The very idea of beauty makes many sophisticates cringe nowadays. It seems utterly out of touch with postmodern ambiguity, since the notion of beauty implies absolute standards widely agreed upon that address an objective reality: "That is beautiful." Even the Encyclopaedia Britannica (not renowned for its postmodern skepticism) affirms that "almost anything might be seen as beautiful by someone or from some point of view."
Yet, despite the difficulty of defining beauty, the concept nonetheless is making a comeback. And it is doing so in at least two realms we normally do not associate with beauty: theology and science.
Roman Catholic author Thomas Dubay discusses these ideas at length in The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet (Ignatius, 1999). Borrowing heavily from theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar, Dubay seeks to awaken his readers to the presence of beauty in the world, especially as seen through the lenses of science and theology.
Dubay notes that many scientists judge a theory at least in part by aesthetic criteria. James Watson, for instance, who helped discover the double helix of DNA, suggested that "a structure this pretty just had to exist." Physicists Werner Heisenberg, Richard Feynman, and Murray Gell-Mann insisted that the elegance of their equations pointed to the truth of their theories. Likewise in theology, Dubay continues, beauty—whether the beauty of the earth, of human artifacts, of saints (as "paragons of virtue"), or of God himself—can move us to grateful recognition that God reveals himself in beauty.
Here the Enlightenment meets Romanticism. We need to be accurate, comprehensive, and logically rigorous to properly perceive the way things are. But we should also pay attention to the ...