Website of Dr. John K. LaShell
Although philosophers argue over the concept of beauty, Jonathan Edwards’s definition seems like a sensible place to begin. Beauty, he wrote, is “a mutual consent and agreement of different things, in form, manner, quantity and visible end or design; called by the various names of regularity, order, uniformity, symmetry, proportion, harmony, &c. . . .” Edwards describes beauty as “consent and agreement” because he wants to highlight the parallels between the beauty of personal relationships and other kinds of beauty we can see or hear. In all cases, beauty involves both difference and unity.
For example, when a pianist plays the first, third and fifth notes of a major scale, the result is a pleasing harmony, but a toddler slamming both hands down on the keyboard is more likely to jangle our nerves than to soothe them. The first sound is beautiful; the second is not. Even more irritating to a frazzled mother would be a child’s tapping the same note on a piano at one second intervals for thirty minutes. Beauty includes both diversity and unity, not just the diverse notes of a child’s two-handed banging, nor the unity of a single note endlessly repeated. Similarly, the regular pattern of carefully laid parquet flooring is attractive; odd scraps of lumber attached to the floor joists with bent and rusted nails may be solid and functional, but they are not beautiful because they exhibit no unifying pattern.
Why are we attracted to beauty? In the quotation at the beginning of this chapter Jonathan Edwards suggests that an ability to enjoy the harmonious union of diverse things was put into us by God when He created us. God enables us to delight in the beauties of nature, art and music because these things reflect the harmony of interpersonal relationships, which is a higher kind of beauty.
We have a natural longing for a well-ordered society. Such a society, which is as attractive as it is elusive, has inspired works as diverse as Plato’s Republic, Thomas Moore’s Utopia and James Hilton’s Lost Horizon. As desirable as harmony in broader society may be, individual relationships are even more important to most people. Friendship, romantic love and the comfortable companionship of a forty-year marriage all involve the union of people with diverse temperaments, desires and outlooks on life. At their best, these relationships are truly beautiful.
The most beautiful instance of unity and diversity, however, does not occur in nature or in human love. God Himself is the infinitely great Original of all natural and spiritual harmonies, because in the Trinity three distinct Persons share the same divine nature and together constitute one God. The importance of Trinitarian theology for understanding beauty appears when we contrast it with two different popular worldviews, pantheism and materialism.
Pantheism teaches that God is all and all is God. In the language of Indian philosopher Shankara (AD 788-820), the universal being is Brahman, while the individual soul is the atman. The atman is Brahman within; Brahman is the atman without. Since there is in truth only one being, our perception of distinct individuals is an illusion (maya) based on ignorance. The entire material world is no more real than a dream. Therefore, pantheism has no place for genuine difference that is held in tension by true unity. Beauty, like everything else we perceive, is an illusion.
Materialism has the opposite problem even though it, like pantheism, is a variety of monism. (Monism means there is only one substance in the world. The pantheist says this substance is spiritual. The materialist says it is physical.) The materialist has no problem seeing that individual things or people are truly distinct, but there is no over-arching purpose or unity that draws individuals into a unified whole. Post-modern materialism is openly hostile to meta-narratives―stories, ideas or principles that are universally valid. An individual's view of the world is only valid for that individual or, at best, for small communities. In such a worldview, which opposes the whole notion of worldviews, beauty is no longer a universally recognized category. It is an isolated experience that may, only by chance or culture, be appreciated by more than one self.
The biblical doctrine of the Trinity, however, insists that unity and diversity are both ultimate. Both find their origin in God, because God is both one and three. The divine unity and the divine diversity shine through the real (though secondary) beauties of the created world.
Except from The Beauty of God for a Broken World
© 2010, John K. LaShell