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What's Justice Got to Do with Beauty?

What makes something beautiful? Everyone has their own favorite objects or places of beauty. I see beauty in the softness of sunlight as it flows through the morning mist and reflects over the still waters of a lake. And I hear beauty when I listen to the counterpoint of interwoven melodies in a J. S. Bach cantata.

I can’t explain why I find either of these things to be beautiful, but there is no question that I do. It seems to me that the beauty of a sunrise must come from its natural purity and intensity. And a fugue is beautiful because of its balance and symmetry. But if they are beautiful for such different reasons, does it make sense to use the same word to describe both experiences? Do they share something real, some single natural characteristic that makes them beautiful? We have been asking these kinds of questions for centuries. In Western civilization, they go back all the way to the pre-Socratics—at least to Pythagoras who thought beauty was a reflection of proper mathematical proportion.

Some insist that beauty is entirely in the eye of the beholder—that there is no natural standard of beauty. In this line of thinking, the experience of beauty is completely subjective, probably no more than a bio-chemical response deep within our brains to various external stimuli. But this sort of thinking fails to explain how most of us experience beauty. For example, there are certain experiences—flavors, aromas, pictures, etc—that I like and enjoy, but that aren’t appealing to my family and friends. This difference of opinion doesn’t bother me. To each their own. On the other hand, when I think something is truly beautiful, I expect others will think so too. If they don’t, I might even take offense. When we perceive an object as beautiful, we feel a sort of obligation to it and expect others to as well. Unlike other kinds of pleasurable experiences, beauty draws us toward something outside of ourselves. When we see a beautiful natural vista, we feel obliged to preserve it from development. When we see the beauty in a child’s face, we are filled with compassion and love and want to protect that child from any harm.

And that raises the question, “Beauty. What’s Justice Got to Do with It?”  This question was the theme of the eighteenth annual national conference of the Lilly Fellows Program in Humanities and the Arts, held at Seattle Pacific University in Seattle, Washington, on 10–12 October 2008, and the essays in this issue were originally presented as lectures to plenary sessions of that conference. We are able to bring these issues as well as this issue of The Cresset to you through the generous support of the Lilly Fellows Program. In “Beauty and Justice,” philosopher Nicholas Wolterstorff considers whether a refined sense of beauty contributes to a heightened concern for social justice, and he recognizes that—in many cases—it does not. In her essay “Beauty and Truth,” Christine Chaney presents beauty in works of art as a form of truth-telling that goes beyond what can be communicated through the written word.  Finally, Benita Wolters-Fredlund, in “Experiencing Beauty in the Music of the Holocaust” shows that it is possible to find beauty even in the midst of one of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated.

Together, these essays help us recognize that our experiences of beauty are more than moments of isolated, selfish pleasure. Beauty serves as a reminder of something that is noble and deserves to be remembered, as a means of communicating a kind of truth for which words are inadequate, and as an expression of human dignity in the direst of circumstances.  We cannot help but perceive the beauty permeating the world that God has created, but we must ask ourselves if we will always respond to that beauty with the justice that it demands.




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