The ‘Spiritual Music’ of a Beautiful World

A famous theologian muses on why we find God’s creation so pleasing. /

Jonathan Edwards is considered by many to be America’s greatest theologian. Unfortunately, he is mostly known for his infamous sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Most people don’t know the Edwards who wrote lyrically about beauty.

Gerald McDermott is professor of religion at Roanoke College and coauthor of The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (Oxford) At the request of The Behemoth editors, he has graciously agreed to paraphrase one striking Edwards passage on beauty. Nothing can replace the freshness and nuance of the original text. But sometimes when the original comes across as strange to the modern ear a paraphrase in the hands of an expert can help the rest of us appreciate the original. —The Editors

The beauty of the world can be found in its sweet mutual agreements, both between things in the world, and between the world and the Supreme Being. The sweetest and most stunning beauty in the world of nature is its resemblance to spiritual beauties—since material things are only images and shadows of spiritual beings, and spiritual beauties are infinitely greater than material beauties. So the more that something in nature is an image of spiritual beauty, the more charming it appears to us. This spiritual beauty that nature suggests is greater than anything human beings can produce.

Think of the planets moving around the sun. Their orbits suggest their trust, dependence on, and acknowledgment of the sun, by whose power they are made happy, bright, and beautiful. The sun gives the planets authority, as it were, to control their own moons revolving around themselves. The sun is therefore an image of majesty, power, glory, and goodness in the midst of the solar system—as well as being an image of these things among creatures and plants here on earth.

Another way in which the beauty of this world points to spiritual beauty—which is a matter of mutual agreement or consent—is color. Most likely, the green in grass and plants, the blue of the sky, the white of the clouds, the colors of flowers—all of these come from a certain proportion or agreement that the colors have with one another. This agreement is either in the magnitude of the rays, or the number of vibrations that are found in the optic nerve, or in some other respect. Similarly, there is a great agreement or harmony among the objects of different senses—among sounds, colors, and smells—just as there are harmonies among the colors and smells of woods and flowers and the singing of birds. All of these harmonies are probably caused by a precise proportion of vibrations made in our various organs, and this proportion is a harmony of mutual agreements.

The harmonies of shapes and motions throughout the natural world cannot be numbered, but each one of this infinite number points to the spiritual beauty that consists in sweet harmony and agreement. For example, the gentle motions of trees and lilies are designed by God to represent calmness, gentleness, and benevolence in the heavenly realm. But they also seem to speak in their own way. The fields and woods seem to rejoice, and the birds appear to soar with delight. The fields are full of every grace imaginable when the sun shines serenely and without disturbance upon them. At these times, every graceful and beautiful disposition of mind is suggested—such as the gratitude and love of a being toward its creator, preserver, kind benefactor, and fountain of happiness.

On such a calm and placid day we have a picture of a holy and virtuous soul. And the light of such a day—indeed of any day—contains an infinite number of similar beauties. In each of its infinite shades and colors are complex harmonies and proportions that are images of sweet mutual consents between creature and Creator.

The sweetest and most stunning beauty in the world of nature is its resemblance to spiritual beauties.

Some beauties are more visible and easier to explain, while others are hidden as if meant to be secrets. The former are instantly pleasurable, and we can see why, since their harmonies are easy to discern. This is the case for all man-made harmonies, such as the proportions in a beautiful building. But hidden beauties are hard to explain, even though they bring us pleasure. We enjoy gazing at the color of violets, but we can’t say what inner harmony triggers our enjoyment.

These inner beauties are far greater and more complex than more superficial ones. And truth be told, the more complex the beauty, the more hidden it is.

It is this complex and hidden beauty in which the beauty of the world mostly consists. And much of it is in light and colors. Light by itself is generally pleasing to the mind. If it is a rich and powerful light, it is widely seen and felt, and most agree that this kind of light bespeaks a kind of glory and beauty.

We tend to feel this way because of the way light works on our eyes. A harmony is communicated by our optical nerve to the brain, so that the mixture of all the rays of light—which we call white—not only combines all the particular colors, as Sir Isaac Newton has shown, but also brings delight to the soul.

We can even say that each ray of light plays a distinct tune in the soul. So when the colors are pleasing, there is also a kind of spiritual music we hear as we behold the beauties of nature, and see the loveliness of green in the face of the earth, all the colors of the flowers, the rich shades of color in the skies, and especially the graceful tinctures of color at sunrise and sunset.

This is why almost all men and women, even those who are quite unhappy, nevertheless cling to life. They cannot bear to lose sight of such a beautiful and lovely world. They know instinctively that every moment of life has its own beauty—which we usually don’t appreciate, but that when we are faced with losing it, we would rather continue living in pain and misery than give up the chance to see any more of those beauties at all.

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Also in this Issue

Issue 3 / August 21, 2014
  1. Editors’ Note
  2. The True Man

    A fictional account of what’s really real. /

  3. Why the Moon?

    It appears that beautiful orb in the night sky was not an irrelevant accident. /

  4. The Great ‘I AM’ or ‘I WAS’?

    The reality of God’s power today. /

  5. Wonder on the Web

    Links to amazing stuff

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