Beauty and the Character of God
What beauty tells us about God1
Studying God is a balancing act. At times the theologian has to hold their breath, as it were, and suspend their sense of the sacred in order to understand deep truths, but they should also spend time on their knees – perhaps both mentally and literally - revelling in the presence of God as they study his attributes.2 I feel the same about natural theology. It’s fascinating to look at examples of fine-tuning in the universe: here, perhaps, is evidence for the existence of God. Logical analysis of physical constants requires a good deal of spiritual breath-holding, but it’s possible - at least for a time - to remain focused on the physics. It’s when I look at what creation3 reveals of God’s character that I begin to find it difficult to sit still and calmly rational in the library.
There is a huge literature on the biblical concept of the beauty of God4 and, as I have mentioned in my previous posts, there is also a strong Christian tradition of studying what creation reveals about the Creator. Exploring this area of scholarship has helped me to understand what I experience when I see beauty in creation: either intuitively as I walk in a garden or wilderness area, or through the highly developed techniques of science or art. There are two main strands of Christian theological thinking on natural beauty that are relevant here. In the first, the beauty experienced in creation is something we can learn to transcend to reach God who is the perfect source of beauty. This ascent from earthly to spiritual beauty is a Platonic idea that was adopted by some Christian theologians early in the history of the church. The beauty of creation was seen as a pale shadow of the beauty of God. The second way to view the beauty of creation is that is somehow transparent to the transcendent or, when rightly interpreted, it reveals a transcendent reality: it shows us something of God. This second, more horizontal concept of beauty has a more solid basis in the biblical idea of creation revealing God’s glory,5 but is also more complex because it requires discernment.
Lungs, from fact sheet © Euro Stem Cell.
There are four main dangers in natural theology. Creation is not God, so it does not fully reveal his character or purposes (for that we need Jesus) but our universe was created by God and so bears marks of his character, however dimly perceived. As creation is not God, it is not to be worshipped or idolised in itself. Also, we are not perfect, so we need to be aware that we might deceive ourselves and say things about God’s character that might be false. Finally, creation is described as ‘groaning’: the world we live in is not perfect and will only reveal God’s character fully when it is restored. For these reasons, some theologians have rejected natural theology entirely.6 Others have decided that, rather than throw the baby out with the bathwater, we should learn to discern what we can of God’s attributes from creation. We should test every new insight thoroughly, and keep what we learn firmly in the context of the Christian gospel. Alister McGrath put it this way: ‘The Christian doctrine of creation provides an intellectual framework for seeing God through nature; the doctrine of the incarnation allows us to see God in nature, culminating in Christ himself’.7 Outside of the theological debate, many Christians today intuitively experience creation as an important point of contact with God.
So what does creation reveal about God? First, and most generally, the beauty of God is reflected in the beauty of the world. Basil of Caesarea said that ‘from the beauty of the visible things let us form an idea of Him who is more than beautiful’8. What does the beauty of God mean? Perhaps the next best word is ‘glory’. Theologian Karl Barth thought that to explain God’s glory you needed both the concepts of power and of beauty, but he considered beauty to be secondary to glory (he was worried about nature-worship).9 Hans Urs von Balthasar, on the other hand, went beyond Barth’s cautious handling of glory and spoke of beauty as an analogy of God. His multivolume work ‘The Glory of God’ has been highly influential across many theological traditions. Creation is for God’s glory, and its beauty reflects his glory. Augustine of Hippo also expressed this well in his book, Confessions. His love for the beauty of the world reflected his love for God.10
The 'glorious' corresponds on the theological plane to what the transcendental 'beautiful' is on the philosophical plane.
-Hans Urs von Balthasar11
Secondly, creation could be seen as a vast and harmonious work of art. For earlier generations of theologians this balanced and coordinated functioning of the whole universe was creation’s supreme demonstration of God’s character.12 The grand picture of the world painted by science today is even more impressive: many animals, plants and microbes interacting together; an environment where seismic events and thermal cycles combine to create varied ecological niches; a planet with lunar and solar systems that provide tides and seasons; a universe where stars produce the ingredients for life and immense physical forces create the stability needed for that planet to exist. The order and harmony of the universe that we see reflects the unity and wisdom of the Trinity.
'The world is a work of art, set before all for contemplation, so that through it the wisdom of Him who created it should be known.’
-Basil of Caesarea
‘Each creature manifests God in some way, but the best manifestation of God is the beautifully ordered universe of all creatures functioning in relation to one another as God intended.’
Spider MRI © Gavin Merrifield, University of Edinburgh
Finally, the symmetry, pattern, order and intricate detail we see are the result of finely balanced physical properties. If beauty is at times an indicator of truth, particularly in the more mathematical branches of science, could beauty in creation be a reflection of the wisdom and truth of God the ultimate lawgiver?
Some have spoken of beauty as evidence for God, but I would prefer to think of it as a thought experiment. If a good God created a world, what would you expect? I would expect great beauty. And if we are created ‘in God’s image’, it is perhaps not surprising that we are equipped to appreciate the beauty we see. Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar has put forward the idea that scientists who are more aesthetically aware are more likely to do great work.13 In a more recent paper Tracee Hackel has suggested that Christians are necessarily more aware of the beauty of God, and therefore more likely to be attuned to the beauty of creation.14 Or would people who are more attuned to the beauty of creation be more likely to recognise the beauty of God?
