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Beauty: In the Eye of the Beholder? – George Trotter

You’ve probably heard of the Great Books of the Western World. They were published by Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc. in 1952.  All the works in those 50+ volumes – plus the Bible – were regarded as comprising the very best thinking to come out of western intellectual tradition during the previous 3,400 years or so.  Today, unfortunately, much of it would be denigrated (and maybe dismissed!?) as having been written by DWGs (dead white guys).

Nevertheless, Great Books editor, Mortimer J. Adler, considered those same writers to be the most impactful that western civilization had to offer.  Adler divided the various works among four different categories: philosophy and theology, history, science, and literature.  He also conceived of the multitude of issues dealt with by these men as the Great Ideas, of which there were 102.  They ranged from “Angel” through “Education”, “Logic”, “Nature”, and “Sin” to “World”.  Each work dealt with multiple ideas.  Dr. Adler pointed out that of the 102 Great Ideas, three of them (Truth, Goodness and Beauty) have been described by some as “transcendental” because “everything that is is in some measure or manner subject to denomination as true or false, good or evil, beautiful or ugly.”  Others have believed that they ought to be assigned to particular areas of subject matter: that is, “the true to thought and logic, the good to action and morals, and the beautiful to enjoyment and aesthetics.”  Whatever the case, it’s easy to understand why these three, as Adler says, “form a triad of terms which have been discussed together throughout the tradition of western thought.”  And, it hardly needs noting that these three ideas have been extensively dealt with in the Bible.

In his introductory essay on the idea of Beauty in Volume 2 (entitled The Great Ideas – A Syntopicon I), Adler notes that “Truth, goodness, and beauty, singly and together, have been the focus of the age-old controversy concerning the absolute and the relative, the objective and the subjective, the universal and the individual.”… Hmm.  The whole idea of “relative” and “subjective” is causing me to have visions of elephants and blind men!

Moving on, it should be pointed out that the ideas of Truth and Goodness have been much more a part of objective-subjective discussions than has Beauty.  And even when Christian philosophers have once again in a major way taken up the task of contending for objective standards of truth and goodness, the idea that “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” (a very subjective/relativistic notion) has largely escaped attention.

Interestingly, persuasive arguments have been provided by Christian theologians and philosophers throughout history for treating all three ideas (but particularly truth and goodness) as absolute, objective and universal things.  This is backed up in John 14 where Jesus tells His disciples (and us) that He is – among other things – “the truth”.  And, knowing what we know of Jesus, would it not seem incoherent to say He was arguing for a relativistic view of the matter?  Imagine: “Well, Jesus, that may be true for you, but…..!!”

Furthermore, a biblical apologia for an absolute/objective/universal stance regarding the “triad” can go beyond Jesus’ claim.  Paul’s famous exhortation to the Philippians stands out: “Finally brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, let your mind dwell on these things” (4:8).  Whether noun or adjective, every single characteristic mentioned by Paul has something to do with Truth or Goodness or Beauty!

Before getting to Beauty specifically, I want to provide a recent example of how the other two ideas have been dealt with.  In his wonderfully accessible book Relativism: Feet Firmly Planted in Mid-Air (co-authored with Frank Beckwith), and in frequent public lectures, Greg Koukl has argued that the whole idea of relativism – in whatever realm – commits suicide; that is, it is logically self-refuting; or, as the late Ronald Nash used to say (with a twinkle in his eye!), “self-referentially absurd”.  For example, with specific regard to ethics (that is, the good – or lack thereof – in action), Koukl gets to the nub of things by asking, “Who is the moral hero of ethical relativism?  That is, what do we call a person who, more than anything else, is characterized by marching to the beat of his own drum?”  The answer: a sociopath!  Koukl’s conclusion: If the moral hero of your view of what constitutes good behavior is a sociopath, it is bankrupt as a system of morality.  In truth, it cannot even be considered to be a system of morality at all.  Moreover, it stands as a significant danger to society.

