The Problem of Beauty

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.

2 thoughts on “The Problem of Beauty

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  1. “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.”

    Nope, not at all. The fact that humans share a lot of the same ideas about beauty does not require a god. It just requires that we are human and experience the world in similar ways.

    That your god evidently needs misery to create beauty shows that your god is anything but benevolent or omnipotent. I’m quite happy not to believe in a god that has to starve children for some “purpose”.

    ” 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.”

    A baseless claim. Why not? Moral ideas are like ideas of beauty. Humans come up with them because we are humans. No god needed. Some morals are beneficial to our survival and we keep them. Others aren’t and they are discarded.

    The pure arrogance of Christians shines through in this post. You want to claim that beauty is only from your god. You have no evidence of this at all. “The secular world cannot achieve the same ideal, at best the concept of beauty is blurry and held back by the subjective.”

    The secular world has beauty and no god required. You don’t get to lie and claim that an artist’s hard work is “really” your god’s.

    As for subjectivity, non-christians can see that there is no objective morality from Christianity. You all cannot agree on what your god wants, so we see each Christian make up their god in their image. We also see a lot of Christians who would be horrified if a human killed a child for the actions of their parents, but have no problem if their god does the same thing. That morality is no more than might equals right, entirely subjectively based on who does something, not that the action is inherently wrong.

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    1. Thank you for your response. I would respond by saying first that you are correct a god that needs misery is no god. However, that is not what I said I said God is able to heal the misery which is a very different thing. Second, while I understand there are different ways one can interpret some of the data, there is a philosophical problem of beauty which is equal and opposite to the philosophical problem of evil. As to your comment on the subjectivity of Christian morality, you example blatantly confuses the permissible and the ideal. The permissible is often where the disagreement comes in but in the realm of the ideal there is more universal agreement. But these are areas I am not able to cover in a blog which I have intentionally tried to keep to under 1,000 words.

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