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Beauty is Not in the Eye of the Beholder

Beauty is Not in the Eye of the Beholder May 14, 2020

There is a sort of sentimentality to the phrase, “beauty is in the eye of the beholder” that tugs at the heartstrings of people. It is meant to elicit sweet thoughts at the notion that while something may not be intrinsically beautiful to you, it is to someone else. They might have a perception which you lack. Perhaps they see with greater clarity than you—and of the things which they see no beauty in, perhaps you see a beauty with greater clarity than they. The phrase itself is meant to invoke within us this sense that all things contain beauty if you would but look at it in the correct light. To do this means one changes their perceptions about reality itself, so that what was once nothing special contains a beauty all of its own. Their preconceived notions of beauty shift then, to a world in which beauty is seen in the insignificant and lowly, rather than the conventional things that are widely regarded as beautiful. In other words: everything becomes beautiful. However, words mean something and we do well to not pretend as if they do not just to spare the feelings of some.

In one sense, I understand the goal behind such sentiments. There is a simple beauty to be had in all of created order, even in that which people don’t necessarily find beautiful. Surely, God has also established criteria by which beauty is manifest; there is a beauty present within the heart of the woman who fears God that is not present within the woman who despises her Maker, yet draws the eye of many men and the ire of many women. There is beauty to be seen in all expressions of creation itself—for our God is a God who has made all things beautiful, or appropriate, in their times (Ecc. 3:11). In that sense, there is not so much an intrinsically beautiful property found in all things, as much as their beauty, or appropriateness, is found in proportion to their telos, or ultimate aim and purpose, in part of the grand orchestration of creation itself as it bears reference to eternity. To put it more clearly: Solomon speaks towards the idea of all things having a beauty of their own as they display the purposefulness of God Himself in a world that often seems purposeless and undiscernible.

What that naturally entails then is a beauty to be found in all of Creation, yet not necessarily in and of the thing itself. The reason this type of beauty exists is simply bound in the reality that God Himself has shaped and fashioned it towards His overarching purposes. Thus, such things testify to the beauty of the One who brought forth its purpose and defined its beauty in proportion to that purpose, especially as it bears reference to eternity. More clearly, beauty finds its origin in God Himself, as He is altogether lovely in every conceivable aspect. Any beauty which is beheld upon this earth—no matter how beautiful it is—is but a pale reflection of the God who is altogether beautiful. In this sense then, the notion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder is not only patently false, it is unbiblical, as it relegates beauty to the subjectivity of finite man rather than the objectivity of the eternal and infinite God. It falls woefully short of the reality that beauty is not a thing a person can somehow ascribe to another, or that one can obtain; it is an intrinsic quality that God has ascribed to something or someone. The telos, or ultimate aim, of that which is beautiful then is to testify to the beauty of the Lord.

In the same breath, there is an aspect in which a lack of beauty testifies to the judgment of the Lord. Israel, and especially Jerusalem, was a microcosm of this reality. As Israel went the way of the harlot in whoring after false gods and committing egregious acts against the Lord, judgment was brought upon her in lieu of the blessings and cursings listed in Deut. 27-30. What was once described as the “glory of Israel” and the “perfection of beauty” became a thing of repugnance to the nations (Is. 3:24; Lam. 2:15; Zec. 11:10). We see the same remarks against Samaria in her own flagrant sin, as what was referred to as a “crown of beauty” became a den of drunken fools who deluded themselves into thinking they were still a crown of beauty after judgment was meted out. Everyone who would pass by the capital city knew of her former beauty—one which faded as a withered flower. What once showed beauty and life became something rather ugly from the destruction wrought on her by the Assyrians (Is. 28:1-4).

Note then that it was on this day, that is the day of Samaria’s destruction and subsequent ugliness before the nations, that a salvation oracle is proclaimed and the Lord would become to them the wreath of true beauty (Is. 28:5). In the day of His visitation and salvation, God’s honor, justice, and strength before their foes would reveal Him as the King of beauty as opposed to the drunken kings which currently resided in her gates (Is. 28:5-6). Yet the removal of their beauty prior to His forthcoming salvation is for the purpose of signifying the removal of God’s presence from them. The absence of their former beauty displayed they were no longer precious in the sight of the Lord; they had become to Him an unpleasing and unappealing people. The restoration of their beauty then becomes all the more significant, as the beauty they will have is not in and of themselves, but of the One who reigns in and among them as the true King of the faithful remnant. In other words, the beauty of God will become manifest through His covenant faithfulness to His people, rather than any beauty they might contain in and of themselves. Why this is especially significant is that He makes them lovely irrespective of their ugliness before the nations.

