What Makes Something Beautiful? | A Christian Guide to Beauty and Design | Part 3
While this might seem to be a difficult question, it is actually quite simple, because it’s the same structure of every other question about a good property like justice or goodness. Something is just, loving, and beautiful if it reflects God and his justice, love, and beauty. God is eternal, the creator, and the source of all life, of everything. And when God created the world, none of the diffuse variety of things surprised him. Every emotion and action, every property and relation was always already within him. There was no novelty. So when he created the world it reflects, is an image of his character and nature. Everything is grounded in him. So something is just if it reflects his justice, something is love if it images his lovingness.
So all things find their ontological explanation in him, the originator and source of all goods.
Now you may be thinking, “Okay, but this certainly does not fully answer our question about what makes something beautiful.” That’s true. When we say that something is just because God is just and it mirrors God’s justice, we are saying that there are a set of properties, attributes that together constitute justice and those properties are properties firstly of God. And the same is true of beauty. What we mean by “Justice” is that there are a collection of attributes or properties of God that together constitute justice, so also there are a collection of properties in God that constitute, that name his beauty.
This might sound a bit weird but this is the normal, common sense understanding. When I say that Sally is kind I mean that 1) she has a good, positive disposition toward people 2) that her speech is graceful and gentle 3) that she generous and patient with her attention and so on. Those properties constitute her kindness.
So saying that something is beautiful because it reflects God’s beauty does not provide us with the properties of beauty, but it provides a path to answering it. That is, if we want to know what makes something beautiful, we must look at God’s beauty.
But here we run into a problem because God has not revealed or explained every aspect of his character and world. For instance, while economics and physics have their explanation in God we cannot go to the Scriptures for a detailed explanation of how this is the case. We can’t look at God and discover the structure or purpose of plutonium or supply and demand curves. And there is two reasons why, two reasons why God has not explained everything about himself and reality:
God chose to reveal foundational, presuppositional things. The Bible, the primary way we know about God, is about central, foundation realities. That is, when God chose to reveal himself and things about the world, there is an infinite number of things he could have revealed, but he selected only some. And the things that he chose to reveal were the most important, central things. The things that you need to understand everything else. Things like who he is and how he acts and who we are and how we are to act: theology and ethics. And this is not because the other things, physics, chemistry, paleontology, sports, are unimportant but because they are of secondary importance and because God likes games, adventure, discovery. You see God created a whole world for discovery and work. Let me put it like this, Proverbs 25:2 says that “It is the glory of God to conceal things, but the glory of kings is to search things out.” So one of the particularly beautiful, glorious things about God is that he likes to hide things, but not so that they wouldn’t be discovered but that we would work and become wise in the process of discovery. And that brings us to the second reason.
God created man to work - both physically and intellectually. In Genesis 1 God works by separating and combining the world and parts of the world together to make it better each day and then creates us to do the same thing, that same work. So we are to separate and combine parts and parcels of the created order, making them better, unfolding latent potencies, bringing creation to fruition so that the garden (Genesis 1-3) might become a city (Revelation 21). So all the weird and wonderful things about the world from quarks to quasars, things that you would only know if you hunted them out, were hidden there by God. And one of the fascinating things about the world is that everything is not on the surface, something we will talk much more about later when we discuss one of the properties of beauty: layers. But the purpose of all of this is that God would reveal central things and we would use those things, things about God and ourselves, to uncover, to work out of the world the hidden things like the nature of bumblebees, bosons, and beauty. Those central things give us the presuppositions make the kind of people to hunt out hidden things.
So God is the ultimate foundation, the ontological explanation for all things including beauty, but the nature of beauty is one of those things like chemistry that God did not fully reveal but hid for us to discover. And having been formed by the Scriptures and Spirit, those central things, we can use the four main tools for explaining the nature of beauty: scripture, creation, reason, and history/tradition.
That is, we can find out some things about beauty from the Bible, but having been formed by the Bible we must do the work of looking at creation, what people have thought about the nature of beauty throughout history and reason through it ourselves. And after that, if we have reasoned correctly and discovered the nature of beauty, we can explain how each aspect of beauty is an exposition of God himself.