The cave paintings of Lascaux in southwestern France, dating between 18,000 and 15,000 B.C.
What a strange thing: beauty has a name. In fact, beauty is a divine name. If this is true, then we are not so awkward as to fittingly apply this name in the prologue of John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was beauty, and the beauty was with God, and the beauty was God” (Sammon 2013). Hence, we may not only say that God is beauty but also that God is beauty itself.
However, in making such simplistic utterances, as Brendan T. Sammon (2013) recognizes, we are standing in “stark contrast to the complexity of its intelligible content.” However, I must make a demarcation from attempting to expound on what it means to say that beauty is a divine name. While such a task may seem rigorous in philosophical/theological content, my primary concern is to proceed in a rather “poem-like” fashion and not in a philosophical or theological one.
And yet, I acknowledge (perhaps superficially) that I can be consistent in my “poem-likeness” and say that beauty has a religious (or theologically significant) dimension (*see my note below). Alejandro R. Garcia-Rivera (1999) cites the cave paintings of Lascaux and Altamira as such an example of the relationship between beauty and religion. Specifically, anthropologists have recognized that the placement of these paintings in the caves are almost inconveniently placed, in the sense they are placed at a distance away from the cave’s entrance. Hence, the paintings are perhaps religious in nature (**see my note below).
More than this, beauty having a religious dimension shows that there is a dynamic relationship between God’s beauty and the inner human spirit. That is, apart from beauty being a divine name, Beauty originates in God’s own Self. But, here I believe a rightful question is to be asked: “What is Beauty if it is not received?” (Garcia-Rivera 1999) There is then a dynamism between the Infinite and the finite, and hence, discussing anything about the subject of beauty among these two polarities provoke a relevant but parallel conversation: the Incarnation. After all, is this not where the Eternal stepped into time? Yes, and by all means. The transcendental nature of Beauty reflects this parallel. That is to say, there is a relationship between where beauty originates and where it may come upon an impression of the human heart.
This contact of the divine upon the human heart is where I think Beauty is a significant and more impressive evangelical tool in persuading unbelievers to the faith, rather than appeal to the Good or to the True. However, Fr. Robert Barron has made the suggestion that most of the errors of modern evangelism rest in the primacy of starting with the Good (which will lead to arguments about legalism) and the True (which will lead to arguments about relativism) than with the Beautiful. I believe Barron is correct on his conclusion but not so much in his distinctions.
Fr. Barron suggests that a starting point of the Good will lead the unbeliever to press charges of legalism against the evangelist: “Who are you to tell me what is Good and what is Bad?” Starting with the Good may be advantageous on the grounds that one may be able to see the possible benefits, or indeed, eternal rewards of willing the Good (perhaps, even to the point of suffering for the sake of it). It is as that old Danish philosopher said in his Purity of Heart (Kierkegaard, 2008): “When the sufferer. . . willingly takes up his appointed sufferings, he is willing to suffer all for the Good, that is, in order that the Good may be victorious in him” (ibid., 148).
Kierkegaard, Søren. The Purity of Heart Is to Will One Thing, trans. Douglas Steere. 2008. HarperOne.
Sammon, Brendan Thomas. The God Who is Beauty. 2013. Wipf & Stock Publishers.
* – I am indebted to Alejandro R. Garcia-Rivera’s The Community of the Beautiful: A Theological Aesthetics (Michael Glazer, 1999) for the methodological approach I’ve decided to follow here throughout.
** – Here is an article by an independent scholar from the Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History touching more on this claim.