The elephant in the room during this discussion is suffering. We live in a world of great beauty and great pain. Often the wonders we see have a terrible side, and need to be ‘handled with care’. Spectacular mountain ranges can be the death of unwary explorers, the sea that has inspired so many great paintings has claimed countless lives, and animals can inflict injury or disease if not approached in the right way. Any tropical ‘paradise’ is usually fraught with dangers for the unwary: poisonous snakes, biting insects and horrific infectious diseases, not to mention the danger of earthquakes, hurricanes or volcanoes. If a creator god exists, could he or she resemble the caring personal God of the Bible?15 Even if we are satisfied that, despite all this, God is good we have some serious problems to face in applying natural theology. At best creation is a cracked mirror, reflecting only part of God’s glory. It has been suggested to me that because creation is groaning, natural beauty is not an effective pathway to God – but I’d challenge that assumption for the following reason.
An analogy needn’t be perfect to be effective. Jesus used parables to demonstrate how God reveals something of himself in creation. For example, God is compared to a shepherd, his word is like seed, and beautiful flowers in a field are an example of his lavish provision. If you push them too far, all of these analogies break down: God does not have a boss as a shepherd does, he doesn’t have to ‘sow’ his words in order to make a living, and God’s provision for us usually involves some effort on our part. Jesus also said that we should call God our father, but no dad is faultless, and some people are unfortunate enough to experience extremely bad parenting. Somehow the existence of terrible fathers didn’t stop Jesus emphasizing this aspect of God’s relationship to us. I think our flawed human experience only makes Jesus’ teaching more effective. We know what to expect of a good dad. At times we see glimpses of perfection, and we long for more. Rather than shying away from speaking about God as our father for fear of misinterpretation, Jesus knew that our best parenting moments shine out as an illustration of God’s love for us. On that basis I think that creation, while flawed, can often be an effective illustration of God’s own power, perfection and beauty.
Olive tree ©Ruth Bancewicz
1. Key references for this post are McGrath, A.E. The Open Secret. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2008; Viladesau, R. Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty and Art. Oxford University Press, 1999, chpts 1 & 4; Schaefer, J. Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic & Medieval Concepts. Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC, 2009, chpt 3.
2. Viladesau, R. Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty and Art. Oxford University Press, 1999.
3. I try to avoid using the words ‘nature’ or ‘the natural world’ as much as possible because of the ambiguity of the word nature, which is often wrongly used to create a divide between natural and supernatural worlds. This is ancient Greek philosophy and has nothing to do with the God of the Bible. When addressing Christians I usually use the word ‘creation’ in its traditional theological sense, meaning ‘everything that exists apart from God’, without connection to any one particular interpretation of Genesis 1-3.
4. God is ‘perfect in beauty’, Psalms 48 & 50, Lamentations 2, Ezekiel 16; Worship God ‘in the beauty of holiness’, I Chronicles 16, 2 Chronicles 20, Psalms 29 & 96; The coming saviour as ‘beautiful’, Isaiah 4:2 and 33:17, Psalm 110, Hosea 14:6; God’s beauty: Job 40:10, Psalm 96:6. From Hackel, T. Physics and Christian Theology: Beauty, a Common Dialect? Pursuit of Truth: A Journal of Christian Scholarship, 2007.
5. For example, the Psalms speak of creation revealing the glory of God, Jesus uses nature parables to describe God, and Romans 1:19–20 indicates that we can see something of God in creation.
6. Holder, R. The Heavens Declare: Natural Theology & the Legacy of Karl Barth. Templeton Press, Philadelphia, (2012). Templeton Press, May 2012.
7. McGrath, A.E. The Open Secret. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2008, pp209-10.
8. Schaefer, J. Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic & Medieval Concepts. Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC, 2009, p68.
9. Viladesau, R. Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty and Art. Oxford University Press, 1999, pp26-29; Cootsona, G.S. The Telos of Beauty. Paper at Metanexus Conference, 2007. www.butte.edu/~barnettd/documents/triad/TelosOfBeauty.doc
10. McGrath, A.E. The Open Secret. Blackwell Publishing, Oxford, 2008, pp262-263.
11. Viladesau, R. Theological Aesthetics: God in Imagination, Beauty and Art. Oxford University Press, 1999, pp37.
12. Schaefer, J. Theological Foundations for Environmental Ethics: Reconstructing Patristic & Medieval Concepts. Georgetown University Press, Washington, DC, 2009.
13. Chandrasekhar, S. Beauty and the Quest for Beauty in Science. Fermilab, 1979.
14. Hackel, T. Physics and Christian Theology: Beauty, a Common Dialect? Pursuit of Truth: A Journal of Christian Scholarship, 2007.
15. Others have dealt with this topic in detail. This article is a good start: http://www.rzim.eu/how-can-you-say-that-there-is-a-good-god-of-love-when