The splendor and majesty of the ocean hints of things yet greater. To meditate upon it is to allow the grandeur of the waves to push our thoughts beyond that which we see. Taking in the beauty of the ocean should prompt us to think upon a broader universal order. Ultimately, it invites us to consider the Author of beauty, God himself. Thus, the logic established is one wherein the pursuit of beauty inheres an inquiry of the divine.
“Beauty will save the world,” wrote Dostoyevsky in his novel, The Idiot. Over the years, many theologians have played with the statement, seeking to tease from it whatever truth they can find. Certainly, when viewed through a Christian lens, Dostoyevsky’s words commend themselves to us. They are not only provocative, but instructive.
Often misconceived today, beauty was traditionally understood as a particular quality that portrayed something of a broader universal order. In antiquity, to label something as beautiful was to affirm, in some way, a manifestation of the divinely ordained form and content of the cosmos. Thus, a sunset is beautiful because in it we see a snapshot of a greater reality: it gives a glimpse of God’s handiwork, as displayed in greater proportions throughout the whole universe.
The Greek verb kosmeo suggests this understanding. Frequently translated “to adorn,” the word is closely related to cosmos, and connotes the idea of setting in order. So, when Paul instructs the women in Ephesus to adorn themselves with good works (1 Tim 2:9–10), he is teaching them about the nature of beauty. They were to order their lives in such a way so as to put on display a divine reality. By reflecting God’s goodness in their own works, they would be beautiful.
With this initial definition in view, the value of Dostoyevsky’s statement starts to emerge. Beauty, rightly understood, should always push our thoughts to higher realities. The splendor and majesty of the ocean hints of things yet greater. To meditate upon it is to allow the grandeur of the waves to push our thoughts beyond that which we see. Taking in the beauty of the ocean should prompt us to think upon a broader universal order. Ultimately, it invites us to consider the Author of beauty, God himself. Thus, the logic established is one wherein the pursuit of beauty inheres an inquiry of the divine.
There are, of course, certain hindrances to our pursuit of beauty. Foremost among them is the secular age in which we live. Due to a multitude of contributing factors, working together over many years, ours is a culture wherein there is little room for the supernatural. Secularism severs the tangible, explainable aspects of life from the transcendentals. Moreover, it banishes the latter from the public sphere, such that it seldom occupies a place in our thoughts. Charles Taylor alludes to this fact in his seminal work, A Secular Age. Writing 20 years ago, he refers to “the malaise of immanence”—an emptiness experienced in daily life, due to an absence of purpose, meaning, or depth. Taylor argues that the malaise of immanence derives ultimately from an eclipse of the transcendent.
The implications with respect to beauty are clear. Though the secularist may delight to take in the grandeur of the Alps, or gaze long upon the Milky Way, he is not inclined to follow the prescribed logic towards a contemplation of God. The malaise of immanence has trained him to think only upon that which he sees and can explain. Simply stated, he has learned to short-circuit beauty: seeking aesthetic pleasure, while refusing to acknowledge the Author.