The Telos of Beauty: A Common Quest for Theologians and Scientists
The twentieth-century mathematician and philosopher, Alfred North Whitehead, offered this provocative statement in his mature philosophical work, Adventures in Ideas:
This sentence from Whitehead points toward a rich and stimulating conception of beauty—not as mere ornamentation (ultimately as cosmetics), which one can place at the periphery or which possesses merely commercial important—but astonishingly as the central purpose of the universe. With this provocative assertion, Whitehead points toward the purposive or teleological element of beauty—what I will call the telos of beauty. As Whitehead is wont to do, he extends his claim as far as possible: beauty structures and directs the final aim of the universe. Or more simply, beauty directs the universe. Whitehead makes an assertion that combines beauty in science with art and metaphysics, which is not a far distance from theology.
Whitehead’s citation provides an intellectual springboard for a new place of beauty in the dialogue between science and theology, namely, as a nexus for common understanding. And so, after some clarifying definitions and a word about my personal motivations, I begin this essay by unfolding a theological understanding of beauty. I develop the concept of divine glory by building on key biblical texts and two major thinkers in the Reformed tradition, the eighteenth century American theologian and philosopher, Jonathan Edwards, and the twentieth century Swiss theologian, Karl Barth.
This choice immediately raises a question: Why select the Reformed tradition when Catholic theologians have pursued the concept of beauty with greater intensity? Why chose Edwards when any theology of beauty evokes the name of Hans Urs Von Balthasar, undoubtedly the greatest exponent of a theological aesthetics in the past two hundred years? And secondly, why Barth, who expressed a long-standing antipathy to “natural theology,” a category into which he would seem to place the concept of beauty as common vocabulary for the science-theology dialogue? As a theologian in the Reformed tradition, I would like to rehabilitate Reformed reflection on the topic on beauty. And there are profound and substantial insights in this tradition. Edwards in particular has been forgotten. For example, I have found no mention of him in von Balthasar’s massive multivolume study, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics. And yet there are at least two qualities of Edwards that are relevant to this study: first of all, Edwards self-consciously fashioned his work in the wake of Newtonian physics and thus engaged in an ongoing dialogue with scientific insight. Secondly, his ideas themselves were beautiful, enough so that he has been called “one of America’s five or six major artists, who happened to work with ideas instead of with poems or novels.”2 In other words, Edwards sought the beauty of thought both materially and stylistically. As for Barth, though this theologian of revelation was not particularly interested in the insights of science, his theological reflections on beauty and particularly its relation to divine glory are potent and provide remarkable theological groundwork for finding intersections between scientific and theological concepts of beauty.
In the third section, I will connect these theologians’ concepts of God’s glory and therefore beauty with how scientists have described the beauty of their discipline, particularly drawing on Henri PoincarÈ, Werner Heisenberg, and Alfred North Whitehead. I will exegete these comments and reflections on beauty from twentieth-century scientists, seeking to their understandings of beauty. I will then offer some reflections and a synthesis of these insights. This procedure leads to my final section, in which I will pose questions and present directions for a future research program on beauty as a nexus for the science-theology dialogue.
Some Preliminary Clarifications
We do not want merely to see beauty… We want something else that can hardly be put into words—to be united with the beauty we see, to pass into it, to receive it into ourselves, to bathe in it, to become part of it.
Before proceeding, I offer an initial caveat: it may appear that I have begun with a conception of beauty, which I then sought to apply to science and theology (and by extension, art). My procedure is actually the reverse and therefore more modest. I have researched the way scientists and theologians (especially in the Reformed tradition) describe beauty as rightly perceiving, and theorizing about, their objects of study and as a goal in their lives and work. I have then sought to connect these leading concepts with one another. Science and theology possess a significant overlap in their definitions of beauty. The fact that this paper proceeds in reverse is simply the desire for clarity. It is easier to begin with the general concept of beauty and then sound it out in specific locations.
I submit a few preliminary clarifications. In my definition, beauty is the grasp of rightness. It arises for both theologians and scientists through rightly perceiving and theorizing about their objects of study. It is thus a perception of truth. Beauty also provides a lure for study. In this sense, it is telic. For theologians, it can be grasping God’s true nature, God’s creation, and our ethical life. For scientists, it is the rightly perceiving, and theorizing about, nature. When this perception is made, it is accompanied by a sense of completeness.
