The Beauty of the Trinitarian God

One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple (PS 27:14).

It seems that beauty is a kind of perfection.  So if God is a being that has all perfections, it follows that God is beautiful. Furthermore, beauty is found in the natural world. If God is the cause of the natural world, then God Himself must be beautiful, given the metaphysical principle that there cannot be more reality in the effect than in the cause. But what is beauty? Is something beautiful merely because it is deemed to be so by a mind?  Is it entirely subjective?

I think not.  Thomas Aquinas agrees:

Thomas maintains the objectivity of beauty, in the sense that beauty resides in the object. In other words, beauty is not a concept in the mind of the beholder imposed onto a given object. If beauty is objective, then there must be some criteria by which we discover whether something is in fact beautiful. 1

What might the criteria for beauty be?  Unfortunately, beauty is difficult to define. Indeed, if it is one of the transcendentals, it is impossible to give an essential definition for it. Nonetheless, there are some great pre-modern theories about the beautiful. The great theories of beauty generally agreed that it consists of unity, proportion, equality, harmony, and order. (Tatarkiewicz 1972, 168-9)2

I would distill the great theories of beauty down to this.  Beauty is a sort of harmony, equality, or order among those which are distinct in number but which are somehow formally unified.

How could God of classical theism be beautiful, or rather, most beautiful according to this theory? For, the God of classical theism is divinely simple.  And in being simple, he satisfies one of the necessary conditions for our theory of beauty.   But, there is no diversity in God, nor parts to be arranged in any sort of harmony, proportion, order, or equality.  So it seems that God cannot be beautiful.

If God is not beautiful, then either creation is in some way more perfect than the creator, or beauty is not really a perfection. But, even if beauty is not a perfection, or some sort of “divine” perfection, there is still the problem of how it could be caused by God. For to deny that beauty is caused by God is to deny God’s aseity.  And to say that God is the cause of beauty but not beautiful Himself undercuts our metaphysical principle that the cause must have at least as much reality as its effect.

If there is supreme beauty, it would be in that which is most unified and which nonetheless has genuine distinction. It seems to me that the Trinity offers us an example of a classical theistic God in whom there are a number of persons in perfect harmony, equality, order, and unity. If the Trinity is coherent, then it offers an answer to the question of divine beauty. We can maintain that beauty is a perfection, that God truly is beautiful, and is the cause of beauty in nature. Nature, in effect, is beautiful insofar as it reflects the unity and harmony of the Trinity. Aquinas would not say that the Trinity is a diversity within God, but he would agree that the persons are distinct and three in number. His hesitancy of saying that God is a unity with a diversity of persons is due to his strong emphasis on the doctrine of simplicity. Nonetheless, the distinctness, unity, harmony, equality, and order of the Trinity is a perfect expression of beauty.

One might go so far as to press this a a problem for those who conceive of God as a singular person. It seems to me that the unitarian has the following options:

A) Deny that God is beautiful, and offer a theodicy for why there is beauty in the world.
B) Grant that God is simple and beautiful, but that beauty does not involve harmony, equality, or order among distinct members.
C) Grant that God is beautiful, but not simple. And hold that there are distinct parts to God to which harmony and order can be predicated.

There are problems with all three of these positions. Consider option A form a moment. Perhaps beauty is a property of matter, and since God is not material, God doesn’t have such a property. But beauty is often ascribed to immaterial things like equations, abstract object, and theories.  So why can’t an immaterial god be beautiful? Perhaps beauty, then, is some sort of privation, like evil? Of what is it a privation, ugliness?  This seems to have things backwards and only introduces another question regarding the origin of beauty’s contrary. Or perhaps one might maintain aesthetic anti-realism. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder and not a fact about anything, including God. But while there may be some subjective aspects to aesthetic experience, it just seems wrong when someone thinks that this picture by Chris Jordan:

is more beautiful than that:

2014-03-16 14.50.44

I don’t think I could take someone to be serious if he were to insist that the picture of a decaying bird engorged with litter is more beautiful than the picture of blossoming almond trees.  I would simply take such a person to be a contrarian, akin to the moral relativist who blushes slightly when he bites the bullet and says that segregation wasn’t really wrong for the societies that endorsed it.  Bite the bullet all you want.  If you think the bird is more beautiful, there is something wrong with you.

Next, there is option B.  But it denies a theory of beauty that seems to make sense of much of our experience of the beautiful, i.e. that it is a harmony, proportion, or equality of sorts. So if it is to be preferable to the Trinitarian explanation, if should offer a theory of beauty that explains the data of our experience at least as well as the “great” theories of old.  Absent an alternative theory of beauty, it is not clear that this option will be superior.  And if the alternative theory is merely fitted to the idea that God is beautiful, but that there are no distinctions in God, then this option simply comes across as ad hoc.  On the other hand, trinitarianism and the great theories of beauty are independently motivated, yet nicely converge.

Option C leaves classical theism behind, and raises new questions about the nature of the divine.  Diversity is introduced into the divine substance, and it seems we must now explain why these diverse parts are unified as a substance.  We must also explain why this complex divine substance is ontologically necessary, and impossible to separate.  Additional explanations that try to regain the attributes of the God of classical theism will appear to be ad hoc unless there are independent reasons to accepting them.

If one holds to i) the doctrine of divine simplicity, ii) beauty as an objective fact and perfection, and iii) a theory of beauty the convergence of unity and harmony, then Christian Trinitarianism best explains those commitments.

1M. Spicher. “Medieval Theories of Aesthetics”. In The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Accessed on March, 18, 2014. http://www.iep.utm.edu/m-aesthe/
2 W. Tatarkiewicz. 1972. “The Great Theory of Beauty and Its Decline” In The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, vol. 31, no. 2. http://www.jstor.org/stable/429278

Posted on March 18, 2014, in Nature of God and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. montjoie1095

    Nicely done but I was hoping for more flesh on the argument about why the Trinitarian God resolves the issue.

    Like

  2. As someone who’s been away from this kind of writing for some time, I’m happy to have read this on Trinity Sunday, Dan. Thanks for clear, concise, accessible presentation of your thesis – you gave me something to think about as this day ends.

    Like

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