Why We Need Beauty

Most of us like beauty. We look at the snow-covered mountains in wonder and are drawn to worship. Or we see a spectacular photograph and marvel at the way the photographer captured light. Beauty is something we enjoy, but is it really necessary?

1-year Flickr Anniversary

In the twentieth century, many Evangelicals answered that question with a distinctive “no.” They shunned art as superfluous, focusing instead on shoring up their walls with the truth. Furthermore beauty became a sign of temptation away from moral action, from the good. Thus, the good and the true were elevated over the beautiful.

Yet see what Hans Urs Von Balthasar writes:

“In a world which is perhaps not wholly without beauty, but which can no longer see it or reckon with it: in such a world the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out…In a world that no longer has enough confidence in itself to affirm the beautiful, the proofs of the truth have lost their cogency.” The Glory of the Lord, 19.

However, we cannot just blame our predecessors for separating truth, goodness and beauty. We have continued the trend in seeing beauty as not essential. It comes out in our churches’ emphasis on good morals over a beautiful sanctuary. Certainly we do not need to be excessive but the fact that many of our buildings demonstrate few aesthetic considerations suggests we have relegated beauty to the realm of the arbitrary.

Yet beauty is a vital part of our lives; it is what attracts us and pulls us towards things. It is little wonder that we see a growing number of evangelicals moving to the Orthodox and Catholic churches. Not only do they find beauty there, but without beauty, the truth and goodness that Evangelicals truly can offer become less attractive.

What does a reclamation of beauty by Evangelicals look like? Honestly, I’m not entirely sure. I do know, however that we have to seek to maintain a balance between truth, goodness and beauty. Only when the three are in balance can we live fully human lives as we reflect the one who is Truth, Goodness and Beauty himself.

But this post is not all doom and gloom either. In addition to various Evangelical artists engaging increasingly in the world of beauty (in writing, the arts, etc.), I think there is reason to be optimistic.  If we recognize it’s importance, beauty has a way of seeping into our realities, filling up the cracks and spilling over. We can begin to see it in the smiles of our neighbors; we can begin to see it in the clouds on a beautiful day; we can begin to see it in the simplicity of the Eucharist. As we begin to seek beauty, we will find that it is all around us, just as the one who is Beautiful always is.

How do you think Evangelicals can reclaim beauty? Let us know in the comments.


8 thoughts on “Why We Need Beauty

  1. Why do you always write such wonderful posts the night before I have a big paper due? Ok, I’ll try to keep my off-the-cuff thoughts short. Some people like “simple beauty”–a basic picture with warm colors, a light piece of music, water slowly running over rocks in a stream. Others like “big beauty”–I’m talking Sistine Chapel, huge orchestra, monstrous waves hammering a rocky shoreline at sundown. I think the Trinity can accommodate both appreciations of beauty in the harmonious unity and dynamic diversity. Especially with the cross at the forefront (which also feeds into your Eucharistic approach, something I resonate with).

    1. Kevin, I apologize for my ill timing but appreciate the depth of your comment, particularly its Trinitarian grounding. I agree that both fit. In fact, maybe there is even a place for (gasp) Thomas Kinkade-esque art in the diversity of appreciation of beauty. But in either case, I think it’s pivotal that we maintain beauty as significant and a key component of our Christian lives, whether simple or grand (which isn’t to disagree with anything you said, just agree and say thanks for the excellent thought as always).

  2. I tried to avoid Mr. Painter-of-Light :]. This post brought to mind a Chesterton quote: “The world shall not perish for lack of wonders but for lack of wonder.” I can’t quite explain it (and probably because I don’t model it very well), but there is something to humanity that if our ability to appreciate beauty is stunted then…something just isn’t right. It’s not that you have to weep at every rainbow you see, but that there is a part of you that is awake to sense experiences that take you beyond yourself.

    1. That’s a great quote, and I think you’re quite right – beauty is more than just pleasure or delight at a spectacle. It is transcendent.

  3. transcendent – yes. i was curious to see you describe truth, goodness & beauty as separate from each other. i think i tend to see beauty as intertwined with truth and goodness, one of the elements that brings them together and makes the witnessing of them a transcendent experience…

    Horace said that a picture is a poem without words. in that vein, i wonder if beauty can be seen as truth and goodness in a form (language?) that our spirits can recognise (connect/communicate with) ?

    1. I think my language here fails to do justice to reality. Although I think “intertwining” also maintains them separately. In reality, the three coinherence in God (see Kevin’s Trinitarian comment which I think is incredibly helpful). Of course, we may see some manifestations that seem to emphasize one over the other in the economy of Creation but you’re right that the distinction, in reality, may not exist.
      I have to think more about beauty as a form. I generally think of beauty more as the thing that compels and draws me and therein, per von Balthasar’s comment, makes the truth and goodness valid to my perception.
      Thanks for your thoughts!

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