Thursday, February 9, 2012

CROOKED BEAUTY


This dog is making me rethink beauty.

When I first looked at him I tilted my head a bit, thinking he was tilting his head too.  He wasn’t.  His face is crooked.  You would think this should count against him, but it doesn’t.  He’s not perfect, but somehow that actually adds to my opinion of him.  (How many of you thought, “Ahhhhh!”)

I am wondering why imperfections sometimes make things more beautiful.

This seems wrong somehow.  Beauty is perfection, right?  Don’t studies show that the more a person's is symmetrical, the more we consider him or her beautiful?  If we are so drawn to perfection, it would seem to follow that the more physically perfect something is, the more beautiful it is.

However, as Christians, we embrace a tension about this. We talk about the perfection and beauty of Christ, and yet the Bible says of Jesus, “There is no beauty we would desire of Him” (Isaiah 53:2).   

I believe we confuse “beautiful” and “aesthetically pleasing.”  While beauty and aesthetic appeal are not at odds with each other by any means, they are far from synonymous.  There are many things some consider beautiful (such as the glorious scarlet and grey of the Buckeyes) that others (namely, everyone else in the state of Michigan) do not.  This is actually not a clash over beauty; it is a clash over aesthetic appeal.

Many have tried to define beauty. Plato said beauty was ultimately an ideal form that manifested in things we see as beautiful; Aristotle didn't like Plato's ideal state that much, so he offered an oddly circular explanation that beauty exists in beautiful things. I don't find this helpful. To say beautiful things are beautiful because they participate in beauty stops somewhere short of profound.  

In the interest of continuing the traditional search to describe beauty, I propose this definition: Beauty is “the state in which a person, object or idea most fully fulfills its nature and purpose.”  This is not the same as saying, "I like it a lot!"  This definition says there is an objective standard with which to judge the truly beautiful things in the world, a standard that is independent of perspective. True lovers of beauty are those who seek to recognize, appreciate, and fulfill the nature and purpose in everything, including themselves.

As Christians, we look to the Bible to understand both these things.  The more the world aligns with the intent of God's creation, the more the world fills us with awe at its magnificence.  The more sin distorts the nature and purpose of the world, the more we grieve the loss of true beauty.  

If I am correct, this explains why worldviews without God have such a hard time defining beauty.  Yes, symmetry, precision, and gut level responses are really cool, but they are hardly foundational.  Many explanations affirm Aristotle - beauty is clearly present in beautiful things - but what have we learned?  Without God, both the nature and the purpose of everything is uncertain, so the identification of beauty remains uncertain.  Even if one decides on the “nature’ of something, it is a result of time and chance and could change; furthermore, it’s hard to extrapolate purpose from a purposeless universe.


But if my definition is correct, that’s also why imperfect dogs can still be beautiful.  They are by nature dogs – “a domesticated carnivore belonging to the same family as the wolf.”  The shape of their noses or their ability to jump through tires are irrelevant.  Their aesthetic appeal is distinct from their beauty. As to their purpose (to use the vernacular) they are man’s best friend; they are a combination of playmate, watchdog, and companion. Mission accomplished.
    
 I am grateful the Designer of the universe has given all things both a nature and purpose, filling our lives with so much beauty.  We currently experience everything in a fallen state, but we are drawn to the beauty that remains. One day, everything will be as God intended in the Land of the Beautiful. 
    
Meanwhile, we love a truly beautiful Christ who loved us in spite of the damage that sin has done to our nature and purpose.  If we could all be so generous in our love of the people and things around us that are crooked but nonetheless retain glimpse of a beauty that will one day be complete. 

4 comments:

  1. This is a very good post. I've been thinking about beauty for a while but I could never seem to get it.

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  2. I'm still thinking about it too. I think there will probably be at least one more post about this topic in the next couple weeks. Hopefully, it will be beautiful :)

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  3. When I was making Luke's crib quilt, Grandma helped to quilt it. She went off the line. She tried to rip it out, but I convinced her to leave it. To me, it's the most beautiful part of the whole thing -- my son has something that his 84-year-old great-grandmother stitched her love into -- a grand fulfillment of her nature and purpose, in my opinion.

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