TOWARD AN ORTHODOX THEOLOGY OF BEAUTY
Just Some Preliminary Musings and Unrefined Thoughts
Why is beauty important to the Church; to the worship of Jesus Christ?
First, beauty is a metaphor for God Himself. God is not only beautiful, he is its originator. He is beauty, and we understand beauty best when we start with the idea that God himself is beauty.
Beauty is related to first things. It itself is a second thing, but it points to the only first thing that exists. Beauty points toward God. God is beautiful. Because of this, beauty, in and of itself, is a good thing. It is only when any second thing takes the place of the first thing that it ceases to serve its best role and it turns ugly. God creates beauty and all things that are beautiful are made by him. God communicates with us through beauty. Beauty inspires the human soul because we were made to desire and resonate with beauty. Beauty heals and restores us, because it moves us toward the first thing, God himself.
Second, beauty is eternal and the Christian faith is eternal. The Christian faith is also beautiful, both in obvious ways through its narrative, and in ways that only the Spirit of God can reveal. Because of this, the beauty of the Christian faith is transcendent in ways no other narrative can claim. Flesh and blood alone cannot reveal the beauties of our Faith; these must be revealed to us by our Father who is in heaven. Probably the bulk of the beauties of our Faith lie beyond the bounds of our senses, our rational thought and our imaginings. Our Faith, and its beauty are ineffable, incapable of being described by any human tongue or understood by any unassisted mind. This reality is not lost on the Eastern Church. Nowhere do we see this truth demonstrated more energetically than in the Eastern, Coptic, Russian and other churches of Christian antiquity.
Beauty and the nature go together, but the beauty of Christ’s Church is to demonstrate an even greater example of the glory of God than is seen in the natural world. That may sound strange to modern ears, but even the secular artists of the Italian Renaissance talked about nature being the “teacher,” but the artist being greater than nature. What nature did could be reproduced by nature millions of times, but human beings are capable of endless innovation on the subtlest natures presentations. This idea is not only noteworthy, it is the very wellspring that produces variety and aesthetic invention.
The fact is, Christ’s Church is greater and more permanent than the natural world itself, because heaven and earth will pass away, but the word of Christ will not – and he is the lord, master, and husband of his bride. The world is temporal, but not the Church. The Church is eternal. The natural world will one day be replaced, but the church will be swallowed up into the immortal, subsumed into the one who created it to outlast all the starry hosts. The eternality of beauty and the eternality of the Church are not separate things, they are one thing. The Church is timeless and beauty is timeless. The Church is ageless, and beauty is ageless. The beauty of the Godhead was intended to be seen in his Church – a Church that endures forever – Not that the church will always remain in its present condition; it will not, but it will be changed and brought to complete fullness of the ancient-eternal-vision imagined by God himself in ages past – a vision that planned to create something that will reflect his splendor in ways nothing else can. The word “beauty,” one might say, is a metaphor for Christ’s Church itself, because the Church has already begun to reflect his glory. The word glory means beautiful. To be glorified means many things, but it also means to be made beautiful, radiant, full of grandeur and majestic. All of God’s children are destined to become unimaginably splendid.
Third, we were made for beauty, and beauty was made for us.
The effect beauty has on us can be scientifically measured and demonstrated in every human culture throughout time. Humankind was created beautiful, and we will become more and more beautiful as we are transformed into God’s likeness. Beauty is in us, and we recognize it when we see it in the world around us. Those who are opposed to the making and enjoying of beauty are not in harmony with nature, especially with human nature. They do not understand its importance with its relationship to the Divine, nor do they understand much about driving forces behind the way he has made the world. Ecclesiastes 3:11 says, “He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end.” NIV Beauty is one of our most direct connections to eternity. Beauty is a bridge to the Eternal.
Fourth, beauty draws our hearts to it.
Beauty affects us. It draws us into a different realm and we see it, feel it, hear it, touch it, and are moved in inexplicable ways by it.