Lest one think such judgment was limited to Israel, there are multiple examples of this same judgement—that is, the removal of a nation’s beauty—is rendered upon others (Is. 13:19). Yet one doesn’t simply find such an indictment against the nations more broadly. Jerusalem, the crowning glory of Israel itself, was stripped to the bone of all beauty within her midst, including the prideful women who paraded about in all manner of indecency (Is. 3:12, 16). For provoking the Lord to anger, these women lost their hair and in its place came scabs; they lost their fine clothing and adornments and in their place came nakedness and a sackcloth; they lost their sweetened smell and in its place came the stench of festering wounds and infections; they lost their beauty and in its place came the brands of slavery. Everything they used to demonstrate their power and importance would be stripped away from them as an ultimate act of shame—yet even that natural beauty which was given to them from the Lord, would fade quickly as the Lord afflicted them.

If beauty were subjective, there would be no shame associated with such acts of judgment upon the nations. Yet more to the point, if beauty were subjective, all one must do to see the “beauty” of the women of Jerusalem as they were led into captivity would be look upon them in their proper light. Their appearance would be nothing significant in and of itself, and certainly would not be the focus of the Lord’s judgment upon them. However, this is certainly not the case, which then testifies further to the reality that beauty is not something in the eye of the beholder, but rather, is an objective quality in something or someone. For that reason, beauty is something which is to be admired—not as a commodity unto itself, but in recognition of the One who makes things beautiful. The reason I bring all of this to the forefront is that many—even within the conservative Christian world, embrace the mantra that beauty in fact is in the eye of the beholder.

Many would readily admit that beauty is objective in aspects of nature. Beauty is seen, for instance, in a sunrise or sunset. Beauty is readily seen in various parts of the globe that remain untouched by human hands. Likewise, beauty can also be seen in some of the wonderful works that man has put his hands to make. Some also see the beauty of geometrical patterns, man-made or otherwise. There are varying types and degrees of beauty; one thing may be far more beautiful than the next, yet both things contains a loveliness of appearance in them that is intrinsic to their nature or appearance. Yet what can be said for certain is that we cannot take something which is not beautiful and make it into something beautiful. One cannot take a city dump and cause it to be looked at as something wondrous to behold. It is irreducibly a landfill and remains a landfill, which is precisely why they seek to cover the mass amounts of trash up with grass. They might transform materials from the dump into some beautiful, new creation, but the dump itself remains a stinky, germ-ridden heap of trash in the middle of the countryside.

In the same manner, beauty is objective when it comes to people. While one may do things to change or mask their appearance, there remains the fact that even changing one’s appearance to conform to rules of style and beauty shows there is such a thing as beauty, and it is not relegated simply to personal preferences. Certain styles may fade whereas others come into prominence, yet the nature of beauty itself is grounded in an objective reality of certain features; symmetry, shape, tone, and weight are all factors in this reality. This is not to say that no preferences of physical attraction exist; they clearly do. However, it is to say that the general, axiomatic truth is that women are not immediately drawn to fat, bald, unsuccessful, middle-aged men who live in their mother’s basement (i.e. George Constanza). Some may favor the personality of people they are un-attracted to, yet even here they must admit a concession is made for that person’s objectively lovely character.

This is clearly exemplified by the oft-quoted proverb, “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the LORD, she shall be praised” (Pro. 31:30). The idea is not that beauty is something that is not beautiful, simply because the one who doesn’t fear the Lord has beautiful qualities about her, but rather, there is a precedent set for that which a young man should seek after. Beauty in women is הֶ֣בֶל (vanity, or better translated here as “breath” or “vapor”). In other words, beauty in women is temporal. It is fleeting. It is transitory. It will inevitably fade and succumb to the effects of the fall, which bring decay. But a woman who fears the Lord will receive her due honor in the end, even if she is never deemed beautiful in the eyes of men. Her works shall praise her in the gates (Pro. 31:31). This falls squarely within the rest of the context in Pro. 31, which extols the virtues of the noble woman that a young man ought to seek after in a wife. Rather than pursue the woman of beauty, King Lemuel ascribes the worth of the noble woman as, “…far above jewels” (Pro. 31:10). She is the one whom his sons would do well to court, especially seeing as beauty in a woman is a transitory thing that when had at its fullest, is yet a dull reflection of the eternal, unfading, unchanging beauty of God.

Yet simply because beauty is temporal in things apart from God Himself does not logically mean it is non-existent as a general rule in temporal things. Nor does it mean we ought to diminish the very real beauty of something or someone. In one sense we cannot. It is very much present in our day-to-day life and we naturally see it for what it is. Something of beauty is beautiful whether we regard it as such or not. We can no more change the quality of what makes something beautiful than one who seeks to change the nature or quality of something that is wet. Yet in another sense, when we fail to say, “Amen,” to that which God has said is beautiful, we do not give Him the glory He deserves in creating something beautiful. In the same manner, we do not properly give God glory in saying something is beautiful when it clearly is not, as we are minimizing the beauty of that which is truly beautiful. In some cases, this becomes incredibly unhelpful and damaging to affirm beauty where it does not exist. We do no favors to one who is on death’s door as a result of unhealthy personal habits.

