Thursday, June 26, 2008

Beauty Points to God

Beauty is a strong indication that ideals are real. The more nearly a form, sound, or color approximates its unseen ideal, the more beautiful it is. And ideals imply absolutes. To borrow an illustration from Plato, if the flawed beauty we see in nature is a shadow, a reality must exist outside nature to form the shadow and a light must exist behind the reality to cast it. And realities are always greater than their shadows. For beauty to exist there must be a God who designed it as the ultimate expression of perfection.

Beauty not only points us toward God but also reveals something of God’s nature that even believers often find surprising. Just as reason shows the consistency of God and morality shows the character of God, beauty shows, if we can open our minds to see it, the emotion of God. Beauty is the joy, the delight, the smile, and the laughter of God—the ecstasy of God. Beauty reveals that God desires not that we merely exist but that we revel in supreme delight. Beauty shows that the world is infused with more meaning than mere mechanics.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

The Image of Perfection

Originally, all creation emanated perfect, unsullied beauty, but it incurred damage, and the beauty became blighted. Now all beauty is, at best, flawed. No form is quite symmetrical, no face is without blemish, no color pure, no balance perfect and no harmony without a touch of dissonance. A veil has been drawn between our world and the source of all perfect beauty.

A shadowy but tantalizing image of this perfect beauty that exists beyond the veil remains locked away in every human heart. A vision of what was meant to be flashes across the screen of our consciousness like a subliminal image, and we are hooked. We long for the full experience of what we can now only glimpse.

We can only glimpse because beauty in its unfallen fullness is presently beyond the capacity of our fallen senses. But the flawed beauty that lingers in our world assures us of the greater reality that exists beyond the horizon. And this awareness that beauty is real but presently unattainable is the source of both our longing and our alienation.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Beauty—a Hint of a Greater Reality

What quality can a waterfall, a sunset, or a mountain have that makes feelings of awe appropriate? Naturalists will say that the mountain’s craggy surface thrusting upward toward the clouds is merely the result of tectonic mechanics—the random geologic forces beneath the crust of the earth. A waterfall is nothing more than gravity’s inevitable effect on flowing liquid at the point where the river channel ends at a precipice. But how do they explain the lofty feelings these natural geologic phenomena evoke? Such feelings make no sense in a totally naturalistic universe. Something more is involved here than gravity and geology.

The mountain may be a work of art. That is, a creator may have purposefully willed its form to evoke in us a specific effect. To most viewers, mountains evoke feelings of sublimity, of upward aspiration, of majesty, of awe, of mystical reaching toward the heavens. Perhaps the mountain was created to be a dim hint of a greater reality that exists in a supernatural realm above our own. The beauty we experience in nature and express in art may be echoes from beyond nature telling us that something more than what we see here exists and what we see here is merely a lesser image of it.

Yes, we know all about the other side of nature—death, decay, pain, heartache, cancers, grief, heart attacks, hurricanes, floods, tornadoes, and earthquakes. These woes are terrible, but they are only temporary blights on reality, not reality itself.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Beauty Cannot Logically Exist

In a truly naturalistic world, beauty cannot logically exist. Here is why. Beauty implies an ideal. The concept of beauty suggests standards that an object must meet or approach to achieve perfection. The more nearly an object comes to matching the ideal for its kind, the more beautiful it is. But in a naturalistic world with no absolutes (see blogs #10 and #11), no such ideals or standards are possible. What is merely is; there is no such thing as what ought to be. We must have a standard that defines what ought to be before we can evaluate whether a form meets that standard. But in a world without God, all forms and functions are in a state of perpetual change, drifting on the currents of natural selection, punctuated equilibrium, mutation and endless adaptation.

We cannot freeze the evolutionary frame and claim that at any given moment a given form is ideal. In a world of such fluctuation, we can have no fixed, absolute standards to which we can expect anything to conform. We can have no beauty without such standards, no standards without absolutes, and no absolutes without God. If the naturalists are right, true beauty cannot exist, for you cannot find a fixed, unchanging standard to which beauty should measure up.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

The Light of Beauty

Intellectually, naturalists may say that a gloriously colorful and fragrant orchid is merely a function of a mechanistic universe, but when they gaze at such a flower, it has the same emotional impact on most of them as it does on believers. Here is the reason: Beauty is a reality so much stronger than naturalistic philosophy that it simply storms past their intellect and acts directly on their emotions. It’s likely that most naturalists have not thought through their position to its logical conclusion: the mechanical workings, the chugging, pulsating engine of nature fueling itself on itself, producing nothing important, designed for no purpose, but running on aimlessly until it finally peters out.

Naturalists don’t realize that they cannot remain consistent and yet believe in beauty. Consistency would tell them that beauty cannot be explained in terms of pragmatic functions and is, therefore, at odds with their core beliefs. Naturalism reduces everything in nature down to a mechanical function. Beauty is far more than the mechanics that keep nature running. But for those unfortunate enough to have a strong commitment to both consistency and naturalistic philosophy, the light of beauty can no longer shine.

