This article first appeared in the Christian Research Journal, volume 44, number 03 (2021). For further information or to subscribe to the Christian Research Journal please click here.
Any amateur who has taken up a brush knows how hard it is to create a beautiful painting without training. Yet the natural world seems to produce beauty without any struggle at all. This common-sense observation provides a natural movement from wonder at the creation to awe of the creator. Making aesthetically good artwork requires skill and intention, so who should we credit with the ‘artistry’ of the natural world? The rosy wash of the setting sun on a cloud-filled sky with mountains beneath looks to our eyes like the masterpiece of an expert painter. Yet we know that the natural world possesses no mind toward its own design. Should we not then look to a designer?
An Ancient Argument
Some of the earliest Christian theologians saw the parallel between artistry and creation. Athenagoras, the secondcentury Athenian church father, moved from admiring the beauty of creation to love of the master artist: “Thus if the world is a harmonious…instrument rhythmically moved, I worship not the instrument but the one who tuned and strikes the strings and sings to its accompaniment the melodious strain….If, as Plato says, the world is God’s craftsmanship, though I admire its beauty…I reverently draw near to the craftsman.”1 Athenagoras is not alone in his assessment. Athanasius, the fourth-century theological titan, says something similar: “But since there is not disorder [but order] in the universe, and not chaos but symmetry, and not confusion but…a harmonious ordering of the world…we must consider and form an idea of the master who unites and binds the elements together, bringing them into harmony.”2
The dance of the stars and planets above our heads, the rhythms of the seasons as they bring forth organic life, and the beauty of the vast oceans with seagrasses, coral reefs, and iridescent fish can be understood scientifically, but the vast amount of ordered beauty is hard to explain naturalistically. Christians have no problem at all understanding the beauty of the natural world. In Genesis, God creates and orders these domains. Bible believers naturally agree with the Psalmist who sings, “The heavens declare the glory of God….Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge” (Ps. 19:1–2).3
Intimations of Beauty and Divinity
Notably, however, Christians are not alone in feeling the tug of beauty as a twitch upon the string from the master fisherman. Atheists also nibble at the tempting bait of beauty. Anthony O’Hear waxes poetic about the power of beauty while remaining unconvinced: “Through art, particularly the great masterpieces of the past, we do have intimations of beauty, of order, of divinity, even, way beyond the biological…. In appreciating the beauty of the world…we are seeing the world as endowed with value and meaning.”4 Peter S. Fosl, an agnostic, has admitted that the argument from design and the beauty of certain music challenges his skepticism.5 These skeptics see rightly that the beauty of the world is suggestive.
The beauty of the universe (setting aside other artistic activities) suggests a simple argument. Richard Swinburne sums this up well: “If God creates a universe, as a good workman he will create a beautiful universe. On the other hand, if the universe came into existence without being created by God, there is no reason to suppose that it would be a beautiful universe.”6
Is Beauty Real?
It is simple to dismiss the skepticism of unbelievers who refuse to ‘take the bait’ of beauty. How could they fail to understand the knowledge the heavens reveal? But there are some objections that we should consider, some that might hit closer to home than we realize. As modern people, faithful as we may be, we are caught between the thought-world of the Bible and skepticism of the Enlightenment. Jesus may live in our heart, but David Hume lives in our bones.
One of the prevalent objections to the argument from beauty is that beauty — as we call it — is merely a subjective experience. Instead of beauty being a property in an object, what we mean when we call something beautiful is just that we like the way it looks. Thus, calling something beautiful is simply a statement about our positive reaction to the way a thing feels to us when we encounter it. It’s a statement about the subject (us), not the object we see.
Even among Christians who insist on objective morality and truth, it’s not uncommon to hear the same folks object to objective beauty. “Isn’t beauty just in the eye of the beholder?” “Can we really account for taste?” I’ve encountered this objection so frequently from Christians it suggests to me that we have ingested more Enlightenment philosophy than we let on. The problem is not that too many of us have been reading Immanuel Kant or Hume (who both introduced subjectivism about beauty in different ways), but rather that we have been brought up in a thought-world they helped to create.
In order to unweave the spell of subjectivism placed on us by modernity, it is necessary now to respond in two ways. One is to draw us back to a biblical perspective on beauty, and the second is to show how subjectivism fails to account for the real experience of encountering beauty.
A Biblical Perspective
Starting with the Bible, the case for objective beauty is strong. Genesis 1. God creates, orders, and fills the natural world and then, we read, “God saw that it was good” (1:10, 25). The language of Genesis presents God’s creation as active, but God’s appraisal as passive. God recognizes the goodness of the thing He has made. The Hebrew and Septuagint versions use words that imply more than moral goodness (tov and kalon). The goodness of creation is robust. It is orderly, good, and beautiful.
Proper perception of creation’s goodness, though, is not exclusively available to God. Romans 1 declares that God’s power and divine nature are evident in creation, even to unbelievers. Wise viewers of the creation should naturally move from creation to Creator, implying that one can understand the meaning of creation wrongly. In a sense, we can look at the masterpiece of creation and fail to appreciate what is in front of us.
