The very idea of beauty makes many sophisticates cringe nowadays. It seems utterly out of touch with postmodern ambiguity, since the notion of beauty implies absolute standards widely agreed upon that address an objective reality: “That is beautiful.” Even the Encyclopaedia Britannica (not renowned for its postmodern skepticism) affirms that “almost anything might be seen as beautiful by someone or from some point of view.”Yet, despite the difficulty of defining beauty, the concept nonetheless is making a comeback. And it is doing so in at least two realms we normally do not associate with beauty: theology and science.Roman Catholic author Thomas Dubay discusses these ideas at length in The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet (Ignatius, 1999). Borrowing heavily from theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dubay seeks to awaken his readers to the presence of beauty in the world, especially as seen through the lenses of science and theology.
Dubay notes that many scientists judge a theory at least in part by aesthetic criteria. James Watson, for instance, who helped discover the double helix of DNA, suggested that “a structure this pretty just had to exist.” Physicists Werner Heisenberg, Richard Feynman, and Murray Gell-Mann insisted that the elegance of their equations pointed to the truth of their theories. Likewise in theology, Dubay continues, beauty—whether the beauty of the earth, of human artifacts, of saints (as “paragons of virtue”), or of God himself—can move us to grateful recognition that God reveals himself in beauty.
Here the Enlightenment meets Romanticism. We need to be accurate, comprehensive, and logically rigorous to properly perceive the way things are. But we should also pay attention to the aesthetic qualities of both things and the theories that describe them. Since the world itself is beautiful, a beautiful theory that describes it is more likely to be correct.
Unfortunately, Dubay does not help us to see exactly how beauty and truth are related. Indeed, he occasionally confuses the objectively beautiful and true with his own tastes and convictions—as when he dispenses with all rock music as ugly, or when he champions papal supremacy as the beautiful center of beautiful ecclesiastical unity.
Dubay’s strength lies in celebrating beauty, and he joyfully catalogues examples from the natural world and from the lives of the saints. He turns ultimately to the beauty of God and divine things, and concludes his long meditation in an unembarrassed “Afterglow” (as he names his last chapter). We would do well to follow him in such a doxological tour of the beautiful. Still, Dubay fails to provide the promised apologetic, showing how beauty points beyond itself to its Model and Source.
From Beauty to Social Justice
Harvard professor Elaine Scarry, in her brief On Beauty and Being Just (Princeton University Press, 1999), gives us more to consider. Scarry’s unusual project is to show that the sincere and genuine apprehension of beauty helps us become more just. She celebrates beauty for its own sake, to be sure, warning us that “the absence of beauty is a profound form of deprivation.” But she goes on to show that beauty can lead us to justice in several ways.
First, beauty displaces the observer from the center of things, even from the center of his own life. One can, of course, merely ingest beauty as a pleasant commodity, chewing on it selfishly. But Scarry maintains that when we encounter beauty, we tend to welcome beauty and give way to it. Thus in consenting to beauty’s commanding presence—its “glory,” we might say—we displace our self-centeredness. Such a willingness to “step aside” for beauty can displace our egos. It can also dispose us next to displace our egos for others—including the needy.
Second, beauty prompts us both to retain it and to propagate it. We want to remember a beautiful sky, so we paint it. We want to retain the image of a beautiful face, so we photograph it. We want to treasure a beautiful moment, so we write a poem about it. Beauty calls us to extend it, to be generous, to spread the wealth. Again, we might simply propagate beauty for our own satisfaction. But the impulse to multiply beauty instead can prompt us to share it with others.
Third, beauty awakens us to pay attention to things and people we tend to ignore. A spectacular waterfall gives us fresh appreciation of even tiny movements of water on a windowpane or on a drinking glass. Likewise, this quality of “distribution” can prompt us to do justice, as the dramatically beautiful reminds us to pay attention to things less obviously beautiful but still worthy of care. Yes, to admire the beauty of a particularly lovely face might cause us to despise all others. Then again, sustained attention to beauty can educate and sensitize our eyes to note the gracefulness of another person’s smile, the curve of her neck, the sparkle in his eyes, in ways we had not appreciated before. This person is a human being we notice, and not just an object to be manipulated or an obstacle to be avoided.