One of the corroborating features of defining the telic aspects of beauty is historical continuity. There is a correspondence with elements of the Augustine’s triad of unity, order, and proportion, as well as the related definition of Thomas: integrity, consonance, and clarity (integritas, harmonia, claritas). With Thomas, consonance stands out most clearly in connecting with a right perception of God and nature. It is also close to integrity—that things fit together. Nevertheless, I do not present my definition as exhaustive. Instead it is the locus of significant overlap between science and theology. There are certainly other aspects to beauty in Thomas’ and Augustine’s definitions, let alone subsequent formulations. Secondly, beauty offers telos in that beauty is motivation, fulfillment, and direction. Beauty offers direction by luring theologians and scientists in their work. Theologians might even point to a glimpse of eschatological wholeness. Something beautiful points to the One who is Beauty. This teleological element of beauty is a component of the well-known insight that beauty pleases us. Though this pleasure has often been focused on the eyes, I submit that we receive beauty through a variety of faculties, and perhaps most importantly for this paper, intellectually, or through the “eyes of the mind.’ The examples below from scientists and theologians will sufficiently exemplify this point.
To set this definition in the context of theology (which is my specialization), beauty represents a component of the doctrine of creation. It is a part of the way that a creative, beautiful God has left a footprint in the creation. Beauty thus expresses itself in these forms: God and the world understood rightly (the domain of theology and metaphysics) and therefore life lived rightly (the related discipline of ethics). It is also when human beings understand nature understood rightly (science).
I realize that my definition of beauty—a beauty that can be grasped in science and theology—runs in the face of the common, narrow fixation on beauty as the physical perfection of women’s bodies, a fact that can be discovered by a simple Google or Amazon search. In this latter case, beauty equals cosmetics or sexual appeal. Though beauty certainly includes attractive women and men, this is an entirely restrictive view of the entirety of beauty’s scope. One does not want to subsume all beauty ultimately under sexual attraction and thus under fertility and survival (which is the general vector of neo-Darwinian thinking). Neither, however, can beauty be defined in a way that omits sexuality. Beauty as telos, I submit—but cannot unfold here—provides a resolution.
This project of unfolding the telos of beauty as a common quest for theology and science brings together for me a fifteen-year period of research into the dialogue of these two disciplines. Stated simply, I have observed that both science and theology recur with descriptions of beauty. I then join this observation with my earlier degree in comparative literature, where aesthetics plays a critical role.3 If theologians have largely forgotten how to talk about beauty, scientists in the past century or so do more frequently, but maybe less willingly. The study of literature then educated me with sensitivity to the aesthetic aspects of human life, whether that human be a scientist or theologian. And ultimately, I believe that we are all humans first and thus share a drive toward beauty—or perhaps better stated, beauty lures us all and motivates us in whatever discipline we find ourselves.
In this project, I am also seeking to undercut the emphasis that arose in the Enlightenment via Immanuel Kant and David Hume —and I believe the concept of the telos of beauty can do this—that beauty is purely subjective and that it therefore does not lead the perceiver to the “thing in itself” (das Ding en sich). Hume’s lapidary formulation is certainly worth citing: “Beauty is no quality in things themselves: it exists merely in the mind which contemplates them; and each mind perceives a different beauty.”4 Kant’s resistance to the knower’s inability to penetrate to the reality of a thing “in itself” certainly includes human beings finding beauty. On the other hand, theological and scientific descriptions highlight that beauty can be discovered (and here I am leaning on the more literal meaning of “uncovered.”)
I propose that the discovery of the telos of beauty means that beauty has cultural variations to be sure, but there are also objective components in beauty that inhere in the object. In some way—but certainly with regional variations—theology and science (and art) seek truth of expression, whether it’s God’s, the world’s, or other forms. My definition of beauty therefore relates to both ontology and epistemology. Beauty exists outside of the knower. As well, it can be understood by the human mind. (Both of these assertions are important.) Accordingly, I am committed to a critical realism, in which reality exists outside of the mind of the knower and yet the interests and limitations of the knower interact with what is known. I take this position to be the current consensus in the dialogue of theology and science, and since not every related issue can be pursued here,5 I will proceed accordingly without further elaboration.
