We inhabit a culture of terrible ugliness. Not only metaphorically—though there is plenty of ugly behavior, ugly politics, ugly thoughts and words—but also literal, physical ugliness, ugliness to which we have become desensitized and comfortably numb. I won’t dishearten you by parading out examples or generalizations; if you’re still reading this, you likely already know what I’m talking about. Many of us know, at some level, even if not in a conscious or articulate way, that there is something degrading, dehumanizing, wrong in so much of what surrounds us on a daily basis.
Throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, I had an unsystematic checkerboard of things that just bugged me. I felt like a lot of things were ugly, even though I couldn’t always articulate why. I was teased (mostly good-naturedly) for being contrarian, and I gained a reputation for being picky about books, music, and art (including visibly rolling my eyes and complaining at most of the stuff in the contemporary wing of art museums). I didn’t have much in the way of an explanation for these opinions, which, really, were more feelings of discomfort, feelings that something was off, than coherent stances at that point.
These feelings of discomfort crescendoed during my first year of graduate school. I disliked almost everything I was reading, especially the stuff that was supposed to be foundational to understanding history or human nature or power. It all just felt ugly, if that were possible. But again, I had no way of articulating my distaste for these things, and no way to explain what I wanted instead. I got frustrated. Finally, I took the advice of a friend (I am forever indebted to you, Moacyr!) and started reading some work by the English philosopher and writer Roger Scruton. Slowly, I felt like I was gaining the words I needed to explain not only my distaste for Foucault and other postmodern theorists, but also all those other, seemingly unrelated things that had been bugging me.
Roger Scruton has written and spoken about beauty and its importance in our lives in a number of places, but if you’ve never read anything by him, this three-minute video, which is a series of quotes from lectures and things strung together against an atmospheric lofi music piece, is probably as good a place to start as any.
Beauty, in contrast to ugliness, tells us that it is good to be physical creatures—persons who exist as mind, soul, and body. The cult of ugliness tries to repudiate our physicality, to belittle it and make it horrible, evil even, in order to isolate ourselves from our own bodies and from one another, an isolation and hatred that will inexorably pull us away from the God who lovingly created our bodies. But there is a reason that most Christian philosophers throughout the centuries have stressed the importance of the Three Transcendentals: truth, goodness, and beauty. God did not create us as formless spirits—no, He created us each as human beings, a human being whose individual soul is miraculously bound together with an individual body, and, although separated at death, to which body the soul will be reunited at the return of Christ at the end of time. A thought or statement is good when it is true; a physical being or object is good when it is beautiful.
“Ah,” you may object, “but standards of beauty are always changing, and they can be so limiting!” Is that actually the case, though? If we step away from our dehumanizing and ugly world of pop culture, if we shut the TV off, put our phone down, and just walk around our block, is that really true? Can you honestly tell me that you don’t agree that the mourning dove tending her nest, the elderly woman waving from her doorstep, the Madonna with Child aren’t beautiful? That all of these beauties of nature, humanity, and redemption aren’t echoing, in some small and imperfect way, the “very good” spoken by the eternal Godhead at the creation of this physical, beautiful world?
Of course, we only see this beauty through a mirror clouded by sin and death, but we nevertheless ought to give thanks to God that we are allowed the peace and transcendence felt when we see newborn animals in the springtime, a mother playing with her baby, or a painting of the Resurrection of Christ. In fact, I would go so far as to say that, in some small way, these experiences of beauty can point us to Christ. Christ is the ultimate affirmation of our identity as embodied creatures, as Jesus, true God, absolutely divine, became man—took on our flesh and blood, walked and breathed like any other human being, stepped out from the unfathomable chambers of absolute transcendent divinity in order to bind Himself in time and space to be our Brother, Friend, and Redeemer. What greater blessing could be given, what sweeter word could be said about our bodies than that God Himself would deign to dwell among us, incarnated, embodied, fully human, fully man?
Beauty is good, even when the world ignores it or tries to stamp it out. God has created our physical world, a world of sights and sounds, a world where we can watch, listen, even create, whether that is through art, practical crafts, homemaking, work, or childbearing, and He has called it very good. And though that reality has been damaged, all is not lost. Out of His bountiful mercy, God has given us a world where we can cherish and give thanks for the beauty he pours into our lives—and even better, He has given us His Son, whom we can truly confess as “Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ beside me” as a fellow man, not an abstract or anthropomorphic spirit, but the fullness of divinity indwelling in the flesh—our flesh—in order to redeem us forever.