Christian mystic and philosopher Simone Weil wrote in her famous work Waiting for God, published posthumously more than 60 years ago: “Today one might think that the white races had almost lost all feeling for the beauty of the world, and that they had taken upon themselves the task of making it disappear from all the continents where they have penetrated with their armies, their trade, and their religion.”
Had Weil lived to witness the savage iconoclasms of this period we have nebulously tagged as ‘postmodern’, she would have been truly appalled. For in this so-called ‘postmodern turn’, where cultural narcissism, a plurality of psychological identities, and radical relativism dominates and corrodes
human society, beauty (together with the true and the good) is slowly being eclipsed and forgotten.
This is seen supremely, although not exclusively, in art. The American art critic and philosopher Arthur Danto, observing the erosion of beauty, wrote in The Abuse of Beauty that “Beauty …disappeared not only from the advanced art of the 1960s, but from advanced philosophy of art of that decade as well… [It] rarely came up in art periodicals from the 1960s without the deconstructionist snicker.”
The eclipse of beauty is also seen in the church, especially in its worship, music, architecture and art. This is both alarming and sad because beauty has always occupied such a central place in the Christian heritage. In music, for instance, we have such marvellous epiphanies of created beauty in the haunting monody of Gregorian chant, the uncommon splendour of the choral motets of Palestrina, and the majestic cantatas of Handel and Bach.
Beauty so profoundly pervades the Christian tradition simply because the God that Christians worship is beautiful. The glory of God may refer to many things, but it points most significantly to his majestic beauty. Reflecting on the implications of this truth, Richard Viladesu writes in his captivating book, Theology and the Arts: “To say that God is beauty is to affirm God as the horizon of every human experience of the beautiful, in all aspects: intellectual, moral, interpersonal and aesthetic.”
The world that God created is beautiful because it reflects the divine beauty. There is therefore that profound analogy between earthly or created beauty and the beauty of God, its Creator. “The world”, writes the great 19th century poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, “is charged with the grandeur of God. It will flame out, like shining from shook foil.” Thus, while the divine beauty transcends all its visible manifestations, God is their source and final cause.
If God is Beauty, then, his self-disclosure must also be beautiful. And if, as Scripture has taught us, God has revealed himself universally in the created order, every experience of beauty is in some sense an encounter of the revelation of God. In all its imperfections, earthly beauty affords us a glimpse – however slight – of the glory of God.
But the beauty of God is seen most supremely in the fullness of his revelation in Jesus Christ. For the incarnate Son is the icon, the image and the form of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). Looking at the eternal Son clothed in humanity in the incarnation, John could testify:
“We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) And since Christ is the definitive self-disclosure of God, to see the glory of the Son is to behold the glory of the Father (John 14:8-9).
In addition, there is in every human being an innate sense of beauty, and therefore also an ineffable longing for God. A Christian view of man cannot but affirm this, its great doctrines concerning human fallenness and rebellion notwithstanding. Augustine saw this very clearly when he spoke of the restless human heart that can find its ultimate repose only in God. Pascal also recognised it in his marvellous metaphor of the God-shaped vacuum in every human heart.
Perhaps this is why despite the philistinism of the postmodern culture, beauty has not totally disappeared and still survives in some strands of culture. And perhaps this is also why despite the onslaught of secularism and atheism, more than a third of the global population still believe in the God of the Bible.
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College. He worships at the Fairfield Preaching Point in Woodlands.