A Reformed Theology of Beauty: The Pursuit of the God’s Glory
Give beauty back, beauty, beauty, beauty,
Back to God, beauty’s self and beauty’s giver
—Gerald Manley Hopkins
A critical element in any Reformed theology is the pursuit of God’s glory, and God’s glory is ultimately tied up with beauty. The very first question of the standard catechism of the Calvinism, that of Westminster in 1647, sets the groundwork:
Q: What is chief end of man?
A: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.
This conviction that the ultimate reason for human existence is to glorify God, finds its home in the Bible and establishes the basic grammar for Reformed theology. It indeed sets the tone for understanding God’s glory and beauty. Glorifying and enjoying God are, if not actually identical, at least Venn diagrams with a high degree of overlap. According to Reformed theologians, to glorify God is the very telos of human life.
This leads to a question, What is this pursuit? To glorify God is to point to God’s own glory.6 Divine glory involves God’s very character of holiness, and holiness is first of all God’s otherness because the nature of deity is perfection. God’s holiness thus evokes our awe and praise. In Hebrew and Greek, God’s glory (kabod and doxa) also includes God’s beauty. The Reformation finds God’s glory throughout the deep grammar of Scripture as well as in specific biblical texts. For example, Isaiah 6:1-8 describes the prophet’s famous call; Isaiah finds himself in a divine throne room. YHWH’s presence evokes wonder and fear. Similarly, the Reformed understanding of worship builds on Isaiah 6 as it seeks to evoke God’s majesty and power. The worship service is designed to lead the congregation in glorifying the Lord. In other texts, such as Moses’ experience with YHWH in Exodus 40:34ff., God’s glory even includes a certain luminosity. So glory implies wonder and fear, and the human response to God in worship seeks to mirror this experience.
Ultimately, God’s glory finds its expression as beauty. In this respect, Karl Barth is an excellent guide. He sets glory as a locus of theological reflection within the divine attributes—which he prefers to call “Divine Perfections.” In fact, glory for Barth constitutes “the sum of the divine perfections.”7 In the midst of unfolding his theology of glory, Barth offers this definition for God’s beauty: To declare that God is beautiful is
To say that God has this superior force, this power of attraction, which speaks for itself, which wins and conquers, in the fact that He is beautiful, divinely beautiful …. God loves us as the One who is worthy of love as God. This is what we mean when we say that God is beautiful.8
Thus, for Barth, God’s worthiness for human love is the basis of God’s beauty. This divine perfection also draws us to God. Whereas there is a tendency in von Balthasar almost to equate beauty and glory, Barth subordinates it to God’s glory: “We shall not presume to try to interpret God’s glory from the point of view of His beauty, as if it were the essence of His glory.”9
Barth’s theology was marked by his aversion to “natural theology,” and this characteristic ultimately limits his contribution to the theology-science dialogue. This fact, however, need not stop Reformed theology, which has always maintained a robust theology of creation and therefore of God’s intelligible beauty in the glory of the natural world. (Here, by the way, I am simply using “nature” or “the natural world” as synonyms for “creation,” though the latter has a stronger theological history.)
Beauty has a profound importance in a proper understanding of creation. Since Reformed theology relates God’s glory to the beauty of the natural world, beauty represents a description of the telos of creation. God’s very glory shows itself in the manifest grandeur and order of the cosmos. This leads to the second key text: Psalm 19. Here “the heavens declare the glory of God” (v. 1). Interestingly enough, from verse 6 to verse 7 (in English), this psalm moves with utter parataxis from the glory in the created world to the glorious Torah. In other words, the psalmist links cosmological glory with Jewish obedience to Torah, that is, moral beauty. Whether this link is the psalmist’s or a later editor’s, I take as relatively unimportant because somewhere in the canonical process, the link was made, and it corresponds beautifully with an emphasis in the Reformed tradition that both the natural world and the ethical life of believers ought to evoke beauty, even the beauty of God.
