Is Beauty In the Eye of the Beholder?

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  • Is Beauty In the Eye of the Beholder?

    by David A. Horner

    The answer to this question is yes-- and no. Beauty involves both subjective and objective elements, both taste and truth, which is why there is often confusion about it.

    The ability to perceive beauty does involve a kind of taste, which can be either cultivated and trained or distorted and dulled. Some instances of beauty are perceptible only to those who have cultivated a taste for them through disciplined practice. For example, trained musicians hear subtle distinctions of tone that others miss, and painters see additional hues in the sunset. In a fallen world we can lose our taste for beauty through inattention, self absorption, and suffering. We can even develop a taste for what is ugly.

    Beauty itself, however, is objective, a matter of truth. Tones and hues are real properties of music and sunsets; they are there whether or not we are sensitive enough to perceive them. The way we experience beauty shows this. We are struck by something beautiful. We may even be surprised by it-- it takes our breath away. We respond to it with spontaneous expressions of awe, gratitude, appreciation, or reverence. These reactions show we don’t really think it is beautiful merely because we think it’s beautiful. We are responding to the beauty it has, independently of us. What is truly beautiful merits such a response.

    Ultimately, beauty is grounded in the nature of God Himself, the supremely beautiful Person (Ps 27:4), and then in His creation, which reflects his beautiful intentions and artistry (Gn 1; Ps 50:2). The created order is magnificently diverse in its beauty, meaning we can see beauty in a variety of things that can all be considered beautiful (Ec 3:11).

    There are deep connections among goodness, truth, and beauty( e.g., goodness is a kind of moral beauty; Php 4:8 ). The full meaning of the Hebrew word shalom conveys this rich biblical picture. More than merely “peace,” shalom is the uniting and flowering of truth, goodness, and beauty in the wholeness of life. However, the fall has broken shalom and as a result sin has introduced ugliness into the world. Evil is not only false and bad but ugly (for instance, pornography is an ugly distortion of God’s beautiful created context of sexuality). Thus our experiences of beauty are often distorted-- and even dangerous, when we worship beauty instead of God (Gn 3:6; Rm 1:21-25).

    Each of us needs beauty in our lives, relationships, work, and worship. We are made for it and we long for it. Our hunger for beauty is an expression of our fundamental human longing for shalom-- ultimately for shalom with God (Rm 5:1).

    Beauty has value for apologetics in the sense that it is part of the common ground we share with all people, since we are made in the image of God and live in a God created world. Beauty points beyond the Physical cosmos to the Creator. Like goodness and truth, beauty is not a physical property, measurable by science, and its reality indicates that the physical world is not all there is. The beauty of the world points to the nature of the Divine Artist whose handiwork it is. And the fundamental human longing for beauty, for shalom, is a hunger that cannot ultimately be satisfied in this fallen world-- it is a clue that we were made for more than this life. (Ec 3:1).
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