The purpose of beauty — St. Peter's Fireside | Vancouver, B.C. 

by Alastair Sterne
January 10, 2012
3 min read

Beauty is all around us. Any who contemplate its presence in life begin to appreciate its significance. Perhaps on days that we’re feeling particularly contemplative we may even ask, “why is anything beautiful at all?” Some naturalists explain beauty in terms of its role in evolution. Beauty helps the human race, well, procreate. Its role pertains to the survival of our species. This view makes good sense in relation to sexual selection. But as Thomas Oden writes “it seems far less plausible in explaining the beauty of inorganic life, the sky, the ocean, the grandeur of mountains, the twilight tinting of great canyons.”

Jonah Lehrer (an American journalist who focuses on the topics of psychology and neuroscience) argues in an article in Wired titled “Why does beauty exist?” that beauty is a curiosity and motivation force. In it he writes “Beauty is a particularly potent and intense form of curiosity. It’s a learning signal urging us to keep on paying attention, an emotional reminder that there’s something here worth figuring out … Like curiosity, beauty is a motivational force, an emotional reaction not to the perfect or the complete, but to the imperfect and incomplete. We know just enough to know that we want to know more; there is something here, we just don’t know what. That’s why we call it beautiful.”

How is it that we can find the imperfect beautiful? Isn’t beauty reserved for the most stunning environments, and those we delegate to be “10’s”. As the old adage goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. But it is almost always in reference to something else. Beauty works on a scale. Yet this isn’t what Lehrer is getting at, he clarifies that intuitively we know “there is something here, we just don’t know what.” In other words, beauty evokes meaning. We see something that is beautiful and it leaves us breathless, it produces awe. It inspires us to live fully and it drives us to figure something out.

The problem, if Lehrer is right, is that beauty gives us a glimpse into something bigger but we don’t know what it is. It arouses our curiosities, our longing for purpose and meaning, but we have to designate its meaning as unknowable.

The classic Christian exegetes believed that beauty is actually an argument for the existence of God. Beauty found throughout every nook and cranny of creation should attest to a Beautiful Creator. Gregory of Nyssa argued that the soul that recognizes its own beauty rightly sees that beauty as a reflection of God’s own beauty. We experience God in beauty and when we recognize all beauty is from God “enjoyment takes the place of desire, and the power to enjoy renders desire useless and out of date” because the soul will “know herself accurately, what her actual nature is, and should behold the Original Beauty reflected in the mirror.”

Beauty is pointing us to the one who is Beautiful, and may his beauty capture our hearts and lead us to become more like him: beautiful and alive.

about the author
Alastair is the lead pastor at St. Peter’s Fireside. Once upon a time he was a touring musician of a forgettable indie band, and a Creative Director at a few design agencies. He is the husband of Julia, the father of Ansley and Maggie, and quite skilled with "the photoshop." If you're feeling up for it, you can follow him on Instagram.

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