Useless Beauty?

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wine and cheeseDo you ever wonder about the point of beauty? I mean, why do we need beauty, really? If life is only about survival of the fittest, beauty has no purpose, yet we long for beauty and will go to extraordinary lengths to have it.

We don’t desire simply to eat. We want to dine—else we would never have invented wine, or chocolate, or a million varieties of cheese or beautifully appointed tables with bright cloths and candles. We need clothing, but we don’t just cover ourselves with hay or animal skins. We adorn ourselves. We weave delicate silks or hand woven wools. We employ intricate dyes with rich colors, beads, embroidery, and other fine stitching. In our homes, we might spend hours choosing just the right paint color for the bathroom walls! Why?

Even in the most primitive cultures, I suspect there is still a compulsion to add some element of beauty to daily living, whether a handful of wildflowers, a dance, a song sung around a fire, or even a tattoo! We yearn not only to surround ourselves with beauty but also to create it. The world is filled with evidence of this fact. Think Taj Mahal, Alhambra, or the Louvre.

Our basic needs for food, clothing or shelter are surpassed by an even greater need—the need to feed our souls. If a mother were only meant to feed her child for sstring rehearsalurvival purposes, dinnertime would be quite a different thing. Why instead do millions of mothers waste time setting a dinner table or creating a special atmosphere for a holiday? Why, indeed, would anyone take the time to write music, fashion a piece of pottery, plant a garden, or even get a haircut?

We find joy in beauty. Keats said, “A thing of beauty is a joy forever.” Can we also find truth in beauty? Keats thought so. He also wrote, “’Beauty is truth, truth beauty, —that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’” Keats was on to something, but maybe we do need to know more. Maybe we need to know the origination and purpose of beauty.

Edward Welch’s book When People are Big and God is Small has an interesting passage that I believe provides a clue. Welch notes how life itself provides pictures for us of who God is and what he is like. Scriptures say that God is a loving bridegroom, a redeemer, a feast giver, a judge and advocate, a father, mother, obedient son, suffering servant, friend, shepherd, potter, physician. We relate to these titles because we have known fathers, judges, physicians, and the like. The book goes on to say,

These concrete “snapshots” that God gives us of himself are not just God’s way of accommodating himself to human language. God isn’t using our understanding of servants to suggest that he is like a servant. No, God is the servant, the husband, the father, the brother, and the friend. Anything in the created world that bears a resemblance to these descriptions of God is simply God’s glory spilling into creation and into creatures. Whenever you see these albeit distorted images in other people, they are a faint reflection of the original.

Koi PondGod’s glory—spilling over into creation and into creatures. Is it possible that we are drawn to beauty because beauty is part of God’s glory. Indeed, if Welch is right, God is Beauty, and the beauty I see here is but a faint reflection of the original. So when I am touched by the best in human relationships, by the forgiveness of a father to his son, or by a woman lovingly caring for her elderly mother—any such tender pictures of love, forgiveness, and affection, I am touched because I see glimpses there of God’s glory. Likewise, when I am awed by the beauty of a glorious sunset, a breathtaking aria, or of the magnificent art and craft as seen in a place like Notre Dame, there too, I am seeing but vague hints of God’s glory—and it sets my soul on fire.

Copyright © L. Kay Johnson, 2009. All Rights Reserved

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