Naturalists may regard beauty as an illusion, but it is an illusion they cannot ignore. It is perhaps the only thing in their mechanistic universe that can divert their minds from the tragic reality of the ultimate oblivion of all things, including themselves.

Monday, June 16, 2008

The Beauty of Efficiency and Functionality

In art and design, naturalists give beauty a similar explanation. They say that what we call beauty is simply that which displays efficiency and functionality. Architect Frank Lloyd Wright’s famous maxim “form follows function” summarized his belief that designing for efficiency tends to result in beauty. The supersonic Concorde aircraft has been called the most beautiful machine in the world. Someone once asked its designer how much effort he put into giving the plane its extraordinary elegance and grace. He replied that every contour was plotted solely to make the plane fly as efficiently as possible. His success at utility gave the plane beauty as a natural by-product.

Things that function efficiently do tend to be what we call beautiful, whereas things that are clumsy or defective do not. Health is beautiful while sickness and decay are not. Life is beautiful, and death is a horror. Harmony is beautiful, and dissonance is repelling. Order is beautiful, whereas chaos and imbalance make us uneasy and tense. Beauty seems to grow out of efficiency and functionality. We don’t find beauty in waste, decay, brokenness or malfunction.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The Reality of Beauty

If efficiency and functionality are beautiful, why does almost everyone find even harmless spiders hideous? If death is a horror, why is no season of the year more beautiful than autumn, which owes its spectacular color to dying tree leaves? And if life itself is intrinsically beautiful, how do we explain our extreme revulsion at the life of a colony of teeming maggots?

Some philosophers have explained beauty in terms of harmony, symmetry, proportion, rhythm and archetypes. Why we get such pleasure in seeing certain forms, hearing certain sounds and feeling certain textures remains a baffling question. But my purpose here is not to answer that question. It is to show that while we cannot understand or define beauty, it is not an illusion. It is not solely utilitarian, and it is not totally subjective. Beauty exists as an objective reality, and nothing within nature will account for it. Beauty points us toward a certainty that an absolute exists somewhere above nature.

Monday, June 9, 2008

The Naturalists’ Explanation for Beauty

Naturalists tend to explain beauty in terms of pragmatic function. What we call beauty in living creatures, they see as features that evolved to protect and propagate the various species. To them the brilliant color of a flower has nothing to do with our joy and delight in it; it is merely nature’s signal to attract butterflies and bees for the purpose of cross-pollination. Naturalists would say that the feminine physical features we call beautiful were not designed for their aesthetic effect; they attract men because they display a woman’s capacity to bear and nurture children. A man’s broad shoulders and bulging biceps attract females simply because they display his ability to protect and provide. A peacock spreads its gorgeous plumage to attract a peahen. The splendid stripes of a tiger merely camouflage the animal as it stalks its prey in tall grass. To naturalists, what we call beauty is no mystery at all. It is the by-product of nature’s practical means for propagating and preserving life on the planet.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Explanations for Beauty

For the most part we don’t even try to define beauty but simply explain it away as something altogether subjective. When people express differing aesthetic preferences, the usual response is that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” I like the mountains; you prefer the seashore. I enjoy classical music; you’re into country. Because of such broadly differing preferences, most of us feel that standards for beauty are not objective but determined solely by personal taste. Even believers tend to think that beauty is a matter of individual preference.

However, our variations in preferences are minor compared to the vast sea of common agreement we share about what is beautiful and what is not. For example, almost everyone considers swans and butterflies beautiful but bats and spiders ugly. Most of us see beauty in an Alpine vista of snow-capped mountains, but few see it in an ash-coated landscape devastated by a volcanic eruption. While men differ over whether they favor blondes, brunettes, or redheads, all agree that some women are beautiful regardless of their hair color. While the eyes of individual beholders may have preferences, these preferences are only variations within great, common themes of beauty that virtually all people recognize.

Monday, June 2, 2008

The Mystery of Beauty

You attend a concert and the music moves you so deeply that it literally makes the hair on your neck stand on end. You round the bend on a rugged mountain trail and stop dead in your tracks in awe of the glorious snow-capped peak gleaming in the sun. You gaze in rapt fascination as an Olympic skater glides, leaps, and spins with uncanny grace and balance. On some enchanted evening, across a crowded room you see a face that captivates you completely.

In each of these settings you are experiencing the mystery of beauty—immersing yourself in the deep, inner pleasure we receive in response to certain combinations of forms, colors, textures, sounds, or movements. For the purposes of our discussion, beauty includes all objects, sights, sounds, or experiences that stir us to awe, elation, inspiration, enchantment, delight, or ecstasy. Beauty is what lifts life above the mundane and prosaic and gives it joy.

We are hard-pressed to explain why encounters with beauty affect us so profoundly. What is it about a song, a snow-capped mountain, or a certain face that so grips our hearts and thrills our souls? Despite the high place we give beauty in our lives, our attempts to define it fall short.