“One thing have I asked of the Lord, that will I seek after: 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 inquire in his temple” (Psalm 27:4). God is Beauty. Much in creation is beautiful. But some things in creation can also be ugly. Some things are displeasing to the eye, and even tragic to behold. How can such ugly things exist in God’s beautiful creation? Two Christian theologians provide some insight in answering this question.
In his City of God, Augustine of Hippo ponders “whether we are to believe that certain monstrous races of men, spoken of in secular history” have descended from Noah’s sons. The “races” that he goes on to describe in this section sound monstrous and mythological, but Augustine also interestingly includes the question of how to make sense of the troubling reality of children born with deformities. Augustine seems to be primarily concerned with how we should think of God’s sovereignty in relation to such “monstrous” things. Augustine’s answer, somewhat surprisingly, appeals to the idea of beauty:
The same account which is given of monstrous births in individual cases can be given of monstrous races. For God, the Creator of all, knows where and when each thing ought to be, or to have been created, because He sees the similarities and diversities which can contribute to the beauty of the whole. But he who cannot see the whole is offended by the deformity of the part, because he is blind to that which balances it, and to which it belongs.
In short, Augustine claims that individual examples of ugliness in creation actually “contribute to the beauty of the whole.” But how can this be? Augustine affirms that God is the maker of all things, including any physical deformities that some humans may be born with. Though he does not explicitly reference it, Augustine is probably thinking of a text like Exodus 4:11: “Then the LORD said to [Moses], ‘Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD?’”, which suggests that any created thing, and also any deformity, is due to God’s creating and sustaining intentions. Furthermore, Augustine affirms that God in his omniscient wisdom knows where and when to bring about all things, including deformities, in his beautiful creation. Augustine then infers that any deformities or ugliness within creation that may “offend” a person (i.e., be perceived as not beautiful), these offenses are only due to the individual in question not having a broad enough perspective to see and judge them well. In other words, we finite individuals cannot see how non-beautiful elements in creation actually contribute to the broader beauty of God’s creation, which God in his perfect vision can see clearly.
The early American pastor-theologian Jonathan Edwards seems to have had a similar idea. In his 1765 The Nature of True Virtue, Edwards distinguishes between two sorts of beauty, which he designates
Particular beauty: “a thing appears beautiful when considered only with regard to its connection with, and tendency to, some particular things within a limited and, as it were, a private sphere” (8:540) and
General beauty: “a thing appears beautiful when viewed most perfectly, comprehensively and universally, with regard to all its tendencies, and its connections with everything to which it stands related to” (8:540).
Edwards defines a particular beauty as being exhibited when focusing upon a limited perspective of something at hand, e.g., some part of a landscape, some part of an artistic work, etc. But, in contrast, Edwards defines something as a general beauty as only being exhibited by taking into account a fuller or wider frame of reference, e.g., the full landscape, the full artistic work, etc.
Edwards additionally notes that a particular beauty “may be without and against” a general beauty (8:540). To illustrate this point, he gives the example of a few notes in a tune, which may indeed be harmonious when taken by themselves; but when those few notes are considered with respect to all the notes in an overall tune, it may turn out that those few notes are actually “discordant and disagreeable” (8:540) to the tune as a whole. What counted as a brief harmony, or a particular beauty, in a narrower frame of reference may turn out to not contribute to the overall harmony, or general beauty, in a broader frame of reference.
But the converse of Edwards’ example is also helpfully illuminating. For in a narrow frame of reference we may judge a short tune as disharmonious and even ugly. But once a wider frame of reference is established, once the overall musical piece that the short tune is part of is considered, it might indeed turn out that the shorter tune actually contributes to the overall harmony of the piece. What was discordant in and of itself might actually end up being an integral part of the overall harmony of the musical piece.
These two theologians’ ideas thus suggest that God’s beautiful creation has parts that from our limited perspective are ugly—and are indeed so in and of themselves. But God is the supreme and wise artist with a perfect vision of his creation. And with his perfect vision he can clearly see how these shades of ugliness throughout, how these minor and discordant notes and chords that ring out in different places actually contribute to the overall beauty of creation, to the overall splendor of his great symphonic masterpiece.
And this is not only true of God’s plan of creation, but also in God’s plan of redemption. The crucifixion of Jesus was the ugliest thing that ever happened in all of history. The perfect and beautiful son of man and son of God was crushed for our iniquities on a monstrous device of Roman torture and capital punishment. Yet, paradoxically, this same crucifixion was also the key ugliness that bought and brought about the beautiful and glorious plan of redemption for sinners. This ugly and monstrous act provided the way back to supreme Beauty, to God himself!
May God give us eyes to see true beauty in the midst of any ugliness. For even in ugliness, our great God is sovereignly at work!
James McGlothlin, Ph.D.
Associate Professor of Philosophy and Theology
- Pray that we each see the beauty of the Lord and his creation each day, and that it would move us to worship.
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