Beauty Is Not in the Eye of the Beholder

I just finished a class on the theology of Augustine, so if my posts become Augustine-infested for a while, consider this your fair warning.

Studying Augustine’s work, specifically Confessions, renewed my desire to learn and shocked my brain into working harder than ever. His understanding and application of order and beauty is part of why I chose "beauty" as my word of the year (though I feel cheesy saying it). 

I always valued things according to their truth or usefulness—nothing else. Is it utilitarian? That’s all I wanted. But now, having seen through the eyes of Augustine, I realize the inadequacy of the label “useful.” Augustine writes a lot about beauty in Confessions, but the structure upon which his doctrine of beauty is built exists in everything else we read for this class.

Augustine’s theory of beauty is what brings order and elegance to his understanding of the Trinity and what helps him to clearly describe the City of God in comparison to the city of man. Augustine wants his readers—long-time believers and brand new ones—to see that God’s designed order is beautiful and bestows beauty on all that submits to God’s order out of love and humility.

When our lives are rightly ordered in relation to God, they are beautiful. When creation works like it should, it is beautiful. "Consider the lilies of the field... they neither toil nor spin," Jesus says in Matthew 6:28. God made flowers beautiful, and when they are planted and cultivated correctly, when the rain is just right, those flowers are exactly what they should be. 

Beauty is not an object—it is a value. Augustine sees distinct similarities between goodness and beauty. God pronounced all things good at creation, and sin marred the goodness and beauty God designed. According to Augustine, evil is not an actual substance, but creation disordered (or anti-beauty). Sin is envy and lust for what we do not have; it's using people to get what we want; it's loving ourselves more than God. This is the root of evil—that we cannot achieve God's good design because we cannot submit to him as we ought, unless Beauty himself opens our eyes and hearts to greater realities which don't revolve around us.

So now, having been convinced of the necessity of beauty as a reflection of God, I’m now asking myself these questions: how do I observe and experience beauty each day? How is that beauty a reflection of God's beauty? How can I learn to value beauty the way God does?

My Word for 2017

I’ve never picked a theme word for the year. I don’t have a problem with it; it’s just never been my thing. Nor do I typically make resolutions. Only in the last few years have I begun working through a list of questions to help me pray and plan for the coming year.

When I sat down to work through my yearly questions, I discovered that I’m all dreamed out. I have great goals and ambitions on which I am praying and trusting God, but I can’t dream any further without taking action. I decided to move on, knowing that I can come back to the list later.

But it turns out that I have a word for this year. It came seemingly out of nowhere (but really we know that things that come out of nowhere often are a result of the Spirit’s leading).


For the last month or two, I’ve been really considering beauty—where it comes from, what its purpose is, and what we should do with it. I’m not sure what brought the idea of “beauty” to my mind (I’m sure it was some book I read), but I haven’t been able to shake the idea.

Until now, I valued things for their reality (or truth or tangibility, just not fake) and usefulness. Reality and usefulness were requirements for everything: for my time, work, books, music, even for hobbies. Beauty was not only optional, but was untrustworthy. The well-known verse from Proverbs 31 comes to mind: “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain…” Beauty was a veneer that either blurred the truth or hid its own deficit.

But I’m beginning to see what I’ve been missing. Our expressions of beauty are a reflection of the source of beauty. Beauty is a person, just as truth is a person. Beauty has a purpose, just like light has a purpose. Beauty is meant to be seen, acknowledged, experienced, and enjoyed in its fullness.

But as it turns out, I don’t care about beauty like I should. Things that are beautiful don’t give me pleasure and cause me to delight in God, the source of all beauty. I don’t experience the beauty of things, at least not in the way God intends for us to enjoy him. I don’t often glimpse the beauty in the stories he writes. Beauty is not an end in itself, but a lens through which we see the world as it should be.

Looking through beauty-correcting lenses means asking, “Is this beautiful? What about it is beautiful? How is this beauty a reflection of God’s beauty? How can I experience and enjoy this beauty as a foretaste of what I will experience fully with God?”

May we be captivated by God’s beauty as we notice his fingerprints over all of creation!

What gain has the worker from his toil? I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. 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. I perceived that there is nothing better for them than to be joyful and to do good as long as they live; also that everyone should eat and drink and take pleasure in all his toil—this is God's gift to man. (Ecclesiastes 3:9-13)