We think we spend most of our time in what we call the mundane, even though beauty is all around us. This is why, when a person says they belong to God and live in a hellish condition, I cannot believe that they belong to God, because when we come to God, our responses should not resemble the mundane. If they do, then, perhaps all we have come to is “religion,” and a very poor religion at that. This is one reason why I doubt much of Protestantism, because it is lifeless, austere, bland, blank and bald with regard to aesthetics. How could the God of all beauty call His people into the whitewashed walls of a Calvinist church? How could the God of all creation demand that his people strip their worship spaces of everything that reminds them of his living creation? It makes no sense at all. Calvinists live in fear of pagans and papists, and by such stunted emotions they withdraw into worlds of ugliness and sterility. There has been some progress in recent years among the Reformation churches, but not nearly enough. Their’s is a cold religion, and you need not be around it long before you see its abuses – preaching grace, but never living in the beauty they say they believe in – and “holiness” churches are even worse. I cannot believe these groups know much about God at all – especially those who promote the rape of nature by corporations and modern industries. Surely, such harmful attitudes against beauty and nature are impossible for people under the control of the Holy Spirit. Someone must say this, and say it clearly and loudly. There is much for these churches to repent of; much indeed.
Our coming to God will point us in the direction of the extraordinary, it will lift us up from the mundane, the dull, the boring, the whitewashed halls of joyless religion. Beauty is a metaphor for all that is truly TRANSCENDENT about our relationship to God, his heaven, eternity and his radiant splendor.
Beauty creates an personal experience in the mind and hearts of those who have developed a capacity for it, thus, every wonderful, every subtle, every intriguing aesthetic sensibility should be vigorously employed in the worship of God. Why” Because he is the unique One, beyond mere human language and yet eternally revealed in the Incarnate Word. Such an incarnation can only be appreciated by its rearticulation through sermon, painting, sculpture, architecture, dance, poem and song. Such a scandal as the Incarnation of the Triune God must surely be disclosed in the most extraordinary ways if it is to be comprehended at all; even though those extraordinary ways find humble and simple forms by which to describe the greatest of all human and divine mysteries.
A flower, a candle, a song, a picture, a decoration, a pattern, a texture, a fragrance, an idea . . . any of these things can be employed in the worship of God – and must be. The more layered, the more textured our worship, the richer our understanding of God becomes. Not that it must be profuse, but it can and may be so. The key is not profusion alone, but sincerity and Spirit-led EXPRESSION. We are not Zen Buddhists. We believe in the Word. We speak the Word, and we do it in a million permutations in order to express that which is inexpressible. We do not give up language, we give it over to the Holy Spirit who can speak through the limitations of art and language, through proclamation and prayer . . . speaking in ways beyond the capacity of mere human mechanisms with prayers too deep for humanly crafted words. We soon learn that speaking in tongues, as it were, is not a strange phenomenon, it is the only way we can know that our prayers have meaning on the far side of the veil.
Woe to the Christian who demands that all our attempts at the aesthetic-of-the-Spirit be confined to make complete sense beneath the shroud of human existence. Beauty cannot be fully known if it is chained to the wall in such a way that no one beyond its jailer can hear its sweet sounds. Grace is grace in a prison, without a doubt, but it is a limited starving grace that could transform the entire world if it would only be allowed its freedom to sing, to compose, to speak, to paint, to build, to use its hands, heart and imagination to “MAKE” this world resemble heaven by the same creative Spirit that spoke light into the chaos and transformed the darkness into a cosmos.
Fifth, beauty is not merely a personal experience, it is also objectively quantifiable from one person to another – that is, beauty is a “real” thing not merely an imagined thing. A beautiful “object” possesses components that are universally valued. Though there may be endless subjectivity to the appreciation of aesthetic items and aesthetic experiences, there are specific components to beauty that are experienced by all. The ability for the appreciation of beauty is hardwired into the human psyche. It is the lose end of the string sticking out of the wall of eternity, which once pulled on will draw the one pulling on that string into the realm of the Divine . . . if one does not let go.
Sixth, beauty gives us pleasure – Beauty can inspire and excite, or it can quiet and transfer a sense of peace to our minds. Everything produced within a culture is touched by our own endless attempts to make our objects and environments aesthetically pleasing, meaningful, or compelling.
Seventh, beauty is what we humans DO – whether it is simply keeping our homes well ordered, rearranging the furniture, or bringing a bouquet of flowers to our dinner table, we desire to enhance our environments with things and effects that give us a sense of “specialness,” and beautiful things give us a sense for the “extraordinary,” and imbue our environments with the feelings of meaning and enjoyment. The feelings of enjoyment are not only legitimate, they are desired and preferred. Beauty gives us pleasure and it also teaches us many things about this world, and many things about God. Great truths are often both made understandable and enjoyable through arts of all kinds.
