June 2024
What Is Beauty?

A God-centered answer to one of the age-old questions of humanity: What is beauty?

What is beauty? That's a massive question, with entire fields of study dedicated to it, and yet you'll find almost as many definitions for it as you'll find people in the world. Now, that doesn't mean that "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." There's some truth to that statement, but not much. At best, it suggests beauty is a matter of personal taste. But beauty is much, much more than that.

Roger Scruton avoids a simple definition in Beauty: A Very Short Introduction, and opts instead for a list platitudes: (1) beauty pleases us; (2) one thing can be more beautiful than another; (3) beauty is always a reason for attending to the thing that possesses it; (4) beauty is the subject-matter of a judgement: the judgement of taste; (5) the judgement of taste is about the beautiful object, not about the subject's state of mind; and (6) there are no second-hand judgements of beauty (p. 5). He adds other platitudes later in the book, but he seems to focus on the idea that beauty, in all of its forms, prompts our admiring contemplation of the thing in itself, not the thing to be used for some other end. "We call something beautiful," he writes, "when we gain pleasure from contemplating it as an individual object, for its own sake, and in its presented form" (p. 22). Something is beautiful if it calls attention to itself and demands that we stare in its presence.

That's better than "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." But it's still not good enough.

The Irish poet John O'Donohue gets a little closer when he writes that beauty is "a transforming presence wherein we unfold towards growth almost before we realize it. Our deepest self-knowledge unfolds as we are embraced by beauty" (Beauty, p. 8). The poet in me would take that definition over Scruton's.

But beauty is even more than this. We're only talking about features of things so far. And beauty is much deeper than a quality or a feature of the created world. If we want the real answer to the aesthetic question, we have to dig under the sediment of sensuality. We have to go all the way back to God.

Starting with God

Does the Bible speak of God as "beautiful"? Well, the Bible says many things about what God is like, but it uses the language of "glory" far more than "beauty." There are exceptions, such as when the psalmist says that he longs to "gaze upon the beauty of the Lord" (Ps. 27:4). And of course the things in the world that we describe as beautiful are reflections of God's beauty. But as one of my favorite Dutchman wrote, "for the beauty of God Scripture has a special word: glory" (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, 2:254).

We're more used to seeing that word in the Bible, and so it might seem more poetic than biblical to call God beautiful. And yet Herman Bavinck is quick to claim that "the pinnacle of beauty, the beauty toward which all creatures point, is God" (Reformed Dogmatics, 2:254). So, God is beautiful.

But what does this mean? We can all nod our heads when David Bentley Hart says something like: "beauty is a category indispensable to Christian thought; all that theology says of the triune life of God, the gratuity of creation, the incarnation of the Word, and the salvation of the world makes room for—indeed depends on—a thought, and a narrative, of the beautiful" (Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite, 16).

Yes, but what is beauty? If we don't really know, then we might as well say nothing. The point of an adjective is to describe. If we don't know the descriptor, what are we doing?

Beauty as Divine Presence

When we define words, all we're doing is relating what we don't know to what we do know. Understanding, at root, is about relationships. And so we're called to relate beauty to something else we know. And the psalmist actually does that for us in Psalm 27:4, right after saying he wants to gaze on the beauty 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 is to be with God, in his house. Beauty is God's personal presence. It captivates. In enraptures. It overwhelms. And it satisfies our deepest longing. As my friend and former teacher puts is, "in seeking communion with God, the psalmist is also seeking the beauty of God" (Poythress, Making Sense of the World, 3).

So, O'Donohue wasn't far off in calling beauty "a transforming presence." In fact, there's another poet that I think gets just as close in a different sense. David Whyte once described beauty with strikingly similar language.

Beauty especially occurs in the meeting of time with the timeless; the passing moment framed by what has happened and what is about to occur, the scattering of the first spring apple blossom, the turning, spiraling flight of a curled leaf in the falling light; the smoothing of white sun-filled sheets by careful hands setting them to air on the line, the broad expanse of cotton filled by the breeze only for a moment, the sheets sailing on into dryness, billowing toward a future that is always beckoning, always just beyond us. Beauty is the harvest of presence. (Whyte, Consolations, 20)

Perhaps Whyte is talking about the harvest of time—where somehow the past, present, and future all seem to meet and mingle for a rare moment. What was gathers to what is and whispers of what will be. But even there, isn't it striking how God describes himself in Revelation with the same trinity of terms: the one who was and is and is to come (Rev. 4:8)? The Greek uses ēn, ōn, and erchomenos. There's more letters in the future than there are in the present or the past. And yet they all describe the same beautiful God, the one whose presence the psalmist pines after. Beauty is the unimpeded presence of God—the wielder and wonder of past, present, and future.

