Glory to God for All Things

The Beauty of Truth and the Existence of God

konstantin-vasiliev-the-starry-sky-19702-e1274051995557What is the criterion of the rightness of this life? Beauty.  - Fr. Pavel Florensky

It is our habit of thought to think of Truth as, more or less, a correct description or a correct statement. As such, Beauty belongs to some other realm of thought. Beauty cannot be “correct” or “incorrect.”

In Orthodox thought, Truth is understood as a matter of being (it is ontological). If something is true, then it has true being, true existence. Thus, imaginary things can be described in many ways, but never as “true.” Having true or real existence is only part of the story. For it is God alone who possesses true being (“the only truly existing God” in the words of St. Basil the Great). The true existence of created things is relative to the being of God. It is God who creates and establishes all things and sustains all things in their existence (no created thing has existence in itself). True being (or Truth) is an existence that is according to the will of God – according to right relationship with the Only Truly Existing.

In this understanding, sin is a distortion of that relationship. We distort ourselves when we move away from right relationship with God. Instead of life, we have death. Instead of well-being, we have being that verges on non-existence.

When we understand that Truth is a matter of being and existence, then Beauty easily becomes an aspect of Truth that we can consider. For all that God has created is “good,” according to Genesis. The word “good” (καλόν, ט֑וֹב ) in both Hebrew and Greek carries the additional meaning of “beautiful.” Creation is not only given true existence, but that true existence is well-ordered and beautiful.

For a believer, knowing and understanding the world is far more than mustering “facts.” We do not know things as they truly exist when we fail to perceive their beauty.

In the Fathers, this perception of beauty is among the things we engage in when we practice theoria (often translated as “contemplation”). It is in the practice of theoria that the Psalmist says:

When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained,
What is man that You are mindful of him, And the son of man that You visit him?
For You have made him a little lower than the angels, And You have crowned him with glory and honor.
You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; You have put all things under his feet,
All sheep and oxen– Even the beasts of the field,
The birds of the air, And the fish of the sea That pass through the paths of the seas.
O LORD, our Lord, How excellent is Your name in all the earth! (Ps. 8:3-9 NKJ)

The Psalmist is considering the beauty of man and perceives the truth of his existence. We are “crowned with glory and honor.” We are, indeed, created in the image and likeness of God. This perception, the root even of the modern understanding of human rights, is endangered when man (or any part of creation) is reduced to a merely factual expression.

This approach to truth and beauty are also helpful when thinking about the existence of God. Discussions of God’s existence often turn around various arrangements of facts. Medieval scholasticism argued for the existence of God in the chain of causation: God as First Cause or Prime Mover. This is quite problematic since God does not belong to the category of facts. He is not a fact among facts and cannot be considered in such a manner. We may follow a chain of causation and arrive at what we cannot know. For some, this constitutes proof. For others it begs the question.

It is also true (in Christian understanding) that God is “beyond being,” (hyperousia). However, we are told that:

…since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead… (Romans 1:20)

It is more useful, both for believer and non-believer, to consider existence itself and the character of existence as a means of practicing theoria. I would suggest that there are many things in our world that we perceive in our “peripheral” vision, that cannot be seen by direct sight. In my experience, many of the things concerning God are seen in just such a manner.

In considering existence we see not only that it is – but that it is beautiful. In science this beauty is described as “elegance.” Our
modern world now takes for granted Einstein’s equation, e=mc2. The wonder of the equation is not only in what it says about matter and energy (that they are interchangeable), but in its pure, simple elegance. Who would have thought that the interchange of matter and energy could be accurately expressed in such an elegant manner?

This is but a minor example. The universe is replete with such expressions – not only because it exists – but because it is beautiful. The unbeliever can, of course, dismiss this as a mere artifact of physics – but that, too, begs the question. When the Christian learns to argue less and wonder more then we can suggest that as we stand before all that exists and see its beauty – its elegance – we wonder – together.

The Christian claim is that the Beauty and Wonder of existence became incarnate in the Person of Christ. Though there is much that we say as a matter of Orthodox dogma, all of our words are simply a shield of protection that we might rightly regard the wonder. But the simple act of wonder borders on worship (rightly so). It is this common ground of wonder on which the conversation between believer and unbeliever can best take place. And when voices are raised, the same wonder can offer a hush that allows the heart to return to theoria and say something useful…or nothing at all.

24 Responses to “The Beauty of Truth and the Existence of God”

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  1. dinoship says:

    “The simple act of wonder borders on worship”…
    Beautiful post Father…
    I often find that distraction is the most frequently encountered enemy we all face in this culture of ours on the matter. (The matter of living, as we should, in such “divine” wonder)
    Yes, one can, sometimes encounter nothing than darkness once they have successfully removed all (voluntary) distractions for the sake of contemplating God’s intent focus on them. However, that is an infinitely more (eventually) fruitful (apparent) ‘darkness’ than the distraction that fills our lives and minds.