Our specific concern this morning, however, is Beauty.  As mentioned, of the three ideas, Beauty has more consistently been thought of in relative, subjective, and individual terms than the other two.  I’ve already noted how prevalent this idea is by citing the old cliche, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”  But, is it really?!  Is Beauty entirely a relativistic thing?  Even in the absence of the Christian view of God, Aristotle regarded Beauty as an objective thing defined by proportionality, simplicity, harmony and complexity.  Later, both Thomas Aquinas (a medieval Roman Catholic) and Jonathan Edwards (an 18th century Protestant), coming from Christian perspectives, wrote in very similar veins.

More recently, R.C. Sproul has not only validated Aristotle’s view but also posited the idea that God is both the source and norm not only of Truth and Goodness but also Beauty.  That is, He is the standard by which all three of these basic ideas must be gauged.  In his notes for lecture number 3 (“Is Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder?”) – part of his DVD lecture series entitled, Recovering the Beauty of the Arts – Sproul concludes that “we see that historically Beauty was not determined by arbitrary feelings, or chaos, but was based on the interaction of the above four principles (i.e., proportionality, etc.).  All of these principles, Aristotle rightly understood, do not occur randomly, and they can be applied to every work of art regardless of form.”

With that in mind, in Psalm 27 David writes:

One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, To behold the beauty of the Lord, and to meditate in his temple.

Similarly, we have David’s Song of Thanks as recorded for us in 1 Chronicles 16.  [By the way, a lot of it is repeated in Psalm 96].  In the song, the king mentions God’s glory throughout – a word that speaks of majesty, worth and splendor.  David then calls on the people to worship the Lord “in the splendor (sometimes translated, ‘beauty’) of holiness.”  In other words, Yahweh – the True God, the God we are to worship – can be thought of as The Beautiful One.

Now, I find it fascinating what God says when He describes for Moses what Aaron’s priestly garments are to be made of and how they’re to be decorated.  First of all, they’re to be made with gold!  This is immediately followed by mention of blue and purple and scarlet yarns – the three colors of fabric that were the most costly to produce! – and “fine, twisted linen.”  And throughout all these descriptions, God says they are to be made “for glory and for beauty” (Ex 28:2)!!  Why?!  It is because these qualities reflect God’s character.  Additionally, it’s interesting to note that the first people in the Bible who are said to be filled with the Holy Spirit of God are the artisans that made everything having to do with the tabernacle and the priests – all the articles made for glory and for beauty!

With the Bible introducing the idea of beauty as applied to the priests’ attire – and, in light of the tearing of the veil, that of the High Priest in particular – does this say anything to us today about our attire in formal worship?  Sproul says it does.  The purpose of the beauty of Aaron’s garments was not to prompt him to think of himself as really spiffy!  Rather, it was a means of consecrating him to his various tasks.  Therefore, since we comprise a priesthood of all believers, should the controlling element in our Sunday dress be comfort?  I’ve argued for some time now that much of modern worship has come to be about “us”… that is, “me” writ large.  And comfort – in dress, atmosphere, etc. – is just part of the picture.  And, this is going to be way countercultural, but since we have been given the privilege of dealing directly with the Living God, ought not our attire on Sundays be more about glory and beauty than comfort?  I leave that to you to ponder.

Finally, though , something else to think about: Handel’s Messiah: ugly or beautiful?  Serrano’s Piss Christ?  Macbeth? Yorkminster?  Gwyneth Paltrow?  Reims cathedral?  Psalm 23?  Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater?  Rosie O’Donnell?  Hugh Jackman?  Leonardo’s Mona Lisa?  Grapes of Wrath? Psalm 51?!  Elphabah?  Or, Glinda?!  Much Ado About Nothing?  The South Bronx?  The prologue to John’s gospel?  The New World Translation?  Pick something/someone; and try to discern God’s judgment!