Beauty is a tough topic to talk about. Any attempt to discuss it in any way will probably result in a lot of clichés or a string of words that doesn’t come anywhere near to an adequate reflection on what we mean by the word. However, I’m going to have a go regardless. I ask that you give me a bit of grace from the start and remember that no matter what I say, it’s going to be impossible for me to cover the issue in such a way as to satisfy everyone.
So what do we mean when we talk about beauty? The English language doesn’t have masculine and feminine words like other European languages, but certain words have definite connotations one way or the other and I don’t think too many people would argue with me saying that beauty is a word generally considered to have feminine connotations. When we use the word to talk about humans, it is more common to think of a woman as beautiful than it is to think of a man as beautiful. I also don’t think that I’d be too far off the mark to assume that someone reading this may well think that it’s a bit strange for a teenage boy to talk about beauty. It’s a hugely subjective word, one that can provoke strong reactions and opinions, but I think it’s worth looking at the question of how we know when something’s beautiful.
‘Beauty is in the eye of the beholder’ is a common saying that we’ve all heard and probably used in some form to defuse an argument about the attractiveness of something, but why do we see some things as beautiful? I make no secret of the fact that I’m a Christian, so it follows that I have some sense of beauty in line with what Christianity teaches about it. In the Biblical book of Ecclesiastes, the aged King Solomon writes that God ‘has made everything beautiful in its time’ (Ecc. 3:11). Do I honestly see beauty in everything? Of course I don’t! Though I strive to align my attitudes with God’s, I’m not perfect and I don’t see everything how he does. And though I want to be more like him, I don’t expect to ever be able to see the world through completely through his eyes. That same verse that I just quoted goes on to say that ‘no one can fathom what God has done from beginning to end’. So in terms of Christianity (and this would apply to Judaism as well, being from the Old Testament), there is beauty in everything that God has made, but as finite humans, we cannot always see that beauty in the same way that he does.
So where does that leave humans? I think that for Christians, the knowledge mentioned in the previous paragraph should be enough to provoke us to at least look for the beauty in everything and not to dismiss anything out of hand, but what are the messages coming from the rest of the world? Search ‘cosmetics adverts’ in Google and you’ll see women with flawless skin and perfect hair and makeup. It’s no secret that these companies feed you air brushed images in order to make you want to buy their stuff and cake your face in it to try and look beautiful. Many films aren’t a whole lot better in the sense that they present extremely attractive men and women as people who we should admire and aspire to be like. I’m not saying that it’s wrong to see these images as beautiful, but I am saying that I don’t think they’re the best way to judge what is beautiful and what isn’t. Our standards should not be dictated by companies that are interested in nothing but profit.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I’m some amazing person who doesn’t look at physical attractiveness at all. If there are people that can honestly judge beauty completely regardless of physical appearance, then I salute you and I want to be more like you. The fact is, every time you look at a picture of a celebrity in admiration, are you not making a judgement of beauty purely on looks? I don’t know many teenagers who haven’t done that (obviously I can’t speak for adults as well in this). I just think that there needs to be an effort to go beyond the media image and to get to the source of what beauty is.
I don’t know how non-Christians would react to this because for me, the only wholesome source of beauty is in God, the one who makes things beautiful. If you take God out of the equation, I don’t know what you’re left with. There certainly isn’t a source of beauty. Disagree with me if you want, but if there isn’t a God who makes things beautiful, then your sense of beauty is an illusion that you’ve created in order to see good things in the world and stop yourself getting hopelessly depressed. At best, it’s a purely naturalistic mechanism in order to find a suitable mate. I might be generalising with this or over-simplifying or whatever, but beauty makes sense when coupled with a God who appreciates it even more than we do.
‘He had made everything beautiful in its time.’ I’ve put in bold the part of the verse that I think most people would see as the most important bit, but now I’m wondering if the most important bit is actually the first three words – ‘He has made…’ – because as a Christian, that tells me that beauty comes from God and is intended by him.
I appreciate that not everyone will agree with me on this, but as I was writing, I felt more and more strongly that this is what I needed to say. There’s a lot more to be said for beauty in the natural world, but I felt as I was writing that for now, I wanted to stick to human beauty. Feel free to disagree with what I’ve said, but if you do disagree, then ask yourself where your idea of beauty comes from and why you find beautiful the things that you do. In my mind it is logical that we are able to see things as beautiful because the Creator God saw them that way first.