As humans, we experience that some things are beautiful. While driving through western Montana in the summer of 2013, I was struck by the beauty of the region. Every turn of each corner on the highway revealed yet another postcard of amazing natural beauty. Rivers and streams flowed in valleys carved between forested mountains. Driving south through Colorado, I had a hard time keeping my eyes on the road. I wanted to keep turning to see the Rocky Mountains. They were breathtaking, majestic, snow-topped cathedrals of nature. When viewing them from within Glacier National Park, I could barely contain my awe. While I took photographs, I knew that they could hardly do justice to what I was seeing. The same sense of the transcendent came upon me when looking at the Grand Canyon, the Great Smoky Mountains, a star-spangled night sky in rural Wyoming, and the chilling endlessness of the Gulf of Mexico on a cloudy, windy late afternoon.
Natural beauty, however, is hardly limited to the great or majestic. The delicacy and sweet scent of a rose, the magic of a hummingbird in flight, the sublime architecture of a spider’s web – all attest to the beauty in our world. As well, there’s the cosmic beauty found in the order of our entire universe. Once, while peering through a telescope, I was able to see the planet Saturn, rings and all. What spectacular beauty! Who can resist the beauty of our planets orbiting the sun, just as electrons orbit the nucleus of an atom? The beauty in the laws of nature has inspired even the most hardened proponents of materialism and naturalism. How could it be otherwise? There is true beauty there. Only the most myopic and obtuse would deny it.
Finally, we experience beauty in those things created by humans. The music of Mozart, the poetry of Hopkins, the designs of Leonardo, the sculptures of Michelangelo, the art of Picasso all attest to a beauty that transcends the mundane and carries us to spiritual heights and humanistic insight. Whether In the grandness of Mount Rushmore or the intricacy of a tooth carving, we recognize beauty in human creativity.
What attracts us to the beautiful? What about being human finds us drawn to what is pleasing to the eye, to the ear, to all the senses? Is it not that we recognize in the beautiful a reality beyond the terrestrial? We see in the beauty of the physical world a truth that transcends the physical world. The pleasure we derive from the experience of the beautiful is but a glimpse of the pleasure, the happiness we will experience when we achieve the fullness of our humanity in the glory of God that awaits us. “The glory of God,” St. Irenaeus of Lyon said, “is man, fully human, fully alive.” The beauty we enjoy in this world is a precursor, a sign, of our intended end – the beauty of God.
Furthermore, beauty is objective. In other words, what is beautiful is truly beautiful because, like objective moral values, it reflects reality as it is, and not simply as we desire it to be. In this sense, the beautiful is no more in the eye of the beholder than is the true or the good. The outer reality of beauty reflects an inner reality. We don’t recognize the beauty in nature’s laws or in the flight of an eagle because we’re somehow drawn to them. We’re drawn to them because they’re objectively beautiful, which means that we see in them, whether consciously or not, the reflection of a reality beyond themselves, toward which we are drawn. This reality is God, the beginning and the end of us all. We are drawn home, if you will, and the true, the good, and the beautiful are the signs along the path that guide us to our ultimate destiny, which is also our origin.
Atoms dead could never thus
Stir the human heart of us
Unless the beauty that we see
The veil of endless beauty be,
Filled full of spirits that have trod
Far hence along the heavenly sod
And see the bright footprints of God.
C. S. Lewis
How can this be? The beauty that inspires in us a sense of the transcendent, that there is more to life than what this world has to offer, that reflects a beauty beyond itself, isn’t something that could have evolved from a purely materialistic naturalism. For, what natural advantage is there is recognizing the beauty of a sunset, or a waterfall, or an oak tree that has stood a thousand years? How can random, blind material processes account for our sense of the transcendent when we experience beauty? They simply can’t. They’re inadequate in explaining such experience. Yet, all humanity shares the experience of the beautiful, regardless of culture, ethnicity, historical era, socio-economic class or political circumstances. We each acknowledge the beautiful and, what’s more, strive for the beautiful. We create beautiful things, and even toy with our own bodies, in our search for the beautiful. It doesn’t seem apparent that our recognition of the beautiful and our desire for it is the end result of random, mechanistic processes, for it’s not apparent what advantage for survival such would confer. Perhaps those people who are physically beautiful would hold an advantage, as has been demonstrated in sociological studies even today. The beautiful receive more recognition, get higher grades, are more likely to be promoted, etc… But, this doesn’t account for our search for and appreciation of what is beautiful in nature, or in the laws of nature, or in what we create. It doesn’t even account for the fact that we recognize that some people are more physically beautiful than others. Why do we do so? Why do we find some things beautiful, and others not? It’s because all beauty comes from God, even physical beauty, and we can’t help ourselves in seeing in what is beautiful a reflection of the beauty of God, and experience in the beautiful a longing for our ultimate end.
One thing I ask of the LORD;
this I seek:
To dwell in the LORD’s house
all the days of my life,
To gaze on the LORD’s beauty,
to visit his temple
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.