Thinking about beauty

Beauty is not in the face; beauty is a light in the heart. —Kahlil Gibran

St-Peters-domeI stood upon the rocky summit of Artist’s Point in Yosemite National Park and gazed out across a wide valley. To my left, El Capitan ascended into the low-lying clouds, its dark granite cold and forbidding. To my right, Bridalveil Falls plunged with an icy roar over a towering cliff. And at the horizon, fading into the mist, a dense forest rose to meet the distant peaks.

It was a beautiful sight.

But, imagine that I had detached my emotions and looked with a more clinical eye. I would have seen: a wide, craggy valley that had been ground up by glaciers; chaotic deposits of moraine; an infestation of hardy weeds, some large enough to be called “trees”; and everywhere, torrents of water eroding deep fissures through rock and earth.

From a “literal” perspective, it might be fair to call Yosemite an overgrown, partially-flooded canker sore.

We don’t all find beauty in the same places. But it’s generally true that as we view the natural world—a world created by cataclysmic events, a world worn down with age and deteriorating right before our eyes—we have a tendency to idealize and soften the harsh realities. We humans have a way of finding beauty in surprising places and forms.

The first words Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin spoke when he stepped onto the surface of the moon were “magnificent desolation.” The moon is a lifeless, dusty slag heap continuously pummeled by meteorites. Why “magnificent”?

Say the word “beauty” and men usually think of women. It has been suggested that human beauty is an evolutionary trick to entice males and females to mate, thus ensuring the survival of the species.

But there’s a lot more to beauty than sex.

It isn’t a failure of the English language when we use the word “beautiful” to describe a horse galloping across a lush meadow, a bubbling stream teeming with fish, a fiery sunset, or a mother nursing a baby. The word describes an emotional reaction to experiences and images that are both common and rare—sexiness is just one tiny cul-de-sac down which beauty takes us.

For instance, architectural beauty draws thousands of gaping tourists to Paris and Rome. Musical beauty has drawn new admirers to Mozart and Beethoven for hundreds of years. The appreciation of beauty attracts viewers to such diverse television shows as Trading Spaces (interior decorating), Biker Build-off (custom motorcycle design) and American Idol (young people singing, loudly).

To a heart surgeon, the muscular contractions of the human heart are beautiful. To a baseball fan, a triple-play is beautiful.

Are these things intrinsically beautiful? Probably not. Objectivity gets shoved aside by emotion. Our minds (and hearts) filter and reorganize. We idealize. We soften the focus of the lens.

Which means that beauty is not perfection, but a value judgment. A beautiful thing can be flawed, and in such a world as ours it always is. When we call something beautiful, it is as much an act of grace as appreciation. We are not saying it is perfect, only it is perfect in our eyes.

The author, Gabriela Mistral, has written that beauty… is the shadow of God on the universe.

Beauty often does that—lifts our eyes higher, stirs up thoughts of God. It creates a sense of wonder, of awe. It brings the word “wow” to our mouths. Perhaps wonder is so rare in our everyday lives that when we spot it, we have to pause and gape.

Is there something like an acknowledgment of God at these times? A prayer of appreciation to the Master Craftsman?

The Apostle Paul calls us “God’s workmanship.” (Ephesians 2:10). In Romans 1:20, Paul says that God has left his mark on creation:

From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God. (NLT)

Just as the potter leaves the subtle impressions of his fingers on the clay pot, God has left his own mark on the universe, and on us. When we respond to beauty, whether in the natural world, or in human relationships, or in the creative labors of our own hands and minds, perhaps we are acknowledging the tooling marks of our Creator.

Honor and majesty surround him;
strength and beauty are in his sanctuary.
—Psalm 96:6, NLT

God lives in beauty. The Lord is the archetype of beauty. And with his hands, he has shaped all of creation, leaving beauty behind wherever he has touched the world.

Without a doubt, the world is falling into decay. War, famine, disease and hatred have sown ugliness and horror everywhere. But God’s fingerprints are still visible, both in the natural world and in the unfailing strength of human love and compassion. We have only to stop and take notice of the beauty.

Photo credit: GreatBuildings.com

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  1. Your article and the photos moved me to share this:

    HAVE YOU ANSWERED THE MOUNTAIN SUMMONS

    IN THE CRIMSON AND GOLD OF FALL?

    HAVE YOU WANDERED OUT IN THE FOREST

    AND HEARD THE OUTDOOR CALL?

    HAVE YOU STOOD ON THE MOUNTAINS SUMMIT

    AND GAZED DOWN THE SUNSET’S TRAIL?

    AND WATCHED THE MISTS FOR THE EVENING WRAP

    THE SILENT HILLS IN THEIR VEIL?

