In a previous post, I explored the nature of beauty as understood in the Christian tradition. I contrasted this traditional Christian story regarding the nature of beauty with philosophical naturalism and exclusive humanism, two sides of a now standard story that aims to account for beauty purely in the eye of the beholder, exclusively within the walls of the physical cosmos, a world without transcendence and devoid of windows or skylights.
This shift in the nature and grounding of beauty and aesthetic judgments has crucial implications for human flourishing. To render the ground of aesthetic judgments as nothing more than the expressions of one’s subjective feelings or preferences is ultimately to fail to recognize that certain aspects of objective reality are more worthy of admiration and regard than others. When we strip the world of objective beauty, we no longer have objective grounds for identifying certain objects, ends, and pursuits as more intrinsically worthy of our love and devotion than others; we thereby fail to venerate what is truly worthy of veneration in its own right. Consequently, we cut ourselves off from the knowledge necessary to properly order our lives around what is truly fulfilling, both individually and collectively as a society.
Yet our awareness of objective beauty—beauty that is not purely in the eye of the beholder—remains stronger than ever. This awareness can serve as a signpost or signal of transcendence, pointing us beyond the many inlets of beauty in our world to their ever-flowing wellspring, the eternal dance of the triune God.
A deep irony strikes at the heart of the two-sided narrative of philosophical naturalism and exclusive humanism and its account of the nature of beauty as purely in the eye of the beholder. The irony is that the beauty that is perhaps the most alluring in the cosmos is found among the deliverances of the empirical science aimed to explore the most fundamental physical domain and the formal language used to discover that domain: physics and mathematics.
In his work Dreams of a Final Theory, renowned physicist and atheist Steven Weinberg notes the following:
It is when we study truly fundamental problems that we expect to find beautiful answers. We believe that, if we ask why the world is the way it is and then ask why that answer is the way it is, at the end of this chain of explanations we shall find a few simple principles of compelling beauty. We think this in part because our historical experience teaches us that as we look beneath the surface of things, we find more and more beauty.
According to Weinberg, it is reasonable to expect that when we peel back the layers of physical reality and reach explanatory bedrock, we should find a reality that radiates with “compelling beauty.” Physicists tend to favor theories that are elegant and beautiful in that “The physicist’s sense of beauty is … supposed to serve a purpose—it is supposed to help the physicist select ideas that help us explain nature … we demand a simplicity and rigidity in our principles before we are willing to take them seriously.” But note that the alluring beauty woven throughout fundamental physical theories and their mathematical formalisms is objective not subjective; it is found woven into the very fabric of physical reality, not projected onto it as the narrative of exclusive humanism holds. And not only is objective beauty discovered in the domain of physics and mathematics; such beauty is often found in excess and abundance. “Sometimes,” says Weinberg, “nature seems more beautiful than strictly necessary.”
But if the story of philosophical naturalism is in fact the true story of the world, then it seems rather odd that the most fundamental layer of physical reality is graced by an alluring beauty that is in no way the mere product of human sentiment or taste. The presence of deep, objective beauty in physics and mathematics creates a crucial explanatory gap for philosophical naturalism. Contrary to the claim of Weinberg, it is not at all reasonable in philosophical naturalism to expect to find objective beauty woven throughout fundamental physics and mathematics. And it is difficult to see how philosophical naturalism might close this explanatory gap with respect to objective beauty in physics and mathematics. As atheist philosopher Paul Draper states: “A beautiful universe, especially one containing beings that can appreciate that beauty, is clearly more likely on theism than on naturalism and so is evidence favoring theism over naturalism.”
Yet in the Christian story, this kind of deep, alluring beauty (as well as the existence of creatures who can appreciate that beauty) is precisely what one would expect if the physical universe were the creative overflow of the radiance and beauty of its Creator. There is no similar explanatory gap in the Christian story. The deep beauty found in physics and mathematics is as consonant with the Christian story as a performed symphony is within a great concert hall. The physical universe was created by God to reflect the rhythm and harmony of the eternal divine dance. Creaturely beauty is but a looking glass, beams of sunlight that beckon us to trace them back up to the sun, its source. Indeed, as Jonathan Edwards put it, “Fathers and mothers, husbands, wives, or children, or the company of earthly friends, are but shadows; but God is the substance. These are but scattered beams, but God is the sun. These are but streams. But God is the ocean.”
You and I were created in the image of this beautiful God (Genesis 1:27) to experience and to enjoy deep and alluring beauty (Psalm 27:4). We were made to behold and to manifest divine beauty, ultimately the beauty of God revealed in Christ (2 Corinthians 3:18). It is precisely by becoming like the triune God that we glorify God to the full, by living lives that reflect the proper order and beauty of the triune dance, the supreme harmony of all.
