Christianity and High Beauty (With Pictures!)

“There, peeping among the cloud-wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.”

– JRR Tolkien, “The Return of the King”

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I rarely re-watch movies, and I practically never re-watch documentaries. But I’ve watched Roger Scruton’s “Why Beauty Matters” twice now, and I’ll probably watch it again. You really ought to set aside an hour to enjoy it. At the very least, watch the first 3 minutes.

This post will draw somewhat heavily from Scruton’s documentary, but will also include my own thoughts – from more of a “hey-watch-as-I-attempt-to-relate-this-to-Christianity” perspective. Starting with:

1. Beauty in Nature

As alluded to in the Tolkien quote, I find it comforting that the beauty of the natural world is ultimately beyond the reach of man’s corruption. We might do our utmost to despoil the beauty of our immediate environment, but the sprawling majesty of the universe stands by unfazed.

I sometimes talk to atheists & agnostics who point to the sheer size of the universe, and claim that our smallness and apparent insignificance is evidence against the existence of God. I’ve always thought to myself, in response, “what better way for an infinite, all-powerful Being to express Himself to us, than to surround us with mind-numbing vastness and beauty?”

aquinas_unimpressed

When we look upon the night sky…a mountain landscape…a blazing sunset…a wind-whipped prairie…we stop to appreciate these things for their mere existence. They stir something within us, drawing our attention to a craving, within ourselves, for a Higher Beauty that nothing in this universe can quite satisfy.

Glacier Ridgeline

“For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20, NIV)

2. Beauty in Things

If mountains are beautiful because they are created by God, then sculptures and poems are beautiful because they are created by people. Robert Frost creates beauty by describing a forest, even if the poem is, perhaps, eclipsed by the natural beauty of the forest itself.

Man is unique among creatures not only in his ability to appreciate beauty, but in his ability to willfully create beauty for beauty’s sake. In concurrence with Dr. Scruton, I would argue that for a thing to be beautiful, it cannot be created primarily for utility, or for mere self-expression. Beautiful things often possess these qualities, but they must be secondary.

“All art is absolutely useless. Put usefulness first, and you lose it. Put beauty first, and what you do will be useful forever.” – Oscar Wilde

sistine chapel mona lisa

Also: simply calling something beautiful doesn’t make it so! That kind of absurd relativism might be permitted in modern art museums, but not on this blog.

3. Beauty in People

At the risk of sounding repetitive, a person possesses beauty for the simple fact that they exist. This is best illustrated by the perplexing phenomenon of Otherwise Articulate Adults Making Interesting Noises in the Presence of Babies.

Infants are useless in the truest sense of the word. They’re essentially poop machines, incapable of providing us with any tangible service or benefit. Yet babies evoke an emotional response precisely because of their uselessness. When utility is stripped away, we find ourselves reveling in the mere fact of existence of another human person.

newborn infant

This also comes into play when contrasting feelings of romantic love with feelings of lust. The man overcome with romantic love desires nothing more than the flourishing and well-being of his beloved…even if it comes at his own cost…and even if he will never be able to personally take part in her life. He would gladly throw himself in front of a train, rather than see his beloved suffer pain, shame, or disgrace. He will daydream about performing acts of heroic sacrifice on her behalf (rushing into a burning building, diving in front of a bullet, etc.).

The man overcome with lust is primarily interested in how the other person can be of use to him. The object of his lust is an instrument to be used and discarded.

“Pornographic images reduce the person being lusted over to body parts only. There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows too little.” – Pope John Paul II

I believe that the human experience of beauty provides strong inductive evidence for the central claims of Christianity (namely: the existence of High Beauty, original sin, and our subsequent inability to grasp this Beauty unaided). Three observations, in closing:

Firstly: We recognize beauty and know that it’s good…even if we have difficulty defining it.
Secondly: We perceive that our desire for beauty can be tantalized, but never truly fulfilled.
Thirdly: We yearn for Something, unseen, that can fulfill our unfulfilled desire for “more beauty”.

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15 thoughts on “Christianity and High Beauty (With Pictures!)

  1. I think perhaps this explains why I love to worship in the lovely Cathedral of St Paul. But it similarly explains why a flower is lovely, a tree can cause me to think of the Cross, and why a baby is life, in or out of the womb. Unusually powerful post. Kind of Catholic too :). God bless.

    • Yeah, I guess I was kind of heavy on the Catholic references, wasn’t I? Tolkien, Augustine, Sistine Chapel, PJPII…you kind of have a point. Haha.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment! This is sort of a new topic for me to write about, but I really find it fascinating.

