Posted by Clark Bates
November 20, 2017
If you live in or near a city for any length of time you inevitably find a place that becomes “your favorite place”. It may be a place that you like to go to unwind or a place of quiet serenity. It may be a coffee shop, library, pub or park. I have such a place. My place is called Art Hill. It seats beneath the entrance to the St. Louis Art Gallery at the feet of the massive bronze statute of the Apotheosis of St. Louis and stretches downward to the shimmering pools and fountains of the Grand Basin. On a clear day, with the sun shining, I can see the city on the horizon, watch the leaves change color and hear the sounds of families and couples laughing, playing, and relaxing all across the green. When I am feeling overly stressed or stuck within the confines of the seminary for too long, I often retreat to this place for a moment of refreshment. It is indeed a place of beauty.
What is Beauty?
Today, as I enjoyed a late lunch on the lawn, I considered how beautiful this place was and how thankful I am for the opportunity to be here. I considered the other visitors walking around and relaxing and wondered what they thought of it here. Clearly there was something of beauty that drew them to “my place”, otherwise they, and the countless others, would not keep returning. What’s more, when the weather is too rainy or cold it’s not uncommon to take a stroll inside the corridors of the Art Museum itself (It being free certainly helps!). Once inside, you can spend hours wandering the halls looking at the paintings of Rembrandt, Degas, Picasso and others. Thousands wander through the museum each year to gaze at what can only be described as the “beauty” of art.
But what is beauty? Where does it come from? Why do all people spread over all the world understand this concept of beauty? As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, so it’s not as if I’m suggesting that what I find to be beautiful you also would find to be beautiful. My place in the city may be as appealing to you as an industrial refinery. Perhaps you see beauty in a sunset or mountains; maybe it’s in the smile of your spouse or the eyes of your child. Beauty may be a quiet tropical beach for you, but the point is, you DO find things beautiful. The concept of beauty exists within you just as it does me.
Where Does it Come From?
But where does beauty come from? It’s not a natural or material product. We can’t weigh beauty in a lab or observe it under the microscope. Beauty isn’t subject to any element of the scientific method, yet we all, intuitively know what it is, even if we can’t describe or define it. If it’s non-material it must be classified as metaphysical, and if such a metaphysical reality exists then materialism can’t be the only aspect of existence. This leads me to my next point, what is the purpose of beauty? If we might grasp the purpose of it, perhaps this will help us understand where it comes from.
When you look at the stars on a clear night, or witness the open ocean it is possible to be brought to tears. Not tears of sadness of course, but tears in the face of beauty. It’s as if the magnitude of what you are seeing is overwhelming to the senses. This can be true of a mountain climber surveying the landscape as well as a groom looking into the face of his bride. The overwhelming nature of beauty causes us, even if for only a brief moment, to consider that there is something greater than ourselves. We acknowledge, even subconsciously, that we are not all there is, nor are we the center of all that exists. The reality of this brings us to a point of reflection and oftentimes awe.
In the Old Testament, the author of Ecclesiastes writes,
He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.
Why is there Beauty?
The reason all of humanity retains a concept of beauty is because it comes from our common descent. No not that common descent, our common descent from God, being made in His image, fashioned after the model of the first man and woman. This sense of beauty forces us to look beyond ourselves. We look beyond ourselves because “eternity” has been placed in our hearts. But, as the author above notes, not enough to where we will understand all of God’s doing from beginning to end. This “general” revelation of God’s existence is only enough to remind us of that which is greater than us, something “wholly other”. If left to merely the beauty of what we see, we would never know where we fit into all of it. We would be no better off than the materialist who sees all of existence as an accident of time and chance. This is why God didn’t stop there. He entered into this world of beauty so that He might show us our place. He died on our behalf so that we might see the beauty of God even in the darkest and cruelest of actions. All so that we might look to Him and His love for us, and, rather than only pause for moment to consider something greater, spend our lives in relationship with the One who is greater. The existence of beauty points to the Source of beauty.
During this season of Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for many things. I’m thankful for my family and my friends. I’m thankful for the opportunities to learn that have been placed before me. I’m thankful for “my place” of beauty in the city. But most of all, I’m thankful for how my place in the city reminds me of my place in the world. I’m thankful for beauty.