Reflection on the nature of beauty has a rich precedent in the Christian tradition, and for good reason. The Scriptures are replete with judgements about the beauty of objects as diverse as landscapes (Jeremiah 3:19), cities (Psalm 48:2; 50:2), priestly robes and clothing (Exodus 28:2), virtuous character (1 Peter 3:3-4), and persons—whether human (Genesis 29:17; Esther 1:11; 16x in Song of Solomon), angelic (Ezekiel 28:12-17), or divine (Psalm 27:4; 96:6; Zechariah 9:17). In general, then, Scripture attributes beauty to both physical and spiritual realities, whether the high heavens or the hidden person of the heart (1 Peter 3:3-4).
But what exactly is beauty? In the Christian tradition, beauty has been integrally connected with the concepts of harmony, proportion, symmetry, and integrity. An object is beautiful to the degree to which it displays an appropriate interrelationship between these concepts. But let me back up a bit since the beautiful is traditionally thought to flow from the true and the good.
In the most general sense, something is true when it properly conforms to the nature of some particular aspect of reality; a true word spoken is a word that accurately represents the way the world is, and a true friend is someone who embodies all that a friend is and ought to be. Something is good to the degree to which it properly realizes the ends or goals it has by nature. The pen is good to the degree to which it writes well, and the human being is good to the degree to which it fulfills its chief end, to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.
“Beauty,” as Peter Kreeft puts it, “is the bloom on the rose of goodness and truth, the child conceived by their union.” Beauty is the true and the good on display; the manifestation of what is and what ought to be. Beauty is like the melodic sound of the multi-part orchestra of truth and goodness acting in seamless harmony. This is precisely why beauty is so alluring and draws us in. It is also, I believe, why Scripture speaks of holiness—whether human (1 Peter 3:3-4; 2 Peter 3:11) or divine (Psalm 96:6,9)—as beautiful, radiant, and full of splendor; it is the resonance of a kind of life that is both true and fulfilling in the deepest sense.
According to the Christian story, God Himself is the supreme locus and source of all that exists, including all that is true, good, and beautiful. As is always the case in thinking about fundamental philosophical questions, Trinitarian doctrine lies close at hand. The interrelations of the divine persons are the ever-flowing fount of all that is true, good, and beautiful. As C.S. Lewis put it, “In Christianity God is not a static thing—not even a person—but a dynamic, pulsating activity, a life, almost a kind of drama. Almost, if you will not think me irreverent, a kind of dance.”
The great 18th-century puritan Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) referred to the triune God, this glorious and eternal divine dance, as the supreme harmony of all. And as the supreme locus and wellspring of all that is beautiful, God naturally delights in creating a world that reflects the glory and radiance of His own triune being (Genesis 1:27; Proverbs 8:22-31). In Edwards’ sacramental view of creation, every creaturely beauty (what he called “secondary beauty”) images or reflects the spiritual beauty of the triune God (what he called “primary beauty”); the world is truly enchanted, with each created thing being a signpost pointing to the radiance and beauty of God. As Edwards puts it, “All the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation, is but the reflection of the diffused beams of the Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.” The beauty and integrity of creation images the glory of God (Psalm 19:1) and invites each of those who attend to it to join in the triune dance, the supreme harmony of all.
In our current cultural moment, there are many rival stories about the true, the good, and the beautiful that compete for our hearts, minds, and imaginations. One such story is what philosophers call philosophical naturalism, the view that the physical universe is all there is, was, or ever will be (to quote Carl Sagan); all of reality is confined within the walls of the physical cosmos, a world of disenchantment devoid of windows or skylights. Philosophical naturalism yields an alternative story—or what philosopher Charles Taylor calls a “social imaginary”—regarding the nature of beauty, meaning, and purpose that makes no appeal to God or transcendence. Taylor refers to this rival story as “exclusive humanism” and argues that such a view has captured the imaginations of many who inhabit our current age of disenchantment.
As a way of constructing meaning and purpose apart from divine transcendence, exclusive humanism arguably entails the view that all aesthetic judgments are grounded solely in individual preference or sentiment, purely in the eye of the beholder; creaturely beauty no longer finds its ultimate anchor in the reality of the divine dance. With the loss of any transcendence to anchor creaturely beauty, what was once a secondary image has become the primary substance; in a world devoid of windows and skylights, radiance and light must come exclusively from the inside.
In a subsequent post, I’ll explore how, in spite of the baseline cultural narratives of philosophical naturalism and exclusive humanism, we continue to be allured by beauty that is not purely in the eye of the beholder, beauty that is intricately woven throughout the created order (in particular fundamental physics and the language of mathematics). And just as we might trace a stream of water or a sunbeam back to its physical wellspring, we can arguably trace such deep, alluring beauty in the world back up to its spiritual wellspring, the divine dance.
Augustine, Confessions 4.13.20; Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, First Part, Question 39, Article 8; Jonathan Edwards, Works 6:332.