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  • Alistair Reid

Why Beauty Matters

Updated: Mar 21




Those standing in the tradition of the Reformers are known for their commitment to truth, but rarely for their embrace of beauty. While only a caricature – think Bach, Bunyan, or Edwards as counter-examples – there are reasons for such a characterisation, whether the iconoclasm of the sixteenth century or the suspicion of the arts in many church cultures. This evangelical neglect of beauty is driven by understandable theological concerns. Isn’t beauty a luxury at best, distracting us from preaching the gospel? Worse, might beauty deceive, leading us away from the truth (2 Cor 11:14)? Does beauty not prioritize surface appearance over godliness (1 Peter 3:3-4)? And, after all, Scripture specifically says that Jesus wasn’t beautiful (Is 52:13-53:3). We can’t address all this in a short blog post, but these are important questions to consider with good answers to be found.


Instead, my claim here is that beauty matters because God has wired human beings for beauty. God created a beautiful world and made us to delight in it. This connection is spelled out in Genesis 2:9, where God chose to create trees that are ‘pleasing to the eye and good for food.’ Our attraction to beauty is not a regrettable weakness, but an intrinsic part of God’s good design. Genesis 2 reveals a multisensory world with stunning vistas to gaze upon, luscious fruit to savour, the wafting scent of aromatic resin, and the gentle gurgling of streams. John Calvin, far less ascetical than often assumed, asks:


‘Has the Lord clothed the flowers with the great beauty that greets our eyes, the sweetness of smell that is wafted upon our nostrils, and yet will it be unlawful for our eyes to be affected by that beauty, or our sense of smell by the sweetness of that odor?...Did he not, in short, render many things attractive to us, apart from their necessary use?’ (Institutes, III, X, 2)


Perhaps we need to be encouraged – and to encourage others – to take time to notice and enjoy the beauty in our lives and in the world. Such enjoyment is not strictly ‘necessary’ for survival, but is a lavish gift for our good, and essential for human flourishing.


Further, Genesis 2-3 reveals that our perception of beauty is both sensual and spiritual. It is never neutral but leads either towards or away from God. Adam and Eve discovered that the beauty of the trees, which initially was rightly enjoyed to God’s glory, led to the idolatrous desire to be like God (Gen 3:6). They were not ignorant of God’s command not to eat from the tree, but their hearts were persuaded to disobedience by what seemed to be more attractive.


It turns out that we human beings are motivated less by what we know to be true, or by ‘doing the right thing,’ and more by what we find beautiful. Our lack of progress as Christians is rarely because we don’t know what we should do, but more because we don’t find it sufficiently attractive. As James K.A. Smith, tapping into the Augustinian tradition, writes:


‘[T]he telos we live toward is not something that we primarily know or believe or think about; rather, our telos is what we want, what we long for, what we crave. It is a picture of flourishing that we imagine in a visceral, often-unarticulated way – a vague yet attractive sense of where we think true happiness is found.’ (You Are What You Love, 11)


Avoidance of beauty is not an option. It is not possible, for the aesthetic dimension is woven into every aspect of reality. And neither is it wise, for to neglect beauty is to overlook the motivating vision that makes us tick. Instead, (in the words of E.H. Harbison) such mis-use ought not lead to dis-use, but right use. Perhaps it is no coincidence that the trees of Gen 2:9 and 3:6 appealed to Adam and Eve’s taste and sight, the very senses that should have led them to ‘taste and see that the Lord is good.’ (Ps 34:8)


If we are wired for beauty, then the implications for our discipleship, preaching, evangelism and church life are significant. To take preaching, for example, we do not only want to ‘know the truth,’ or ‘explain the Bible,’ as vital as those are. Rather, with the Psalmist, we want to ‘gaze on the beauty of the LORD,’ (Ps 27:4) or, with Paul, ‘behold the Lord’s glory,’ and so be transformed into his image (2 Cor 3:18). In other words, preaching that changes lives is less about knowledge impartation and more about (re-)persuading our hearts, in the power of the Spirit, of the truth, goodness, and beauty of Jesus. When he is seen as supremely attractive, we want to know, obey and worship.


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Alistair Reid is a DPhil candidate at Oxford University and a Church of England ordinand. His research is at the intersection of neo-Calvinism and aesthetics.


Views expressed in blogs published by the Latimer Trust are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Latimer Trust.

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