This Reformed linking of God’s glory and our ethical life finds brilliant expression in Jonathan Edwards’s theology. Steeped in the observation of nature that marked the seventeenth century’s exuberant scientific explosion following Newton’s impressive discoveries and seminal theories, Edwards begins with the beauty of the cosmos. He sees a world full of God’s glory
For as God is infinitely the greatest being, so he is allowed to be infinitely the most beautiful and excellent: and all the beauty to be found throughout the whole creation is but the reflection of the diffused beams of that Being who hath an infinite fullness of brightness and glory.10
Unlike the Enlightenment that surrounded him and often worked to cleave fact from value and thus nature from ethics, Edwards counters with an important move of wedding cosmology to ethics. To act with virtue is to follow these divine beams (which he called “Being”) that shoot through creation. “Being” constitutes the term for the deepest reality of the cosmos, and particularly for God. As Edwards writes: “True virtue most essentially consists in benevolence to Being in general. Or perhaps to speak more accurately, it is that consent, propensity and union of heart to Being in general, that is immediately exercised in a general good will.” And then, “Beauty does not consist in discord and dissent, but in consent and agreement.”11 Beauty (and within this semantic field for Edwards, “excellence” and “goodness”) exists where and when things fit properly together, when they “consent” to use Edwards’ language (or where they exhibit “consonance” in Thomas’ formulation). Virtue—or a beautifully ethical life—is in line with Being or the cosmos. Therefore the most virtuous life is that which gives glory to God. The definitive commentator on Edwards, Perry Miller, calls this an ethics of beauty: “That which is called ‘virtue’ is a certain kind of beautiful nature, form or quality that is observed in things.”12 In a word, Edwards uses the category of beauty as an umbrella for both ethical and cosmological telos.
Beauty then is, but also more than, the right perception of God and God’s creation as well as living rightly. For Reformed theology following Edwards, God’s glory, which includes divine beauty, constitutes the ultimate goal of creation. When this realization pierces the human souls, we are rightly related to God. And conversely, Edwards describes the experience of the spiritual life as the apprehension of the beauty of God and of God’s creation. Ultimately—and in consonance with the Reformed commitment to divine sovereignty—this is an act of God. Having analyzed Edwards’s conception of beauty and its place in his entire theological corpus, Louis J. Mitchell offers this summary: “[F]or Edwards the structure of religious experience was that of beauty. Authentic religious experience began with and was defined by an infusion of the Holy Spirit, God’s beauty.”13
Finally, for theologians and philosophers to do their work rightly, and for the human being to live with right ethics, they are living and working beautifully. Accordingly, the Reformed tradition calls theologians to pursue their work as the quest for beauty. And since beauty pleases us, this is a joyful task. In the next section, I will reflect on the statements of scientists who describe their work as the pursuit of beauty. Similarly, Barth has spoken of theology as a “peculiarly beautiful science.”14 With a perceptibly wry smile, he writes, “The theologian who has no joy in his work is not a theologian at all. Sulky faces, morose thoughts and boring ways of speaking are intolerable in this science.”15 The object of theologians’ study is the God of beauty and wonder. Therefore the form of theology ought to mirror the glory of its content. The glorious beams of this object of study—who is also Subject—infuses and illuminates theologians’ work.
The Beauty of Science: Nature Understood Rightly
You can recognize truth by its beauty and simplicity.
In researching the concept of beauty, I have been amazed by the connections of the theological understanding of the telos of beauty with the way in which scientists describe their work. Beauty is critical to all human knowledge, including the natural sciences. The Noble laureate, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar, in his seminal 1979 lecture delivered at the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, offers an important study in “Beauty and the Quest for Beauty in Science” by pursuing the “the extent to which the quest for beauty is an aim in the pursuit of science.”16 After analyzing PoincarÈ, Heisenberg, and Albert Einstein, he closes by suggesting that scientists can achieve satisfaction in their quest for beauty like the players in an intricate and joyful game.17 Accordingly, I will unfold the insights of a few key twentieth century scientists and then reflect on the connection with the telos of beauty.
