Sunday, June 29, 2008

The Good, Beautiful, and True

I believe this triad comes from JMR. It seems a fitting and well rounded triad of the things that should be important to and dwelt upon by Christians. It is an interesting triad for sure. The Good is obvious enough, the one true morality, the biblical Righteousness, and the divine ideal of how things ought to be ordered. Skipping ahead, nothing should be more important than the true. God is the source of truth, has revealed himself through the True one, and all of reality as it actually is can only be understood by some grasp of truth.

So good and true both make a lot of sense for a Christian perspective. A Christian perspective being those things that should be most important to a Christian, those things that he should spend his time dwelling on, and those things that should occupy the majority of his thoughts. These are things that draw him closer to God because these are essential characteristics of God. To dwell on these at some level is to dwell on the character of God, because these things are defined and shaped by his existence. Further, growing in these areas means one is being conformed to God's likeness, because he is allowing these realities of God to shape his thinking and permeate his being.

This is all good and true (no pun intended), and should be plainly obvious to most. But where some (possibly many?) will disagree is whether or not beauty should be included in this category. After all, is not beauty superficial? Is it not vanity to be concerned about the mere aesthetic?

Of course we can say that a term we often use in a subjective sense can find its only objective meaning in God himself. I am far from qualified to provide any philosophical definition of beauty. But, despite being amateur and unskilled, I will give it a shot in order to answer the question, is beauty in the same category of the good and true?

Beauty is attraction. It is elation. It is some sensory experience that brings pleasure. But it is must be more than neurons firing in specific patterns, because beauty transcends the individual, transcends the community, the culture, and the race. Although many will dispute some forms of beauty, it will be nearly universally agree upon about others. Beauty is something external that stimulates our senses and raises our opinion of the world around us. Beauty can be perverted of course, as with all good and true things. Beauty involves pleasure, but is also certainly distinct and greater than pleasure.

Beauty is the motivation behind art. Beauty is allusive, even though it is all around us. Beauty is beyond function, and can be seen in order, chaos, symmetry, and asymmetry. Whether spoken, music, or picture, artists attempt to create something that conveys and captures some degree of beauty. Man stands out from all creation in his appreciation of beauty.

Is it possible that beauty, like the true and good, is actually a reflection of the divine? That those things we find genuinely beautiful in some sense reflect the divine glory? If this is the case, then we find things beautiful (in a pure sense) only when we see some echo of the divine glory. Only when we seen something that reminds an innate sense in our soul of the one and true Beautiful. When we enjoy a breathtaking sunset, or are awakened by a fresh sunrise, or enjoy a landscape, or hear a song that we are experiencing the fingerprint of God on creation. This would explain its elusive nature, because we are only detecting the imprints of the divine glory on and in creation. But this also explains how it can be all around us at the same time.

There is no reason for beauty to exist. Some might try to explain how morality is just a pragmatic way to help the species endure, (though this hardly will due), there really is no practical or beneficial reason for beauty to exist. One might try to define beauty as those things which also will help the species continue, but this is easily refuted by one's experience of beauty.

Beauty is also sinister. As flawed humans, we can only enjoy so much beauty before it becomes perversion. At some point, we either become numb to the reality of beauty, or we became gorged on it.

Once again, I have neither the skill nor the knowledge to further articulate this point. But it does seem clear to me that those things we find genuinely beautiful (without perversion) are a dim and minor reflection of the divine glory. If this is the case, then beauty definitely belongs in the same category as the good an the true. And if this is the case, then learning to appreciate beauty at a deeper and more mature level is a goal that all Christians should have, right alongside growing in understanding of the good and true. It is because all three of these are reflections of the Divine, and in dwelling on these and growing in our appreciation of them, we are growing closer to the mind of God.

So why is it that Christians should not settle for poor art? Or should not settle for mediocre music? Or should not settle with trends and clich├ęs? It is the same reason why we should not settle for simple truths and basic morality. We are not growing as persons, and we are not growing as Christians. Gaining a deeper appreciation and understanding of beauty in art, music, literature, and so on are all important goals that as people, as Christians, and as disciples of Christ we should wholeheartedly pursue. It is the good, the beautiful, and the true.

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