"Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." That phrase has never really sat well with me. It sounds akin to saying "truth is in the eye of the beholder," for beauty seems to be the sort of thing that is objective. The one who beholds a true statement as true is one who holds all the facts and appropriate perspective. The one who beholds a true statement as false is one who fails to hold all the facts, and/or one who holds a prejudice that causes facts to be overlooked and twisted.
But if beauty is more than just a social construct - if it has a core of truth - what implications does that have for our recognition of it? I would like to explore this topic as it relates specifically to humans and their physical beauty. Our culture today is very polarized on the issue of beauty, yet discussions are usually only skin deep - never looking at underlying philosophies and ramifications of world views.
One group says that everyone is beautiful as they are. No matter who you are, you don't need to change in order to be physically beautiful. Flaunt what you've got, whether you’ve got more to flaunt or not. While this notion is often equivocated, as the word "beauty" switches meanings from physical beauty to other beauty, the concept remains. This group attempts to make everyone think they are physically beautiful. But as Christians who believe in objective beauty - which to me seems like both the more rational and historical Christian view - this view seems false. Why do I think Christians should push back against this notion of calling all beautiful? Because just as our physical bodies, our moral capacities, and our mental capacities can be marred in a fallen world, so can our beauty. People can be "ugly" people because they are hateful, mean, and greedy. We are fallen morally. People can also be ugly people because their physical features are marred by living in a fallen world.
I understand the sentiment behind saying that everyone is beautiful. I’m sure most think I’m just a curmudgeon for pushing back against such a nice sentiment. But truth be told, I think such sentiment is extremely caustic. For sentiment in this sense is hope spoken as truth, despite it being false. That makes it false hope. Sentiment is hope without patience. It makes claims about what may one day be as if it now is. Sentiment is that bad movie plot where the bungling idiot who ruined everything tries to redeem himself. He goes off by himself to be a hero, gets into trouble, requires his friends to save him, and creates even more of a mess. Rather than patiently eating the cost of his initial mistakes, he tries to negate the dues of his prior actions. The cowardice that at first ruined him is overshadowed by his subsequent selfish courage that moves the consequences out beyond self to destroy those he loves. Taking on such sentiment as truth does the same thing. Rather than working within a fallen world, eating the cost of sin, and hoping for restoration one day, sentiment seeks to save the day through our vain ideology and false proclamations. Rather than hoping for a beauty that will be, we fabricate a beauty that never was.
Sentiment is disenfranchised hope. It props up an inferior, incomplete imposter to act in hope’s place. Whereas hope is all encompassing and seeks well-rounded restoration, sentiment is myopic and can’t see beyond immediate gratification. So, for example, take all the sentiment we have seen so far in the other “Rebellion” pieces. The sentiment that throws off morality seeks freedom, propping up man to create his own morality and be free of moral tyranny, but it loses all grounds for authority and obligation – not just for self, but the obligation of others towards them. The sentiment that throws off notions of biblical punishment seeks to abate the necessity of pain and guilt, but loses justice and human value. The sentiment that throws off a creator so it can be rid of obligation ends up losing purpose. And this sentiment that seeks equality for all in beauty actually ends up losing the ability to discern that which is truly beautiful.
While I appreciate the good that many sentiments attempt to achieve, these sentiments are a delusion that attempts to accomplish something for which we could only hope to be accomplished in the future by one far greater than us. Chesterton summarizes this notion well, though the sentiments I discuss he speaks of in terms of virtues, "[The old Christian] virtues have gone mad because they have been isolated from each other and are wandering alone. Thus some scientists care for truth; and their truth is pitiless. Thus some humanitarians only care for pity; and their pity (I am sorry to say) is often untruthful. [Some] have the strange idea that they will make it easier to forgive sins by saying that there are no sins to forgive." This sums up the sentimentalists of our day. By doing good, by being the hero, they just make a bigger mess of things.
At the same time, the other popular group recognizes that beauty exists and they believe in a true form of it. While clothing styles may change, the glorification of youth, purity, wrinklelessness, and the like are all aspects of the continuing pursuit of beauty. There is an ideal of beauty, and this group desires to pursue it. They will Botox, facelift, silicone fill, and liposuction whatever they need to in order to achieve physical beauty. Beauty is not just one attribute, it is the absolute attribute. Life is lived in order to gain resources that can be put towards the preservation of the most beautiful physical form possible. We must glorify and pursue beauty. But this view seems to be just as vacuous as the previous. Beauty may be a wonderful, enjoyable thing, but it is not an end. Beauty in a fallen world is fleeting. Holding on to beauty by spending resources so extravagantly seems akin to the scientists who are pursuing the ability to download our brains into computers, extending our "lives." While we may all agree that life is good and death is bad, at some point we are building our own Towers of Babel and idolizing the attribute rather than the restoration and reconciliation in which we hope.
While both perspectives on beauty - that all are already beautiful or all need to pursue beauty - may seem very opposed to each other, they both stem from the same dangerous worldview. The first group cannot bring themselves to admit that an individual is not beautiful or that one is more beautiful than another. They can't do this because if they did, some would become more valuable than others. The second group, the one who glorifies beauty, they embrace the pursuit of beauty because they feel that obtaining more of it makes them more valuable. The first system is a system that seeks to preserve one's value in beauty by denying it, while the second seeks to provide opportunity for all to attain value through beauty by glorifying it. But on both systems, beauty is where the measure of value lies.
