The Eye of the Beholder
“He has made everything beautiful in its time” (Eccl. 3:11a).
- Ecclesiastes 3:11a
Clearly, we live in an era when subjectivity rules. In matters of ultimate reality, for example, it is common to hear people affirm the existence of many contradictory “truths.” Universal statements of an ethical nature are fervently opposed in postmodern society and the only acceptable absolute truth is that no absolute truth can exist.
This is perhaps nowhere more apparent than in aesthetics. Even Christians who forcefully contend against absolute relativism usually harbor the idea that beauty is purely in the eye of the beholder. Most would say that we have no reason to believe one work of art is more beautiful than another.
It is impossible to deny the subjective response to beauty. For instance, musical preferences vary widely from person to person. The subject is always deeply involved when it comes to the arts. However, we are mistaken to think there can be no absolute standards for aesthetics. All men generally live according to some objective rules in all other areas of their lives. Modern science is based on the premise of a universe governed by certain laws. For example, if we disregard the law of gravity when walking near the edge of a cliff, then we could potentially die. The same holds true for beauty, or else we would consider a chimpanzee’s painting just as beautiful as a Monet. As we have seen, if God is the ultimate standard of beauty, art that conforms to His nature the best is also the loveliest. Today’s passage confirms that the Lord Himself determines what is beautiful.
Historically, theologians such as Jonathan Edwards and Thomas Aquinas have made aesthetic judgments with four criteria. First is proportion, seen in the difference between Rembrandt’s paintings and drawings of stick figures. The second is harmony, illustrated in symphony’s opposition to cacophony. Third is simplicity, which affirms that something need not be complex to be beautiful. The fourth is complexity; for example, an orchestral performance is more lovely than a whistle’s blowing. Complexity need not contradict simplicity; even a simple Gregorian chant has many tonal variations. Tomorrow we will begin to evaluate music by these rules.
The four standards of beauty all reflect God’s character. The Lord is simple — He is indivisible, each of His attributes affecting the others. God is complex, having many facets to His character. His creation exhibits proportionality: the abilities of man and animals differ relative to each other and to the Lord’s. God exists as a harmony, the three distinct Trinitarian persons working perfectly together. Consider how your standards of beauty align with these.
Passages for Further Study
- Ps. 96
- Isa. 60
- 1 Thess. 5:21
- 2 Tim. 3:16–17
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