Eighth, beauty is countercultural in societies of ferocious utilitarianism, and it is a weapon against uniformity of values and conformity of personality – a deliberately slippery rope that bind human beings into manageable commodities to be packaged, stacked and sold in the marketplace.
Beauty rebels against the threat of chaos, emptiness and oblivion. Beauty is the voice of eternity calling out to those who go down to despair and destruction. Those who oppose beauty are truly enemies of humankind. Beauty is a servant for our souls that can draw us away from the chaos of sin and into the order, light and redemption of Christ.
Beauty recreates us and gives us hope that chaos and darkness, disorder, ugliness, horror and misery can and will be defeated, in time. Beauty, all by itself, in the right moment and employed by the Holy Spirit, can draw us directly into the presence of God. Our eyes can be opened to God by means of beauty.
Ninth, TRUTH is Beautiful, even when it is shocking or unpleasant. Not all beauty is pleasant. Some beauty is disturbing and unnerving – like standing on the edge of a great waterfall, or being swept up in a great wave of the ocean. The beauty of the awesome proportions of nature can inspire and terrify us at once. Beauty is, just as is Truth, ultimately perceived and valued by the heart as well as the mind. Not all beauty can be deconstructed into propositional descriptions. Perhaps the greatest beauties of all are indescribable, indefinable, and incommunicable . . . and yet, beauty is a very real thing. I do not expect the “materialist” to agree with me, or to understand this kind of talk at all; or to describe such responses to beauty in anything but bio-chemical reactions of human “stuff.” The atheistic materialist shuts themselves out of all the best that is to be had by beauty by their own self-absorbed biases. They never look outward because they do not believe there is anything “out there” to see, and by so doing, they never do see the glory of the world around them, or the excellence of the world to come.
Tenth, beauty is the language of worship. If this were not so, then there would be no hymns to inspire us, no cathedrals to lift our imaginations heavenward, no vestments for priests to wear, no gardens for prayer, no décor in our churches, no aesthetic considerations for the teams who design our worship spaces. High aesthetics connotes worship. Beautiful spaces are evocative. Beauty evokes a sense of awe because we intuit it as the language of the Celestial. Beauty is the universal language of the heart, and it transforms and utilizes every substance, every element, every resource of the universe. It brings every object and every idea into its realm and combines the elements of the universe into unexpected and amazing configurations of wonder. If anything is proof of the existence of God, beauty is.
Eleventh, beauty is highly prized in the worship of God. In the making of the Jewish Tabernacle, God himself called artists to interpret and embellish the design he had given Moses on the mountain. In the creation of the Jewish temple, such care and energy was given to making this worship space wonderful. These are indicators to us that God not only commands such things to be designed and made for his temple, but that he is also well-pleased by art and artisan, by stone, and wood, and skins, and colors, and metals, and how these things are designed, produced, constructed, organized and coordinated in order to give HIM glory. It is clear from the beginning of the Bible to the last chapters of the Revelation of Jesus Christ, that God intends the worship of himself to be carried out in an innumerable myriad of forms – some stunning, brilliant, fascinating and astounding, and some by inspired works of surprising spontaneous improvisation – all valid, all teaching us about the realities of the land that lies beyond the veil of our perceptions – all teaching us that no matter how glorious such things are in nature, or by means of Man’s innovations on this side of the curtain, they are all a mere shadow of the reality that lies beyond – the reality that will one day join with ours when our prayers for Heaven and Earth to be made one will come to complete fruition.
Twelfth, beauty is essentially spiritual by its nature. A pure scientist would be compelled to say that “beauty,” as such, does not exist in and of itself; that it is only a phenomenological artifact of the brain state of an observer; probably developed by means of evolution over the millions of years so that we human beings could become better survivors than the animals and environments around them. But, those who know beauty know that such an explanation is dolefully insufficient. Beauty points to something greater than us. Recognition of beauty indicates something transcendent within us. And, our desire for aesthetic pleasure is a dead give away that we were created for something greater than the world in which we currently live. The recognition and desire for beauty is one of many proofs of the human soul and of the existence of God.