Why Do I Like Monet, Mozart and McCartney?: Aesthetics and Ktisis

Delphi: Apollo Hymn Inscription Music was a key element of ancient Greek religion. First performed between 138 BCE and 128 BCE, this inscribed hymn to Apollo includes notations for the melody between the lines of the text.

Delphi: Apollo Hymn Inscription (first performed between 138 BCE and 128 BCE)
Music was a key element of ancient Greek religion. Between the lines of the text this inscribed hymn to Apollo includes notations for the melody . (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

What is on your playlist? On my phone I have a selection of my favorite music; it includes performances and compositions by Eric Clapton, Dave Brubeck, Waylon Jennings, Mozart, the monks of the Monastery of St. John the Theologian on Patmos, Vince Guaraldi, Handel, and many others (including the four lads from Liverpool). Why do I like all this music? The short but incomplete answer to that question is that I find beauty in them. That answer is incomplete because it begs the question, “What is beauty?” Although any answer to that question will be at least partially subjective, students of aesthetics have discovered that our sense of beauty is not purely idiosyncratic; our aesthetic sense appears to provide a bond that is a common heritage of humanity.

In the October 2015 issue of the BBC Music Magazine, Marcus du Sautoy (Professor of Mathematics and Fellow of New College, Oxford) discusses the relationship between music and mathematics. What we find appealing in music corresponds to mathematical constructs in remarkable ways. The elements of the Fibonacci Sequence are integral to the rhythm of Indian music and are evident in the works of Bartók and of Debussy. Olivier Messiaen composed a piece (Île de Feu 2) whose chromatic structure corresponds to the symmetry of an eleven-dimensional object (the Mathieu group M12). Although its definition may be elusive, “beauty” is real; perhaps “beauty” resides in the vicinity of the number eight!

As suggested by Du Sautoy and Messiaen, one element of beauty is symmetry. In a work dedicated to the reigning emperor, Augustus Caesar, Vitruvius identified symmetry as one of the fundamental principles of architecture (On Architecture 1.2.1). According to Vitruvius, beauty in architecture is present “when the appearance of the work is pleasing and in good taste, and when its members are in due proportion according to correct principles of symmetry” (On Architecture 1.3.2; Oxford University Press, 1914). A perceived correspondence between the symmetries of the human body and the appropriate symmetries of a temple (On Architecture 3.1) is reflected in Leonardo da Vinci’s anatomical drawing known as “Vitruvian Man.”

An interest in symmetry has infiltrated the scientific wing of the academy. In a study published in 2008, British researchers determined that people find more symmetric bodies to be more attractive (“Fluctuating Asymmetry and Preferences for Sex-Typical Bodily Characteristics,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, vol. 5, no. 35 [Sep 2, 2008], pp. 12938-12943). If “attractiveness” is deemed too subjective to establish the fundamental character of symmetry, a moment in the history of particle physics relieves such concerns. In 1962, after examining the properties of a set of nine particles exhibiting SU(3) symmetry, Murray Gell-Mann predicted the existence of a tenth particle, needed to confirm/complete the symmetry of the set. “Shortly thereafter the new particle, called the Ω-, was indeed discovered” (Stephen M. Barr, Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, 99).

Istanbul (Constantinople): Ayia Sophia mosaic Since the early 14th century, worshipers have admired the beauty of the Byzantine mosaic of Jesus Christ in the Ayia Sophia cathedral. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

Istanbul (Constantinople): Ayia Sophia mosaic
Since the early 14th century, worshipers have admired the beauty of the Byzantine mosaic of Jesus Christ in the Ayia Sophia cathedral. (Photograph by Warren Johnson)

Does the pervasiveness of symmetry demonstrate an underlying metaphysical quality of the kosmos? The scientists who established the connection between symmetry and the perception of attractiveness offered a mundane evolutionary explanation for their results. They suggested that a more symmetrical body is perceived (unconsciously) to be more healthy and, therefore, the more symmetrical potential mate is identified as a more desirable partner in terms of the number and survival potential of offspring (“Symmetrical Bodies Are More Beautiful to Humans,” National Geographic News, August 18, 2008, http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2008/08/080818-body-symmetry.html). While that explanation might account for their experimental findings, evolutionary concerns would seem to have no relevance to the prediction and discovery of the Ω- particle. This structure of the “system” of subatomic particles led Stephen Barr to suggest that when we encounter symmetry and beauty in art and in the laboratory we are perceiving “the mind of an artist at work far above the level of our own minds” (Modern Physics and Ancient Faith, 104).

