I have been asked tonight to talk about a Christian vision of
beauty, and I am first struck by the fact that this conversation would
be so rare. There are altogether too few opportunities for Christians
to ponder some of the biggest questions of life. We tend to focus on
the questions of urgency and the questions of immediate interest. That
is not to say that such questions are improper, but it is to say that
Christian thought can sometimes fall out of balance. One of the
realities we face is that in a conversation like this, we are not
exactly sure where to begin. Where should we begin talking about beauty?

Allow me to make a couple of preliminary observations, the first of
which is this: There is something intrinsic to humanity that is drawn
to beauty. There is something of an aesthetic desire in us–an
aesthetic appetite. Even infants are attracted to certain objects and
even faces because of complexity and color and light, those elements
which aesthetic theorists have considered the very substance of beauty,
form, and attractiveness. Moreover, this desire for and recognition of
beauty is something unique to human beings. Dogs do not contemplate a
sunset. Animals do not ponder the beauty of the landscape. It is true
the heavens are declaring the glory of God, but most of the creatures
on the planet are oblivious to this fact. They neither make nor observe
nor appreciate art. They stage no dramas, write no music, and paint no
portraits. The desire for art is something unique and nearly universal
among human beings.

At the same time, we must understand that beauty is in crisis; it is
a contested category. Let me suggest two reasons why this is so. First,
beauty is a category in crisis because it has been so devalued in the
reigning confusion of popular culture. The fact is that we have come to
use the word “beautiful” in an altogether awkward and inappropriate
context. We speak of beauty, when what we really mean is prettiness,
or attractiveness, or even likeability. None of these things, however,
is actually equal to beauty. Yet the popular culture increasingly
confuses the artificial for the real, the pretty for the beautiful, and
the untrue for the true–all of which are essentially one root
confusion, as we shall see.

Second, beauty is a category in crisis also at the level of elite
culture and academia, where philosophers who give attention to
aesthetic theory are increasingly convinced that beauty is a shopworn
category. It is either political, or entirely subjective, or
delusional. Many of the major writers in philosophy suggest that beauty
is a category we ought to discard altogether. The idea of beauty, they
say, is too expensive, too contested, and too misleading.

In the history of Western thought, beauty has often been a difficult
category. The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard, for example, was
convinced that in the end aesthetics was a divergence from ethics, so
that to be concerned with the beautiful was to be inadequately
concerned for the good. Friedrich Nietzche, the very prophet of
nihilism himself, believed that the category of beauty was a symptom of
the decadence and the weakness of modern humanity. Only the decadent
would consider beauty important, he argued, because all that finally
matters is power. Perhaps in reality, Nietzche saw only power as
beautiful.

But if beauty is in crisis in terms of the culture, both at the
popular level and among the elites, it is also in trouble in the
church, where the influence of popular culture has led to confusion
about what beauty actually is and why we as Christians should seek it.

A Christian understanding of beauty runs directly into the wisdom of
the age by suggesting that the beautiful is simultaneously the good and
the true and the real. This goes all the way back to the conversation
of the ancients–especially to Plato, who understood the good, the
beautiful, the true, and the real as being essentially reducible to the
same thing. If there is one good, then that good must also be the true,
which must also be the real, which must also be the beautiful. So the
good, the beautiful, the true, and the real–the four great historical
transcendentals–are unified in the One. For Plato, however, the One
had no name.

Augustine, the great theologian of the patristic era, identified the
One as the one true and living God. Taking Plato’s metaphysical
speculations into the very heart of the Gospel, Augustine suggested
that Christians uniquely understand that the good, the beautiful, the
true, and the real, are indeed one, because they are established in the
reality of the self-revealing God–the triune God of Father, Son, and
Holy Spirit. He alone is beautiful, He alone is good, He alone is true,
and He alone is real. That is not to suggest that nothing else reflects
beauty or truth or goodness. It is simply to say that He alone, by
virtue of the fact that He is infinite in all His perfections, is the
source and the judge and the end of all that is good, beautiful, true,
and real. For as Paul said, from Him and through Him and to Him are all
things, to whom be glory forever, Amen.

Now this Christian conversation about the transcendentals opens an
entirely new awareness for us. We now begin to understand that there is
a moral context, a truth context, to every question about beauty. We
can no longer talk about beauty as a mere matter of taste. Instantly,
by affirming the unity of the transcendentals, we are required to see
beauty fundamentally as a matter of truth to which taste is
accountable, rather than a matter of taste to which truth is
accountable.

