Big Beauty and little beauty
Last week we began by placing ourselves in a position that will define our relationship to and understanding of beauty. The position we marked out is based on an understanding that God created the world as an expression of his glory, and he is glorified when his creatures delight in him. John Piper writes, paraphrasing Jonathan Edwards, “God’s aim in creating the world was to display the value of his own glory, and that aim is no other than the endless, ever-increasing joy of his people in that Glory” (Piper, God’s passion for his Glory p.32). So what does the glory of God have to do with beauty? We began by looking at creation and the integral part that beauty plays in the created world. Today we are going to build on that, to attempt to define beauty from the standpoint of the glory of God.
The first question to ask, of course, is what is beauty? And what does beauty have to do with the glory of God? While we aren’t going to come up with an easy answer, my hope is that we can gain a deeper understanding and broader perspective of how the two ideas are related, and why beauty is important.
To define beauty we are going to do more philosophy than theology, but it is a philosophy that is built on that spot that we earlier staked out. Jonathan Edwards in his essay “On the Nature of True Virtue” defines two types of beauty which strikes me as a really good way of looking at things. The first beauty he defines is a spiritual as well as physical beauty, one that is synonymous with virtue, a beauty that is apparent when something or someone is seen comprehensively, inside and out, and here is the kicker: in relation to God and his glory. This idea of beauty is an old one, equating beauty with truth, love, courage etc. Virtues and virtuous acts are considered beautiful, and this is, for the most part, universal. Cultures may disagree on the ordering of virtues, which is more important than the other, but all agree on the basic virtues of love, of truthfulness, of courage, etc. This is Big Beauty, objective beauty. True virtue consists primarily of love (of God and others) and then acts that come from it. This is why you can stare at your child and marvel at his beauty. To others he is a cute kid more or less, but nothing special, but to you he is staggeringly beautiful. The love creates the beauty.
But not everything that is beautiful is virtuous and that is where the second definition of beauty comes in.
Little beauty is what we most often think of as beauty. It is the aesthetic and harmonious arrangement of features or elements that when viewed together create pleasure in the viewer. For example: the symmetrical arrangement of features on a face creates little beauty. The arrangement of textures and colors and shapes in a landscape, the arrangement of notes in a song, the arrangement of graceful movements in a dance. This is why we collect random objects and arrange them on our coffee tables and mantels. Little beauty is subject to personal taste and cultural norms and as such is primarily experiential and subjective. Jonathan Edwards links Big Beauty and little beauty through the concept of harmony: “Beauty consists not in discord or dissent, but in consent or agreement”, in little beauty the consent and agreement is in the relationship of parts to the whole and to the viewer, in Big Beauty the consent and agreement he is referring to is a harmonious relationship between our will and God’s will, which results in true virtue. In this linking Edwards claims that the harmony that defines little beauty is a picture of the harmony that defines Big Beauty, and was given to man as an instinct by God.
In establishing this law of nature God seems to want the natural agreement ·that causes the pleased sense of secondary beauty· to resemble the spiritual, heartfelt agreement that original beauty consists in. But men’s pleased sense of secondary beauty doesn’t come from any reflection on or perception of such a resemblance. Their sensation of pleasure when they encounter secondary beauty is an immediate upshot of the law God has established, i.e. the instinct he has given (Jonathan Edwards "On the Nature of True Virtue", Chapter 3).
In other words, when we encounter something beautiful we don’t stop to think: my but those pleasing relationships between objects reminds me of the relationship between God and the Son and the Holy Spirit… We enjoy it instinctively and leave it at that. In that way little beauty, secondary beauty is for us, for our pleasure, but also for God’s pleasure, because he sees all of the connections and interrelations and enjoys them as a reflection of his Glory.
This is the relationship between God’s Glory and beauty, and here I am paraphrasing renowned theologian, Richelle Howard: Beauty, both Big and little, can be seen as the transposition of God’s glory. When God, who is spirit, decided to create a world out of matter, he decided to translate what was experienced only by him, and shift it to form and matter so his creation could experience it in a similar way.
Little beauty, in form and matter, is part of God’s creation, part of the expression of his glory. However, because it is part of God’s creation it has been affected by sin and the fall, which we will get into in depth next week, but for the moment, this fallen aspect of little beauty needs to be noted because it warps the way in which we experience beauty, the link between Big Beauty and little beauty has been disrupted.
John Calvin in book one of the Institutes of the Christian Religion wrote concerning the link between Big and little beauty and man’s ability to perceive it, he wrote that people rarely direct their minds to God when they see the structure and organization of the world. Instead they content themselves to view his work, and do not think of him. “but, notwithstanding the clear representations given by God in the mirror of his works, both of himself and of his everlasting dominion, such is our stupidity, that, always inattentive to these obvious testimonies, we derive no advantage from them”. Calvin is writing specifically in relation to the ongoing debate of the nature and value of images and church decoration, the other side was focused on the ability of imagery and beauty to direct the mind of the worshiper to higher, heavenly things.
I’m going to go out on a limb a little here, I don’t have any theologians in my pocket to back me up, but I think, that given our understanding that God created the world for himself, and that beauty and the experience of beauty by his creatures is a part of it, that when we experience little beauty we are echoing God’s pleasure in himself. When we fully understand the link between little beauty and big beauty, the link between beauty and God’s glory we experience it how it is meant to be experienced and that glorifies God in a very real way. But when we experience beauty, even without that understanding, we are still participating in the system that God set up for his glory, therefor still bringing God glory whether we know it or not. It’s like the change in designation from B.C./A.D to B.C.E/C.E , the name f the eras have changed, but the foundation of them hasn’t. The world is still counting time from the birth of Christ no matter what they name it.