“I would classify myself as an agnostic, at the moment.”
“Well, you can’t be an atheist when you see the beauty of the world. I can’t reduce my experience of beautiful things to some random evolutionary side-effect.”
“So, you believe in God then?”
“I don’t know. The world is so deeply beautiful that there must be something more. But what is that? I don’t know. I guess I am waiting for that ‘aha’ experience. Hasn’t happened to me yet.”
This is the summarised version of conversations I’ve had recently. Beautiful experiences, cultural and natural, have awakened in people a sense that there is something more to the stuff we grasp than the stuff itself. The extraordinary pink sunrise over the harbour is more than just a trick of the light: it is artistry. It isn’t just a subjective sense experience. It’s an act of communication from … well, who? And what are they trying to say?
People can’t square their deeply felt experience of the world with that.
This response to the beautiful intrigues me. Clearly, reductive and polemical explanations of atheists aren’t proving to be compelling. People can’t square their deeply felt experience of the world with that. To the people I’ve been speaking with at least, the world simply cannot be reduced to its material components, nor its coherence explained by resorting to chance.
But I have been puzzled, as an evangelist, what to do next. What’s the path from here to the gospel?
I don’t wish to sound too pragmatic here, as if the only point of having a conversation about beauty is to get off that topic and onto something more important.
But since the experience of beauty has led people to this point – of acknowledging the existence, if not of God as such, then at least of a higher power – then what can a Christian say in response?
We recognise in the beautiful thing a completeness or a unity.
First of all we have to think about what beauty is and why it has this power in human experience. In the words of the English philosopher Roger Scruton, “beauty demands to be noticed.” Beautiful objects and people draw our attention, it’s true, although you also could say that of a car accident. When we see something beautiful, and we give attention to it, we have awakened in us a longing for the thing – a desire for it.
Now, of course, people always say about beauty that tired old cliche: “it’s in the eye of the beholder.”
I don’t think we really believe that. We say it because there is an element of taste and culture when it comes to judging the beautiful. But just because we don’t always agree on every instance of beauty doesn’t mean we should ignore our powerful agreements that sunsets, Beethoven symphonies and Audrey Hepburn’s face are instances of true beauty. Just as disagreements about what is good and what is true don’t mean that truth and goodness are simply matters of opinion.
Okay, but what gives things beauty? The great theologian of the 13th century Thomas Aquinas said something which is beautiful contains three attributes: wholeness (integritas), harmony (consonantia), and radiance (claritas). We recognise in the beautiful thing a completeness or a unity. We see the way in which the parts of the whole work together.
But this mysterious element of “radiance”: what of that? We might think of that as the “glory” of the thing. Something about a beautiful thing simply shines.
Who created the beauty of nature that human artists attempt to copy in their work?
There’s an added extra that can’t be simply explained by an inventory of the components. I can’t explain why the sound of jazz trumpeter Miles Davis’ Sketches From Spain album is beautiful just in terms of the unity and the harmony of its composition. There’s a glory to it, as well. It comes, you’d have to say, from the unique personhood of its creator. Like a bottle filled with wine, the wholeness and harmony of that work give shape to the creator’s genius, his radiance.
But who created the beauty of nature that human artists attempt to copy in their work? Whose glory shines from the stars? Interestingly, it is this language we hear from Paul in Romans 1:20: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made”
The world, as the poet Hopkins puts it, “is charg’d with the grandeur of God.” God’s glory finds its physical form in the things he has made. From his creation, human beings should see his glory – not the glory of the things themselves, but the glory of the one who made them.
But to experience beautiful things is not to know God.
It makes sense then, that our experiences of beauty have this electric effect on us. We feel that something is aligned between ourselves and with something bigger than us when we are in the presence of beauty. As Scruton says: “In the experience of beauty the world comes home to us, and we to the world.” If we hear what Paul is saying, this is because in experiences of beauty we are coming into the realm of the holy. God’s character shines through the world that he has made.
But to experience beautiful things is not to know God. There are some things that obscure him. The first is that there’s a beauty deficit in the world. We live in the presence not just of the beautiful but of the ugly and the decaying and the crass and the truly hideous. The world is full of disharmony and disintegration, and full of things which have no glory. Or, we have the use of beauty for other ends – to sell things, to exploit sex, to avert our gaze from suffering.
If we are seeing rightly, in fact, we’ll see the contrast between the beautiful and the ugly is an insight to the good and bad in this world.
The hunger for the beautiful is really a desire for what beauty points us to…
Secondly, people who plunge into the beautiful soon discover that beautiful things do not satisfy. Beautiful objects and people convey the transcendent to us, but are not the transcendent, bigger “thing” that we are reaching out for.
The hunger for the beautiful is really a desire for what beauty points us to: the wholeness, harmony, and glory that can only be found in God.
And here’s what I think I want to convey to the beauty-awakened searchers. God reveals his glory most fully, not in the heavens or the tops of mountains, but in Jesus Christ. As it says in Hebrews, “the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.” Jesus of Nazareth is the embodiment of the beauty which comes from God. The glory of God fills him like the genius of Miles Davis fills his music, only much more intensely so. But, still, how does this work?
I should confidently take them to the one in whom the beyond came near.
In Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection, we see the miraculous fulfilment of the plan of God in making the world. We find human being perfected. We see the glory of the one who humbled himself for our sakes. We see the excessive superabundance of divine love pouring down upon the earth like rain. No more intensely and radiantly did God shine his glory than through the wholeness and harmony of his son made man.
One of my favourite writers, the Swiss theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, once said that in the beauty of Jesus Christ we find apologetics and doctrine combined. That is to say: the question that arises from beauty leads us to tell the most beautiful story of all. We move beyond asking about whether the Christian message is rationally plausible to the gospel itself.
If a person asks where the beauty they experience comes from, we have an open invitation to explain the gospel – since in Jesus, the transcendent beauty that permeates all the world shines most brightly. So, in my discussions with people who are recognising that the beauty of the world comes from a source beyond, I should confidently take them to the one in whom the beyond came near.
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.