So a couple weeks ago Jordan Peterson had the audacity to point out that one of the latest Sports Illustrated swimsuit models was not beautiful. Responding on Twitter, Peterson wrote: “Sorry. Not beautiful. And no amount of authoritarian tolerance is going to change that.” Key details in what followed are the fact that the woman in question is Yumi Nu, an Asian woman who is overweight. Following the (completely expected) backlash of vitriol and frenzied hysteria, Peterson announced that he was personally leaving Twitter, even if assistants would continue posting public notices on his account from time to time.
My friend Jason Whitlock over at The Blaze said that Peterson “misspoke,” since beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Instead, Peterson should have said that the Yumi Nu was “not healthy.” Whitlock wrote: “He undermined a fact with a personal opinion, and by doing so, he allowed the woke to once again dodge responsibility for their real evil agenda.”
I agree that in this current mayhem, what is needed is facts not opinions or feelings, and the woke certainly do have a “real evil agenda.” I also think that Peterson’s response to the backlash was unfortunate (but that’s a conversation for another day). However, on the question of beauty, Peterson was actually right and Whitlock is half-wrong.
What God Thinks Is Beautiful
I certainly don’t think that any women should be prostituted the way Sports Illustrated has been doing for decades. Beautiful or not, women were made by God to be cherished and protected by fathers, brothers, and a husband, not ogled, lusted over, and thrown away when the thrill is gone.
But this is partly because beauty is not merely subjective. Beauty is not merely in the eye of the beholder. Yes, there is such a thing as taste, preference, and subjective appreciation. There is a vast array of beauty in this world, and it’s absolutely fine to be drawn more to some than others. But beauty is still objective. Some things and people are beautiful, and some things and people are not. And some are more beautiful than others. “Leah was tender eyed; but Rachel was beautiful and well favored” (Gen. 29:17). This is the Bible saying, somewhat diplomatically, that Rachel was more beautiful than her sister Leah. This is not merely the subjective opinion or preference of Moses or Jacob or any mere man. This is the objective evaluation of God.
Likewise, Scripture says that David was beautiful/handsome of appearance (1 Sam. 16:12), as was Abigail the wife of that infamous fathead Nabal (1 Sam. 25:3). Likewise, Bathsheba was beautiful (2 Sam. 11:2), and so was Absalom (2 Sam. 14:25) and Esther (Esth. 2:7). In all of the land, there were no women so fair and lovely as the daughters of Job (Job 42:15). God also says that the garments of the priests were given for glory and beauty (Ex. 28:2), as was the Temple (2 Chron. 3:6). Furthermore, God repeatedly commands His people to worship Him in the “beauty” of holiness (2 Chron. 20:21, Ps. 29:2, 96:9). These are not subjective descriptions. God finds certain things and certain people more beautiful than others. When God commands His people to make the tabernacle and the priestly garments and worship Him in the beauty of holiness, He is not saying, ‘Do whatever you like.’ He is assuming that there are certain patterns, features, order, harmony, symmetry that are more objectively beautiful than others.
Perhaps the clincher is the fact that God Himself is described as beautiful: “One thing have I desired of the LORD, that will I seek after; that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD…” (Ps. 27:4). “And let the beauty of the LORD our God be upon us” (Ps. 90:17). If God is God, and there is no other, then He is the standard of beauty. His order, His glory, His holiness, His perfection is beauty itself. The Christian hope is not merely to “go to Heaven,” the Christian hope is what the medievals called the “beatific vision” – to see God: “we know that when He shall appear, we shall be like Him; for we shall see Him as He is” (1 Jn. 3:2).
If God says that something is not beautiful, it isn’t beautiful, even if you really like it. And if God says that something is beautiful, and you don’t particularly appreciate it, who’s right?
Now I certainly grant that beauty seems to be a far more difficult and elusive matter than ethics and morals and truth. But this is partly our collective fault for not exercising these muscles; we have become an intellectually and aesthetically flabby people. Our churches and worship songs and neighborhoods are not beautiful. They are utilitarian, cheap, and easy, just like those Sports Illustrated models. As a Christian people we have abandoned a rich heritage of thought on the objective standards of beauty. Our forefathers spent multiple lifetimes and vast sums of wealth and resources building the cathedrals because they believed in the objectivity of beauty. This isn’t to say that the medievals got everything right. But like the western tradition of justice, we should look back with deep appreciation for the progress they made. Conservative Christians have rightly fought back against the relativism of postmodernism and its current manifestation in woke politics. We have rightly insisted that truth and goodness are objective realities regardless of our feelings or the color of our skin or what day of the week it is.