    YOU WILL FEEL THE JOY OF LIVING

    IN THE BEAUTY OF EARTH AND SKY

    AND YOUR EAR MAY CATCH THE MURMUR OF

    ANGELS PASSING BY.

    COME OUT YE WEARY PEOPLE LIFT UP

    YOUR EYES FROM THE SOD

    COME DRINK IN THE MOUNTAINS GRANDEUR

    AND LISTEN TO THE VOICE OF GOD.

    AND HIGH IN THE SILENT MOUNTAINS

    AS YOU GAZE ON THE HILLS BELOW

    THE TAINT OF THE EARTH WILL LEAVE YOU,

    THE PRIDE IN YOUR HEART WILL GO.

    YOU WILL SEE THE SMILE OF THE MAKER

    IN THE MIDST OF THESE SENTINELS GRAND

    YOU WILL GET A GLIMPSE OF THE POWER

    AND SKILL OF THE MASTER’S HAND.

  2. You say, “Are these things intrinsically beautiful? Probably not.” Is nothing intrinsically beautiful? Is all beauty a value judgment on our part? If there is no inherent beauty but only imputed or inferred beauty, on what basis do you appeal to anything beautiful as a testimony to the Creator God? You can’t have it both ways.

    The question is very important, especially since if there is no inherent beauty, there may not be anything inherently true or inherently good, either.

    I’d like to see more discussion of the basis upon which we posit beauty in anything. For my part, I would start by noting that there is an awful lot in the world of nature in the way of color, form, pattern, etc., that I cannot explain as simply enhancements that tend toward survival or procreation. I am also very impressed with our ability (or failure, if you choose) as human beings to notice these things and to react to them as beauty, i.e., as the intentional creation of an artist. The beauty is there, and we can perceive it. Those are both amazing truths.

    I believe that someday we will look back with bewildered amusement at the time when Western civilization failed to recognize the obvious presence of intelligent design in the universe. Likewise, I think we will wonder how anyone ever managed to overlook the beauty.

    The God who made it all is not only a Master Mechanic. He is also the only truly-original Artist.

  3. Good points, as usual, Bruce. I do believe there is intrinsic beauty, and it has to originate with God himself, since he is the only original artist, as you say.

    There are God-attributes that show through human action that are intrinsically beautiful, those things we call the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, etc.

    There is intrinsic beauty in the design of creation, in the marvelous ways that living things function and thrive, in the delicate balancing of the forces that keep both the sub-atomic world and the galaxies moving in precisely ordered fashion.

    What I was trying to grapple with is the effect of sin on creation and the way it has eroded away some of the superficial beauty of the world. It seems to me that the beauty is still there, and yet we have a difficult time quantifying it. We see something that is pleasing and awesome, yet we are hard-pressed to describe just what it is that we find beautiful, and why.

    I’m suggesting a residual quality that is appealing and visible, yet somewhat obscured by the decay of sin. Beauty that has lost some of its luster, but still makes itself known because it was once magnificent, and that magnificence shows through.

    Do you think that works?

  4. I think that works

    I am fascinated by the fact that although the beauty is intrinsic and real,as you and I understand it, it is also deniable. There are people who refuse to recognize beauty. And, not surprisingly I guess, there are people who refuse to recognize the good and the true. I take it that in every case it is a question of personal choice. Isn’t it amazing that we are given the freedom to determine how much of the good, the true, and the beautiful, we will allow into our awareness?! We have a heavy responsibility there, and one that will to a large extent limit the degree to which we can relate to the one who stands behind all of these things. If I read the first chapter of Romans correctly, Paul is telling us that the refusal to recognize the good, the true, and the beautiful, and to recognize God as the author, is an offense against God. It is also the source of all depravity. Nevertheless, it is part of our freedom as human beings to make that refusal! Of course, it is also part of the grandeur of being human that we are, among all of God’s creatures, uniquely capable of perceiving the good, the true, and the beautiful, providing that we do not refuse to do so. The miracle of beauty in creation is balanced by the miracle of our being created capable of enjoying it. I gather from all this that I have been given the potential of being very much greater or very much worse than my dog. Surely, this is one area where Jesus’ words about “he who has much will be given more and he who has little, even what he has will

    be taken away from him” really find a full application.

  5. I’ll never forget the last time I was at the Getty (a huge museum of art here in southern California). My friends and I were viewing some magnificent paintings, and there was a bit of a commotion, and we noticed people leaving the gallery. More and more people followed, including us, curious to see where everyone was going. Turns out the gallery of priceless art emptied as everyone made their way outside to view…a spectacular sunset. We innately recognize beauty – it’s part of the eternity God has set in our hearts. Great post, Charlie!