Among Christians, there is general agreement on the objective nature of truth: a truth is true, whether you believe it or not. We like to hear our postmodern friends (who deny the existence of absolute truth) say, “There is no such thing as absolute truth,” because when they do, we get to ask, “Is it absolutely true that there is no such thing as absolute truth?” Of course, they cannot answer, because a yes affirms that there is absolute truth, while a no affirms the same thing.
What is not so obvious among Christians is whether or not beauty is objective and absolute. We are all likely to affirm beauty is in the eye of the beholder. It seems an indisputable point when you consider the differences in taste from one person to another when determining the beauty of another person, a song, a book, a meal, or a painting. Our differences in taste surely appear to prove the subjective nature of beauty.
To accept this is to overlook the same truth about beauty that we will not overlook when it comes to absolute truth. Just as I have different tastes when it comes to the beauty of artwork, so do people have different tastes when it comes to truth. As frustrating as it is when someone says what is true for you isn’t necessarily true for me, there is a point to be had there. I believe that it is morally unacceptable, for example, for a society to euthanize the poor and helpless, while Plato believed it to be obligatory for the welfare of the society. My believing a truth does no more to make it true than does Plato’s believing the lie to make it true. Thus, one could say I have a taste for what happens to be actually true, while Plato has a taste for what is false, in this case. However, my taste isn’t what makes it true, just as his taste doesn’t make the truth false.
It is not my good taste, nor is it society’s consensus, that makes truth true. It is God, Jesus Christ, who is the Truth (John 14:6), who bears witness to the truth (John 18:37), declares the truth (John 8:40), and reveals the truth as the Word of God (John 17:7). Thus, we can know the truth and develop a taste for it because God himself has revealed it to us. This is why I can declare “euthanizing the poor and helpless is immoral” is a truth, contra Plato, because the Word of God has revealed it to us (Deuteronomy 5:17, Psalms 94:6-7).
Likewise, the same reasoning applies to beauty. Something is not beautiful just because I believe it to be so. Just as truth is objective and absolute by the declaration of God, beauty is objective by the declaration of God. The very fact that God declares people or things to be beautiful indicates that He has a standard for beauty which makes them objectively beautiful, whether I agree or not. The key is to determine what He has called beautiful and then to train my tastes to recognize such as beautiful—the same way I’ve had to train my tastes to recognize truth.
In Genesis 12, God tells us that Abraham’s wife, Sarah, was beautiful—not just that the Egyptians saw her and thought she was beautiful, but that she was beautiful. He says the same thing about Rachel in Genesis 29. In Exodus 28, God commands that Moses make holy garments for his priestly brother Aaron that would be for glory and beauty. In 1 Samuel 16, we are told that David had beautiful eyes and was handsome; his daughter Tamar is also described as beautiful. The list can go on and on, but most importantly, we can read the descriptions of a beautiful man and woman in the Song of Songs. From these examples, we can begin training ourselves to have a taste for beauty like unto God’s. It is also fair to acknowledge that beauty—especially in a person—can be both internal and external. Sarah wasn’t just beautiful physically, but her whole person was beautiful because she was also a faithful woman.
The descriptions of beauty in the Song of Songs will also help us to recognize the objective nature of beauty as we come across it in other texts. In The Gold-Bug and Other Tales, Edgar Allan Poe’s short story “Ligeia” describes a woman of that name as being very beautiful. Poe describes her facial features, her body, her hair—her—and the reader is compelled by those very descriptions to see Ligeia as a beautiful woman. If beauty truly were subjective, it would be impossible to describe Ligeia as beautiful and have any reader (except those who share the same subjective taste) agree with him. Jane Austen does the same thing in her books, as in Pride and Prejudice. We can recognize the beauty or lack of beauty of the Bennett sisters and other ladies in the story as she describes them because her descriptions are objective.
Even among others who aren’t so bold as to describe the shapes and sizes of a person’s eyes and nose to define beauty, we find them describing a person’s beauty by analogy. These authors, like the author of Song of Songs, compare the beauty of a person to the beauty we see in God’s creation. The author might compare the fiery red of a beautiful woman’s hair to the radiance of a sunset, or as in the Song of Songs, the beauty of a woman’s neck to the beauty of a tower. These analogies only work because readers also will see the objective beauty in that which is being compared.
If beauty is objective, then like truth, we must train our tastes to agree with God’s declarations. We more readily accept the validity of objective truth because it is easier to identify objective truth and teach ourselves to agree that murder is wrong, stealing is wrong, and adultery is wrong. We are less inclined to accept the validity of objective beauty because it is more difficult to find God’s definitions of beauty; however, the difficulty of something is not an excuse to ignore it. As parents, we are in a position to raise our children with a godly taste for beauty before they are corrupted by false worldviews which relegate goodness, beauty, and even truth to the realm of values determined by the individual rather than God.
We can begin teaching our children to find beauty in literature as they recognize the poetic beauty of words and sentences in alliteration, onomatopoeia, simile, metaphor, rhyming, rhythm, and metrics.
We can begin teaching our children to find beauty in history as they recognize the providence of God in moving humanity—and His people especially— into a maturity that establishes us in His likeness.
We can begin teaching our children to find beauty in math as they start to recognize the symmetry in parabolas or the pattern of the Fibonacci sequence. Even the agnostic philosopher Bertrand Russell commented:
“Mathematics, rightly viewed, possesses not only truth, but supreme beauty—a beauty cold and austere, like that of sculpture, without appeal to any part of our weaker nature, without the gorgeous trappings of painting or music, yet sublimely pure, and capable of a stern perfection such as only the greatest art can show. The true spirit of delight, the exaltation, the sense of being more than Man, which is the touchstone of the highest excellence, is to be found in mathematics as surely as poetry.”1
As we begin thinking about the Quadrivium, we will see a classical progression from arithmetic (the study of numbers) to geometry (the study of numbers in space) to music (the study of numbers in time) to astronomy (the study of numbers in space and time), and we will begin recognizing the progression of beauty itself in those numbers.
We can begin teaching our children to find beauty in science as they start to recognize the awesomeness of God’s creation, whether it is in the heavens, the Grand Canyon, or the bumble bee.
When we teach our children to have a taste for beauty that matches God’s, we teach ourselves to have a taste for beauty that matches God’s. As we read—Shakespeare or Scripture—we can begin recognizing beauty and how to define it. Douglas Wilson’s and Douglas Jones’ Angels in the Architecture is a good starting point for developing a godly taste for beauty and will help you to understand and develop the arguments for this view.
In the end, this is a battle (and a difficult one) because of the strength of the modernist and postmodernist arguments against our position. But, it is a battle worth fighting, and God has given us His revealed truth to guide us through it. So pick up your sword and fight for goodness, beauty, and truth!
1Bertrand Russell (1872–1970), British philosopher, mathematician. Philosophical Essays (1910), repr. In Mysticism and Logic (1918). “The Study of Mathematics,” essay written 1902, first published in New Quarterly (Nov. 1907).