Thus, it violates Scripture and indeed the character of God to call
something “beautiful” which is not good, or “true” which is not
beautiful, or “real” which is not true. Yet if we are honest, we
admit to ourselves that in our common cultural conversation, we
routinely sever the good from the true, the true from the beautiful,
the beautiful from the real, and the real from the good. As Christians,
we alone really understand why this is so, and why it so important.

Augustine understood that beauty was a key Christian category.
Indeed, Christians cannot properly think as Christians without
understanding the power of beauty. In his Confessions he said
this: “I have learnt to love you late, Beauty at once so ancient and so
new! I have learnt to love you late! You were within me, and I was in
the world outside myself. I searched for you outside myself and,
disfigured as I was, I fell upon the lovely things of your creation.
The beautiful things of this world kept me from you and yet, if they
had not been in you, they would have had no being at all.” In that
confessional statement, Augustine is saying that it was beauty that was
calling him. It was his Creator that was calling him, and yet he was
distracted by the things of apparent beauty in the world. And
yet he does not despise those things; he remembers that their beauty is
merely a reflected beauty, derived from the fact that God is their
Creator.

Augustine continues: “It was you then, O Lord, who made them. You
who are beautiful, for they too are beautiful. You who are good, for
they too are good. You who are, for they too are. But they are not
beautiful and good as you are beautiful and good. Nor do they have
their being as you the Creator have your being. In comparison with you,
they have neither beauty nor goodness nor being at all.” Augustine
realizes that in order to see true beauty, he has to go to his Creator,
and then, knowing the Creator, he may observe the creation and see that
it does indeed bear the mark of its Maker. There is undeniable beauty
in creation, but in comparison with the infinite beauty of the Creator,
such finite beauty no longer has the seductive allure it once had. All
earthly beauty is simultaneously validated and relativized by the
contemplation of the beauty of God.

The same theme was picked up by Jonathan Edwards, who said this:
“True holiness must mainly consist in love to God, for holiness
consists in loving what is most excellent and beautiful. Because God is
infinitely the most beautiful and excellent being, He must necessarily
be loved supremely by those who are truly holy. It follows from this
that God’s own holiness must consist primarily in love to Himself.
Being most holy, He most loves what is good and beautiful, that is
Himself. To love completely what is most completely good is to be most
completely perfect. From this, it follows that a truly holy mind, above
all other things, seeks the glory of God and makes the glory of God His
supreme governing and ultimate end.”

In that brief statement, Edwards does something very helpful and
very consistent with the Christian tradition. As a matter of fact, it
is a necessary insight once we go to the Scriptures. If you search
through the Old Testament, you will notice that the word “beauty” is
really not there. Instead, it is the word “glory.” Throughout the
Bible, the beauty of God is most commonly described as His glory.
Once we understand the biblical category of glory–that is, the reality
of God in terms of His inner reality and the external manifestation of
Himself–we realize that God’s glory encompasses all the
transcendentals. To gaze upon God is not first of all to see His
beauty, but rather His glory.

Edwards defined beauty as consisting mostly in “sweet mutual
consents.” By this, Edwards meant that things are rightly set: The
thing is what God declared that it must be. In other words, beauty is
achieved when the thing created most closely and most perfectly
glorifies its Creator. Thus a “sweet mutual consent,” or absolute
harmony, exists between the created thing and the Creator.

When we look at the unity of the transcendentals, and compare
Edwards’ and Augustine’s vision of view to our contemporary poverty
concerning things beautiful, we are quickly and painfully aware that
something has gone horribly wrong. Why would human beings seek to
sunder the unity between the good and the beautiful, between the true
and the real, between the beautiful and the true? Why would we want to
call something that is ugly true? Why would we want to call something
that is unreal beautiful? That is a symptom of a human sickness, and
that sickness is sin.

Our understanding of beauty as a category in crisis begins not with
contemporary confusion, but in the Garden of Eden, where our first
parents were attracted to the forbidden fruit at least in part because
it was attractive to the eyes. A false understanding of beauty–the
false allure of the evil rather than the good–is a part of the story
of the Fall. Thus the confusion over beauty is not merely an item of
cultural consternation, nor is it merely a matter of theological
debate. It is a matter of redemption. The only way out of our confusion
over beauty is to know the Creator, to know Him not merely conceptually
but personally, and to have our relationship with Him once again set
right, something which only He can do. Then Edwards’ vision of the
“sweet mutual consents” might be realized–a redeemed people once again
entering into the mutual consent of the good, the beautiful, the true,
and the real.