On Beauty, Part One
We often hear that “beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” since this is the easiest way to explain why people disagree about art, music, and such. But Hans Urs von Balthasar (a 20th century writer) believed differently. For him, beauty is as real as truth and goodness. Beauty is the power of certain things to delight us. They reveal the goodness and truth of all creation, in a way which is “infinitely and inexhaustibly fascinating.” When something is truly beautiful, it draws us out of ourselves and makes us yearn, not to possess it, but to be possessed by it. Psuedo-Dionysus (a 5th century writer) wrote that divine beauty does not allow “them that are touched by it to belong to themselves.” Beauty is the innocent power in creation to inspire rapturous awe—or even fear.
On Beauty, Part Two
Natural beauty reveals to us hints and glimmers of the divine, so it is no surprise that people have profound experiences of God within natural landscapes. Balthasar wrote that natural beauty “contains, hidden and unfinished, the goods of salvation: peace in God, beatitude and transfiguration, victory over sin, paradise present though concealed, all that the beautiful consoles us with—and without giving us more than a foretaste.” This is why Medieval art, architecture, and science were captivated by nature. The columns of Gothic churches look just like trees, whose branches merge into the arches; lecterns were carved in the shape of eagles; and natural proportions were imitated wherever possible.
On Beauty, Part Three
Yet Christianity and beauty are uneasy bedfellows. According to Balthasar, “not only [is beauty] not one of the supreme Biblical values, but... it cannot seriously be considered as a Biblical value at all.” There are two reasons for this. First, beauty is “erotic,” from the Greek word eros meaning “yearning.” Beauty can tempt us to desire (in a hungry, possessive way) what is not God, whether it is the physical beauty of another person, the beauty of material possessions, or the beauty of an idea. Natural beauty can also threaten to become a replacement for God, leading some people to worship a creature rather than the Creator. Biblical faith resists the siren song of the world whose “form is passing away” (1 Cor 7:31).
On Beauty, Part Four
Because of this, there are two pitfalls which we can fall into as Christians. The first pitfall is “aestheticism,” which means that one tries to find God in natural beauty (without the help of revelation or the community of faith). Natural beauty is good, but it is still only a creature, so it never rises to God by itself. In other words, God gives us all beauty, but beauty does not give us God. The opposite pitfall is called “iconoclasm,” which fears idolatry so much that it opposes using any beautiful things as images of God and his works. Iconoclasm separates us from God, because we naturally experience everything through our bodies, and we need something physical to help us encounter and love God.
On Beauty, Part Five
Beauty seems both a necessity and a danger. We need to commune with God, but every artwork of ours threatens to become an idol. For a solution, Balthasar looks instead to supernatural beauty—God's own beauty: fulfilled, complete, and victorious (unlike natural beauty). This beauty is real and concrete; it is Jesus, in his love and obedience to the Father, bodily present in the Eucharist. If art imitates nature, worship imitates Christ. Jesus' supernatural beauty is imitated by the Christ-like humility and devotion of everyone at Mass. The externals flow from hearts giving themselves up to God, making the Mass into our sacramental imitation of Jesus on the cross, for love of the Father, in hope of the Resurrection. What greater beauty is there?