Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Thoughts on Beauty

"Is there absolute truth? I think anyone that has a relationship with Christ would say yes. But what does absolute truth look like and how do you define it? Okay, so once you get past that common ground that everyone spends time thinking on for awhile— is there absolute beauty? If so, what is absolute beauty? How do you define it? How do you perceive it and pursue it?"

This is a Voicemail from a very dear friend that I've had saved on my phone for more than eight months. I'm still musing over this concept, but the process of musing resulted in slightly out-there thoughts on the subject.

The biggest one is this: first, that all beauty here on earth reflects true and absolute beauty, and even a distorted or imperfect reflection is still a reflection.

Some mirrors are slightly warped, making them "fat mirrors" or "skinny mirrors," depending on which way they alter the image. But regardless of the distortion, they still reflect the original, though imperfectly.

A lake reflects the trees lining its edge—but the color of the water gives the reflection a slightly tinged hue, ripples distort the precise lines of the trees, and the reflection reverses the original, making the trees appear to grow upside down. But regardless of the distortion, it still reflects the original, though inaccurately.

The side of a car reflects whatever passes it, but dirt and dust mar the image, and the contour of the car changes the way things appear. But regardless of the distortion, it still reflects the original, though dimly.

A fish-eye mirror allows a person a 180° view of things surrounding them, but close observation reveals drastic—and sometimes humorous—distortions such as stretched facial features and dramatic curved lines. But regardless of the distortion, it still reflects the original, though the reflection is skewed and stretched.

Visual beauty is a reflection of absolute beauty. This can take application in the area of art—one person's interpretation or perspective of the beauty they see reflected. Some people look at the reflection and that is all they see—they think it is all there is. Others look at the reflection and realize that it is only a reflection—they take the reflection for what it is, but focus on the thing reflected.

Consider how distorted reflections influence our thinking—there are some actors and actresses that are acknowledged as universally beautiful people. However, their character and actions usually aren’t accurate reflections of absolute beauty. The current fad for women’s bodies is in the slender-to-extremely-slender range, which puts a lot of pressure on women in general to achieve an “ideal” figure, which in turn contributes to the rise of anorexia, bulimia, and other eating disorders, as well as depression and suicidal mental patterns. All because of an inaccurate reflection of absolute beauty.

But none of this answers the original question (or series of questions)—what is absolute beauty? How do you define it, and having defined it, how do you pursue it?

I’ve done quite a bit of thinking on this one, too. My “thesis” statement, or definition, is this—absolute beauty is the glory of God. The things that we consider beautiful here on earth are beautiful because they are a reflection of the glory of God. This brings us back to the concept of accurate reflections.

The concept of reflecting absolute beauty resonates with my soul, because I keep tripping over the concept of the interpretation of beauty and the application of truth. If I believe in absolute truth, there must be absolute application, right? Well, not necessarily. But yes, at the same time. The truth that murder is wrong is a universal concept, known even to the most primitive tribes in unreached region; but the application of this truth plays out differently, depending on the culture. If I believe in absolute beauty, then it logically follows that all beautiful things would look the same. Not as a carbon copy, but they would at least contain similar elements. However, the world of art is so vastly diverse that the concept of absolute beauty feels like it can't work. Introducing the idea of reflections into the mix helps me to sort everything out in my own mind.

The problem is that most people never get past the reflections to see the ting reflected. No one, upon seeing a woman's lovely face reflected in a store window, stares in awe at the reflection. They turn and look at the woman herself to get a more complete view of the beauty before them. Anyone that simply stared at the reflection would be considered a stupid person. Why stare at a piece of glass when the real thing is standing right next to you?

And yet, we do this every day of our lives. We see beauty and we gaze in awe at it, but we stop right there. Almost every person that sees a sunset acknowledges that is is beautiful, regardless of the positive or negative connotations that come with nighttime. How few look past the sunset to the Beauty it reflects—the beauty of the glory of God.

If it’s tangible, we want the real thing. If it is relational, we are sometimes willing to settle for a reflection. If we can touch it, taste it, feel it, hold it, we can’t bear to simply look at it’s reflection or hold an imitation. We want real apple pie, not a slice of the plastic in a pastry display. We want real people to love and hold, and we won’t content ourselves with the people that show up on our TV screens. But if it is relational—if it requires for us to be real with ourselves and with each other—we content ourselves with a created fixation or distortion.

Some people look at the reflection and stop there, while others look at the reflection and look for the thing reflected. Christians move even beyond that to see the One causing the reflection—the Source of Absolute Beauty.

"The beauty of the Lord is seen in His holiness. When the Psalmist expresses the desire to behold the beauty of the Lord, it is in the house of the Lord, His Temple, the place of His holy presence that he expects to do so (Ps. 27:4). The beauty of the Lord is perfect. But beauty is a product of something, and the perfect beauty of the Lord is the product of His perfect holiness. 

"A noted English preacher, J. D. Jones, has clearly illustrated this by calling attention to the fact that 'the most striking feature in Swiss scenery, the glory and boast of Switzerland, is the vision of its mighty mountainpeaks clothed ever in their mantles of snowy white. Take the mountains away, and you have destroyed the beauty of Switzerland. And in much the same way you destroy the "beauty of the Lord" if you forget His holiness.…we need to lift our eyes to these shining and snowclad peaks of the divine holiness if we are ever to be moved to say, "how beautiful God is." ' "
The Names of God, Nathan Stone

And let the beauty of Jehovah our God be upon us: and establish thou the work of our hands upon us; yea, the work of our hands establish thou it. Psalm 90:17