A thing of beauty is a joy forever: Its loveliness increases; it will never pass into nothingness. —John Keats
The pursuit of truth and beauty is a sphere of activity in which we are permitted to remain children all our lives. —Albert Einstein
A few weeks back, while California was burning to the ground, those of us safely east of the inferno were treated to the most beautiful sunsets we’d ever seen. And that’s saying something.
Here in the western desert, where the eye can see fifty or sixty miles on a clear day, the sweep of the horizon is always a spectacular collage of purple-hued mountains beneath a cobalt sky. Our sunsets are practically gaudy, all lavender and fiery orange and pink and red. They can be showstoppers, and it’s never uncommon to see someone beside the road with a camera and tripod, trying to capture it all.
It isn’t quite true that God airbrushes the sunset by hand, though he does hold the patent on the process. When the sun is low in the sky and its light travels farther through the dusty, lower atmosphere, the blue end of the spectrum scatters to the wind, leaving only the reds to reach our eyes. Nothing to it.
Which is all very fascinating, but what interests me isn’t the how as much as the why. Why, when we’ve seen it a thousand times before, do we stop and gape at this atmospheric phenomenon?
There’s the biological answer, of course: We love a great many things, from coffee to chocolate to members of the opposite sex, because our brains are swimming in chemicals. Which is a bit like saying the light bulb lights because someone flipped the switch—it’s really only half an answer. Why is the light bulb there at all? Who or what decided to illuminate that particular corner? And wouldn’t it have been more efficient to put the switch about three feet to the left?
In other words, what evolutionary advantage lies behind an adaptation that drives us ga-ga over sunsets? What biological edge is there in the enjoyment of music or poetry? Why are our emotional rockets lit by ballet, art, a field of golden poppies, water rushing down a rocky canyon or the northern lights dancing before the starry host?
Some would say I’ve put the cart before the horse—the basic mechanism in play is a chemical pleasure machine. Humans, in pursuit of pleasure, have simply sought out the many delightful things (besides sex and food) that push our pleasure buttons. Early man painted pictures in caves, beat rhythms on hollow logs, danced while chanting magical-sounding mantras. The modern refinements of these things are merely ways of extending and perfecting the experience.
I don’t buy it. When you consider the years of painful labor that Michelangelo invested in the Pietà, his superb sculpture of Mary holding the crucified Christ, or his Sistine Chapel ceiling, it seems obvious that a far more powerful force is at work than mere pleasure-seeking. When you think of Beethoven, nearly deaf and agonizing to compose a symphony that he could only hear in his head, only a fool would suggest that the pursuit of pleasure played much of a role, if any, in the creative process.
A drunk beating a trashcan may receive some primal thrill out of the racket he makes, but it’s absurd to conclude that Rodin and Vermeer and Bach and Mozart and Wordsworth and Steinbeck were all motivated by the same drunken frenzy.
As a Christian, I tend to see God’s hand in places where others prefer more mechanistic causes. Our human appreciation of beauty, and our willingness to labor painfully in its pursuit, seems to me an indicator of something loftier than biology. If “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”, our love of beauty may be an unconscious imitation of the One who made us, an unintentional act of praise to God.
Genesis says that we were created in the image of God—that is, we share certain qualities with God. The capacity to love selflessly, to put the needs of someone else first, is one. The yearning for justice is another. And the appreciation of beauty has its origins in God, as well.
David, the ancient King of Israel, a musician and poet who wrote many of the Psalms of the Bible, was a complex man of faith. He knew about pride and moral failure. He also knew about contrition and repentance. He labored to be a faithful servant of the Almighty, and his life and poetry shows that God was, for him, the source of all beauty, all goodness, all love and all justice.
Sing a new song to the Lord!
Let the whole earth sing to the Lord!
Sing to the Lord, bless his name.
Each day proclaim the good news that he saves.
Publish his glorious deeds among the nations.
Tell everyone about the amazing things he does.
Great is the Lord! He is most worthy of praise!
He is to be revered above all gods.
The gods of other nations are merely idols,
but the Lord made the heavens!
Honor and majesty surround him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
—Psalm 96:1-6, NLT
In the days when silver bowls and teapots were crafted by hand, a proud silversmith would stamp the metal in some obscure place with a symbol, a hallmark, that identified its creator. Our love of beauty is not some quirk of evolution or the byproduct of a desire for pleasure. The quest for beauty is a hallmark, stamped on us at the moment of creation to direct us in our search for the Master Craftsman.
The next time you find yourself admiring the sunset in the fading light of day, look up and say a prayer of thanks to the Lord who lives in a sanctuary of beauty.