Beauty is the unimpeded presence of God—the wielder and wonder of past, present, and future.

A Trinitarian Presence

But we can add even more to our understanding when we factor in God's triune nature. David Bentley Hart finds several facets of beauty that help us identify it—all of them bound up with the Trinity.

First, beauty is gratuitous and prodigal, reflecting the eternal gratuity and giving of the Trinity.

"There is an unsettling prodigality about the beautiful," he writes, "something wanton about the way it lavishes itself upon even the most atrocious of settings, its anodyne sweetness often seeming to make the most intolerable of circumstances bearable" (The Beauty of the Infinite, 15).

Second, beauty is objective; it's "really there," just as God is. "There is an overwhelming givenness in the beautiful, and it is discovered in astonishment, in an awareness of something fortuitous, adventitious, essentially indescribable" (The Beauty of the Infinite, 17).

Beauty isn't so much "in the eye of the beholder" as it is "before the eyes of the beholder." It's there, and we're forced to respond to it.

Third, beauty is expressed in difference and distance. We think of distance as a bad thing, but Hart shows how this is off base. Distance and difference are actually good things.

Beauty is the true form of distance. Beauty inhabits, belongs to, and possesses distance, but more than that, it gives distance. If the realm of created difference has its being for God's good pleasure (Rev. 4:11), then the distance of creation from God and every distance within creation belong originally to an interval of appraisal and approbation, the distance of delight. (The Beauty of the Infinite, 18).

Think of it in simple terms. Isn't it good, isn't it beautiful, that you and I are different from each other? And in the Godhead, isn't it not just fitting but beautiful that the Father is not the Son but is different from him (though they share the same essence)? Or that the Spirit is not the Father or the Son? Difference and distance aren't evils; they help us distinguish one thing or person from another. And that difference is good. It's this very difference and distance (rooted in God himself) that Hart argues makes way for creation: a realm different and distant from God, and yet God dwells with it. Difference and distance actually lay the grounds for presence and communion. Without difference, there could be no communion because there wouldn't be different beings, different persons. All would be one essential blob.

Fourth, "beauty evokes desire" (The Beauty of the Infinite, 19).

This doesn't mean simply that we want it; it means "not a coarse, impoverished desire to consume and dispose, but a desire made full at a distance, dwelling alongside what is loved and possessed in the intimacy of dispossession" (19).

In other words, we desire to share in what is beautiful without trying to control or take possession of it.

Fifth, "beauty crosses boundaries" (The Beauty of the Infinite, 20).

It doesn't "stay in one lane." It goes across the boundaries of tribe, tongue, and nation; it breaks through the borders of one culture's preference and spills into others.

So, adding to the root definition of beauty as "the presence of God," Hart might add these notions of prodigality, objectivity, difference, desire, and boundary-crossing. You should be starting to sense that we're getting into more complex territory.

Hart, of course, isn't the only theologian with a passion to discern the contours of beauty. In line with some of his thoughts, Jonathan King in The Beauty of the Lord argues that beauty is "an intrinsic quality of things which, when perceived, pleases the mind by displaying a certain kind of fittingness" (King, The Beauty of the Lord, 9).

That last word is key: fittingness. By this he means that "beauty is discerned via objective properties such as proportion, unity, variety, symmetry, harmony, intricacy, delicacy, simplicity, or suggestiveness" (The Beauty of the Lord, 50).

Something beautiful is fitting or appropriate in some way. David Covington, on the other hand, questions whether beauty is the best term to use in our discussions, since it "as a premise, overlooks the ugly, the degraded, the repugnant" (Covington, A Redemptive Theology of Art, 48).

That's a problem since "Scripture wraps its chief aesthetic statement in mystery; the repulsive crucifixion stands as the centerpiece" (A Redemptive Theology of Art, 53).

