What is Thinking Beautifully?

What does it mean to think beautifully? Perhaps it means that our thoughts are elegantly expressed. Perhaps it means that our thoughts are focused on the nature of beauty. And perhaps it means that beauty can be a lens for all thinking about whatever is true and whatever is good.

We hope to express things beautifully on this website, and we will certainly be thinking a great deal about the nature of beauty. But the reason for the site’s name is centered on the last possibility: that beauty can be a lens for all thinking about whatever is true and whatever is good, and because it can function as such a lens for all real knowledge it can also be a meeting place for multi-disciplinary conversation among Christian scholars. Engineers and theologians, mathematicians and poets, historians and chemists may not share much in the way of language or method, but all those disciplines and many more take beauty into account.

There is far more beauty in the world than any one of us can perceive. The world is full of God’s glory, which is another way of saying that the world is full of God’s self-revealing beauty, the kind of beauty that is particular to God. This is true, not because the world is a piece of God, but because the whole of the creation is His art, bearing His fingerprints. God’s fecundity overflows into the vastness and variety of the creation, because only vastness and variety can begin to express His fullness and give Him glory. And so we find that the world is overflowing with beauty, more beauty than any one finite person can possibly take in.

God made everything both good and beautiful. Through sin, we have taken away some of that beauty, twisted and distorted it, added our own lies and illusions. But it is still the case that everything is beautiful insofar as it is real, that is, insofar as it participates in Being the way God designed it to do. This is true of beauty in the same way that it is true of other qualities such as truth, goodness, and unity. These are qualities of God’s own nature that He graciously shares with or communicates to all that exists as part of the act of creating.

However, beauty is true of everything in a different way than is truth, at least in our experience. When two people disagree about what is true and try to talk through their disagreements, they may quite soon arrive at an impasse in which they see that they cannot both be right. But when two people disagree about what is beautiful and try to talk through their disagreements, each may be able to show the other beauties that had, until then, been invisible. The law of non-contradiction does not apply to beauty in the way it applies to truth, because truth is about logic whereas beauty is about love .

If we wish to enlarge our capacity for perceiving beauty, we must enlarge our capacity for love. We see as beautiful those things to which we give loving attention. You may perhaps know the folk tale about a little boy who lost his mother and, while searching for her, described her to all he met as the most beautiful woman in the world. It is a tale that has been retold in many ways in many children’s books, and the point of the story is often taken to be that beauty is subjective, that it is in the eye of the beholder, that this little boy believed his mother to be beautiful only because he had certain feelings for her, and that no one else might reasonably be expected to see her as a beautiful woman. This understanding of the tale is one that we must reject. One of the premises that we work with on this website is that beauty is objective, since God truly has placed beauty in the world. Beauty is not a human construction or filter. We do not construe or invent beauty; we uncover it. It is revealed to us.

A deeper meaning of the tale is that every human being has the potential to be stunningly beautiful, but we are not capacitated to perceive the beauty of every human being. We only see the beauty of those to whom we give loving attention, and so a child who has lovingly studied his mother’s face since infancy will be well equipped to know her beauty. Charles Williams once said that every person we meet has the potential to overwhelm us the way we are overwhelmed when we first fall in love, when it seems as though a person whom we may have known for years as a friend or acquaintance has suddenly acquired a new glory that is nearly irresistible to us. But, says Williams, it is God’s mercy that this glory is veiled for us in most people since how could we possibly function in the world if every person we met struck us with such force?

In this life, we are not able to see all people as overwhelmingly beautiful, but we can already now begin to see more people this way. We are not able to appreciate all forms of music as beautiful, but we can already now train our ears to hear beauty in different styles of music, discovering the pattern and order in melodies and harmonies we at first find jarring. The law of non-contradiction does not apply to beauty as it does to truth, because beauty is not about logic but about love, attraction, and desire, which can be multiplied indefinitely in our lives. Loving one person does not preclude loving someone else. Seeing one kind of beauty does not preclude experiencing another. This makes beauty a hospitable lens to use in gathering Christian scholars from many disciplines and from varied theological traditions to talk about our work with one another.