    One can only wonder in dumbfounded awe and well up in ineffable joy when warmed up by the presence of “the only One Who truly exists”.
    If, (when there are no distractions), we clearly perceive the natural sunlight coming in at daybreak, though our eyes be closed; how much more can “the only One Who truly exists”, be glimpsed by us, His loving gaze perceived by our spiritual heart of hearts (once we remove voluntary distraction)?

    Then all of the world, including its ‘distractions’ (I call them involuntary distractions now) becomes beautiful with the Light of God, no matter how faint. It is transformed the way fresh snow can transform even an ugly neighbourhood full of garbage into beautifully radiant scenery…

  2. Rhonda says:

    Absolutely stunning words, Father ! Absolutely stunning!

    When we understand that Truth is a matter of being and existence, then Beauty easily becomes an aspect of Truth that we can consider…For a believer, knowing and understanding the world is far more than mustering “facts.” We do not know things as they truly exist when we fail to perceive their beauty.

    Being & existence (& thus absolute) rather than qualifier (& thus relative)…Yes! How sad that the social scientists & philosophers have used Einstein’s theories of relativity, meant to explain space/time/gravity, to relativize truth & morality, stripping them as well as us of being & existence.

    For all that God has created is “good,” according to Genesis. The word “good” (καλόν, ט֑וֹב ) in both Hebrew and Greek carries the additional meaning of “beautiful.” Creation is not only given true existence, but that true existence is well-ordered and beautiful.

    I did not realize the additional meaning to the word “good”, so thank you for teaching me :-)

  3. Sara says:

    These words are so thought provoking and marvelous that I would like to share them verbatim on my personal little blog, giving you all the credit and linking here to your blog. Please let me know if this is okay with you. I have been enjoying and learning a lot from your posts in the past few months after someone brought Glory to God for All Things to my attention, and I’d like to share the wealth.

  4. dinoship says:

    It occurred to me that Saint Maximus’s ‘logoi’ of beings (λόγοι τῶν ὂντων) is beautifully explained and brought up to date by

    “For a believer, knowing and understanding the world is far more than mustering “facts.”

  5. fatherstephen says:

    Sara,
    Please feel free to share. The more the merrier! Thank you for the kind words.

  6. fatherstephen says:

    Dinoship,
    Yes. This “mustering of the facts” is a scholastic holdover (at its weakest). The scholastics were much better men they we – but the modern world inherited the mechanics – and almost none of the piety. The patient a wondrous work of theoria is harder to share, does not lend itself well to arguments, and is not well-suited to our diminished understanding of cause-and-effect. But it is something people engage in frequently without knowing. Even some of our basest pursuits involve a distorted version of theoria. We speak of “objectification” when describing what viewing someone as a sexual object means – though it is clearly “more than an object.” I once heard a man exclaim, at the sight of a strikingly beautiful woman, “There really is a God.” Yes, but. Not quite theoria, but neither is it objectification.

    Please forgive me if my example offends anyone.

  7. dinoship says:

    That reaction to seeing a strikingly beautiful woman that entices one’s “nous” entirely, is indeed one of the most frequently advised “techniques” to those who have cultivated a virtually unbeatable “slavery” to sensual beauty that normally leads away -rather than towards God.

  8. dinoship says:

    It is not dissimilar to Saint Nonos’ reaction (one very close to “theoria”) upon seeing the highly adorned harlot, later to become Saint Pelagia.

  9. Rick says:

    “That reaction to seeing a strikingly beautiful woman that entices one’s ‘nous’ entirely, is indeed one of the most frequently advised ‘techniques’ to those who have cultivated a virtually unbeatable ‘slavery’ to sensual beauty that normally leads away -rather than towards God.”…Dinoship, would you please say more about this?

  10. Michael Patrick says:

    “It is this common ground of wonder on which the conversation between believer and unbeliever can best take place. And when voices are raised, the same wonder can offer a hush that allows the heart to return…”

    Wonderful! When I see wonder or thanksgiving my heart feels akin to that person like a brother or sister. Words aren’t needed. The understanding is deeper; they are not self-made, rather, they are creatures who know they receive their existence as a gift. It is beautiful to stand in wonder and give thanks. I think it connects human hearts like nothing else.

  11. TLO says:

    The Christian claim is that the Beauty and Wonder of existence became incarnate in the Person of Christ.

    Is this all-encompassing? Is it the Orthodox position that wherever beauty is found that it is a reflection of Christ?

    I’d also be interested to know your thoughts on the destructive nature of beauty. Here’s what I mean.

