Beauty and Reality
Beauty has made a comeback. After years of being relegated by intellectual elites to the junkyard of old and outdated concepts, it is now popping up everywhere. The terminology of beauty is, strangely enough, now heard often in scientific and mathematical discourse, speaking of the beauty of mathematical models or theorems, the elegance of “nature’s ways”, or the beauty of the cosmos and its laws.
Without explicitly conceding the Christian argument, the world’s very use of this kind of language shows that an indispensable idea has pushed its way back into popular consciousness. Indeed, post-modern culture is a very aesthetic culture. Images are coming to again dominate mass media. Popular music and its fantasy-videos are the daily worship of millions of teenagers. The idolisation of the body and of youth is our world’s near full-time pursuit. Addiction to online media is growing and ever immersive experiences of entertainment are prized. Pornography is more than a contagion spreading beyond men hidden behind screens, but a cultural tsunami that is pornographying fashion, dress, and relationships in general. The longing for religious or quasi-religious experiences in organised or informal religion has never been higher. Sports and thrill-seeking have become quasi-faiths. These are all forms of sensuous experience and phenomena, which is to say, they are aesthetic experiences and aesthetic phenomena. Beauty or its pursuit is everywhere: even when the object of the pursuit is ugly indeed.
All of this is ultimately a pursuit of meaning, of purpose in existence, of pleasure in life. People desire the experience of beauty, though they fumble in the dark for what it truly is.
Beauty is more than an adjective to describe objects. It deals with the very fabric of reality, the very meaning of existence. The glory and beauty of God is a first principle, an ultimate reality. An encounter with true created beauty is an encounter with some revelation of the divine.
Many former secular unbelievers have come to consider the existence of God or the claims of Christ because of an encounter with beauty, particularly in art. Where reason could not persuade, beauty spoke profoundly and immediately of the true nature of being. In Japan alone, thousands of people have been drawn to Christianity through hearing and playing the works of J.S Bach.
What Rudolf Otto called “the numinous” is the experience of beauty that pushes its observers beyond sheer materialism or naturalism, and towards supernaturalism, transcendentalism, even Christian forms of Platonism. C.S. Lewis’s oft-quoted words on desire sum up the metaphysic that beauty suggests: “If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world”.
Of course, we must chasten our expectation of how convincingly beauty can persuade one of Heaven, eternity, and God. God’s existence cannot be proved through beauty. Indeed, no one should try to prove what is an axiom of knowledge (Prov 1:10, Ps 53:1), and a matter of innate human intuition (Rom 1:19). But once it is admitted that beauty exists, the burden of proof shifts to the materialist to explain beauty’s existence without God.
Put simply, beauty witnesses to the supernaturalism and transcendentalism that Christianity’s worldview depends upon. Beauty identifies spiritual ideas such as unity and harmony in the created order. In short, beauty points to existence and reality beyond physical materialism.
About David de Bruyn
David de Bruyn pastors New Covenant Baptist Church in Johannesburg, South Africa. He is a graduate of Central Baptist Theological Seminary in Minnesota and the University of South Africa (D.Th.). Since 1999, he has presented a weekly radio program that is heard throughout much of central South Africa. He also blogs at Churches Without Chests.