Reflections on Moral Beauty

One of the things I enjoy about participating in this blog is the way things written by the other contributors stimulate my own thinking. Jon Holmlund’s post yesterday on “Moral Beauty and Moral Realism” has done that again. If you haven’t read it yet, do so.

In his post Jon describes the view of what he calls the modern moral realist. It is a view that there is objective moral truth that happens to exist in our world and can be observed, but is not the same as moral law because there is no law-giver. It is the position of the naturalist who has presupposed the nonexistence of the supernatural, but sees the truth of the existence of objective moral values. It seems to me that this is a very common position in practical ethics in our society. Universal moral principles are assumed as the foundation for moral arguments about specific ethical issues, but there is no good explanation of where those principles come from. They just exist.

One of the ways for Christians to respond to this position is to go the way of C.S. Lewis in The Abolition of Man and Mere Christianity and argue that the existence of objective moral values that have been understood across time and across cultures requires the presence of a source for those values that is beyond us as human beings and leads to a recognition of the existence of God who is the origin of those moral values that we observe. That is a very good argument that can be and has been expressed well, particularly by Lewis. It leads to an understanding that we have a problem because we do not live up to even our own understanding of those objective moral values. That problem is the one for which Jesus provides the answer.

However, as much as I love a good logical argument in support of a position, the story of Lewis’s coming to faith as described in Surprised by Joy suggests another approach. The thing that broke through Lewis’s steadfast atheism was not primarily reasoning about the existence of objective moral values. It was something he called joy. He used the term joy to describe a longing for something beyond himself that was stirred by things of beauty, by music and great literature. In Psalm 119 the psalmist also speaks of longing, a longing that the commentator Jon mentioned describes as speaking the language of one ravished with moral beauty. The psalmist does not give a logical argument for the existence of God. He expresses his longing for God and a longing for the wonder of his law and statutes that communicate the nature of God and his goodness to us. When we look at the world and see that there are things within it that we understand to be morally good and that moral values are real we can begin to get a glimpse of something beautiful that is beyond us. It stirs a longing within us that is like the longing of the psalmist for God and his law. At first it seems odd to think of moral values as beautiful and something that we long for, but they are. The ugly things of this world come about through things that are done in violation of those values. Real beauty is seen in the love of a mother for her child or child for an aging parent. Beauty is in a neighbor stopping to help a neighbor in need. The beauty of God is seen in this world not just in the beauty of his creation, but in the goodness of God expressed by those who follow the purposes for which God made us. When we see that beauty it draws us to him like the psalmist who longed for God and his word.

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Jon Holmlund

Warms my heart, Steve. Thanks for (once again) expanding on and illuminating one of my nascent ideas.