The Philosophical Trinity
But a remaining weak flank in conservatism is the transcendental of beauty. The ancients understood that all three transcendentals hold together, and if you abandoned one, you were already in the process of abandoning them all. Like the Trinity, this philosophical trinity is inseparable. Truth is good and beautiful. And goodness is true and beautiful. And beauty is always true and good. Think about it: if you let beauty slide, you are saying that truth and goodness might actually be ugly. You’re saying that immorality and injustice might be beautiful (at least in the eye of the beholder). But if God is God, that is blasphemy.
When the last trumpet sounds and we are raised in new bodies to stand before the Throne and we see the Pit of Everlasting Fire and the Devil and all His angels cast in forever, there will be no comparison: all the glory, all the beauty will be on the throne with the Lamb and in the New Jerusalem where the nations bring their glory, where every tear will be wiped away, and all that is ugly, hideous, twisted, and sad will be in the Lake of Fire. If that is the ultimate end of all things, then we are practicing for one of those two destinations now. The Last Day will not be aesthetically random or capricious or merely subjective.
Part of what we need to insist on here is that there is something in human beings that answers to beauty. Conservatives know that objective truth and goodness must be honored in order for sanity and rationality and order to exist in the world because of the nature of God, but it’s the same with beauty. If God is beauty itself, then we were made to love and enjoy and rejoice in His beauty both now and in this world and in the age to come. Augustine famously said that our hearts are restless until they find their rest in Him. But we do not merely find in Him all goodness and truth, we also find in Him our heart’s desires for beauty, for glory.
What is this created world but a reflection of and in invitation to know the Source of all beauty? And in the same way that conservatives refuse to capitulate to woke equalitarianism, refusing to be guilt-mobbed into flattening out every difference in the name of “equality,” with quotas of women or Eskimos or redheads, we must not be guilt-hustled into similar places because “some people think that’s beautiful.” Some people think that two dudes shacking up is beautiful. But it is not. Some people think that two dudes buying eggs and mixing up babies in a test tube is the start of a beautiful family. It is not.
And to Whitlock’s point, our abandonment of objective beauty is part of what is allowing the woke to continue pressing their evil agenda on our culture. They know that we have surrendered that point, and so they flaunt their ugly morality all day long. The dudes in dresses are not just evil, not just liars, they are also objectively ugly. The disfiguring of what God has made is ugly. Extreme versions of this are seen in the transgender mutilations, but the destruction of human bodies through gluttonous obesity, face piercing, and grotesque tattoos all flow from the same rejection of objective beauty. Whitlock is correct that obesity is not healthy, just like sodomy is not healthy, like puberty blockers are not healthy, but that is precisely one of the reasons we should agree with Peterson that it is not beautiful. It is never beautiful to disfigure the image of God.
Yoram Hazony has pointed out that in the 1960s, conservatives made a bargain with liberals that we would defend a liberal public square if we could continue being Christian in our private lives. But this was a Devil’s bargain because the public square always bleeds into private life: relativism in the public square is never truly neutral, and that so-called “fusionism” is what has given birth to Drag Queen Story Hours and the proliferation of public obscenity and pornography. And all of it really is grooming our children for destruction. We should have never taken the bargain, and we really must work to restore an explicitly and unapologetically Christian public square, one that acknowledges that Jesus is Lord of everything. But that means that Jesus is not only Lord of all truth and goodness; He is also Lord of all beauty.
Conservatives should be known for our creativity, for our imaginations, for our contributions to the arts. We are the ones who believe in transcendent standards. We believe the world has a particular shape, order, harmony, and meaning because it was Created by a good and loving God. But as long as we agree with the woke mob that beauty is merely in the eye of the beholder, we will be giving up one of the central gifts of God, one of the mightiest weapons in our arsenal. It is not merely truth and goodness that persuade; it is beauty that touches peoples’ hearts. Why should those who hate God tell better stories, paint more lovely pictures, or make more glorious music? If we want to win, conservatives must recover the objectivity of beauty.
Zach Thornton says
On the whole, well said and appreciated.
One question: you said
“Our churches and worship songs and neighborhoods are not beautiful. They are utilitarian, cheap, and easy”
I’d be curious hear more specifically by what standard this is true. Because if these 3 are objectively not beautiful, that implies that someone who thinks they are is in sin since they disagree with God’s objective standard of beauty, right?
Zach, thanks for the question. I would wager that most folks are not really aiming for beautiful — they are primarily aiming at useful, practical, affordable, gets the job done, good enough, etc. But some of this is a matter of maturity and growing up to discern what is good (Heb. 5:14), and you have to walk before you can run. Some folks may be honestly seeking to honor God aesthetically, and they are making baby steps in that direction. A beginning art student or musician is not in sin for not being skilled yet. But if the well-trained knowingly refuse the “meat” of the Western tradition, yes, at some point they are in sin. The standard starts with Scripture but also includes the fruit of natural revelation and natural laws with regard to colors, notes, proportions, complexity, order, symmetry, harmony, etc. Cheers!