Our understanding of beauty needs to not only capture what draws us in, but what might repulse us and yet still be supremely valuable. If the cross is the centerpiece of a biblical account of beauty, then we need to include something like the spiritual function or purpose of things when assessing their beauty. This is likely what prompts John Piper to write of the beauty of Christ precisely in his crucifixion. “At every point, Christ proves superior, and at the most important moment in history, the beauty of Christ shines most brightly as the ugliest being is undone by the greatest act of beauty" (Providence, 280). The self-giving of God, even on a crude cross, is somehow also beautiful.

Bringing It All Together

It seems as if I've complicated that nice, simple definition of beauty as the unimpeded presence of God. But I'm not sure. If I say "beauty is the presence of God," then we need to keep in mind who God is as the Trinity. And isn't God all of these things?

  • Prodigal: The Father prodigally gives himself to the Son and Spirit in love. The Son does likewise to the Father and Spirit; as does the Spirit to the Father and the Son. God is always giving himself to himself, but he's also constantly giving himself to his creatures in the countless blessings and beauties of creation and redemption. The Trinity is prodigal in the highest sense.
  • Objective: The Father, Son, and Spirit are the objective, personal reality that stands behind and upholds creation at every moment. Without the triune God, we have no objectivity, since all things would be lost in a swirl of chance—what Van Til would call "pure contingency," a place where anything and everything happens "just because." That would violate the existence and meaning of everything. Van Til wrote, "As the absolute and independent existence of God determines the derivative existence of the universe, so the absolute meaning that God has for himself implies that the meaning of every fact in the universe must be related to God" (Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 58). Exhaustively objective truth lives in the Trinity.
  • Different: Even the concept of difference comes from the Trinity, where three different divine persons share one essence. God can only create with the resources he has in himself. If there is to be difference in his creation, that difference must somehow be inside him. The Trinity is where difference originates.
  • Desirable: Of course, the Trinity is the greatest objective of desire because we were made for communion with him; we are "disposed for communion" with God in every sphere of life, as Geerhardus Vos put it. But this God is the God who communes with himself in three persons. We desire to commune with the God of communion. And this situates all holy desire in the context of personal relationships—not merely as impulsive longings we strive to satisfy. The Trinity is the house of desire. It's where our desires are born, and where they go to live.
  • Boundary-crossing: The Trinity is the one who crossed boundaries to create—the Father uttering the Word in the power of the Spirit. But even before that, the personal "boundaries" distinguishing the Father, Son, and Spirit don't keep the other divine persons out. The Father, though distinct, is in the Son, who is in the Spirit. In the Trinity, personal boundaries are crossed without those boundaries being violated. In fallen creation, God crosses the boundaries we put up in calling to himself one people of every tribe, tongue, and nation (Rev. 7:9).
  • Fitting: The Trinity is fitting both internally and externally. Internally, it is fitting or appropriate for the Father to be "eternally unbegotten," for the Son to be "eternally begotten," and for the Spirit to "eternally proceed" from the Father and the Son. This grounds the work of God in history, such that it is fitting for the Father to plan redemption, the Son to be sent for our salvation, and the Spirit to proceed from him and the Father so that God might dwell in his people.
  • Purposeful: The Trinity is the purpose-giver. The Father, Son, and Spirit have a comprehensive purpose with reference to themselves (to love and glorify one another for eternity) and to creation. And "without a comprehensive purpose, every act of purpose on the part of man would be set in a void" (Van Til, An Introduction to Systematic Theology, 185). Every purpose in existence, from a stone in a stream to the Son on a cross, emerges from the Trinity.

In short, I'm still standing where I started, but adding the word "triune" before God is helpful. Beauty is the unimpeded presence of the triune God. We just need to understand how rich the phrase "triune God" is in this case. In fact, could any phrase be richer? When we say that something is "beautiful," we're actually saying that it reflects the presence and character of God somehow. I see this as in alignment with the conclusion of my friend and former teacher William Edgar, who says beauty "means being conformed to all that is involved in a living, grace-filled, covenant relation to God the creator and redeemer" (Edgar, "Aesthetics," 120).

God's presence is a call to conformity. It requires our response in relationship to him. Where that call is not present, neither is beauty.

Read more about the God of beauty in Insider-Outsider.

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