We may enlarge our capacity through knowledge. As we study we come to understand, admire, love and pay attention to many things that we could not see as beautiful without active study. So a difficult math proof will be opaque to someone who knows nothing about math, but beautiful to a great mathematician. An aspect of the doctrine of God may seem cold and sterile to a theological novice, but life-giving and glorious to a theologian. This is true in every discipline, which is one reason that we hope to study beauty and discuss beauty in a multidisciplinary way on this website.

We may enlarge our capacity for perceiving beauty by lending our minds to one another. In his poem “Fra Lippo Lippi,” Robert Browning imagines Lippi, the Renaissance painter, talking to the reader, asking:

You’ve seen the world
— The beauty, and the wonder and the power,
The shapes of things, their colors, lights and shades,
Changes, surprises — and God made it all!
— For what?

It is an immense question. Why should the world have so much beauty in it? What purpose does it all serve? Brother Lippo suggests that one of our tasks as human beings is to notice particular moments of beauty and give them expression in ways that allow others to share in the noticing. As a painter, he speaks of this in terms of painting:

For, don’t you mark? we’re made so that we love
First when we see them painted, things we have passed
Perhaps a hundred times nor cared to see;
. . . Art was given for that;
God uses us to help each other so,
Lending our minds out.

He gives the example of a servant on the street whom the reader might be expected to have passed many times without ever noticing him. Brother Lippo assures us that if only he were to sketch that unassuming servant, we would never fail to notice him in future. And then he wonders what would happen if he could use his paints and chalks to “interpret God to all of you!” He concludes:

      This world’s no blot for us,
Nor blank; it means intensely, and means good:
To find its meaning is my meat and drink.

Painting is not the only way by which we “lend our minds out.” Those of us who are academics and give our lives to study typically pay loving attention to very specific, somewhat obscure things, and one piece of our calling is to lend our minds to others so that they too may see “the beauty, and the wonder and the power.”

Whether you’ve stumbled upon this site or been invited to pay us a visit, we hope that you’ll consider being part of the conversation, that you’ll comment on posts and participate in the forums, that you’ll share the beauties you are especially equipped to perceive and learn from the sharing of others. If you have friends or colleagues for whom beauty is an important category in their work, please let them know about this conversation.

You might also like to look at our mission statement and the description of what we hope for from this project under the “about” tab in the upper right corner of the page.

3 thoughts on “What is Thinking Beautifully?

  1. ajt619

    The blog post “What is Thinking Beautifully?” inspires me to explore the concept of beauty. I find particularly helpful the concepts that: 1) beauty is objective and 2) as human beings, we are not designed to experience beauty in the same ways.

    There is one point in the blog with which I would like to state a difference of opinion. While I agree that beauty is about love, I believe truth is not about logic; rather, I believe truth is about being. Logic, for which the law of non-contradiction is fundamental, provides the means by which something with known being is then illuminated, differentiated, and examined.

    1. Laura Smit Post author

      Yes, saying that truth is about logic is far too simple. How about saying that truth is about Reason? Surely we want to say (or at least I do) that logic is not arbitrary, but is rooted in Reason – both the faculty of reason as we experience it, but also in some higher faculty which our little reason reflects and which must have its source in the mind of God. I’m thinking of Lewis here, who says that reason is the organ of truth while imagination is the organ of meaning. (That’s a pretty close paraphrase.)

      And yes, truth is about being, but then so is goodness, and so is beauty. What differentiates truth from beauty? That would seem to be where Reason comes in. And what do we do with the fact that as Christians we know that truth, or at least THE Truth, is a person, since Jesus claims this name for Himself.

      Much to ponder! Thanks for a thought-provoking comment.

  2. Pingback: What Makes Music Beautiful? - Thinking Beautifully

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