Had a wonderful hike up Slieve Donard over the bank holiday weekend. Can’t say it was easy (getting on you know) – after rather a lot of huffing and puffing there were fantastic views to enjoy – including the best golf course in the world (last photo).
When have you last heard a sermon on beauty? Or read something on the relationship of beauty and theology? There were a lot of people on pilgrimage up Donard – all doings something physically demanding in order to experience beauty. There is something compelling about beauty – humans are drawn to it and go to literally great lengths to see a beautiful place.
Within the evangelical Christian tradition in which I grew up, live and work, beauty has tended to be neglected. There are probably a few reasons for this. Four come to mind, and these are simply musings, feel free to add your own reasons.
And if it is the case that beauty is marginalised within our lives, our theology, our churches – what might be some ways to recover an appreciation and experience of beauty? Beauty can be found in many places, not just a mountain top experience. Where do you find, and take time to appreciate and perhaps create, God-given beauty?
1) The Revealed Word versus Natural Theology
Christianity is a religion of the Book. Christians believe God has revealed himself in his written Word which therefore has authority above any other source of revelation.
No-one was a fiercer opponent of any form of natural theology (the idea that God can be in some way known outside his self-revelation in Jesus Christ the Word of God) than Karl Barth. His great ‘NO!’ to natural theology insisted that there could be no such thing as ‘theology from below’. Its fatal weakness is to open the door for human hubris to reinvent God in our own image.
Barth was in the midst of a fight against classic liberalism and its utter failure to speak out against the rise of national socialism. I am no Barth scholar but he may have softened his views towards the end of his life. But the point is Barth was essentially right. No natural theology can ‘reach God’. Without revelation we end up turning ‘God made beauty’ into ‘beauty is God’.
The Christian gospel is essentially mysterious, surprising, scandalous and apocalyptic. It can only be revealed by God in his Word and through his Spirit, never discovered in and through human reason – whether through the physical creation or beauty of mathematics (I’m told maths is beautiful and wondrous but have to take others’ word for it!) or whatever other forms of natural theology.
2) Suspicion of beauty: musings on church architecture
But, I wonder, has the flip side of the supreme authority of the revealed Word been an overly suspicious attitude to beauty within much post-Reformation Protestantism?
As if beauty is, at best, a secondary distraction and, at worst, a pathway to idolatry and worship of the created world rather than its creator?
Take the Reformed Tradition of which I am also a part (Presbyterian). The theology of the Word is reflected in the architecture of its churches. The early Presbyterian churches in Ireland were stark ‘meeting houses’ – and most churches today remain plain and simple. The pulpit and the Word is what matters. There is, I think it fair to say, deliberately not much a tradition of the beautiful in the design of Irish Presbyterian churches.
Or take another strand within evangelicalism – that of culturally adaptable communities who deliberately eschew ‘churchy’ buildings, imagery and symbolism in favour of modern pragmatic facilities which, with the best will in the world, are hardly ever beautiful. Beauty, within such pragmatic utilitarian theology, is simply not ‘useful’ and therefore effectively unimportant.
As I’ve gone on as a Christian I find I desire and appreciate beauty more than I used to. Beauty has the power to draw us into the presence of God beyond the world which we can control and manipulate. Dismissing beauty, or seeing it as an optional ‘add on’ to what really matters, seems to me to deny something essential about God, the creator of beauty. And, as a result, such spaces fail to inspire or draw our hearts towards him in wonder and praise. Rather, they can merely echo the narrative of our pragmatic, utilitarian and relentlessly ‘this worldly’ capitalist culture.
A third reason for the marginalisation of beauty is the legacy of the Enlightenment. As Descartes’ dictum, ‘I think therefore I am’, unfolded historically, the elevation of reason promoted a type of dualism between the ‘higher’ mind (reason) and the created order. This sort of Cartesian dichotomy impacted Christian theology in spirituality that neglected the physical world – including the body and the affections.
To be fair, such dualism has a much longer legacy than the Enlightenment – one of Augustine’s negative legacies is still felt in his neo-platonic linking together of sex and sin for example.
Regardless of how exactly these influences developed, my point is that Christianity has a long and an ongoing struggle with dualism. Deliberate focus on and integration of beauty within Christian theology and practice can act to overcome such dualism. God has created us with minds, hearts and bodies and calls us to worship him holistically using all our God-given senses.
4) Sin and the Fall
A fourth possible reason for Christian ambivalence towards beauty is the doctrine of the fall. This world is broken. Sin, death and injustice stalk creation, which itself, Paul tells us, groans for liberation from its bondage to decay (Rom 8:21). Wrongly understood, the brokenness of creation can lead to an anti-worldly theology of escapism – where there is little of value to be redeemed here. Our main task is to ‘get the hell out of here’ and not get too entangled with temporary marginal distractions like pleasure, beauty and the joys offered by the material world.
Towards a Christian integration of Word and Beauty
God is an artist.
The fact that we live in a wondrously beautiful world tells us that beauty is a creation of God. All beauty derives from him. The universal human desire for beauty points us to how we are created with a sense of wonder to appreciate, enjoy and create beauty. The Psalms are full of this link between appreciating the beauty of creation and the worship of God.
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
In the heavens God has pitched a tent for the sun.
It is like a bridegroom coming out of his chamber,
like a champion rejoicing to run his course.
It rises at one end of the heavens
and makes its circuit to the other;
nothing is deprived of its warmth.
Yet the next verse of the Psalm continues
The law of the Lord is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the Lord are trustworthy,
making wise the simple.
The beautiful world is never detached from the beautiful Word.
As someone who ‘deals with’ the Bible every day, the more I study it the more I am struck by its beauty. It is a magnificent work of art as well as God’s inspired Word. Each book is a remarkable literary work in its own right. Overall, at heart it is a story that overflows with images, symbols and themes that draws readers into a magnificent drama of divine goodness, beauty and love versus all that would corrupt and destroy.
In the New Testament we are even told that it is in and through Jesus Christ that ‘all things were made’ (John 1:3; Col. 1:16). It is this beautiful creation that is in the process of being redeemed by its triune creator.
The new creation will be a place of unimaginable beauty (Rev 21-22). What is the image of the new Jerusalem but a vision of perfect beauty in which God dwells with his people? The future outcome of this drama is a restored creation in which love, beauty, worship and goodness flourish in all their all fullness.
All this means, I suggest, is that Christians should be people above all others who love and appreciate beauty. A Christian theology of beauty integrates Word and world, creator and created with hope. Beauty points us to God himself in thankfulness and praise.
Not saying you have to climb a mountain to experience beauty! But why not take time out to search out, experience, create, appreciate and share beauty wherever you are.
Thus endeth the sermon
Comments, as ever, welcome.