Singing Simply For The Beauty

Last Sunday our choir at church sang this beautiful anthem:

For the beauty of the earth,

For the beauty of the skies

For the love which from our birth,

Over and around us lies.

Lord of all, to Thee we raise

This our joyful hymn of grateful praise.

Then our pastor, the Reverend Jeff O’Grady, gave a fine sermon on the creation story from Genesis. What we learn in this familiar story is foundational: God created all of life. He cherishes life, from its very beginnings to its end. He created human beings, in his image, and set them free to enjoy an exquisite garden of surrounding beauty. He gave us beauty to enjoy.

Hence we sing a “joyful hymn of grateful praise,” simply for the “beauty of the earth.” In the end, God saw that just this arrangement was very good for human beings, for all creatures, for the earth itself.

I returned home from church refreshed in gratitude that God loved human beings so much he placed us in a garden of extravagant beauty. Back home, on a rainy afternoon in Pasadena, I settled in for a little football and some reading. I decided to engage a lengthy article in The New York Times Magazine with the title “What Is Beauty For?” I have not found much that is very relevant to my life in The New York Times Magazine lately, but, given the uplifting service at church on beauty, this article drew me in.

The article begins: “A male flame bowerbird is a creature of incandescent beauty. The hue of his plumage transitions seamlessly from molten red to sunshine yellow.” This kind of precise language is accompanied with breathtaking photographs of the extravagant beauty of a male king bird-of-paradise, a male Indian peafowl, a male painted bunting, and many others. Oh, such exuberant, dazzling beauty.

The author, Ferris Jabr, frames the article with questions like these: What is beauty for? Why has the dazzling display of these birds taken its shape over eons of evolutionary history? Did these gorgeous creatures perfect signals of attractiveness solely to attract a mate, and therefore survive? In other words, is all this beauty always about natural selection?

Well, some scientists these days, we are told, are beginning to doubt that natural selection is the whole story, at least when it comes to beauty. This sounds heretical, I know, and there is much vehement resistance, yet Charles Darwin himself “never claimed that it could explain everything.” Darwin actually believed that animals “could appreciate beauty for its own sake.”

Well, this seems to pose a threat to the ruling narrative that everything in physical nature—size, shape, behavior, and dazzling plumage—all evolved with only the goal of surviving. Everything is useful, so the narrative claims. But wait a minute, maybe beauty is enjoyed simply because it is beautiful? Creatures, apparently, have the capacity just to enjoy beauty for its own sake.

It’s not that I need evolutionary ornithologists to give me permission to sing a hymn for beauty. In fact sometimes these various voices need to wrench the beauty of these birds to fit the reigning narrative, a stridency that seems anything but a hymn. But I found it quite stunning that some of these committed professionals, bright and exceedingly well trained, devoting their lives to unfolding beauty for the rest of us to enjoy, seem almost ready to sing my hymn of grateful praise. And some of them do, I’m sure. I welcome them all to such a choir.

What is beauty for? My long faith tradition somewhere thousands of years ago took a stab at answering that question. We have been given this exquisite beauty to enjoy, beauty for its own sake, beauty as a signal of God’s goodness. It can be breathtaking beauty. It brings joy to our hearts. It may be useful, but that’s not what lifts our hearts to break out singing our “joyful hymn of grateful praise.” We sing simply for “the beauty of the earth.”