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?

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