If you could ask God for one thing, what would it be? Why would you choose this as your “one thing”?
In Psalm 27, the psalmist asks God for “one thing” and gives the reason for his choice.
One thing I have asked from the Lord, that I shall seek:
That I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life,
to behold the beauty of the Lord,
and to meditate in his temple. (Ps. 27:4)
The psalmist longs to dwell in the God’s house all of his days. The reason reveals his greatest desire: to behold the beauty of the Lord. For the psalmist, temple worship and God’s beauty are linked together. If God’s beauty is to be experienced, it will be experienced from within the context of sacred worship.
The psalmist makes this connection because beauty was a significant part of temple worship. The first explicit giving of God’s Spirit to his people involved equipping artists and craftsmen to create beautiful objects for use in divine worship.
The Lord spoke to Moses: See, I have called by name Bezalel son of Uri son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah: and I have filled him with divine spirit, with ability, intelligence, and knowledge in every kind of craft, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, in every kind of craft. Moreover, I have appointed with him Oholiab son of Ahisamach, of the tribe of Dan; and I have given skill to all the skilful, so that they may make all that I have commanded you: the tent of meeting, and the ark of the covenant, and the mercy-seat that is on it, and all the furnishings of the tent, the table and its utensils, and the pure lampstand with all its utensils, and the altar of incense, and the altar of burnt-offering with all its utensils, and the basin with its stand, and the finely worked vestments, the holy vestments for the priest Aaron and the vestments of his sons, for their service as priests, and the anointing-oil and the fragrant incense for the holy place. (Exodus 31:1-11)
Not only was the temple ornately designed, but the priests were also decked out in beautiful vestments. By the command of God, the priests of the temple – who represented God to the people and the people to God – wore “holy garments… for glory and for beauty” (Exodus 28:2). In order to adequately represent God to the people, and the people to God, the priests were to be clothed in glory.
Taken together, the beauty of the temple and its priestly servants reflected the beauty of God. Orthodox theologian Anthony Coniaris notes, “From Exodus to Revelation, worship in the Bible is clothed in gold, silver, precious stones, embroidery, robes of gorgeous fabric, bells, and candles… God ordered beauty, even extravagant beauty in worship, even while His people were still wandering in the desert and living in tents.” Though these beautiful elements were cumbersome to travel, they were included in worship. It was certainly a chore to store and transport the numerous objects of beauty necessary for divine worship, especially during Israel’s desert wanderings, but apparently these objects were important and necessary in order to know God.
To know God is know beauty; to know beauty is to know God. Just as God is the source of all truth and goodness, God is also the source of all beauty. God is the Supreme Artist – the Creator of all. Thus, everything that is beautiful reflects God’s artistry. Indeed, God is Beauty itself. The Church Father, Hilary of Poitiers, wrote: “Surely the author of all created beauty must himself be the beauty in all beauty.”
If this is the case, why does beauty play such a limited role in our spiritual experience? What is it about beauty that allows us to easily neglect it? Why doesn’t it seem as important to us – and as crucial to our worship – as the proclamation of truth and the embodiment of goodness?
There are at least three reasons why beauty is neglected.
Beauty is deceptive. For many people, beauty is deceptive, dangerous, and misleading. It holds the power to lead people astray. The last line of King Kong comes to mind: “It was beauty that killed the beast.”
For Christians, there is good reason to be suspicious of beauty. According to the ancient story, humanity’s fall into sin was precipitated by a beautiful object – a fruit that was “a delight to the eyes.” Temptation finds its first victim through the deception of beauty:
So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food,
and that it was a delight to the eyes,
and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise,
she took of its fruit and ate. (Genesis 3:6)
The beauty of the fruit deceived the woman (and, by the way, the man, who was also present during the temptation). But this was not the only tempting factor that led to humanity’s fall into sin. The serpent also undermined God’s truth (the fruit was able “to make one wise”) and distorted goodness (“the tree was good for food”). Because beauty hid the fatal hook in the forbidden fruit, Christians are often suspicious that they may experience the same deception. We often question beautiful objects: What is this beauty hiding? How will it tempt me? Will it mislead me? How can I resist its strong allure?
Perhaps we possess a heightened suspicion of beauty because of the abundance of superficial beauty-claims that pervade our culture – claims that beauty can only be found in youth, or in novelty, or in pencil-thin bodies or picture-perfect complexions. We readily recognize the shallow and manipulative ends to which beauty is used in our culture, and it makes us suspicious of all beauty claims.
However, it would be a tragedy to neglect beauty because of its abuse. Certainly, beauty can be deceptive, but this does not diminish its intrinsic value. Like all good things, beauty can be distorted, perverted, and corrupted. Beauty can hide an inner ugliness. Beauty can be only skin-deep. It can be a thin veneer that conceals evil. But the abuse of beauty does not give us reason to reject it. Instead, it helps us learn to discern true beauty – beauty that adorns truth and goodness.
