Beauty in the Eye of the Beholder? Truth, Goodness, and Beauty Part III
The saying, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” has much truth to it. That’s part of the trouble we get into when we try to define beauty. If every man had the same idea of what a beautiful woman was, then no man, except one, would be content with his own wife.
The ruling logic of the postmodernist thinker is that there is no absolute standard of beauty, because beauty is different for everybody. Something may create an emotional admiration (and emotion becomes the judge of beauty) in one person but not in another, so it is deemed beautiful by one person and not by another.
Conservative and informed Christians recognize the danger of Postmodernism, and strongly declare that there is one True and one Good, which is God. However, most Christians do not automatically make the connection that there must, therefore, be an absolute standard for what is Beautiful.
This is because recognizing the Good and True in God does not necessarily require an emotional response, nor can Good or True be mistaken for a mere cultural fancy. But if there is an absolute “Beautiful,” just as there is an absolute Good and True, we assume it will automatically create an emotional response in us when we encounter it. Christians who love intellectual exercises in the historical doctrines of the church may cringe at the thought of declaring Beauty to be a standard held by God. We instantly think of repetitive and emotional praise choruses that base themselves more on a teary feeling of inspiration than accurate doctrine.
This final section will attempt to show that all that is truly Beautiful is also Biblically True and Good, and is an essential aspect of the Church’s role in culture and in our understanding of God.
What Beauty Is Not
The modernists of the Enlightenment decided that the arts and sciences were the tool that would cultivate a person’s inner psyche by synchronizing the psyche with the corresponding order of beauty:
…there was a powerful climate of opinion in Bach’s day that assigned to the arts a prominent function in the shaping of human thought and life. Not a little of modern aestheticism can be traced to the idea so prevalent in the Enlightenment that the Beautiful had power to transform men by its sheer beauty. According to this idea, there was an almost mathematical symmetry in the human psyche that needed to be related to some symmetry outside it. (Pelikan, Jaroslav, Fools for Christ: Essays on the True, the Good, and the Beautiful, [Philadelphia: Muhlenberg Press, 1955])
Though the Enlightenment modernists were correct in believing that there was something beneficial to men in good art and that Beauty was an absolute quality, they failed to see that there was an eternal greatness in Beauty which could not be measured by any principles of aesthetic harmony. They thought that if something pleasant corresponded to a vital need in the human psyche and seems to adjust thought and life for the better, it must be Beautiful in the absolute sense.
Nietzsche had opinions on beauty too. As problematic as his philosophy on moral standards proved to be, his original search was for the ultimate Beauty which held eternity inside itself. He pursued every aesthetically pleasing thing as if it were God. He rejected the intellect and all truths requiring the mind, for the mind could not explain great things as could beautiful expression in the arts. He rejected moral standards and all moral goodness, for it created a restricting chain that was distant from sensual emotion. His conclusion was that the experience of the beautiful was the only religion man needed. Man was complete when he could be absorbed by beauty.
Eventually he died, a crazed and unsatisfied drug addict, who declared that “God is dead” because the beauty he worshipped was devoid of God.
Once again, a tertium quid—an unbeatable standard—is needed to declare what beauty really is, how it relates to God, and how God uses it to relate to man.
The Beauty of Holiness
It is difficult to describe beauty without describing the medium it is carried in (music, art, scenery, etc.). Yet we know the medium may vary and the concept of “beauty” is still retainable in our minds—apart from the medium. Whether the medium is a lady’s face, a painting, a song, a play, a fragrance, we know what a “beautiful” one of each of these is like.
The Bible indicates that beauty is carried in the medium of holiness. Holiness is a synonym for the absolute moral Good mentioned earlier. The verses below show how the Bible connects Beauty and Holiness.
1 Chronicles 16:29— Give unto the LORD the glory due unto his name: bring an offering, and come before him: worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.
2 Chronicles 20:21— And when he had consulted with the people, he appointed singers unto the LORD, and that should praise the beauty of holiness, as they went out before the army, and to say, Praise the LORD; for his mercy endureth for ever.
Psalm 29:2—Give unto the LORD the glory due unto His name; worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness.
(See also Ps. 96:9, and Ps. 110:3)
These verses indicate that God’s holiness is a beautiful thing. It seems evident that if God uses a certain quality to describe holiness, which is one of His absolute and infallible attributes, that quality must have absolute qualities itself, and cannot be relative to what a person may think or feel. By using the term “Beauty” to describe His perfect holiness, God sets His claim on the entire concept of Beauty.
Beauty is certainly an essential aspect of His nature, and frequently shows itself in the poetic and prophetic books:
Psalm 90:17—And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. Isaiah 33:17—Thine eyes shall see the king in His beauty: they shall behold the land that is very far off. Ezekiel 16:14—And thy renown went forth among the heathen for thy beauty: for it was perfect through My comeliness, which I had put upon thee, saith the Lord GOD. (See also Is. 28:5, Is. 33:17, and Ps. 27:4)
The Hebrew words used for “beauty” in the verses above have been translated in other similar texts into the words: glory, adornment, holy adornment (of public worship), honor, decoration, splendor, finery (of garments, jewels); glory of rank, renown, (or) of God; fair, beautiful, handsome; to be comely, beautiful, befitting.
We may safely understand that the Hebrew words for “beauty” carry the same meanings we attribute to the English word “beauty.” We see that God desires to be worshipped in “the beauty of holiness,” that He is beautiful Himself, and that He makes everything which belongs to His holy kingdom beautiful. In every way, God is the author of Beauty, for He is the author of all Goodness. As the highest authority on Beauty, He holds the standard of Beauty in His person. Any beauty that we as people, churches, and a culture possess, is “beauty not our own,” as the old hymn says. Truly all things that we consider beautiful are only a reflection of the absolute and pure Beauty of God.
Beauty in the Culture of the 21st Century
This brings us to the final discussion of the cultural implications of Beauty. Though Beauty is perhaps the most misunderstood of the trio, we know from Romans 1:20 that the invisible attributes of God are clearly seen, and therefore all men do have an instinct for what is truly beautiful. Yes, there may be personal preferences, and God has created men with individual likes and dislikes. But the sort of beauty we are analyzing here is the eternal beauty that is beautiful outside of any person’s opinion deeming it so.
Today’s culture idolizes “beauty,” but this beauty is a far cry from the Beauty of Holiness. Women stress over body fat, makeup, face shape, and clothing. At the same time, culture’s fashion queens and “beauty divas” tattoo their skin and wear intentionally ragged, faded, and dirty clothing. Models show pouting lips and hollow eyes that flaunt a rebellious and seductive fire. Culture has reveled in the power of aesthetics—and in mankind’s power over it—by taking every element of the Holy out of the Beautiful, and leaving only a painted sepulcher with nothing inside but rotting bones.
Culture has even borrowed from Nietzsche’s philosophy by praising the operas, the music, the art, and the splendor for the sake of the expression of art itself—not realizing that this sort of beauty doesn’t go any deeper than the medium used to convey it. The meaning of art has vaporized because the Holiness has disappeared.
Read more in my complete article called “The Beauty of Holiness” about how the church can cultivate true Beauty and establish the work of her hands.
The author is a homeschool graduate with a BA in Christian Education and Communications. She lives with her parents and two brothers in Colorado, and she does freelance writing under the pen name Jane Grey. Her writings can be found online at JaneGrey.HubPages.com. She is currently working on her first book, a series of biographies featuring marriages of the Protestant Reformers.