/ Guest Author

What - or Better, Who - is Beauty?

The following article, the second in a series on the subject of beauty (here is the first article), is a guest post by Laura Cerbus. Originally from Western Pennsylvania, Laura lives and teaches in Melbourne, Australia, where she is becoming acquainted with the beauty and grief of cross-cultural life. Along with her husband and three children, she worships and serves in a local church revitalization. She writes at lauracerbus.com.

When writing or speaking about beauty, one of the first major hurdles to arise is a definition. What is beauty? While most people would say that they know it when they see it, articulating exactly what it is, and what it is not, is a challenge. Philosophers, theologians, and artists have argued about beauty’s definition for millenia, and it would be arrogant to think that what I have to say will end the discussion.

Still, we need to work towards something. Many go back to Plato, and his claim that beauty is objective, and that it has to do with symmetry, order, balance, and proportion. Others, particularly in modern and postmodern Western culture, would argue that beauty is subjective—it depends on your perspective, tastes, experiences, and that there isn’t one true definition for all people and all time.

But perhaps we are asking the wrong question. What if, instead of asking, “what is beauty?” we asked, “who is beauty?”

Beauty has a name

Augustine of Hippo, an African bishop and theologian living in the fourth century, answers this question. In one of the most famous lines in his memoir of conversion, he laments, “Belatedly I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved you.” Here, Augustine addresses God, and he does so by calling God “Beauty.”

He’s in good company: his words echo that of David and Moses. In Psalm 27, David declares that he seeks one thing: “that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple” (27:4, NIV). Later, in Psalm 29, he instructs the people to “worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness” (29:2, KJV). Moses, too, identifies God as beautiful in his benediction to Psalm 90: “let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us” (90:17, KJV).[1] David and Moses agree: the Lord is beautiful.

If the Lord is beautiful, then it follows that he is the most beautiful. As Anselm argues, “whatever good thing the supreme Nature is, it is in the highest degree. It is, therefore,...supreme Beauty…” Jonathan Edwards goes further, arguing not only that “as God is infinitely the greatest Being, so is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent” but that because of this, “all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory; God...is the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty.”

Our beautiful God

We have identified, now, not simply an idea of beauty, but beauty itself. God, in his attributes and actions, grounds all definitions of beauty. Whether beautiful in small measure or great, something or someone may only be said to be beautiful if it is consonant in some way with who God is.

Still, we can be more specific: what is beautiful about God? Here, we could go on and on. Like the beloved in the Song of Songs, the list of God’s beautiful attributes and actions deserves to be catalogued with loving detail. For the sake of this short essay, however, I’ll just note one: God is beautiful in his triunity.

God is beautiful because God is Triune: three persons in one God, “one substance, power, and eternity,” as the Westminster Confession of Faith declares. The Father, Son, and Spirit have loved and rejoiced in each other from eternity. Reformed theologian Jonathan King describes the Godhead’s existence as one of a relationship of “mutual love and eternal delight with and in one another.” We see this affirmed in the Scriptures, particularly of the Father’s love for the Son: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights” (Is. 42:1); “For the Father loves the Son” (Jn. 5:20); “Father...you loved me before the foundation of the world” (Jn. 17:24). King describes God’s eternal condition as one of blessedness, or beatitude: “absolute felicity, delight, satisfaction, and repose” which is “bound up with the sheer positive plenitude of his being.” This plenitude—overflowing fullness and abundance—of blessedness is what we recognize and name as beautiful.

Beauty’s Subjectivity

If beauty is grounded in God, then we might wonder next how our varying experiences of beauty, and our diverse tastes and preferences, fit in. How do we move from God’s beauty to beauty in the world? God’s attributes are unchanging; beauty must then be objective and unchanging as well. And yet we say “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” for a reason—cultures, not to mention individuals within cultures, can differ wildly as to what is deemed to be beautiful.

We can, I think, hold to an objective standard for beauty—God as the ground and fountain of all beauty—as well as affirm people’s subjective judgements on what is beautiful. There are two reasons for this: the sinfulness of humanity and the infinity of God.

Just like the rest of our selves, our vision and judgment also need to be redeemed. Sin prevents us from recognizing true beauty: Isaiah pronounced judgement on those who call evil good and good evil (Isaiah 5:20), and in the same way we are prone to call the ugly beautiful and the beautiful ugly. We need to be renewed as new creations and retrained to a right vision of what is beautiful. Our sinful failure to see and judge rightly accounts for some of the subjectivity in human experiences.

Yet, we ought to be wary of pride that hastily attributes our own tastes to a right vision of beauty, while disdaining others as distorted. Instead of reacting in pride or dismissal, we ought to be curious about what others find beautiful and why. This subjectivity can seem dangerous, but because of God’s infinite beauty, we ought to expect that we, as finite creatures, will not be able to grasp all aspects of God’s beauty. God is infinite: no beginning and no end. We will never be able to fathom him, nor will we ever be able to fathom his beauty. We will never grow tired of admiring it. This is where there is room for our subjective experiences—we need each other, as image bearers of God who are distinct, no one alike, to have a more full, rich picture of God’s beauty. We need each other to help one another retrain how we see and judge. No one person can adequately grasp the fullness of God’s beauty, and thus recognize it in the world. As we interact with others who are different from us in culture and personality, our ability to recognize beauty can grow.

Here, in the grounding of beauty in a who, rather than what, beauty becomes more than something pleasant. Understanding God as Beauty, the most beautiful and the One against whom we define all other beauties, allows our experiences of beauty here in this world to draw us towards him. We can resist both looking idolatrously or disdainfully at created beauty. Instead, beautiful things become, as one theologian[2] describes them, a reminder of God, and thus opportunities for praise, and longing for the time when we will see Beauty face to face.

[1] It’s interesting to note that the KJV is more likely to translate the Hebrew words no’am and hadara as “beauty,” rather than later translations’ preference for words such as “splendour” or “favour.”

[2] Junius Johnson makes this argument in his theology of beauty, The Father of Lights.