    About five years ago, my wife and I wandered into one of our favorite art galleries. We used to do this often, particularly when in La Jolla, CA. So, this particular day they were exhibiting an artist whose work I had never seen before. One piece in particular captivated me and I stood there a full ten minutes transfixed and weeping. No other work of art had ever affected me like this. It was to me as if Beauty had chosen to reveal herself to me for those few minutes. If I called it a Holy experience, I would not be far wrong, I think.

    That said, I have not been able to go into an art gallery since. I tried once or twice but the works I used to enjoy now paled and seemed “clever” rather than beautiful. And so, something I used to enjoy has become distasteful to me simply because of one short experience.

    If I was asked if the net effect was worth it, I don’t know how I would answer. Part of me very much misses naive enjoyment of inferior art and part of me thinks the one experience (which cannot ever be replicated) was worth it.

    What I do know for certain is that to try to have that experience again would cheapen it. Once seen, it is folly (in my estimation) to chase after another taste. The encounter was unexpected and unsought, which made it all the more meaningful.

  12. TLO
    There are perceptions of beauty that make lesser visions pale. If I may say so, you were blessed and the experience remains and abides with you. As such, it changed you. It is, I believe, an encounter with the Divine, however mediated.

  13. dinoship says:

    TLO,
    I very much empathize and share an extremely similar experience as the one you described…

  14. PJ says:

    John,

    Aye. I know the feeling. I’ve also had glimpses of the Divine, little looks at the Beautiful and Good and True out of the corner of the eye of my soul. Everything seems pale in comparison …

    I’m reminded of an experience of St. Augustine’s:

    “As the day now approached on which she [St. Monica, his mother] was to depart this life–a day which thou knewest, but which we did not–it happened (though I believe it was by thy secret ways arranged) that she and I stood alone, leaning in a certain window from which the garden of the house we occupied at Ostia could be seen. Here in this place, removed from the crowd, we were resting ourselves for the voyage after the fatigues of a long journey.

    We were conversing alone very pleasantly and “forgetting those things which are past, and reaching forward toward those things which are future.” We were in the present–and in the presence of Truth (which thou art)–discussing together what is the nature of the eternal life of the saints: which eye has not seen, nor ear heard, neither has entered into the heart of man. We opened wide the mouth of our heart, thirsting for those supernal streams of thy fountain, “the fountain of life” which is with thee, that we might be sprinkled with its waters according to our capacity and might in some measure weigh the truth of so profound a mystery.

    And when our conversation had brought us to the point where the very highest of physical sense and the most intense illumination of physical light seemed, in comparison with the sweetness of that life to come, not worthy of comparison, nor even of mention, we lifted ourselves with a more ardent love toward the Selfsame, and we gradually passed through all the levels of bodily objects, and even through the heaven itself, where the sun and moon and stars shine on the earth. Indeed, we soared higher yet by an inner musing, speaking and marveling at thy works.

    And we came at last to our own minds and went beyond them, that we might climb as high as that region of unfailing plenty where thou feedest Israel forever with the food of truth, where life is that Wisdom by whom all things are made, both which have been and which are to be. Wisdom is not made, but is as she has been and forever shall be; for “to have been” and “to be hereafter” do not apply to her, but only “to be,” because she is eternal and “to have been” and “to be hereafter” are not eternal.

    And while we were thus speaking and straining after her, we just barely touched her with the whole effort of our hearts. Then with a sigh, leaving the first fruits of the Spirit bound to that ecstasy, we returned to the sounds of our own tongue, where the spoken word had both beginning and end. But what is like to thy Word, our Lord, who remaineth in himself without becoming old, and “makes all things new“” (The Confessions, Book 9, Chapter X).

  15. dinoship says:

    PJ,
    that part of the Confessions always reminded me of St. Gregory the Theologian’s celebrated saying:

    “God always was, and always is, and always will be. Or rather, God always Is. For Was and Will be are fragments of our time, and of changeable nature, but He is Eternal Being. And this is the Name that He gives to Himself when giving the Oracle to Moses in the Mount. For in Himself He sums up and contains all Being…”

  16. Fr. Stephen…when you talk about beauty and Triune Truth, is it any wonder that the speed of light (in a vacuum)is tantalizingly close to the integer three (3) followed by eight zeros meters/second. There is no other constant in the physical realm that deviates so little from a whole number.

    And the speed of sound at 3 degrees centigrade…333 meters/second.

    I think the Holy Spirit is about a work here.

  17. Lynne says:

    But, how many cubits per second?

  18. Good point Lynne, but a cubit was defined regionally when a form of second (1/60th of a minute)was still only a papyrus drill. So to mix the two would be meaningless. Time was very vague until the advent of the mechanical clock, which first appeared 1000-1200 AD. The meter is universal, a catholic system and the second is still the universal measure of time.

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