Beauty has value because people will pay for it, and yet beauty in our culture is generally perceived to be superficial and insignificant. Within this oxymoron, we’ve seen how beauty evokes substantial responses from people with the attention people give to beauty, the esteem people attach to it, and the price people pay for it. There seems to be a contradiction in claiming beauty to be superficial with the kinds of responses our society gives toward it. Perhaps our responses toward superficial beauty are really symbolic of us grasping for a substantial beauty we sincerely long for. Beauty is an essential quality of reality the human soul needs. Without beauty, the soul dissolves into despair.
Can you imagine a world without beauty? There are places that have been ravaged and abandoned, characterized by devastation, destitution, and pollution. There are conditions of lives where very little beauty is seen because of the atrocities rendered on people. The absence of beauty on a substantial level is real in some parts of the world and in some people’s lives. But imagine beauty infiltrating such places and people, from the beauty of smiles on faces and songs sung in communities to the beauty of art, architecture and arboretums. How would beauty affect societies and souls? I’ve seen how painting three large murals at a low-income, inner-city school enlivens the spirits of the children who attend it. I’ve seen how brand, new textbooks touch children’s hearts. Beauty nurtures the human soul.
One reason for why we need beauty is it expresses an ideal – an ideal hair, skin tone, voice, life, artwork, or character quality. In some cases, sociologically, the perceived ideal can be oppressive, making people feel as though they live in substandard means and need to be like others with more money, wealth, power, and fame. Aside from socially twisted standards that belittle people, ideals can convey noble tenets under a healthy definition of beauty, giving people a vision of something truly great to look towards and strive for. The ideal portrays perfection and pulls people out of complacency and stimulates change. The ideal stirs in people an appetite to be more than what they are presently, to recognize flaws and ugliness that should be recognized and to grasp for greater wholeness. While we hold in the one hand a healthy acceptance of ourselves, meaning we exercise self-forgiveness, self-love and not self-flagellation for not meeting a standard, we also maintain a proper view of the ideal that sets us in motion to better our lives, better ourselves, and better our world. Acceptance alone is flawed if it is a settling for brokenness that should be healed and transcended. The ideal calls for change to the good.
I know it may seem fleeting, because can the ideal ever be attained? Theologically, on this side of heaven, the answer is no. But we’d be moving in the right direction, rather than the wrong direction or no direction at all. We’d be on God’s redemptive, re-creative plan to fulfill his vision of beauty for the world. If we make progress towards the perfect although never arriving, we will still be better than we were before. In the absence of beauty and a view of the ideal, there would be no appetite, no striving, and no movement.
However, considering the ideal brings us back to the question of definition. A person’s definition of beauty defines the ideal in that person’s eyes. Most accept the implied definition of beauty formed by ever-changing currents of commercialism and consumerism. Commercialism and consumerism is influenced by the masses and largely steered by those in power. Those who have more means, resources, social status, and access to prominent figures have also greater ability to influence people’s perception of what is beautiful. Our definition of beauty defines our ideal, which influences what we have an appetite for and determines the direction we move in. But what if beauty, and the ideal, were not socially constructed?
What is objectively real began in creation when God conceived it and manifested it. In creation, God intentionally created the universe to contain beauty, as we can see from His repeated declaration of “it was good” in Genesis 1. So, beauty and an ideal was formulated from the mind of God to be an actual part of our reality. God’s creation and definition of beauty stems from his own character and nature. Everything he created is in harmony with who he is. The universe is ordered because God is ordered and not chaotic. The universe is whole because God is harmonious and complete in his character and nature. The universe is a sensible place, where 2+2 always equals 4, because God is a being of reason. The universe is largely a good, loving, and just place, because God is good, loving and just. The Fall has thrown some of these aspects off balance, but we can still see the universe as largely being good. In fact, the effects of the Fall prods us to strive for beauty because we know that this is not the way things are supposed to be. The world God made is still lovely but we are also far from the ideal. Beauty reminds us that we cannot stay where we are. Since an objective definition of beauty and the ideal is based in God, the journey of discovering beauty is discovering the wonder of God. The quest in becoming more beautiful is a quest in becoming more like God. The appetite for beauty then is a holy appetite, a genuine yearning of our souls. As we wade through various social perceptions of beauty, the ideal beauty we strive for is God’s intended beauty for people and the world.