Beauty is subjective. For some people, beauty has little to do with reality, but is simply a matter of one’s own personal tastes. In other words, beauty doesn’t really exist. It has no objective referent. It is personal, and nothing more – simply a matter of taste and preference. The popular cliché says it best: “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
Our perception and experience of beauty certainly has a lot to do with our personal tastes, but there is more to the story. An objective and absolute touchstone of beauty exists, namely, God. If this were not the case, we would never have any real reason to argue that some things are more beautiful than others. In other words, if our perception of beauty was solely a matter of our personal tastes and preferences, we would never be justified in seeking to convince others that what we find beautiful is something they should find beautiful as well.
Yet, we tend to judge beauty, and expect others to do the same. One common cultural experience highlights this tendency. Every week, on the show American Idol, Randy, Paula, and Simon (and by vote, the world) evaluate the beauty of a performance. Our shared criticism highlights how we intuitively act as if we share the same reality and that we have a right to judge degrees of beauty.
Years ago, in the classic book Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis argued this point in reference to morality. Whenever your see two people arguing about morality, whether they realize it or not, they are fundamentally agreeing that there is a higher source than their own perspectives. It is assumed – whether consciously or unconsciously – that there is a single shared reality that affirms their position is superior to their opponent’s views. Lewis writes,
The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other. But the standard that measure two things is something different from either. You are, in fact, comparing them both with some Real Morality, admitting that there is such a thing as a real Right, independent of what people think, and that some people’s ideas get nearer to that real Right than others.
If people truly believed that morality was simply personal, then there would be no basis for debate or discussion. At best, each person’s position would simply be a matter of personal taste and perspective.
The same could be said about beauty. When two people argue about beauty, they both assume that there is a touchstone of beauty, and that one of their opinions better conforms to a public and objective reality.
Almost everyone agrees that some things are simply more beautiful than others. Most would agree that Michelangelo’s King David statue is more beautiful than a Fred Flintstone party mask. Most would concur that ancient icons possess more beauty than the stuffed Jesus dolls. Most would agree that classical music is more beautiful than Weird Al Yankovic’s polka-inspired parodies and that Shakespeare’s plays are more beautiful than a Harlequin romance.
This is not to say that Fred Flintstone, stuffed Jesuses, Weird Al or Harlequin romances possess absolutely no beauty. They most certainly do. However, their beauty is different from Michelangelo’s statues, ancient icons, classical music, and Shakespeare’s plays. These objects demand much more from us. They do not readily give up their beauty. They call us to refine our senses – to train ourselves to appreciate a deeper beauty. Philosopher Mortimer Adler argues that
individuals can be trained in the experience of beauty, their tastes can be improved or cultivated as they can be trained to apprehend more and more complex objects. And this fact, while it indicates, of course, the subjective aspect of beauty, also points to something in the object which is itself beautiful. For otherwise, if this were not the case, there would be no sense in which we could speak of the improvement in a person’s taste. If there is any sense at all for speaking of improving the individual's taste, it must be because objects are more or less beautiful and the person whose taste is improved is able to appreciate the beauty of the more excellent thing.
Let me make that point a little more clearly. The better the individual’s taste is the more beautiful will be the objects he can appreciate.
This is not a matter of high culture versus pop culture, even though one common difference between the two is that pop culture is more accessible, since it is purposefully marketed to the masses. However, many objects in pop culture demand the same effort as high culture. It takes effort to appreciate the beauty of the intricate plot of Memento. The music of Radiohead is not as instantly accessible as the music of Matchbox Twenty, but repeated attentive listenings to Radiohead bring great sonic reward.
The point is that though our tastes may be radically different from others, there is a common reference point that inspires us to evaluate all things. In other words, beauty is objective, but our experience of it cannot help but be subjective. The capacity to enjoy beauty is available to all, yet deeper and more profound dimensions of beauty are experienced by those who train their senses to appreciate and enjoy them.
It is the same with God. Through spiritual practices we learn to appreciate and experience God’s beauty. Though beauty is subjectively experienced, we can always grow by learning better how to apprehend the divine beauty that all beauty reflects.
Beauty is useless. Do we really need beauty? What does it accomplish? What purpose does it fulfill?
Many disregard beauty because they feel it has no real function. They consider it to be mere decoration, and nothing more. But this is to completely misunderstand beauty.
For example, why do we need a tablecloth, flowers, music, and candles in order to enjoy dinner with our loved ones? These elements do not really do anything. They accomplish no real function. The food will go from the plate to our mouths whether these elements are present or not.
