Beauty, a term once revered in ancient days as the pinnacle of physical attributes embodied in worldly entities, has seemingly in this day lost much of its meaning. Phrases like “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” have surprisingly become commonplace, and even Christians have begun to subscribe to the notion of aesthetic relativism. Specifically, this is the idea that beauty is purely contained within the observer and objects on their own have no aesthetic value in and of themselves. It is what has effectively stripped the main essence from the old ideal of beauty, and in my opinion a primary reason why there are so many who cannot see or refuse to see God in the world today.
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder”, the oft-heard phrase today, refers to one’s belief in the subjectivity of beauty—that is, aesthetic relativism. This prevailing belief dictates that my own perception of what is beautiful does not necessarily correlate to others’ perception of what they find beautiful. Simply because I find a song inspiring and relaxing does not necessarily mean that everyone will and it’s even pretentious and rude of me to insist so. And since everyone has their own particular tastes in all types of art, it is inferred that those tastes correlate to true beauty in their own eyes. But, this whole concept of beauty in each man’s own perception is severely lacking: it gives our own God far too little credit for the creation itself.
In my opinion, a greatly preferable view for one who professes to believe in a divine creator is the belief in the objectivity of beauty. Perhaps the ancient Greeks were on to something after all when artists such as Polykleitos sought the perfect proportions of beauty. Such a pursuit required one to see beauty as objective: something contained within the object itself. Especially farseeing was Plato’s belief in the “idea” realm, in which perfect prototypes of every living and nonliving thing existed. It was a transcendent realm which we could never quite reach in terms of achieving this perfect “idea form”. Such a theory, old as it is, is not very far from the truth in my opinion. The real truth of beauty lies in none other than our own God. Nevertheless, I think it is necessary to divide beauty into two types to see how God influences it.
There is a physical beauty in each living and nonliving thing; something which can be perceived by the eye. Such beauty, I think, aligns with Plato’s “idea form” concept—that is, we perceive things as the most beautiful when they are closest to that ideal shape from which they were wrought. Among my beliefs is that God really does have ideal forms in His own mind, from which spring forth every single precious creation. God’s creations are often universally seen as beautiful to us—forests, rivers, grasslands, domestic animals and wild animals alike are loved by us and sometimes even worshipped for their beauty. Their forms tend to be very similar among their own kind, and many different organizations strive to find the perfect proportions, coloring, and other attributes of them. A well-known example is the American Kennel Club, which appoints judges in dog shows who determine the ideal proportions of many breeds of dogs. In such competitions, we are striving to find the ideal, most beautiful form of dogs, which strongly hints at a belief in an archetypal “idea form”. Perhaps the human form itself could even have its archetypal roots in Adam and Eve; but regardless, humans who most closely fit this prototypical form are perceived as most beautiful by others. Ugliness is the disfiguration or mutilation of this form, such as severed parts or scars or even obesity. Even so, there is always some degree of the supreme beauty in each and every creation, for God’s own light can shine through even the darkest of places.
Indeed, God’s original beauty shining through us and our own creations is the main source of aesthetic pleasure in this world. God revealed this to us in Ezekiel 16:14, when He declared “And your fame spread among the nations on account of your beauty, because the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect”. This constitutes a second kind of beauty, a nonphysical and more conceptual beauty. Such beauty is what normally would be seen in man’s creations and his very personality. It can be witnessed in personalities such as a warm and inviting host, a charitable man who goes out of his way to help others, or something as simple as one who laughs often. And, of course, a massive demonstrator of this kind of beauty is creations of man’s own design such as music, paintings, and sculptures which frequently grab hold of our emotions. The reason these things are so beautiful is simple: God’s immense love when He created us and our intellects is still shown brilliantly in things which we produce.
These do not necessarily have to be direct reflections of God’s own exquisite creations (as in the Realist style of art); His magnificence can be shown in abstract art as well. A good example is the Asian kanji form of writing, which for centuries has been considered highly artistic and stylized. The Japanese kanji ai, or “love” (Appendix A) has a very smooth and majestic feel, and is capable of triggering human emotions of wonder and calmness on its own. It is a mere thirteen strokes of a brush, yet because of God’s own love and inventiveness shining through the artist onto the paper, we can consider it beautiful.
Truly, God’s creativeness can be seen in every single thing which man has created, and therefore we can see some degree of beauty in everything. Looking at the world in this objective way is doubtlessly far greater than the popular aesthetic relativist stance in contemporary culture. It introduces a sense of wonder in the individual in everything he perceives, because he has the knowledge that it was specifically created by the supreme God and personally beheld in all its glory as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Hiking through mountainous forests can fill a man with such a sense of sheer majesty that it can be a religious experience, and I have personally witnessed even unbelievers profess to see a glimpse of God in such prime examples of His glorious creation. Even more typical occurrences such as a snowy night under a star-speckled sky or waking up to a dazzling sunrise peeking through lush treetops can in a person bring forth extreme awe if that person accepts aesthetic objectivity through God.
Maybe the subjectivity of beauty is not as enlightened as it appears to countless millions in our culture. The beauty in that captivating mountainous forest or star-speckled sky becomes fully dependent on the individual. It’s reduced to a matter of taste, and if a person finds such things wondrous, that in itself does not make them truly and rapturously divine as it does in one who believes that God Himself has blessed such occurrences. Beautiful entities are simply something which an individual deems “nice” or “quaint” to which someone else might readily disagree, in contrast to a glimpse of the utter splendor of God. Some things are beautiful, some are ugly, and it all depends on preference; whereas objectivity of beauty proclaims that beauty is to be found everywhere in varying degrees. Aesthetic relativism ultimately leads to a sense of incuriosity towards much of the world and blocking out what does not “suit your taste”, a sort of omnipresent mild malaise of the subconscious. It would be wiser to consider that “the splendor I had given you made your beauty perfect” (Ezekiel 16:14), and approach the magnificent world with an ever-growing curiousness and a watchful eye for the inherent beauty present in each and every creation.