Monochromacy—black and white vision—is the normal condition for most marine mammals, common raccoons, some primates (like the owl monkey), certain species of bat, and assorted rodents. Many other animals (like our pet dogs) have a very limited visual color spectrum compared to human beings. The compound eyes of insects are keyed not to grasping color or whole objects but spatial location and detection of the motion of prey or predators. Non-human vision seems geared solely to survival, and color acquisition and appreciation is not a requirement. This is perhaps one reason why we never see any other species of animals gazing in awe and admiration when the colors of autumn foliage reach their peak.
THE WHOLE DAY WAS TWILIGHT as we drove the interstate through the foothills of the Appalachians in eastern Kentucky, headed toward a family wedding in Maryland. The sky was overcast, but not that solid slate gray kind of overcast that makes the atmosphere a blank leaden dome. Wisps of vapor rose from the hardwood forests toward massive cloud monuments sculpted with chiaroscuro modeling which gave them both depth and mystery. Clouds of every size and hue created a moving impressionistic patchwork of grey, blue, violet, even light ochre; the light constantly changing. Underneath all this the muted mottled colors of the forest canopy dappled, almost waved. The mountains themselves seemed like solid ocean swells. In the distance a slight and brief break in the solid cloud ceiling, and a patch of hilltop would burst suddenly into sunlight flame, and just as suddenly fade to embers. I can remember and write this because the visual experience was accompanied by intense longing, an aching, to be always inside such beauty and never let it go and never have it leave.
THE GOD WHO MADE THE RODS AND CONES AND RETINA that give us our unique vision, also gave us something to do with them other than merely survive: “The Lord God made all kinds of trees grow out of the ground—trees that were pleasing to the eye and good for food” (Genesis 2:9). Contemplating beautiful things is uniquely human and humanly universal. Such aesthetic experience is initiated by sensory perception and awareness—usually sights or sounds, but sometimes fragrances, textures, or a combination of sensory stimuli. When what we see and hear causes conscious delight we are encountering beauty. And beauty both beckons us to itself and then points beyond, engendering that longing for something just the other side of the threshold of our sense and satisfaction; that exquisite ache that draws us out of ourselves and engenders an expectation of fulfillment, wholeness, and finality that almost, but never quite comes.
BEAUTY IS NOT A COY MISTRESS; it does not promise what it cannot consummate. Beauty is the herald, an invitation to the wedding feast. The sign of a yet greater reality to come. As theologian Diogenes Allen puts it, “The beauty of the world, by suggesting some finality, some completeness, and fulfillment which it itself does not give, gently points us beyond itself.” Encountering beauty draws out of us a longing, for what we can barely articulate. For an imagined past we wished we would have had. For a hoped-for future just beyond the horizon of our rational constructions. For a present time and space where all our alienations and anxieties drop away, dissolve, and disappear in an ocean of joy.
I THINK ALL LONGING IS ULTIMATELY LONGING FOR THE PRESENCE OF GOD and all true beauty participates in the beauty of its Creator. But all earthly beauty also participates in the ephemerality—the fading away—that marks the created order in a fallen world. Leaves wither and die, sunsets fade to black, even the stars will eventually turn to cosmic embers. “God has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11), then time, like an ever-rolling stream, bears all things away. Yet, in the presence of great beauty we can see intimations of the depth and mystery of the infinite and eternal God. Beauty alone will not bring us into the presence of God or the fullness of the Kingdom of Heaven. For that we also need Truth.
Next Week: “Truth Be Told” – Part 1: What is Truth?