However, this is not all that dinner is about. It is not simply a matter of intaking food. Anthony Coniaris writes, “Beauty is never ‘necessary’, ‘functional’ or ‘useful’. And when, expecting someone whom we love, we put a beautiful tablecloth on the table and decorate it with candles and flowers, we do all this not out of necessity, but out of love.”
In The Stones of Venice, John Ruskin reminds us “that the most beautiful things in the world are the most useless; peacocks and lilies for instance.” Ruskin is correct: God has created a vast amount of “useless beauty.” The universe is filled with glorious displays of brilliant splendor. Flowers on top of a mountain that no one will see, creatures in the depths of caves no one has explored, gorgeous terrains on planets that no one will ever visit, glorious displays of color from distant stars that we’ll never view – all these displays of “useless beauty” exist in God’s world.
One could go further: The endless variety of sights, sounds, tastes, colors, and textures in our world point to God’s limitless creativity. This abundance of beauty demonstrates God’s infinite glory. God did not choose to skimp on beauty. God pours it out. The heavens and earth declare the glory of God.
In our competitive consumer society, we tend to value efficiency and usefulness over beauty. This is tragic, because God appears to love so-called “useless beauty.” Certainly, beauty is sometimes useless, but not all that is worthwhile serves a utilitarian function.
Despite all the excuses that fuel our neglect, we need beauty. We need to be overwhelmed by beauty, drawn into an incomprehensible beauty that arouses our desire and captivates our affections.
If nothing else, we deeply feel the absence of beauty! Without beauty, our faith loses its luster – its very glory, its sacred aura. We must recover the beauty of holiness, and re-experience the holiness of beauty or our religion will become nothing more than dry and dusty truth encrusted with overly-demanding morals. Richard Harries is right: “Beauty must once again play a central role in our understanding of the Christian faith. Without a positive theological evaluation of beauty there is no motive to delight in God and no compelling reason to love him.”
The Power of Beauty
Beauty possesses an enormous power to touch us deeply. Experiences of beauty hold a tremendous potential to grip and transform us. Beauty stirs and satisfies our deepest longings. Beauty attracts us, provokes adoration, and invites us to adorn ourselves with its luster.
Attraction. Beauty possesses a unique power to attract us to its glory. “Indeed, beauty is the persuasive power of God’s truth and goodness.” As such, beauty haunts us in order to captivate and transform us. Truth and goodness alone do not possess the same allure that beauty does. Richard Harries writes,
Moral principles are vital, yet so often we have to drive ourselves to do what is right. Beauty, on the other hand, haunts us. It draws and compels and gives... I might respond to God as a great commander-in-chief but I could not give myself to him as the goal of all my longing and my supreme delight.
Beauty attracts because it strikes a chord deep within us. “Experiences of beauty can be intensely emotional, affecting the very core or being.” Powerful feelings are aroused by beauty – feelings of pleasure, delight, wonder, and longing.
Adoration. We are attracted to what we adore. Conversely, we adore that to which we are attracted. We are wired for worship of something or someone. We naturally celebrate beauty. We automatically experience aroused affections for that which we find attractive. We celebrate beautiful music, art, poetry, and athletic ability. All the beauty found in nature and human art reflects God’s glory and shows us something about God. The act of worship – this “royal waste of time” which accomplishes little that the world (and many in the church!) would deem efficient or effective – holds tremendous power to awaken our affections and empower us to God-centered service for the sake of God’s glory.
Adornment. We long to become like that which we love and adore. We dress like the celebrities we celebrate. Remember in the 80s when all the young girls dressed like Madonna? More currently, witness young people’s desire to dress like their favorite rap stars. What if we tried to adorn ourselves with the beautiful virtues of the saints?
For this reason, Paul encourages Titus to teach his people to “adorn the doctrine of God our Savior in every respect” (Titus 2:10). Our lives should reflect the beauty of what we believe. The desire to adorn our lives with the beauty of divine holiness and the light of sacred glory is at the heart of the Christian life. This desire is behind every expression that God would be glorified. It is an adornment that is “not merely external” but involves “the hidden person of the heart, with the beautiful quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God” (1 Peter 3:4). God is pleased when he sees his beauty reflected in the deepest dimensions of our lives.
 Anthony Coniaris, Do Something Beautiful for God (Minneapolis, MN: Light and Life Press, 2006), 85.
 C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: Touchstone Books, 1980), 25.
 Mortimer J. Adler, How to Think About the Great Ideas (Peru, Illinois: Open Court Publishing, 2000), 159.
 Coniaris, Do Something Beautiful for God, 22.
 Richard Harries, Art and the Beauty of God: A Christian Understanding (New York: Mowbray, 1993), 6.
 Harries, Art and the Beauty of God, 11.
 Harries, Art and the Beauty of God, 17.
 Harries, Art and the Beauty of God, 2-3.
© Richard J. Vincent, 2007