Considering Beauty

Science and Belief

I have often written about beauty here, and Francesca Day mentioned it last week, but without defining the word itself. William Edgar is a musician and theologian based at Westminster Theological Seminary, and in his lecture Beauty Reconsidered he gave a history of the concept of beauty and proposed a form of aesthetics that I think will resonate with the ideals of many Christians working in the sciences.

In the 1960s, it was said anyone who pronounced something ‘beautiful’ was trying to exert power over it. That power was rejected, and the concept of beauty went into hibernation – at least in academic circles in Europe and North America.

It’s impossible, however, to suppress our sense of beauty. In the 1990s, philosophers started looking at Kant and the idea of the sublime, which could be described as a quality of very great beauty. Elaine Scarry also defended the idea [1] that beauty itself is a force for justice, and that beautiful

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arguments can be humbling. Beauty was on the way back in.

Throughout this time, said Edgar, many Christians have tended to hold onto ways of thinking that were adopted from Plato. For example, there is the idea that beauty is unearthly; an imprint of heavenly forms on earth. The early theologian Augustine of Hippo was influenced by this way of thinking, and wrote that that everything is beautiful because it comes from God and reflects his beauty. [2]

As a result of this adoption of Platonic ideas, early religious art was very symbolic and ‘unnatural’. Contemporary Christian artists who might not want to sign up to a Platonic idea of beauty are left with very little to go on. Is beauty then simply subjective, or is there a more universal sense of what is beautiful?

Edgar then unpacked some of the Hebrew and Greek words that are translated ‘beauty’ in the Bible. Surprisingly, more of their meanings are to do with honour, glory, strength, splendour or moral loveliness, than what we would consider to be a simple sense of beauty…

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Considering Beauty | Science and Belief