Christians and Humanities Part 1 | Beauty
Series Introduction: The Christian study of the humanities (i.e. our nature and experience as human beings made in the image of God yet living in a fallen world) deals with the same subjects as secular humanities scholarship: philosophy, literature, art, history, and other expressions of human culture. These individual disciplines embody the intangible qualities that we as humans naturally pursue—particularly beauty, story, and communication. Studying the humanities, then, gives us a greater appreciation for these aspects of the human experience, and studying them from a Christian perspective gives us a deeper understanding of our Creator God, in Whose image we are made. This series will examine each of these concepts from a scriptural perspective and the value of studying them.
There’s something about this time of year that makes us appreciate beauty more deeply. From the moment we step outside into the spring sunshine, we’re greeted by blooming flowers, green grass, and dreamy blue skies. Surrounded by such abundant beauty, we’re naturally compelled to be grateful for it, and for some of us, to contemplate it as well, to wonder what beauty is and what it is for.
For humanities scholars, this question of beauty is not merely a passing curiosity but an object of lifelong devotion. Whether they are creating beauty themselves or studying the beautiful works of literature and art that others have created, they are fascinated by the nature and purpose of this mysterious quality.
It may seem strange to devote ourselves to studying beauty. It is not particularly useful or practical. Often it is expensive and time-consuming to create, let alone to maintain. A garden must be watered and pruned. A garment must be designed and crafted with the utmost attention to detail and then worn and stored with care. A sculpture must be painstakingly planned and executed, then displayed in the safest possible place in order to keep it from meeting an untimely end in pieces on the floor. Frankly, beauty seems to offer little return on the investment—it isn’t necessary for survival, and it doesn’t really accomplish much of anything by existing.
And so high school students are discouraged from pursuing careers in the humanities, schools cut fine arts programs, artists struggle to find paying work, and people largely regard beauty as a nice add-on, an afterthought.
For Christian lovers of the humanities, however, this devaluation of beauty is deeply troubling, not only because it depreciates human endeavors but also because it denies a fundamental truth about the kind of world we live in. When God created the world, he was not concerned only with how it functioned. He also made it to be beautiful, and in doing so He declared that beauty is profoundly valuable. An appreciation for beauty does not stem from a shallow preoccupation with things that look nice—rather, it is an essential aspect of the human experience.
At its core, beauty is that which causes us to stand in awe and then to move closer to the object of our wonder. When we hear excellent music, our hearts swell, and we long for an encore. When we see stunning art, we stand motionless before it, taking in each line and variation of shading. When we read a well-crafted poem, we sit with the book spread open long after we’ve read the last line, simply savoring the arrangement of the words and the image they create. This natural response to beauty reminds us that there is more to human existence than mere survival; there is an immaterial dimension to this material world. And when we realize that all the beauty of the created world is rooted in God’s own character, we grow to appreciate it as a symbol of the abundant life He has given us. Our appreciation for beauty teaches us how to respond to God: to stand in awe of His beauty, and then to pursue a relationship with Him.
Because beauty is a gift from God, it is not frivolous or extraneous, but good and worthwhile. When we study the humanities from a biblical perspective, we can affirm the value of beauty by creating it ourselves and supporting others who create it. While the classroom provides a context for us to analyze beauty’s nature and its ever-changing forms, these principles are meant to be carried into everyday living—in the businesses we patronize, the community projects we support, the media we enjoy, the events we attend, the families we become, and the lives we live. Each of these arenas offers us as Christians the opportunity to promote beauty in the places God has ordained for us. When we fulfill this calling, we invite a watching world to stand in awe of the beautiful life we’ve been given and, in seeing it, draw closer to its Creator.