Written by Edmund Miller, Teacher Father Gabriel Richard High School
Seeking Knowledge of God Through the Experience of Beauty
French has two ways of expressing the verb “to know.” Savoir is used in the context of knowing a fact, while connaitre expresses not merely a cognitive knowledge, but a deeper knowing through experience.
When reading scripture, we are careful enough to understand what kind of knowing she means when Mary says she has no knowledge of man. In the broader arena, though, we forget about these two forms of knowing. Accordingly, many educational institutions declare they seek a knowledge of God.
However, as their understanding of knowledge becomes confined by the first, more narrow definition, these institutions isolate their search for knowledge of God to a catechism or a theology course. Elsewhere in the curriculum, it’s business as usual. My own bias, though, is that God is alive and well, and knowledge of Him, in the deeper sense of experience, can be enjoyed in the entire curricular experience. It can be so enjoyed through the experience of beauty.
Beauty Must be Like God
An immediate objection might be that the definition of beauty is completely subjective. However, it seems that since God is the ultimate end of our desire, beauty must be something like God. Here the argument gets trickier. Creation shows us that as long as we assume that God’s nature is reflected in creation, then God’s nature has a lot to do with harmony. We think of health as the fullness of life—a fullness which we experience when there is harmony among our chemical, mechanical, and neurological functions.
Ecosystems also have their health: a health which can be distressed by such phenomena as eutrophication, when nutrient runoff causes excessive plant growth. In other words, it ruptures the balance within the system. Or, as another example, in chemistry one speaks of a homogeneous mixture, when liquid and solid particles are in balance.
And then we have the material world, which begins with the atom, where there exists a cohesion between negatively and positively charged particles. From the atom comes molecules and compounds and then the oceans and the atmosphere, the beginning of it all—making evident again that a harmonious relationship is the nucleus of life.
Beauty as a Gift
All harmonious complementary relationships contain some degree of beauty; the richer forms of beauty, however, are those reflecting more fully the image of God. The harmonious relationship among the elements of a great painting has something lacking in the relationship among the elements of a compound. It is a gift. Specifically, I refer here to the gift of self. Certainly, if we are granting that God is the author of life, the author of all the systems and balances and bonds and compounds, then we easily and quickly acknowledge that it’s all free. It’s all a gift.
The higher forms of beauty, accordingly, are those which have the least degree of necessity, the greatest expression of gift. A molecular compound, or even a Ferrari, each has a degree of mechanical necessity which a Caravaggio doesn’t. The gift of self, it seems, characterizes the greater forms of beauty because that gift is most like God’s.
Learn how the Catholic Curriculum standards address beauty in Catholic education.
Edmund has taught since 1991 on college, high school and junior high levels. He has written many articles on Catholic education, the first of which were written when he worked as Senior Staff Writer for the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights. He and his wife, Monica, have three artistic and penniless adult children.