Put in lapidary form again, the telos of scientific work is to understand nature rightly and the way it fits together. It is the right perception of, and theorizing about, the natural world, which offers motivation and fulfillment. Scientists pursue beauty, and thus it gives science direction or telos. In its pursuit and its attainment, scientists grasp the truth of science. As Henri PoincarÈ wrote—simultaneously countering a purely instrumentalist approach to scientific work—beauty motivates scientific discovery:
The scientist does not study nature because it is useful to do so. He studies it because he takes pleasure in it; and he takes pleasure in it because it is beautiful. If nature were not beautiful, it would not be worth knowing and life would not be worth living…. I mean the intimate beauty which comes from the harmonious order of its parts and which a pure intelligence can grasp.18
PoincarÈ points to harmony or consonance as a central feature of beauty. Beauty also implies pleasure (which has constituted a key elements of theories of beauty), and thus scientists realize the pleasure of their work in the realization of harmony.
Werner Heisenberg also wrote about the connection between discovering the nature of quantum reality and its beauty. One should note the relationship between beauty and Heisenberg’s “coherence,” which is parallel to rightness and Edwards’s “consent.” Beauty for Heisenberg is also surprising and objective. He discovered this beauty in the midst of looking at energy at the quantum level:
The energy principle had held for all the terms, and I could no longer doubt the mathematical consistency and coherence of the kind of quantum mechanics to which my calculations pointed. At first, I was deeply alarmed. I had the feeling that, through the surface of atomic phenomena, I was looking at a strangely beautiful interior, and felt almost giddy at the thought that I know had to probe this wealth of mathematical structure nature had so generously spread out before me.
This pursuit and discovery of beauty has certainly motivated key scientists. And the particular motivation, as PoincarÈ describes it, is grasping the harmonious order of the cosmos. Indeed, in Adventure of Ideas, Whitehead points to this ordering function of scientific and artistic pursuits. As he wrote, “Science and art are the consciously determined pursuit of Truth and of Beauty.”19 (Perhaps he did not know, or care to know, that a significant component of twentieth century art and aesthetics has abandoned the search for beauty.20 Nevertheless, he assumed it, and I would argue for beauty’s importance in art, something I can only assert in this article.) Whitehead then connected this ordering with God’s work with the world. This is critical to his understanding of the God-world relation: God “does not create the world, he saves it: or, more accurately, he is the poet of the world, with tender patience leading it by his vision of truth, beauty, and goodness.”21 Reformed theology must diverge from Whitehead here by strengthening his assertion: Yes, God leads the world further toward order through the telos of beauty. But even more, God is the Creator. The glorious and beautiful God creates beauty, and thus beauty is embedded in the very structure of God’s creation.
In sum, what then is this beauty that the scientist discoveries? First of all, Heisenberg asserts that scientists do discover beauty—the structures of the natural world are there and are uncovered by the work of speculative thought and experimentation. Scientists describe beauty in nature as something outside themselves, and this fact points to its public, or objective, nature. Secondly, PoincarÈ relates the pursuit of science to the pleasure of discovering something beautiful. The pleasure provides motivation and thus telos. Third, Whitehead presents the grand claim that truth and beauty are directions toward which all science and art—and even the universe itself—are pointing. In his metaphysics, Whitehead adds that the lure of beauty includes God. I find each of those reflections extremely provocative, fruitful, and astonishingly connected with theology’s quest for beauty. With each, I concur.
Directions for Further Research
If one is working from the point of view of getting beauty in one’s equations, and if one has a really good insight, one is on a sure line of progress.
Where do these connections among scientists and theologians lead us? Certainly, this concept of beauty does not resolve all issues in the dialogue of theology and science. Nevertheless, in researching the concept of beauty—especially as the telos and motivation for scientists and theologians—I have concluded that beauty provides us with a nexus for dialogue.
Issues and questions raised are inherent in any research program. Adapting Imre Laktos’ terminology, the “hard core” of this research program is that the telos of beauty is the perception and formulation of rightness that provides a lure for both theology and science. Indeed both quest for beauty in their work. Both are motivated by beauty, by rightly discovering more about God and God’s creation for theologians and about the beauty of rightly describing the natural world for scientists. Theologians describe beauty as a manifestation of God’s glory both directly and as demonstrated by creation. Scientists describe beauty in their work. If this is correct, the concept of beauty can be understood organically among various practitioners and theorists in these fields. In this respect, dialogues among theologians, philosophers, and scientists among critical. Currently, I am chairing a group called the Chico Triad on Philosophy, Theology, and Science (a group supported by a Local Societies Initiative grant) that draws together scientists, theologians, and philosophers from two local academic institutions and from the broader community. In coming months, we plan to discuss how beauty provides a motivation for our work. In a recent meeting of the Chico Triad, one of physicists made this provocative (and really, proleptic) declaration: “I spend a lot of time thinking about the beauty of how it all comes together.”