Instead of seeking to diminish the objective nature of beauty by saying everyone is beautiful in their own right, we ought to acknowledge that indeed, beauty is an objective quality which reflects the beauty and glory of God Himself—yet we dare not stop here, for everything beautiful in this life only bears a transitory beauty. Like Job, we cannot adorn ourselves with, “…eminence and dignity, and clothe [ourselves] with honor and majesty” inasmuch as we cannot change the qualities we have which make us beautiful or not (Job 40:10). In fact, it is self-evident that the inner disposition of a gentle and a quiet spirit far surpasses the outward adornment of the visibly beautiful woman (1 Pet. 3:4). It is the gentle and quiet spirit of a wife, grounded in submissiveness to her husband, which is called an unfading beauty, in tandem with the beauty of the holy women of the past (1 Pet. 3:5-6). Lest we also forget—Christ Himself, “had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him” (Is. 53:2b). As before, these statements strengthen the notion that there is such a thing as objective beauty, yet it tips the scales of importance in favor of that which is unfading, and yet contains a loveliness according to its telos, or ultimate aim. In this sense, the objective physical beauty is surpassed by the objective inner beauty, which here is seen as a woman who maintains a gentle and a quiet spirit, which is well-pleasing to the Lord.

What then do we do with physical beauty? Do we reject that there is such a thing as objective beauty? No, rather, we properly see it for what it is, in reflection of the truth revealed plainly in nature. We cannot fall into the trap of those whose mind only upholds vanity and materialism—who simply appreciates beauty for its own end. We also cannot admire the sentiments of one who says something is beautiful when it is not, especially when the qualities they seek to highlight are not in harmony with the qualities God Himself dictates are of an unfading beauty, for these are lies. This is one of the largest detriments to our own day and age, where that which is considered “art” is often little more than literal trash on display. We can and should, however, recognize that God has given beauty for the enjoyment of mankind and for His glory. We can appreciate and acknowledge, therefore, the beauty of clothing made for this purpose (Ex. 28:2, 40); the beauty of a person (2 Sa. 14:25, Est. 1:11); the beauty of stones and precious metals (2 Ch. 3:6); and the beauty of wisdom which comes with age (Pro. 20:29). However, what ought to enrapture our hearts and catch our gaze more than any transitory beauty present upon the earth is the beauty of our King, whose radiance and glory outshines even the most resplendent of things (Ps. 27:4, 29:2, 45:11, 50:2, 90:17, 96:6-9). In other words, we ought to be primarily transfixed by the Lord, whose glory, majesty, dominion, and authority shall encompass us in the sheer awesomeness of His manifest holiness.

As a final word, I believe that the church ought to recapture a theology of beauty, or perhaps better yet, what one might call a theology of aesthetics. The reason for this is simply bound up in the reality that God has given us beauty to be had and enjoyed in its proper right, for the express purpose of it rebounding to His glory. That which is beautiful ought to cause us to pause and give thanks to our Creator in recognition of its beauty—yet it also ought to inspire in us the desire to imitate our Father by creating something of beauty. There is something to be said of a people who can not only appreciate what makes something beautiful, but express proper dominion over the earth in order to make something truly beautiful. I think one of the greatest examples of this is found in the architectural marvels that our forbearers created as their houses of worship. I do not presume to say that making beautiful churches is the first step to recapturing a theology of beauty though.

The first step to recapturing a theology of aesthetics is honing in our understanding of what makes something beautiful, and what the telos, or ultimate aim, of beauty is. In one sense, it is aligning with the idea that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, but rather than placing it in the subjective eye of the finite beholder, we ought to affirm that beauty is in the objective eye of the infinite God. Thus, while something may not be intrinsically beautiful to you, if it is to God, your perception of beauty must appropriately change. He contains a perception you lack. He sees with a greater clarity than you—and if He sees beauty in the things which you see no beauty in, your preconceived notions of beauty must shift to align with His own. We must likewise regard anything of beauty in creation to be less beautiful than God. Objectively beautiful things are made to invoke a sense of wonder and awe in the God of beauty. In other words, objectively beautiful things were made to be beautiful so as to invoke praise to God. If that which is beautiful does not invoke praise of God, we must therefore root out the idolatry of our hearts and behold the King in His beauty. We must glorify and give thanks to our God, refusing to worship the creation in place of our Creator, for this is the telos, or ultimate aim, of all of creation itself.

 

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen, being understood through what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their speculations, and their foolish heart was darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible man and of birds and four-footed animals and crawling creatures. (Rom. 1:18-23, NASB).

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