Let's face it, some people are just plain unattractive. That's ok! I'm pasty. I make fun of myself all the time for my paleness. I had the lucky break of going through my prime when vampires were a big thing in the media, so it worked for me. But I can recognize that this aspect of me may not be the most attractive thing - nor the extra 20 pounds I've put on since college. Now I'm not sure which of these things is a social construct and which is objective beauty or ugliness, but we all know that most of us have at least a little ugly somewhere, as well as a little beauty. If I can recognize that a dilapidated house, a deformed animal, rotting garbage, or anything of that sort are unattractive - certainly I can recognize that warts or toe fungus or rotten teeth or seeping earwax or bulging hemorrhoids are unattractive. I highly doubt the new heavens and new earth are going to be filled with most of the aforementioned things. And if they aren't, it begs the question "why?" It's at least in part because those things are repulsive. They are not beautiful.
Now on a naturalistic view where chance and laws exist, but no purpose or lawgiver, beauty suffers a death far worse than the admission that not all things are beautiful. On materialism, objective beauty never comes into existence in the first place. On this view, beauty only exists as an individual construct. If I find something beautiful, should anyone else agree with me, this is only coincidence of chance or evolutionary adaptation. On this view, our current perception of beauty is one that has not always been nor will always be. This means that beauty isn't really something we observe in the world, but rather something we impose upon it. To value beauty in such a world is as meaningful as me valuing Adam's Peanut Butter Cup Fudge Ripple Cheesecake. It is sheer individualistic opinion. When a materialist calls you beautiful, it is a personalized observation that declares the parameters of your physical features as aligning with his own neurological and hormonal tendencies which were brought about by natural selection and random mutation. It's hard to see how such a thing as calling someone beautiful on materialism can be a compliment. Rather, it is more a happy coincidence that your particular conglomeration of features and his observations should cross paths in such a large universe. You may certainly be unique, but this is a characteristic that is no different in any meaningful sense than being common.
Whereas ugliness is a horcrux when given Christianity, beauty is hocus pocus given materialism. On Christianity, both beauty and ugliness exist, and ugliness will be defeated and remedied -it's marring fragments ripped from our bodies when we are made new. On materialism, ugliness doesn't really exist, but then neither does beauty. Deeming something as beautiful on naturalism is an empty incantation. Deeming something beautiful on Christianity is acknowledging the way things ought to be, and recognizing something as ugly the practice of hoping for what should and will be in a restored world.
Rather than Christianity devaluing individuals with such a notion - that we can be ugly - this admittance places value right where it needs to be - intrinsically. Everyone is made in the image of God. That's what provides value. Our inestimable worth does not lie in our changeable beauty, but rather in the character of God and our creation. This is good news for us! It allows us to acknowledge gradations of beauty and bemoan the marring of beauty in the fall, while at the same time not devaluing an individual because they have lesser beauty or lifting another up because they have more. Acknowledging something as "ugly" is like acknowledging "Voldemort." When we deem an enemy as one so powerful we cannot even call him out, we do not move towards conquering that enemy, but rather ignore it while it takes root and spreads unassailed.
Fortunately for the Christian, the final horcrux of all things bad – eternal evil, death, and ugliness - was contained in Christ and destroyed at the cross. We believe that all that is wrong with the world has been defeated and will be made right. Because of our hope, we can take the power out of enemies like ugliness by calling them what they truly are.
Beyond maintaining our intrinsic, inestimable worth, such a notion of beauty also makes the altruism of Jesus more magnificent. Jesus was not going to "beautiful" lepers to heal and help. It wasn't as if the lepers had some beauty present that only Jesus could see. They were pretty nasty looking people. He was going to help the homely not because they were truly beautiful, but because they were truly people made in the image of God who needed someone to love them because they lived in a society that cast out individuals based on their appearance. Beyond merely helping out the homely, Isaiah even says that Jesus himself took on a homely form. Jesus came and was pretty ugly looking - or at least very plain. He took on the human form, the human pains, human temptation - he faced the very effects his fallen creatures faced - and all in a form that was unattractive. Compared to the splendor and beauty of heaven, that must have been very difficult.
Like Jesus, we are called to love the unlovely, the downcast, the outsiders, the despised, and the ugly. We are called to do that because none of those adjectives devalues a person. When we understand that beauty is real and we can truly distinguish objects from each other based on that - it makes life fantastic. It allows us to appreciate the joy of beauty that God has given us. It also allows us to weep at the ugliness we see all around us and in ourselves - and cry out for a world restored. It allows us to distinguish between what is and what ought to be. It allows us to have real empathy rather than empty affirmation. At the same time, acknowledging beauty for what it truly is allows us to put it in its proper place as an adjective rather than a noun. You are not beauty and you are not ugliness. Nobody is. You may be beautiful in some ways and ugly in some ways, but that is not who you are. You are an image bearer of God with inestimable, unchangeable worth.
** As I have thought more and more about the topic of beauty, I have come across what seems to be a conundrum. If beauty is objective and if God is going to fix the marring of beauty, then what do I make of Jesus's body maintaining the scars of his crucifixion? Are scars not the marring of beauty and perfection?
This has made me wonder if my notion about objective beauty is wrong. However, objective beauty seems to have a very strong case for it, so I think that my understanding elsewhere must be wrong. Maybe scars aren't the marring of beauty, and to think such is a social construct of what beauty is. Some cultures perform scarification for the purpose of beauty. Maybe the body Christ presented to his disciples was different than his body after his ascension. Maybe going back to be with his Father - when all things were truly righted and he returned to God's presence to present himself before him - then his scars vanished. I would probably lean towards this last notion. It seems strange to think that Christ's presentation to the disciples in a body marked by his death is representative of our final resurrection. Will all the beheaded martyrs carry around their heads or have scars around their necks? Will those who were scorched in fires have charred skin? And what of those who died in explosions, or what of amputees? To think that we carry the effects of this marred world into eternity and into our perfected bodies seems more than a little unusual. It seems illogical. That is why, at the moment, I would guess that Christ's scars are or will one day be no more. If that's the case, it does not impose on the idea of objective beauty.