N. T. Wright, New Testament scholar and retired Bishop of Durham (Church of England), arrived at a similar conclusion. In the opening chapters of Simply Christian, he discussed four concepts: justice, the spiritual sense that seems common to much of humanity, the necessity of human relationships, and the appreciation of beauty. He identified each of these matters as the “echo” of a distant voice that is seeking to communicate with us. According to Wright, if we will attend to that voice, we will discover that we are encountering God.

Vienna, Austria: St. Stephen's Cathedral (Photograph by Warren Johnson, May 2007)

Vienna, Austria: St. Stephen’s Cathedral
(Photograph by Warren Johnson, May 2007)

I lack the musical sophistication to explain why I find beauty in Beethoven and in bluegrass music; nevertheless, I know the sense of awe that accompanies a direct encounter with beauty. Once, during an overnight stay in Vienna, Austria, I entered St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a Gothic edifice in the heart of that city. Though I had visited the cathedral previously, on this occasion I found myself speechless. White cloths had been draped from floor to ceiling along the nave, enhancing the sense of symmetry in the appearance of the sanctuary and emphasizing the perception that the walls soared up to heaven itself. A similar sensation occurred on my first hearing of Samuel Barber’s “Agnus Dei.” Reflecting on such moments, I am reminded of the words of the psalmist:

Be still, and know that I am God;

I will be exalted among the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth

(Ps 46:10, NIV 1984)

The substantial reality of beauty in the kosmos can be debated; like faith, a recognition of beauty cannot be imposed on another person. The essential reality of beauty in Creation cannot be denied; ktisis transcends kosmos and the beauty of Creation is a whisper of the presence of the Creator in his ktisis.


In the Eye of the Beholder


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As we end the month of February, I was looking back at Valentine’s Day thinking about the different ways we show our feelings for our “Valentine”.

  • From flowers and candy to special meals
  • From stolen glances to poetry
  • From running 5Ks to icy dips in the water.

One event in New York featured literary speed dating at a bookstore.  To each his own…

What makes one thing attractive to one person, but completely different to others?
Some like blond hair with blue eyes, others dark hair with brown eyes.

Skinny as a rail or pleasantly plump? Tall, dark and handsome or sensitive and quiet?

We have mindsets in our lives about things like attraction. These mindsets are shaped by our upbringing, our heritage, and our culture.

Were you feeding cows or taking violin lessons after school? Were you playing baseball or lacrosse?

These influences as we grow help shape our preferences. Our minds becomes “set”.

mri brain scan

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There is brain chemistry involved.

  • Oxytocin may be involved with attraction and bonding.
  • Serotonin affects our moods and emotion.
  • Dopamine influences reward and pleasure.

But our experiences growing up have a major role in shaping our mindsets utilizing these chemicals in the brain.

Once our minds are set can we change them?

I would say yes. We have to look at the world from another perspective. Walk a mile in their shoes…so to speak. Then we have to ponder the other perspective. Is it worth changing my mindset?

If we hold to a biblical worldview, then there are a lot of “mindsets” that need to be adjusted. Many of our natural tendencies need to be regulated.

Our perspectives need to align with biblical principles.  Jesus brought a new way of thinking about Heaven and worship and earthly relationships. He spoke to religious people who held to one mindset, but needed to expand and change their mind.

Learn Relearn

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The bible says we are to be transformed by the renewing of our minds.
We must exercise our brains. Meditate on the new settings. Set your minds on things above… Dwell on the important things. Whatever is pure, lovely …

Changing a mindset is difficult. We must step out of our comfort zones, boundaries put there by our mindsets.

We may acquire a new taste for food or music by trying new ideas. We might discover a new level of attraction to those around us. Maybe a deeper attraction to our spouse.

We might develop a closer fellowship with God. At the very least by adjusting our mindsets, we would discover beauty in unexpected areas of our lives.