It’s possible to make a few observations at a glance on the topic of transcendent or “timeless” beauty:
- There is an “awe-inspiring” quality found in nature that has been appreciated by all peoples at all times, at least: it’s hard to imagine or produce evidence to the contrary.
- Skillful depiction of certain balances of proportions in human faces and healthy virile human figures have been appreciated as beautiful down through the generations of Western civilization
- People from developed nations readily admire the art/fashion/decorative traditions of tribal cultures. We recognize that societies that are technologically primative and uneducated by Western standards often have highly developed creative/artistic intuition and sensibilities, and the Western world has frequently borrowed inspiration from such sources.
- The global connectivity recently made possible by technology has provided evidence that there is a great deal of overlap in what people from vastly different cultures recognize as having aesthetic value and/or that humans can rapidly assimilate the values of foriegn communities.
From a secular standpoint all this may suggest certain common preferences that have developed to give evolutionary advantage to the human species.
However none of these observations demonstrates eternal or even universal standards of beauty as conclusively as may immediately appear. For one thing, the sheer variety of styles and genres that have found shared appreciation across cultures complicates the matter. At very least this suggests that any eternal or universal standards are not simplistic.
Another point that complicates the matter is the complex relationship between physical beauty and other values. How narrowly do we want to define beauty? Even if we are for clarity’s sake trying to define ideals of physical beauty, it soon becomes difficult to know how to fit in elements such as the bizarre, startling, sometimes terrifying beauty seen in the animal kingdom that we frequently incorporate into fashion and design, or the way our perception of the beauty of a person can be affected by other layers of significance such as whether or not we admire them for charisma, strength of character, moral or spiritual beauty. The borders dividing such categories are blurry to say the least, and it is naive to entirely discount the networks of associations that affect what strikes us as beautiful.
Pursuing breadcrumbs in this manner quickly becomes frustrating. Trying to develop a rational argument about eternal standards of beauty based on any sort of popular consensus seems counter-productive to the goals of the groups most likely to be defending eternal standards, precisely because eternal standards exist independently of whether or not anyone acknowledges them; they stand firm against and stand as judge even over a majority that prefers something else. All that seems to be left to the natural mind is relativism – personal preference; one standard of beauty duking it out with another for dominance using either pen or sword. Neither of these are the Christian approach to the issue.
I approach the issue of beauty and eternal standards the same way I approach all issues: using Biblical presuppositionalism. (For a great break-down of this method I recommend the lectures of Dr. Scott Oliphint). My goal is to conform my outlook on any subject to what Scripture has to say in its entirety. If there are nagging questions in my mind on some point, I continue to pray and study and allow the elements of my worldview to shift until the key fits the lock. But scripture is my measuring rod for all things. There is no other firm foundation (John 12:27, Proverbs 30:6).
With that in place I am happy to hear anyone out on their opinion, because as you will see, while I do believe in eternal standards of Truth, Beauty and Goodness, I believe that those standards are a Person, the Lord Jesus Christ, and that we have access to this truth relationally (1 Corinithians 8:2-3) through the “Living Word” of inspired Scripture made intelligible by the Holy Spirit, but it is not possible for any one of us as creatures to escape our finite perspectives (more on this later!). Listening to the perspectives of others almost always helps me to improve and refine my own position.
The Gospel gives nuanced and multi-dimensional answers to questions about beauty. How well we understand beauty, art, and fashion corresponds to how well we understand the narrative arc of the Gospel.
Often since becoming a Christian I have heard phrases like “Look to Jesus” or “Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus”, and while I would sincerely agree, I often found I had trouble connecting that idea with the content of my day-to-day life. The cares and attractions of material existence are always before our physical eyes: tangible, clamoring for immediate attention and spontaneous response. Are we supposed to simultaneously focus on abstract spiritual concepts or some gauzy notion of future glory disconnected from the physical content of the world around us? Is that what is meant by verses like, “Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things” (Colossians 3:2)?
Scripture teaches that God designed created reality to teach us about his nature:
For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. – Romans 1:20
Furthermore, Scripture teaches that
[the Lord Jesus Christ] is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together… – Colossians 1:15-20
My goal is that they may be encouraged in heart and united in love, so that they may have the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. -Colossians 2:2-3
In what ways specifically and concretely does creation teach us about God’s nature? Is it nothing more than way the heavens declare the glory of God (Psalm 19:1)? Because that’s the impression I get from most treatments of that verses I come across. No, the truth set out in these passages is considerably more exciting than just that! In considering this over the past few years I have come to see that that learning to read the world through the lens of the Gospel is one of the most valuable skills that a Christian can develop.
Along with secular culture, Christians have begun to see the world and its many subjects as splintered into a million disconnected pieces. All the pieces suggest deeper significance, mysteries begging to be explained and integrated into a unified worldview. People have forgotten the answers to all the “why”s and are left with catch-phrases divorced from a foundation that would make them intelligible. Catch-phrases are only useful for reminding us of truths we already underatand in a fuller way. Free-floating catch-phrases become clichés, even if they were originally shorthand for great wisdom.
Sadly, even many Christians have despaired of receiving any answers in their lifetimes to the puzzles constantly posed by life. But the good news is that the Bible provides far more thorough and satisfying answers than I knew were available before I started exploring these topics. This blog is dedicated to providing specific examples of how Scripture answers the questions American culture is asking right now in its art, activism, politics and academics.
I have a lot more to say on the subject of beauty; really I haven’t even begun setting out my position, but I hope I have at least laid the groundwork and given you an idea of my purpose in creating this blog.