Understanding God as Beauty, the most beautiful and the One against whom we define all other beauties, allows our experiences of beauty here in this world to draw us towards him.
When writing or speaking about beauty, one of the first major hurdles to arise is a definition. What is beauty? While most people would say that they know it when they see it, articulating exactly what it is, and what it is not, is a challenge. Philosophers, theologians, and artists have argued about beauty’s definition for millenia, and it would be arrogant to think that what I have to say will end the discussion.
Still, we need to work towards something. Many go back to Plato, and his claim that beauty is objective, and that it has to do with symmetry, order, balance, and proportion. Others, particularly in modern and postmodern Western culture, would argue that beauty is subjective—it depends on your perspective, tastes, experiences, and that there isn’t one true definition for all people and all time.
But perhaps we are asking the wrong question. What if, instead of asking, “what is beauty?” we asked, “who is beauty?”
Beauty has a Name
Augustine of Hippo, an African bishop and theologian living in the fourth century, answers this question. In one of the most famous lines in his memoir of conversion, he laments, “Belatedly I loved you, O Beauty so ancient and so new, belatedly I loved you.” Here, Augustine addresses God, and he does so by calling God “Beauty.”
He’s in good company: his words echo that of David and Moses. In Psalm 27, David declares that he seeks one thing: “that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple” (27:4, NIV). Later, in Psalm 29, he instructs the people to “worship the LORD in the beauty of holiness” (29:2, KJV). Moses, too, identifies God as beautiful in his benediction to Psalm 90: “let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us” (90:17, KJV). David and Moses agree: the Lord is beautiful.
If the Lord is beautiful, then it follows that he is the most beautiful. As Anselm argues, “whatever good thing the supreme Nature is, it is in the highest degree. It is, therefore,…supreme Beauty…” Jonathan Edwards goes further, arguing not only that “as God is infinitely the greatest Being, so is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent” but that because of this, “all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory; God…is the foundation and fountain of all being and all beauty.”
Our Beautiful God
We have identified, now, not simply an idea of beauty, but beauty itself. God, in his attributes and actions, grounds all definitions of beauty. Whether beautiful in small measure or great, something or someone may only be said to be beautiful if it is consonant in some way with who God is.