Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Measure of Beauty

Originally hosted by Christina at Reflections of a Catholic in Formation as Day 14 of the series, "You are Beautiful." Thank you Christina!

Is beauty objective or subjective? Is it “in the eye of the beholder” and therefore a matter of mere opinion? Or is there something higher to which beauty must ascribe? I hope and do think that it is something higher.

The definition of beauty is this: “the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest)” (, emphasis added). Beauty is something that conveys or represents the presence of goodness. I think it can be argued that goodness itself is not subjective. Complete, total and true goodness is God. If beauty is connected to objective goodness, then it is not simply a matter of any “beholder’s” opinion. Perhaps it can even be said that beauty comes through goodness. C.S. Lewis has said, concerning beautiful objects, that “Beauty was not in them, it only came through them” (“The Weight of Glory”).

In mainstream culture, because everything is seen as relative and subjective, it follows that beauty would be also. I don’t know how long the phrase has been around, but I would think that “... in the eye of the beholder” likely arrived with modern subjectivity. So what are mainstream culture’s standards of beauty? And what is the main type of “beauty” most emphasized? In secular society, there is no Divine, unseen standard of goodness, and therefore, no non-physical standard of beauty. To add insult to injury, the over-sexualization of the body by secular culture causes beauty not only to become synonymous with physical attractiveness, but almost requires a certain amount of sexual allurement along with it.

As Christians and as Catholics, we use a higher standard. Unlike those who value only the material world, we have revelation of the transcendent. From the transcendent comes the true value of goodness and meaning of beauty. So what is a beautiful woman? A beautiful woman is, most importantly, a good woman. She embraces the goodness of her femininity, and conveys goodness in what she does. But since our standard of beauty is so different from that which is emphasized in the culture around us, how do we know if we are following the true path of goodness and beauty?

We have the most beautiful things of all to show us the paths of true beauty. We have the Church, our Holy Mother, to guide us. We have the Church’s teachings about the dignity of the human person, the dignity of the body, and the vocation of women. We follow Her teachings because we know they are truly His teachings: Jesus Christ, who loves us more passionately than any human can, and accepts us and takes us back after we have fallen.

When mainstream culture’s demands to conform our beauty to its own become too hard to ignore—as we all know it sometimes does! — we have our faith (and each other!) to help us through. We have the ability to measure our beauty not only visually, but internally, with the help of Divine Revelation. We are guided with “the assurance of things hoped for, and the conviction of things not seen.”*

* Heb 11:1, emphasis added.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Redefinitions and Redefining Away: Religion, Marriage, and Life

My wife is a librarian.  This means several things.  First, she likes rules (she loves canon law).  Rules are very important to her, they help keep things, and especially people, neat and orderly.  They keep them out of places they should not be, like behind the library employee’s desk.  Second, she likes order.  Everything needs to be in its proper place.  Heaven help the student worker who puts a book back on a shelf where it doesn’t belong.  Heaven help her husband if he decides to be helpful, puts away the dishes one morning, and does not put the measuring spoons exactly where they belong.

Whether my wife became a librarian because she liked rules and order, or else grew to like them because she became a librarian, I do not know.  I only know that she likes both things. 

The medievals liked order as well.  They were terribly concerned with the meanings of things and wanted to put everything in its proper place.  I never appreciated this until I read G.K. Chesterton’s book on Thomas Aquinas, The Dumb Ox.  Chesterton remarked that having a proper place for things is a far bigger problem in philosophy than in real life.  When I put a thing in the wrong place in real life, no serious consequences ensue, but when something is not put in its proper place in philosophy, that thing ceases to exist.  If God is just a physical being, a giant physical, humanoid figure with a white beard sitting in the sky, then He did not create the universe and there is no place for Him.  He would not exist.  If God is a transcendent being beyond nature, then He has a proper place, and can exist.  

The same can be seen in a smaller example.  Some have remarked today that they word “hero” is over-used.  In past times, a man was a hero who fell on a grenade to save his friends, today every soldier is a “hero.”  Every fireman, a hero.  In this way, the word refers no longer to extraordinary service, but to ordinary service.  It becomes drained of all meaning.  If everyone is a hero, then no one is.  Heroism, having been redefined, no longer exists.  

The same is true of three other things often not put in their proper place and redefined today, religion, marriage, and life.  If they are redefined, as our modern world has attempted to do, they will cease to exist. 

C.S. Lewis once commented on one absurd writer who redefined religion to mean “what man does with his solitude.”  Today, many would have us redefine it to mean the same thing.  Religion is to be solely a private affair, and when it does, it will no longer exist.  Hence, the United States government would redefine religion to mean that a Catholic hospital, or school, or soup kitchen is no longer “religious” because it serves men who are not Christian.  I pass by the obvious point that others have made that by such an absurd standard, Mother Teresa or Jesus Christ himself would not have counted as religious.  Rather, the point here is that as the domain allowed to “religion” becomes smaller and smaller, religion itself, being redefined and removed from its proper place, will cease to exist, as is no doubt the goal of those who would so redefine it

Marriage too is being redefined today.  What was once a committed relationship (for life) between a man and a woman for mutual love and help for the upbringing of children has slowly been redefined.  The level of commitment required has been lessened by no-fault divorce laws.  The upbringing of children has become optional through birth control.  By such, marriage has been weakened.  At least 40% of children today are born to single parents.  4,000 more are aborted per day.  Now even the requirement that marriage be between a man and a woman is being redefined away.  Marriage has been redefined to be a relationship between two individuals to be kept until one party wishes to break it.  Soon even the requirement that it be between two people may be gone.  Having been redefined, marriage will cease to exist.

Finally, what counts as human life is being redefined today.  It has already been redefined so that it does not include a child in the womb.  Two medical “ethicists” have suggested that a child after-birth does not count as a living human person either, and so now advocate infanticide (1).  Human life is being redefined away.  Or as one writer put it, An ethicist’s job is like a magician’s. The main job of both is to distract you from the obvious. The magician uses sleight of hand to pretend to make people disappear. But when ethicists do it, people disappear for real”(2).  

Life, religion, and marriage are today being removed from their proper places, as forces attempt to redefine them.  And as they are redefined, they are redefined away.  They will no longer exist. As one atheist philosopher said of morality without God, “the words remain, but the meaning is gone.”  So it is here.  The words, “religion,” “marriage,” and “life” will remain, but the meaning will be gone.