What can we conclude about God’s beauty and how to perceive it?
1) God’s beauty is his own consent, love, or affection for his holy being.
2) Loving this beauty, and necessarily, its object-God’s being simply considered-is the means of perceiving this beauty. Loving God is the analogue of God’s beauty in the creature: a creature participates and shares (and thereby perceives) God’s beauty, when loving it and God as God does.
3) The kind of love that perceives this beauty is of a particular kind: containing humility, faith, discernment, benevolence, submission, and union.
Here then, is my simple proposal: a certain kind of love for God will enable, and is identical to, the apprehension of God’s beauty. Loving God and his cosmos as God does, is both beholding beauty, and becoming beautiful. The perception of God’s beauty is an experience known through participative love.
This love must be carefully defined and qualified. This love must be humbly receptive and teachable. It must rightly imagine God as revealed in Scripture. It must guard against self-love, narcissism, and sentimentalism. It must possess sound judgement and exhibit maturity, having been shaped by the best in Christian culture. It must exist within an ontological and dispositional union with God. In other words, not merely any love for God will result in perceiving God’s beauty.
A term for distinguishing this love from counterfeit forms is the term correspondent love. Here, the word correspondent is used adjectivally, to describe and modify the noun love. Correspondent love refers to love for God that corresponds in degree and kind to God’s own love.
How can we discover what kind of love God has for Himself? Some theologians have cautioned that intra-trinitarian love is not a perfect analogue for the believer’s love for God. The perfect love of God for God is unique and infinite – and probably unknowable, in the truest sense, to a creature.
Though the creature cannot love infinitely as God does, creaturely love may still be rightly ordered, in terms of its hierarchy of loves and in terms of the nature of the love, to be conformed to the kind of love that perceives God’s beauty through submissive participation. When it is rightly ordered (or ordinate, to use the archaic term), it will correspond to God’s own love, in creaturely fashion. The degree or quantity, and the kind or quality of the love must be rooted in the nature of things: in this case, the being of God and his own love for himself.
What is love? In contrast to the modern idea of love as “emotion”, premodern Christianity understood love as a voluntary, rational inclination of the soul towards what it sees as beautiful. On this definition, love may include feelings, but it is not itself an involuntary feeling. Love is rational desire that moves towards union. Love is moved by beauty. When the soul is pure, it loves what is beautiful; when otherwise, it loves what is base. The love corresponds to the object.
Henry Scougal (1650–1678) put it this way: “The worth and excellency of a soul is to be measured by the object of its love” (The Life of God, 70). Lewis, in Surprised By Joy, similarly writes, “The form of the desired is in the desire. It is the object which makes the desire harsh or sweet, coarse or choice, ‘high’ or ‘low.’ It is the object that makes the desire itself desirable or hateful”. In other words, love is appropriate and correspondent to the degree that its object is truly God, and his beauty is properly seen and understood.
Love is rational desire towards what a person sees as good and beautiful. What does love desire in the perceived beauty? As creatures, humans may go toward the object of their love either in the form of need or in the form of gift. Lewis classifies these as Need-loves and Gift-loves. Need-love looks to the good or beautiful in the Beloved to meet a need in oneself; gift-love seeks to enjoy the good or beautiful in the Beloved for itself, or to beautify it further. In the case of perfection, beautify does not mean improve; it means simply display, magnify, communicate that perfection so that it is more widely shown.
In his essay “The Weight of Glory”, Lewis objects to the idea that love is primarily the negative ideal of unselfishness. For Lewis, love is positive desire. When accused by Kantians of mercenary motives in such love, Lewis answers that when the reward that a desire seeks is foreign to the activity, the mercenary accusation may be valid. But when the reward is the activity itself in consummation, such as marriage being the sought reward of love, such love cannot be accused of selfishness, except if one is beholden to Stoic or Kantian ideas.
Correspondent love pursues the good of all that God is; it pursues the pleasure of God himself. Christians love God because of what God is for them, and because of what God is. They love his need-meeting ability, and they love his excellence.
Samuel Rutherford (1600–1661) helps one find balance: “You object that the truly regenerate should love God for himself: and you fear that you love him more for his benefits, as incitements and motives to love him, than for himself. I answer: to love God himself as the last end, and also for his benefits, as incitements and motives to love him, may stand well together; as a son loveth his mother, because she is his mother, howbeit she is poor; and he loveth her for an apple also. I hope that you will not say that benefits are the only reason and bottom of your love; it seemeth there is a better foundation for it” (Letters, 49/To James Bautie).
Correspondent love is then the inclination of the will (or desire) towards God for all that he is, both in himself and for one’s good. When God is rightly known and desired, the desire will be correspondingly holy.