- Harriet Beecher Stowe
“Wow, look at that beautiful sunset!”
“Are you kidding me?! Sunsets are disgusting and ugly! They make my stomach turn.”
Said no one, ever.
People from different lands and cultures across human history recognized the beauty of a colorful sunset. Poets, painters, and musicians throughout time have written, sung, and depicted the beautiful wonder of sunsets, waterfalls, mountains, lakes, people, animals, and art of all kinds. Beauty surrounds us, but is beauty only in the eye of the beholder? Is beauty just an individual statement of preference?
In our previous three essays (available online through the link below), we explored three rather technical assertions:
1. The Universe did not self-create from absolute nothingness, but in fact had a beginning (Big Bang) and therefore a Beginner (i.e. God).
2. The cosmos gives ample evidence of extreme fine tuning, and the odds of this occurring by random chance remain so long as to be impossible. The more that scientists learn of the Universe and its properties, the longer the odds become for it all occurring randomly.
3. Biology, and especially DNA, also demonstrate extreme fine tuning, which random chance fails to explain. Such fine tuning testifies to a Fine Tuner (God).
These represent powerful arguments for the existence of God, but they can also become complex and detailed subjects. What if we can perceive God through something as straightforward as beauty?
Why do we all recognize beauty? Well, first we need to clarify the concepts of objective and subjective. Think of it this way: Jacob and Rachel enter a room. The thermostat shows the temperature is 75 degrees Fahrenheit. Jacob says it feels hot. Rachel says it feels cold. The temperature is objectively 75 degrees. They both know it is 75 degrees, but what they feel is subjective. Likewise, with beauty. No one looks upon a red rose, the Grand Canyon, or a golden retriever puppy and sees repulsive ugliness. (Any such person would be rightly described as disconnected from reality.) They are objectively beautiful, we all agree, even though we may feel a subjective level of intensity for such beauty. We can objectively recognize classical music as beautiful while subjectively feeling that “it’s just not my kind of music.” Many examples of objective beauty exist across time and cultures. All human beings agree that some things are objectively beautiful. How can this be?
There remain essentially two candidates for addressing objective beauty. The first is naturalism (a.k.a. materialism): all things naturally occur from within nature – nothing exists outside of our physical world. Naturalistic explanations often deny the existence of objective beauty at all. As author, Steven E. Parrish notes:
“Given naturalism and an impersonal Universe…one would have to say that beauty is something totally subjective, and the fact that we see beauty and enjoy beautiful things is a product of mindless evolution. In this case, it is something of a quirk. If the mutations of our ancestors had been a little different, we might think that piles of garbage were beautiful.”
If naturalism accepts any form of beauty, it is only due to evolution (a theory of unguided, natural processes), which states that any beauty has worth only as it furthers the health and fertility of our species. Yet, one can imagine our ancestors gazing at the beauty of a sunset and not noticing the approaching lion, thereby making beauty a detriment to survival. And if beauty aids survival, why don’t apes, dogs, or termites demonstrate some kind of appreciation or expression of beauty? Presumably they want to survive, too. Yet, animals survive just fine without beauty. Shouldn’t humans also be able to survive and thrive without beauty? Plus, we all recognize many beautiful things that have nothing to do with reproduction and survival. In short, naturalism fails to explain why objective beauty exists at all.
The Christian affirms objective beauty not because of naturalism but because of “super” naturalism – a spiritual perspective added to a scientific and philosophical framework. This represents the second and best option for explaining beauty:
a. If objective beauty exists, then a standard of beauty exists outside of ourselves.
b. Objective beauty does exist; therefore, a Creator established a standard of beauty.
God created all things and thus created that which is objectively beautiful. Human beings, created in God’s image, are given the unique ability to recognize, appreciate, and create beauty. We reflect God’s creative character in us. In this sense, beauty is indeed in the eye of the beholder, the Divine Beholder: God. As Helen Keller, born blind and deaf, so beautifully stated:
“The best and most beautiful things in the world cannot be seen or even touched - they must be felt with the heart.”