Argument from Beauty, Part IV: The Short, The Sweet, The Good, The Beautiful

In short, the Christian Universalist Argument from Beauty will go something like this:

Empiricism and reason alone are insufficient as sources of knowledge about some of the deepest, most enduring questions about our existence (see prior post in this series). The Christian Bible, furthermore, is limited as a source of knowledge for a life of faith, and an excess of dependence on or devotion to it tend towards idolatry.

Another source of “knowledge” about the the big questions of life might be found in the non-rational, subconscious human faculties, such as intuition, emotion, and instinct. Nonhuman animals are known to possess instincts that are genetically inherited, and do not spring form the direct experience or rational processes of the individual members of the species, but represent the subconscious knowledge inherited from the collective wisdom of the species, as encoded in the individual’s genetics. Might we wonder whether such collective, unconscious knowledge also exists in humans?

From a philosophical standpoint, it has long been controversial to claim that beauty can be a source of knowledge. While early western philosophy often linked the Beautiful with the Good and the True, modern philosophy elevated reason and empirical experience to a lofty position of exclusivity. While there are certainly modern and contemporary philosophers who have attempted to reestablish a link between the Beautiful and the True, the idea hasn’t really been resurrected on a mass scale. That, however, shouldn’t minimize the import of these outliers’ contributions. I will spend a good deal of time looking at them in upcoming issues of this series.

I would ask whether, at the very least, systematic theology should consider beauty as a potential source of knowledge. Christian theology, in particular, is fond of claiming that “faith” is an essential component of the life of the spirit. Could one have faith that God’s plans are beautiful? I believe that is central to the “good news” of the Gospel. Or does faith have a place in theology anymore, now that we prefer our theology to be “systematic”?

A universe in which the majority of people suffered for eternity, or even a universe in which some people suffered for eternity, would not be beautiful. I base that statement on my own perceptions of what is or is not “beautiful”, but as we will later see, such conceptions may sometimes correspond to certain objective realities.

So, I say again: a universe in which anyone spends an eternity in torment is not beautiful. And if, by faith, I believe that God’s plans are beautiful, then I reject such a conception of the universe.

There is, in fact, scientific and mathematical support for the idea that our conceptions of beauty may sometimes correspond to the truth-value of the thing that we see as beautiful or not beautiful. I will discuss all of this, and much more, as I continue to describe the Argument from Beauty. In beginning to do my research for this project, I actually ended up finding that the subject is incredibly rich and vast and complex. My next issue in this series will outline some of those many subtleties and nuances that I intend to discuss in this series. It turns out that, in everything from our theologies to our pop culture, we mostly overlook the incredible depths of the subject of “Beauty”. True, our society is obsessed with beauty, but only with beauty that is “skin-deep”, so to speak.

I propose that Beauty is sometimes a source of knowledge; not necessarily knowledge with certainty, as we seek in empiricism and rationalism, but knowledge nonetheless. This is an inner wisdom: a direct personal experience of a deeper reality. Sometimes, it may even take a bit of faith to attain such knowledge. But then again, so did the idea that people might one day be able to fly.