  2. Excellent post, there are so many things I want to say, I don’t know where to start, you’ve identified so many powerful themes. I wish I had the quotes and authors at my fingertips but here goes: Dostoyesky says “Beauty will save the world”, I think he’s right, that’s why we need great literature, poetry, music, theater, art…..ideally the Arts (beauty) should elevate our souls to God. That is their true purpose. That is also the benefit of a beautiful Cathedral or Church, it raises our minds and hearts to God. JP 2 wrote quite a bit about this, check out his Letter to Artists, he was also a great lover of Creation and understood it’s connection to Creator (we don’t worship Creation, we sing the praises of the Creator and act as good stewards)
    Also, Fr Robert Barron has great insight into beauty and talks about his time studying in Paris and how he would go to Notre Dame often and simply stare at the great Rose stain glassed window and contemplate God through the beauty and mathematical harmony of the window.
    I also love your ideas about new life and your take on why we are so enamoured with new life. It actually kind of correlates with the uselessness of praising God. Now I’m not really saying praising God is useless, quite contrarie, it’s the highest, greatest thing we will ever do but it is completely non utilitarian, certainly by worldly standards. Also, the love of a newborn by his parents is probably the most God-like love we ever experience, not because we are so great but because we are willing the good of another expecting nothing in return, the very definition of real love.
    And finally, there is a great essay I’m going to try to find for you by Fr Ronald Rolheiser on the role of man in”rescuing beauty”, which is a common theme is good literature. I might add, another definition of God is simply “Goodness, Beauty and Truth”
    Sorry I’ve blathered on and on without doing enough research, kind of flight of ideas here, hope you don’t mind…… And yea, your post is kinda Catholic!
    Pax et Bonum, Mary Ann

    • You raise a lot of great points; and the Dostoyevsky quote is especially timely. I’ve been meaning to read him for awhile, and just picked up “The Brothers Karamazov” a few days ago!

      Anyway, thanks for the excellent comment. You’re definitely more well-read than I am, haha. I agree with our mutual friend Amy A. – you ought to start a blog!

    • I think you will love The Bros Karamazoff, there is a great section in the book which is a debate between Ivan (I think?) and his monk brother on the existence of God and the problem of evil, ie if there really is a God then why does he allow suffering? Much has been written and quoted on this slice of the book, for some one like you who has great interest in Christian
      apologetics I think you’ll find it very interesting and even helpful in your arguments. I am tempted to reread it myself, it’s been awhile and it’s so good.

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  10. “This also comes into play when contrasting feelings of romantic love with feelings of lust.”

    There is no contrasting feeling, there’s nothing wrong with sex, I can easily have romantic feeling for a woman and sexually crave her, YHWH(The Father and The Son and The Holy Spirit) created those desires.

    “he man overcome with romantic love desires nothing more than the flourishing and well-being of his beloved…even if it comes at his own cost…and even if he will never be able to personally take part in her life. He would gladly throw himself in front of a train, rather than see his beloved suffer pain, shame, or disgrace. He will daydream about performing acts of heroic sacrifice on her behalf (rushing into a burning building, diving in front of a bullet, etc.).”

    True, still doesn’t conflict his lust for her, he can do all these things and still… sexually desire her.

    “The man overcome with lust is primarily interested in how the other person can be of use to him. The object of his lust is an instrument to be used and discarded.”

    And there’s nothing wrong with that, YHWH made that,

    1 Timothy 4, Everything YHWH created is Good,

    Colossians 2:20-23 “20 If you have died with Christ [x]to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, 21 “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” 22 (which all refer to things destined to perish [y]with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? 23 These are matters which have, to be sure, the [z]appearance of wisdom in [aa]self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.”

    “Pornographic images reduce the person being lusted over to body parts only.”

    How does porn images reduce person to body parts?.. you’re suppressing the truth just like an atheist would to support satan’s lies.

    “There is no dignity when the human dimension is eliminated from the person. In short, the problem with pornography is not that it shows too much of the person, but that it shows too little.”

    And it still does not violate Matthew 7:12, how does this harm? Just because I sexually desire someone doesn’t mean I think less of them, that is illogical and atheistic thinking.

    If you think Homosexuality, lust, premarital sex are sins then you’re still not saved, it’s good that you actively refute atheism, to that I give you an Amen, but you still have more to go,

    Homosexuality, not a sin, savedbychrist94.blogspot.com/2013/04/homosexuality-is-not-sin-part-1.html

    Lust, Not a Sin, savedbychrist94.blogspot.com/2013/04/lust-is-not-sin.html

    Sin is defined in 1 John 3:4 as Lawlessness/Breaking The Law,

    What is the law?

    Matthew 7:12 “In everything, therefore, treat people the same way you want them to treat you, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”

    So sin is basically harm.

    Being a Christian isn’t going to a beauty building and following man made vain repetitive words, it isn’t calling God made desires and HIS OWN Creation a sin,

    1 John 5:3 “For this is the love of God, that we keep His commandments(Matthew 7:12); and His commandments are not burdensome.”

    Christianity is so easy yet people who add/twist the bible and atheists deceive others and make it hard for them.

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