps even the laws of nature, are floating around. These abstract objects are necessarily non-physical, eternal, and omnipresent (which makes many atheists uncomfortable). I think Christianity provides a better framework for understanding beauty than platonism does though. Platonism would have difficulty grounding the aspects of beauty that transfix us the most -- like unity in diversity and self-sacrificial love. The transcendent world of platonism is diverse only -- there is no unity to it, just an unending variety of abstracta. And, being an impersonal realm, it can never explain or ground the other-centered love I referred to earlier. So, for those reasons, I see Christian theism as a much more elegant and satisfying (both to the heart and mind) framework for understanding beauty.
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*To better understand the goals and limits of this blog series, please read the Introduction, if you haven't already. Thanks!