The Failure of Subjectivism
Belief in objective beauty is, in my view, a commonsensical response. We appreciate beauty in a natural, two-step process. First, we are moved by beauty emotionally, and
then form the judgment, “This is beautiful.” The presence of emotions doesn’t mean that our judgment is mere emotionality. The woman who looks on the face of her child and praises his beauty is really saying something about the child, not just her own feelings. It would be insulting to the mother and the child for a bystander to correct a mother and say, “Actually, what you really mean is just, ‘I love you.’” Similarly, it would be insulting to say to a mother who praises her child’s intelligence after winning a spelling bee, “Actually, what you really mean is, ‘I’m proud of you.’” Beauty, truth, and goodness aren’t just reactions on our part but are features of things in God’s world.
Now, we can certainly be wrong in our judgment about all three. The man who looks on a murder scene and says, “This is good,” is as wrong as one who looks on 2 + 2 = 5 and says, “This is true.” The man who stands in front of Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and doesn’t form the judgment, “This is beautiful,” has made an error.
Nevertheless, we have been taught repeatedly that judgments of beauty are subjective responses that can’t be resolved (unlike, say, judgments about mathematical truth). There’s some truth in the difference. Demonstration of error in matters of taste is harder. Critics often disagree about the relative merits of works of art. But what is difficult is not necessarily impossible. And modernity has made aesthetic judgment more difficult than it needs to be.
For starters, in our interconnected, global world we have become aware of all the ways that our cultural context shapes our appreciation of beautiful things. People in different places and times value human beauty differently. In one era, plump figures are prized, while in another, slender ones. It’s good to be aware of our prejudices, so we can learn to see past them. Likewise, foreign art forms are often inaccessible to us, so we fail to see what makes them good. With exposure, however, we can come to appreciate the excellence of works that once seemed alien and incomprehensible.
In this regard, subjectivism about beauty might initially seem to be a sort of compliment. If I fail to see the beauty in some foreign masterpiece, I can say, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” But in another sense, subjectivism is a kind of mild insult. Though a subjectivist may mean to say that there is nothing wrong with another’s judgment of beauty, it also means there is nothing right about it, either. It seems a bit condescending to stand next to someone appreciating a cherished work of art and say, “Whatever floats your boat.”
Beyond our cultural sensitivities, there are further reasons that modern people (including modern Christians) have bought into subjectivism. Modern gallery art (in many ways the symbol of high art) has proved to be a particularly vexing challenge for widespread, artistic evaluation. Because so many modern artists are working within an elite gallery context inaccessible to many normal people, what is praiseworthy or interesting about modern visual art often goes unnoticed. The average tourist to the Museum of Modern Art might regard an elite New York critic’s praise for an abstract work as silly. But with immersion into the history of modern art, these features become more obvious. Further, much modern art has abandoned the traditional quest for beauty, elevating other values such as originality. A gallery system that prizes innovation will likely leave the outsider behind in the dust. Nevertheless, just because we cannot see what makes a work valuable does not mean that it lacks value. I cannot understand the validity of forms of higher mathematics, but I don’t thereby assume that mathematicians are merely fooling universities into gainful employment with their complicated formulae.
On a simpler level, we are all familiar with the experience of disagreeing about works of art. Peter rewatches Lord of the Rings every Christmas, while John can’t stand Jackson’s frenetic and sappy adaptation of Tolkien’s masterpiece. In this case, are we to assume that their differences are irreconcilable? The subjectivist has a response to this, “Yes. What one sees as ‘frenetic’ another finds ‘intense.’” But here we run into a philosophical problem. How are they to speak about their differences? If subjectivism is true, there is no stable meaning to words like ‘frenetic,’ since there is no way to describe the attribute of ‘freneticism.’ If the emotional reaction that provokes the judgment, “This is frenetic,” is purely subjective, John and Peter cannot even agree on the meaning of the word ‘frenetic.’ They would have to be able to agree on some objective meaning to the word, which would require there to be some object they can both point to and say, “This is frenetic.” But this too is impossible. Rather than opening up artistic discussions to disagreement, subjectivism shuts down discussion altogether. The end result of subjectivism about beauty (and other aesthetic values) is the impossibility of growth in appreciation.
Since I take the goal of the Christian life to be more than offering arguments for God’s existence, my concern with the argument from beauty goes beyond rescuing it from modernist aesthetics. As Christians, we should aim to see creation as God sees it, not merely as a creation, but as a beautiful creation that invites us to “draw near to the craftsman,” as Athenagoras did. Since God is the source of all goodness, including aesthetic goodness, our final happiness will be true enjoyment of the greatest beauty: the beatific vision. Let us begin to cultivate a taste for the beautiful now.
Philip Tallon (PhD, University of Saint Andrews) is the Dean of the School of Christian Thought at Houston Baptist University. He is the author of The Poetics of Evil (Oxford, 2011) and “The Theistic Argument from Beauty and Play,” in Two Dozen (or So) Arguments for God (Oxford, 2018).
- Athenagoras, Legatio and De Resurrectione, ed. William R. Schoedel (Oxford: Clarendon, 1972), 33.
- Athanasius, Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione, ed. and trans. Robert W. Thompson (Oxford: Clarendon, 1971), 103.
- Scripture quotations taken from NIV.
- Anthony O’Hear, After Progress (London: Bloomsbury, 1999), 199, 201.
- Peter S. Fosl and Jerry L. Walls, “God, the Devil, and You,” February 21, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M0E7sbLKHsg.
- Richard Swinburne, The Existence of God, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Clarendon, 2004), 190.