The Incarnation of Beauty – Part II: Beauty is a Relational Concept
“One thing I have asked of the LORD, and 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
Beauty is Relational
In the last post we examined Jonathan Edwards’s concept of the Trinity and concluded that, for Edwards, the Intertrinitarian nature of God is inherently relational. God is “God Known and Loved,” that is to say, Father, Son, and Spirit. And this personal, relational God is the wellspring of ALL reality. Everything that is not God finds its source, sustenance, and goal in Him – that is a beautiful reality. There is a relational, loving PERSON at the root of all things.
Now, since the relational God formed all of reality, relationships naturally play a central role in that reality. Consider it: since the relationship of Father, Son, and Spirit is the pulsating heart of God, it only makes sense that the creation springing from this heart would have “relationality” woven through every atom of its being. Therefore, “Beauty” is a relational concept.
Edwards explains Beauty as the relationship of agreement (or consent) between objects (or “beings,” which, in this context, could also be translated, “thing” or “stuff” or “any element of reality”). If two objects have a high degree of consent (like figure 1 below), then there is – narrowly considered – a high degree of beauty between them. However, if two objects have a low degree of consent (figure 2), then there is – again, narrowly considered – a low degree of beauty between them, they are “disfigured.” So, Edwards’s definition of Beauty might be stated as: “being’s consent to being,” that is to say, “a thing’s relationship of agreement with another thing.”
Now, I know what you’re probably thinking, “This is too simple! What about something like Asian architecture, which is typically asymmetrical and yet still beautiful? Or what about a painting obscured with an intentional red scar of pigment? Or what about a woman disfigured in a car accident still happily married to her husband? Or what about a discordant, haunting song? Don’t all these things (and thousands of other examples) have their own beauty, and one that seems to far exceed the “beauty” of a perfectly balanced symmetry?”
Yes, these things are beautiful, and Edwards (and scripture!) would agree. However, at this point we’re still laying the ground work. What is key to recognize at this stage is that, because the relational God has created reality, “beauty is a relational concept,” and that the definition for beauty is: “being’s consent to being / a thing’s relationship of agreement with another thing.” Consent = beautiful, dissent = disfigurement.
Four Spheres of Beauty
Having established the inherent relationality of Beauty and given it a basic definition, I hope to take the next 2 (probably) posts, to walk through the four increasingly expansive “spheres” of beauty that Edwards explains in his essay on the mind. These are: Simple Beauty, Complex Beauty, Spiritual Beauty, and Ultimate Beauty. Let’s finish out today’s post by getting a good handle on the first sphere, Simple Beauty.
The concept that makes up the individual strands from which the tapestry of Beauty is woven is what Edwards calls “simple equality” or “simple beauty” This beauty is determined by the equality of distance, shape, etc. between two or more objects and constitutes the simplest expression of consent. There is, asserts Edwards, a universal pleasantness to the simple consent between one object and another (figure 1 above), and a universal displeasure to the disproportion between two dissenting objects (figure 2 above).
Now, what’s critical to realize at this point is that Simple Beauty has a narrow viewing range. What I mean is this. Figure 1 above is an instance of Simple Beauty because there is a high degree of consent between both circles. However, if we were to “zoom out” our viewing range and discover that these two circles were part of a larger pattern that looked like figure 3, then suddenly the simple consent of the circles would become dissent. Sure, the two circles consent to one another, but now we see that they dissent from the larger pattern and so are actually an instance of disfigurement rather than beauty.
So, at its most basic, Beauty is the equality or consent of one object to another. However, once you begin to “zoom out” the viewing range and bring more objects and concepts “into the picture,” defining what is beautiful and what is disfigured becomes more and more complex. And that is where we will turn in our next post: Complex Beauty.
Thoughts Moving Forward
I know this might sound a bit academic and disconnected from the life of worship and service to which we are called as Christians. However, I think you will see the “pay off” as we move forward. Our God is the Beautiful One, and to study beauty is – ultimately – to study Him….and that is what we want. We want our hearts to echo David’s in their overarching desire to be in the presence of God in order to see His beauty in the person of Jesus Christ. We want to know and enjoy the God of scripture to the best of our abilities so that we can proclaim His excellencies as an overflow of our own joy in Him. May He enable this ongoing study to do just that in our hearts.
 Works of Jonathan Edwards, Volume 6, Scientific and Philosophical Writings, ed. Wallace E. Anderson, (New Haven Yale University Press, 1957-2008), 333