More than once, especially during my teenage years, I told my friends how great I thought some music was, and I was bewildered that they did not share my opinion! What could explain our difference of opinion, when the quality of the music seemed so obvious to me?
Nowadays, many people think that truth is relative. To say that truth is relative is to say that the truth of a proposition is not determined by how the world is. If truth is relative, then truth is not as an object for the knower, but rather stems from the collective opinion of a culture or society, or from the judgment of the knower. In other words, if truth is relative, then the knower not only gets to offer an opinion about whether a proposition is true, but somehow determines the truth of the proposition.
There are good reasons to reject relativism about truth, especially that it results in contradictions. For example, suppose that a proposition is true according to my culture (e.g., “It is true that genocide is wrong”), but according to your culture the same proposition, taken in the same sense and at the same time, is not true (i.e., “It is not true that genocide is wrong”). In this case, it seems clear that our cultures cannot both be correct. Presumably we would all like to take the position that genocide is wrong no matter what the broad opinion of a culture may be.
Furthermore, from a biblical perspective, the objectivity of truth is a given. Jesus said, “[Y]ou will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” God obligates all people to learn the same truth (2 Thessalonians 2:13).
So it is easy to make a common-sense and biblical case for the objectivity of truth. But what about the objectivity of beauty? Is it possible to make an argument that any right thinking person should believe (or at least be persuadable) that an object of the senses or of the mind is beautiful? Or, is beauty purely a matter of taste? If so, then we have no more reason to expect someone to appreciate an instance of beauty than we have to expect someone to like a particular brand of coffee. Many people seem to think that all judgments of beauty must be pure matters of taste, and that it’s impossible to argue with someone about the beauty of something like song or a mathematical theorem.
It is important to reflect on our judgments of beauty, for at least two reasons: First, the Bible discusses beauty in a number of contexts (see Matthew 23:27; Acts 7:20; Romans 10:15). God assesses some things as being beautiful, but not others (e.g., Genesis 29:17; Deuteronomy 21:11; Isaiah 5:9). If beauty is purely subjective, and standards of beauty vary from one person to the next, then we have no explanation as to how our notions of beauty could correspond to God’s. A second reason why we should think carefully about our judgments of beauty is that we often want other people to agree with us about the beauty of objects. We find it hard to understand how a friend could not appreciate the beauty of this piece of music as we do. Is it vain for us to think this way?
In the next article, I will make some progress toward answering this pressing question of the objectivity of beauty.