Engaging Contemporary Culture with the Beauty of Jesus

Even if beauty is hard to define and difficult to pinpoint, most people in contemporary culture seem compelled to engage with beauty in some way. We contemplate the awesome beauty of nature:  in the bend of the river, the hues of the leaves. We view art and collect it.  We decorate our houses and tend our blossoming gardens. We see beauty in others and in our relationships.  We even want to be beautiful. In all these ways, beauty still beckons in our culture as a powerful and meaningful way to experience life.

The connection between beauty and the Christian faith, however, does not always seem particularly clear or easy to explain. Many Christians may recognize the grouping “beauty, truth, and goodness,” but truth and goodness seem a bit more familiar ground. The triad of the good, the beautiful, and the true is actually rooted in ancient Greek philosophy. The Greeks believed that these three “transcendentals” were categories that ordered and revealed the highest reality. Through the centuries, the Christian tradition also often held that truth, goodness, and beauty were avenues to understand God and his perfection. Truth and goodness, however, often received the lion’s share of attention and thus seem to be the categories (in the forms of ethics and logic) that Christians most often use to talk about God. Yet to a contemporary culture awash in moral relativism, claims of truth and goodness may not be particularly fruitful grounds to discuss God –  as they are viewed as either meaningless (at best) or a dangerous form of self-righteousness. The desire for beauty, then, may be the most powerful entry point to engage with those in contemporary culture about the Christian faith.

Yet as Jeremy Begbie points out in yesterday’s post, this conversation is only useful if beauty points us to the triune God of the Christian faith, the one who entered history in Jesus Christ. Fortunately, theologians such as Hans Urs van Balthasar, Karl Barth, and Begbie have offered various ways to understand how our experience of beauty does relate to the God revealed in Jesus. For instance, Balthasar proposes that when we perceive beauty, we behold a physical object which pours forth a radiance or glory.  What Balthasar calls “the great radiance” from within transforms the object with its splendour and “we are confronted simultaneously with both the figure and that which shines forth from the figure, making it into a worthy, a love-worthy thing.”[1]  Balthasar proposes that God’s appearance in the world in Jesus can correspond to this understanding of beauty. In his incarnation, Jesus became the supreme object of beauty, as his physical human self was shot through with the radiance of God’s own Being. The splendor emanating from Jesus was the radiant outpouring of divine love for mankind.  Jesus’ beauty was thus the “overflow” of the triune God’s glorious, self-transcending love in him.

Granted, this is one simple explanation of a complex subject that can take volumes, but understanding what Jeremy Begbie calls “the form-ful beauty of intratrinitarian love revealed in Jesus Christ”[2] can be a starting point from which to explore and explain created beauty in more depth (as Begbie does in an chapter entitled “Created Beauty: the Witness of J.S. Bach”[3]). We can look at how the beauty of nature, art, and human endeavors are or can be related to Jesus’ own beauty and outpouring love as seen in his life, death, and resurrection. In this way, we can explore how the desire for beauty in all manner of created things is actually rooted and fulfilled in the supreme beauty of the incarnate Lord.

These may not be easy ideas to grasp or explain at first, perhaps because we aren’t used to connecting the beauty of our experience with the beauty of the God revealed in Christ. But, as Balthasar proposed, once we perceive the beautiful, we are then motivated to carry out the good and contemplate the true. As Christian theology develops around beauty in a more sustained way, it can provide rich resources to strengthen our own faith and engage in meaningful conversations with our neighbors.

Somer Salomon has an MLitt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the University of St. Andrews, as well as an MA in English Literature from Middlebury College. She currently teaches 11th grade English at a public charter school in Washington, DC, one of her favorite jobs in a varied career path that has included working for an economic development corporation , at a dot.com, and on a horse farm.


[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, Joseph Fessio, and John Kenneth Riches, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1982), 20.

[2] Daniel J. Treier, Mark Husbands, and Roger Lundin, The Beauty of God: Theology and the Arts (Downers Grove, Ill.: IVP Academic, 2007), 24.

[3] Ibid., 19-44.

The header photo, “beauty”, is copyright (c) 2008 sanberdoo and made available under a Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic License.

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