I am particularly interested to validate further how far the search for beauty describes science—I remember asking a friend of mine, who is a professor of evolutionary cell biology (not a member of the Chico Triad) about the importance of beauty in his work. Initially, he looked at me quizzically and did not see any connection between his work and beauty. When I described that beauty is tied up with understanding nature properly, it made more sense. So I concluded that the issue is reasonably basic: many scientists are wrapped up in experimentation and not in philosophical reflection on their work. Secondly, if a more precise description of beauty is presented, connections can be found. (Of course, if it fails, the whole research program might be abandoned.) Put another way, scientists and theologians have more to discuss about common conceptions of their work as pursuing beauty, and preliminary discussions have proven productive.
This is then a fruitful start. In my view, one test of fruitfulness is the questions that are raised, and so it is perhaps encouraging that I am left with as many questions as conclusions. Here are a few:
- Since to grasp beauty is to understand order, how effectively does this research program take in disorder—ugliness, and especially the presence of sin and evil? Can the telos of beauty provide a theodicy? What of the temptations of beauty, when what attracts us also leads to destruction? How can beauty be used against moral rightness? How can horrible, unethical people enjoy beauty?
- Where are the links and tensions of the telos of beauty with evolutionary theory, which tends toward seeing beauty as fecundity and fitness for survival?
- Is the concept of beauty as telos some form of natural theology? To adapt a Thomistic phrase, is it a particularly Christian notion, or does a Christian theology need “grace to perfect beauty,” does it need to bring distinctly Christian concepts to this dialogue with science?
- What about the times that science has to move beyond what is taken to be beautiful in order to arrive at greater accuracy? For example, one could consider Johannes Kepler’s movement from the circle to the ellipse, and the consequent dethroning of that beautiful “perfect” form.
Obviously, this conception of beauty raises questions as well as solves them, but I take this to be the nature of a fruitful research program. I present the conception of beauty as telos as the basis for a research program on the relationship among science, theology, philosophy, and art. Beauty pleases us. Will the greatest confirmation be whether the research program sets scientists and theologians on a beautiful, and therefore pleasing, quest? Indeed, for this project, that is my hope, motivation, and really, telos.
5. For a relatively comprehensive, yet succinct, presentation, see chapter 10 of Alister McGrath, A Scientific Theology, Volume 2: Reality (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2002). He distinguishes this position from naÔve realism and postmodern anti-realism (ibid., 195ff.).
6. This naturally raises the question of our human ability to understand God and thus the concept of analogy. I do not see the need to resolve the 20th debate that Karl Barth raised against Thomas Aquinas. Whether one follows Thomistic “analogy of being” and offering instead an “analogy of relationship,” both assert that human existence has an analogical relation with God’s and therefore we are enable by God to reflect divine glory.
10. A Jonathan Edwards Reader, edited by John E. Smith, Harry S. Stout, and Kenneth P. Minkema (Yale: Yale University, 2003), 252. This slim volume provides an accessible collection of other writings by Edwards on beauty: e.g., his early essay, “Beauty in the World,” which demonstrates the importance of this theme, or what the editors call, “his preoccupation with beauty, excellence, and the goodness of creation” (ibid., xii).
20. See Stolnitz, Jerome. “Beauty.” The Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Volumes 1 and 2. New York: MacMillan and Free Press, 1967: 266. As Peter Schjeldahl wrote in July 1969 (and I read at an exhibit at the Contemporary Art Center in Cincinnati in spring 2004), “Art is not usually edible, but it is known to satisfy certain hungers. In the last century, it was thought that Beauty, that vitamin concentrate, was what we were after. More recently, Duchamp taught us that art is simply habit-forming, like salted peanuts, and that Beauty all along was the glutton’s alibi…. Nothing about are has every been honest except our hunger for it.”