Sunday, June 26, 2016

Defining Beauty from a Theological Perspective: Part 1

Creation Still Life
 We are drawn to beauty, we fill our houses with things we find beautiful, and we arrange and rearrange them on tables and shelves to find the most pleasing combination of items. We look at pictures of beautiful things, at museums, on Pinterest. As a culture we spend millions of dollars each year to decorate our bodies and faces, altering ourselves to meet what we feel is an objective standard of beauty. As humans we have spent thousands of years combining and recombining sounds into melodies and songs that our ears enjoy. We desire not just function out of our architecture, four walls and a roof, but a pleasing arrangement of those elements and the addition of superfluous features that add beauty but not purpose.

Yet Beauty is not a simple concept. If I asked you to define beauty right now, what would you say? Philosophers since Plato have filled tomes with their ideas, but have failed to nail down specifics (so just to warn you, we aren’t going to come up with a definition of beauty here!) Even if I asked you to describe something beautiful the answers would be varied because we each experience beauty in different ways, beauty is experiential. Beauty draws us in, attracts us, but we are also deeply suspicious of it. We know appearances to be deceiving and we dislike vanity.

So our goal in the next few weeks isn’t to come up with a definitive understanding of beauty, or to decide if beauty is positive or negative thing, but rather to embrace the complexity of the subject, to think about it thoroughly and see if we can begin to understand some of the variances from a theological perspective.

I am a visual artist, more specifically I am a representational painter. One of the techniques of a representational artist, when an exact likeness is sought is called “sight-size” the point of the technique is to try to create an exact replica of what you see, exactly to size. To do this you can’t stand right next to your easel, and you can’t move around. You have to mark off a spot, usually around five feet behind your easel, were you can see both your subject and the easel clearly. This spot is the spot from which you make all of your decisions. It gives you a clear and unwavering vantage point and all you have to do is glance back and forth from your object to your painting to see mistakes or problems.

This is what we are going to do today, we are going to mark off our spot, the spot that will define what we see and how we understand it, and from this point we can make our decisions about beauty. We are going to start in the beginning, with creation and the creator. 

Why did God create the world?

Jonathan Edwards, 18th century theologian wrote a theses “The End for Which God Created the World” In which he tackles this question. For Edwards, this question was of primary concern, without its proper answer, we couldn’t know anything about our creator, and about ourselves or our purpose. 

He writes that:
“…we must suppose that God, before he created the world, had some good in view, as a consequence of the world’s existence, that was originally agreeable to him in and of itself considered, that inclined him to bring the universe into existence, in such manner as he created it” (J.E. Piper, 132).

The creation of the universe, of us, was not an accident, or a byproduct of another act, it wasn’t the result of God being bored, or lonely. The way the universe was created, the form it took, how it was stitched together, all of these elements are particular and done for a purpose.

The objective that God had when he created the world, was that his glory, his person, would be manifest and magnified in his creation.  God himself is the reason that God created the world. God delights in himself and makes himself his purpose, his objective, his end. God also delights in his excellencies being seen, esteemed, and delighted in. This is where we come in. The Westminster catechism asks: What is the chief end of man? The answer to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Our joy and happiness is of concern to God, it is part of why he created the world the way he did, he made it beautiful and pleasurable so that his creatures could delight in him.

Beauty is an integral part of creation. God did not make a completely utilitarian creation, one that fit the bill for sustaining life with the right levels of carbon and hydrogen and oxygen. He created each part of the universe and proclaimed each good. A comprehensive statement of value.

In Genesis 2 God creates Adam and plants a garden for him:

 8 Now the Lord God had planted a garden in the east, in Eden; and there he put the man he had formed. 9 The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food. In the middle of the garden were the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

10 A river watering the garden flowed from Eden; from there it was separated into four headwaters. 11 The name of the first is the Pishon; it winds through the entire land of Havilah, where there is gold. 12 (The gold of that land is good; aromatic resin[d] and onyx are also there.) 13 The name of the second river is the Gihon; it winds through the entire land of Cush.[e] 14 The name of the third river is the Tigris; it runs along the east side of Ashur. And the fourth river is the Euphrates.

It is noted that the trees that were planted were not just good for food, but pleasing to the eye, beautiful! Additionally the descriptors of the land are that there are gold and onyx there, precious metals known for beauty more than practicality. The picture painted is that the land is valuable and beautiful and it was set aside for God’s special creatures.

The final thing that I want to note is that human beings, created in the image of God, were created with the capacity to see and appreciate beauty. IN chapter three it says: 6 When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. No other creature that God made appreciates, values and seeks after beauty. This a particular facet of being made in the image of God.

If we accept that God created the world as an expression of his glory, that he created it in a particular manner as an expression of his glory, and that beauty was a part of this from the beginning. If we accept that an ability to appreciate beauty, a longing for beauty is part of what makes humanity unique as image bearers, then we also accept that God is the source of Beauty, that beauty is one of the ways that he has chosen to express his person and his glory.