Some of Western civilization’s greatest works of art are housed in the Vatican Museums. Museum benefactors say that part of their mission is to promote “evangelism through beauty.”1 Thus, they are expressing an aesthetic argument that can be made for God’s existence. One way to frame this argument is to reason that God’s existence provides the best explanation for the world’s beauty.
Let’s briefly explore the topic of aesthetics and a Christian approach to the subject. Then we’ll look closer at an aesthetic argument for God.
Aesthetics involves the study of beauty, taste, and art. It asks questions like: What defines beauty? Is beauty merely in the eye of the beholder? Is there an objective basis for evaluating the beautiful?
Philosophers ask further aesthetic questions like: Why do human beings have an aesthetic and creative sense? How is aesthetic value related to moral values and to other focal points of one’s worldview such as God, ultimate reality, and knowledge?
Aesthetics and Christianity
Historic Christianity affirms that God is the source of all beauty either through direct creative acts or through human beings’ creations as divine image bearers (Latin: imago Dei). So God as Creator is not only a Designer and Engineer of the world’s intelligibility but he’s also a playful and skillful Artist.
When it comes to promoting the truth and desirability of the Christian worldview, aesthetics seems to be underutilized, maybe especially among evangelical Protestants. But doctrine and theology place limits on what constitutes an appropriate use of religious art, particularly in church and especially in a worship service. Thus, in Christendom, Orthodox, Catholics, and Protestants have different standards concerning how they approach, evaluate, and use aesthetics.
An Aesthetic Argument for God
One way of making the aesthetic argument for God is by proposing that beauty fits better in a world with God than in a world without God. For example, the secular worldview of naturalism says that God does not exist and that life in this world is the product of mindless, unguided natural evolutionary processes. But according to naturalism, evolution runs exclusively on the track of survivability. So how does the mechanism of naturalistic evolution driven by survivability produce artistic beauty whenaesthetics doesn’t seem to contribute to survivability? Put another way, why so much beauty and creatures that can appreciate beauty when beauty doesn’t contribute to human survival? This is known as the problem of nonutilitarian or nonuseful values: beauty does not seem to be survival-conducive.
In evaluating this argument, consider the words of Christian philosopher William C. Davis:
“If everything (including humanity) is the result of random, impersonal forces which encouraged only survival, then it seems highly unlikely that the process would yield organisms (humans) which recognized values like these [artistic beauty] which aren’t survival-conducive.”2
Davis adds this important point as he contrasts naturalism and theism:
“But values like these [artistic beauty] are what we would expect if humans (and the human environment) were created by a personal, loving, and beauty-valuing God. God’s existence is a much better explanation for the existence of nonutilitarian value than any explanation without God.”3
Christian philosopher Paul Copan makes a similar case for beauty fitting better in a theistic world than in an atheistic world dictated by the forces of naturalistic evolution:
“[I]mpressive natural beauty is in no way linked to survival. So why think this overwhelming beauty should exist given naturalism? Why isn’t everything functional, monotonously textured, and a battleship-gray color?”4
Copan then appeals to the human aesthetic element:
“And why should (human) creatures exist who can admire and appreciate the world’s loveliness and majesty? And why do scientists prefer elegant or beautiful theories, often without observational support?”5
Christians and other theists are not the only ones who find this argument persuasive. Consider the remarks of skeptical philosopher Paul Draper:
“[T]heism is supported by the fact that the universe contains an abundance of beauty.”6
And the critical human aesthetic element is not lost on Draper:
“[A] beautiful universe, especially one containing beings that can appreciate that beauty, is clearly more likely on theism than on naturalism.”7
Beauty as a Pointer to God
The aesthetic argument for God’s existence proposes that an abundance of beauty and the human capacity to appreciate beauty fits better in a world with God than in a world without God that is driven by mere survivability. Thus, beauty may best be explained as a pointer to God. Because all people seem to be attracted to some form of beauty, the aesthetic case for God may be an underutilized apologetics gem.
May we be motivated to appreciate the beauty all around us and to discuss its origin with skeptics who also see that beauty.
Reflections: Your Turn
While I am especially moved by the historical art of Christendom, my wife Joan is drawn to the beauty of nature (e.g., natural parks). What form of beauty do you find most appealing?
- For more about aesthetics within the context of the Christian worldview, see chapter 1 of my book A World of Difference: Putting Christian Truth-Claims to the Worldview Test.
- “Inside the Vatican Museums,” EWTN Vaticano Special, YouTube, December 31, 2017; youtube.com/watch?v=xg8SVfl40NU.
- William C. Davis, “Theistic Arguments,” in Reason for the Hope Within, ed. Michael J. Murray (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 39.
- Davis, “Theistic Arguments,” 39.
- Paul Copan, Loving Wisdom: Christian Philosophy of Religion (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2007), 110.
- Copan, Loving Wisdom, 110.
- Paul Draper, “Seeking but Not Believing: Confessions of a Practicing Agnostic,” in Divine Hiddenness: New Essays, eds.Daniel Howard-Snyder and Paul K. Moser (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2002), 204.
- Draper, “Seeking but Not Believing,” 204.