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.

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