Last week I focused on God’s desire to bring beauty from our pain in the season of Lent, and that made me think more about the nature of beauty. One of the realities which I cannot get away from is that, though beauty is inherently somewhat subjective, there is also a universality to beauty; we all recognize this fact. We might disagree on what we find most beautiful a sunset, an ocean, a mountain but we do not disagree that these each possess beauty and more importantly we can recognize it. We share an intrinsic horror at the grotesque and a love of the beautiful. Humanity’s shared appreciation of beauty is an element of our ability to recognize and desire “the good”. And if reality of pain, suffering, and evil in this world pose a difficulty to the belief in God, then the reality of good and beauty pose similar difficulties to anyone trying to live without God.
I will admit that though I think Christians have done a fair job responding to atheist claims that evil proves there is no God, I also recognize there is a “problem of evil” and even our best answers are not ironclad. But to recognize this fact is to recognize that evil exists, there are elements in this world I call ugly. I also recognize that ugly and evil are not self existent, both of these concepts are dependent. The very fact I can recognize something as evil means I recognize there is a good from which the evil deviates. The fact I see something as ugly means I recognize beauty is the norm. If evil and ugly were the norms of the world they would not be negatives, they would simply be.It might be easy for the atheist to answer that “good” and “beauty” are not real and what we recognize in these terms is simply preference. However, what that response misses is that “good” and “beauty” do not always generate positive emotions for us. I often prefer dark to light, I recognize light is better, yet because of my own brokenness I prefer the dark. The same is true of many who prefer the grotesque to the beautiful. I have talked with individuals who prefer the ugly in the world not because they think it beautiful but because it provides comfort.
Lest anyone accuse me of superficiality I do not speak of beauty simply as physical attractiveness, beauty is goodness coming from an object. For anyone who has read The Princess and Curdie, Lina, despite being one of the ugliest of goblin creatures, shows forth beauty as she works to help Curdie. It is this representation of goodness which we have no right to expect to exist. Moral judgments (and here I am placing beauty at least near morality) should not be as universal as they are in a purely naturalistic world. We have no right to expect that beauty should be anything other than subjective, goodness should vary person to person. But that is not what we experience. The universality of good and beauty should point us to a reality not just beyond our selves, but a reality beyond the physical.
The problem of the existence of beauty, the idea that goodness and beauty point us beyond ourselves, also means these same qualities can be a moral compass for us. Granted in many ways this is the more difficult path than simply learning morality from ethical ideals, but beauty truly followed will lead us to the proper end. This is part of the reason Christians have always been and should continue to be great patrons of the arts. Not that all art is beautiful, no in fact some art so distorts beauty that little is left (the profane and pornographic). But we should still be patron’s of the arts so we can help direct the course of the arts toward the sublime and beautiful. We should pursue them to help others recognize the goal of art is to reveal God. We are meant to love beauty and to help the world become more in touch with it. The secular world cannot achieve the same ideal, at best the concept of beauty is blurry and held back by the subjective. For the Christian, beauty is unleashed and shines through the imperfection of the medium. It is as we recognize and highlight true beauty in the world that we prove God. We shine a light on who God and and we change ourselves to become more like God. A celebration of Lent which recognizes God bringing beauty from pain will ultimately lead to a life of searching out the beauty of the world. Let us take the gift before us and expand it, as Christians we must help shine the spotlight on the beauty of the world and give others the hope revealed through that beauty.