Finally, beauty demonstrates symmetry, fitness, proportion, and other harmonies that have clear connections, and not mere analogies, to justice. Thus, we use the same word—”fair”—to describe someone who is comely and someone who is just. Indeed, Scarry says that beauty calls for justice as a twin seeking its counterpart.
One might wonder if Scarry is a starry-eyed romantic. Many who have a keen aesthetic sense show little moral sense. Doesn’t she know about the scandalous lives of artists, from Liszt to Picasso? Has she not seen Amadeus or Pollock?
Scarry knows that beauty does not always lead to justice and that we often manipulate beauty for our own ends—in cynical advertising, pornography, disguise, and so on. She also notes that some scientific theories are so elegant that one can hold onto them too long in the face of conflicting evidence. The idea that the orbits of the planets are all perfect circles, rather than wildly varying ellipses, is a case in point.
What Scarry points out are the often-overlooked connections between beauty and justice, and the opportunities to be moved by them. Whether we gratefully receive those opportunities, of course, is up to us.
Scarry only occasionally discusses religion, but there is much in this little book to prompt Christian spiritual reflection. For one thing, it reminds us that we typically understand the gods, and our God, not only as powerful, good, wise, and eternal, but also as beautiful. Moreover, God’s beauty calls us to worship, the act above all acts that “radically decenters” us (as Scarry says) while yet giving us transports of delight. Indeed, all of what Scarry says about beauty can be said superlatively about God.
The Good, the True, and the Evangelical
Evangelicals already prize truth and goodness. Our tradition emphasizes honesty and charity. We practice doctrinal fidelity, straightforward evangelism, and plainspoken preaching. We are to love our neighbors, care for the poor, educate the ignorant, and give medicine to the ill—as well as live moral lives. These are the ideals we aspire to.
Thus church buildings of evangelicals tend toward the utilitarian; we try to make the most of the space and furnishings for multiple uses. Few congregations make beautiful architecture and furnishings a priority. Indeed, we tend to be suspicious of anything grand or ornate, or of fine craftsmanship that draws attention to itself. But why?
Perhaps it is because of our prior commitment to truth and goodness. We may feel that spending attention and money on beauty would obscure the clear lines of truth and goodness. Perhaps we feel in our bones something of the Puritans’ suspicion of the distracting and obfuscating elaborations of the Roman Church.
Many of us lack even an adequate vocabulary by which to make beauty part of our shared life. For every hymn or contemporary song that celebrates beauty, whether “For the Beauty of the Earth” or “O Lord, You’re Beautiful,” there are ten that celebrate God’s truthfulness, power, and holiness. (Ironically, evangelicalism’s love of music, and therefore its genuine love of this expression of beauty, shines through the hymns and songs that praise quite different attributes of God.)
How much of this evangelical ambivalence is defensible, especially in the light of God’s own beauty and the beauty of his Earth? Scripture recognizes beauty from beginning to end—from the opening hymns that celebrate God’s goodness in creation, through its matchless psalms, to the vision of the New Jerusalem as a splendid architectural wonder.
We evangelicals often practice a “war-time ethic,” in which we sacrifice things that would be good in peacetime but seem inappropriate in a time of crisis. There’s no point, we believe, in rearranging the flowers sliding off tables as the Titanic slopes down. Why “prettify” a church when the money could be spent on evangelism or relief for the poor?
Yet Jesus confronted this sort of situation and praised the extravagant offering of expensive perfume as perfectly appropriate (John 12). Do we yet know how to integrate this teaching with our other gospel priorities of truth telling and need-meeting?
The connection, I believe, lies here: Beauty is part of Jesus’ kingdom. In brief, we should give proper place to beauty—by creating and enjoying it, even writing a theology of it—as an integral part of the “war effort.” Beauty is not mere ornamentation that we dutifully defer until the coming of the New Jerusalem. It is an essential part of our gospel, which must be manifest now as we bear witness to kingdom life. Beyond what Dubay and Scarry suggest, this is the true linkage of truth, goodness, and beauty: the full-orbed shalom of the kingdom of God.
Therefore, if we neglect beauty in our homes, in our churches, and in the education of our children, we will be cultivating, and propagating, a deficient religion: the heresy of an un-beautiful Christianity. To preach, and live, the whole counsel of God, including the beautiful—this is the best apologetic we can offer.