I just showed my sweet puppy, Lucy, one of my watercolor paintings; she wasn’t impressed. I thought maybe I’m just not that good, so I tried some Georgia O’Keeffe, then some Van Gogh, and finally some Michael Angelo. Nothing. No reaction, not even a pause. Then I realized that together, Lucy and I have been in the presences of “real” beauty several times – vibrant flowers, towering trees, stunning sunsets – and she seemed to have no awareness of it whatsoever. Come to think of it, neither did Hayley, my other puppy. In fact, I can’t ever remember any animal staring in awe at the beauty nature offers.
For as long as I can remember, beauty has fascinated me. What is it? Why does it exist? What is the “meaning” of beauty and how does it impact my relationship with God?
It’s always good to start off by agreeing on a definition of what we’re talking about. I have read several books on beauty (philosophy books – not books on cosmetics) but I have yet to find a book that approaches beauty from a medical/physiological perspective. A quick look at Amazon tells me that there are lots of books on how to be beautiful, books with stories about beauty, books that talk about the psychology of beauty, but I didn’t find any that looked at beauty from a medical or scientific viewpoint. If there were such a study, my guess is that when a precise mix of neurochemicals hit specific areas within our brains we experience what we call beauty. For some of us this has quite an affect; for others, not so much. Its exact mechanics may still be in question, but we do know that beauty is a physiological response to some type of triggering stimulus. And those triggers vary from person to person. Hence, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
Why it exists is an important question. If we were to accept evolution as the explanation for how we came to be then beauty is a real problem. Evolution operates on the premise that the fittest are the ones who survive. It also posits that characteristics that don’t contribute to survival are discarded in favor of those that do contribute to survival. The ability to appreciate beauty has little or no impact on an organism’s ability to survive. Being able to relish a beautiful sunset didn’t help our ancestors find food or help them avoid becoming food. In other words, being able to experience beauty has no evolutionary value. It can be argued that birds are attracted to their mates based on beauty. While there is certainly an aspect of attraction, we don’t know what criteria the attraction is based on. Does the bird feel the sensation that we describe as beauty when gazing at a potential mate? Based on the fact that the bird doesn’t exhibit signs that it experiences beauty in anything else it’s doubtful. The same goes for bees being attracted to brightly colored flowers. It appears that while attraction is very common among living beings, the ability to be moved by beauty is something shared only with humans. So the question must be asked, “Why does beauty exist?” For the evolutionist, there is no answer; beauty has no evolutionary value and therefore should not exist. However, when considering the proposition of intelligent design, beauty’s existence becomes a strong argument in favor of creation.
Would an intelligent creator give us a useless gift? God created many things; among them a multitude of living, survival-based organisms. From amoebas to great Blue Whales, their primary purpose is to stay alive. But all that creation was a prelude to something different, something special: man. Man’s purpose isn’t just to survive; his purpose is to be a companion to God. Because of this man had to have a different set of abilities and characteristics than the rest of creation. Companions have to be able to share many of the same interests, emotions, and experiences with each other. The Bible tells us that God created us in His own image. Without the ability to feel and experience joy, curiosity, bonding, and a whole host of other emotions, man wouldn’t be able to fulfill his purpose. And included in the experiences God wants to share with us is the experience of beauty. It is one of the gifts God has given us; a gift that contributes to our happiness, our enjoyment of life, and most importantly, our ability to commune with Him.
Doug Drake’s father was a Seventh-day Adventist pastor. Doug is a web developer in San Antonio, TX and developed the Laurel Heights Seventh-day Adventist Church website. He also co-leads a Sabbath School discussion group with Zvonka Jakopovic.