So I had you there til the end. Of course – you thought to yourself – we can enjoy nature. Of course appreciating Cézanne isn't sinful. But that's some thin ice you're tap dancing on, Owen. I think you might be talking about lust. Or perhaps you don't think that; perhaps I'm just projecting. You see, that's my response. I find it entirely emotionally acceptable to appreciate natural or artistic beauty. Human beauty troubles me more. Why the contradiction?
And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire
And those eyes are never satisfied – perhaps satiated gets the sense across better – by what they say. I always want more.
For everything in the world--the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life--comes not from the Father but from the world [1 John 2.16]
Now these lusts certainly encompass more than just “lusting” after someone inappropriately, but a core sense of the passages I've quoted relates to sexual lust.
So I suppose that's the answer. It might be logically incoherent, but we can appreciate natural beauty whilst avoiding the appreciation of physical beauty (except with our husbands and wives, and then only because we have to).
At the very least it's not a satisfactory answer.
God is logically consistent so if the above proposition is true Scripture will offer logic as to why.
In fact, Scripture actually problematizes our simple solution:
Now the name of the man was Nabal, and the name of his wife Abigail. The woman was clever and beautiful, but the man was surly and mean; he was a Calebite.
[1 Samuel 25.3]
In fact, Scripture makes the situation even more complex: One thing I have asked from the LORD, that I shall seek: That I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD and to meditate in His temple. [Psalm 27.4]
So are we to conclude that there is a healthy balance? Can we safely appreciate human physical beauty without falling into lust? Well – probably. Maybe. Perhaps. In a way. Certainly we can appreciate some beauty – the beauty of those whose gender we are not attracted to – without risk. Logically we can, like 1 Samuel 25, notice and appreciate beauty of those we might be attracted to. But have you ever tried that? Has it worked for you? Have you simply appreciated the artistic excellence of the beauty of that guy in your seminar, or that girl at church, without that appreciation segueing into a careful consideration of just how much sex you might like to have with them? If so, hey, I can't say much in response; well done. You're a better man (or woman) than I, Gunga Din(ette). But I know many of us are weak in that area. For us, about the best advice is that a friend of mine gave himself when he texted me recently: “There's a really beautiful girl on this train and it's very distracting. Any advice? I suppose I should just thank God for making the world beautiful and then get on with something else.”
We too are withering. For now we wait with eager longing for the redemption of our bodies (Romans 8.23) – our bodies which simultaneously enjoy beauty and corrupt it. For now we catch hold of those moments of enjoyment of the beauty of God revealed in Creation – both the natural world around us and our own marvellous created forms. We “visit” aesthetic beauty, but we do not stay there – it was only a signpost. To stay there courts disaster every time, but to follow the signpost to its destination is to enter the Court of the King.
Physical beauty – like marriage, like the Temple – is a sign, not the signified. We were made to enjoy physical beauty partly because God loves us enjoying life, but chiefly because it teaches us about him. Physical beauty was only ever a signpost to spiritual beauty, spiritual beauty which reflects and glorifies God – spiritual beauty that will last and be entirely untainted by sin in Heaven, where we dwell in meditation upon God's original beauty.