What is “beauty’s” primary referent? What exists that gives us the notion of beauty? Where does the very idea begin? How important is beauty? What is its nature and meaning? How do we account for its pervasive presence in experience? How does life change with the waxing and waning of beauty? Is beauty a thing to be pursued and nurtured, as is truth and goodness? What is beauty in religious life? If part of the mission was to be a “beautiful” church, what would it entail or mean?
Like anything good thing, beauty can be distorted, bent, and made into a liar. We can sense beauty’s importance, but we rarely trust it. Any talk of beauty is quickly amended with a “but, it’s not really important” statement, as if truth and goodness could make a world by themselves (and perhaps they can), beauty admitted to the party as a trinket or trite step-sister. Rightly so, to some degree, given the obsessiveness of American culture with its narrow beauty made of youth, sex, wealth, and power. But say “it’s not really important” all you want–imagine a world without it, and somehow truth and goodness themselves turn gray, and seem to be something less than themselves.
Defining beauty can be contentious. Starting with the dictionary, which is where I often start when defining a thing, beauty defined is fairly straightforward:
The quality that gives pleasure to the mind or senses and is associated with such properties as harmony of form or color, excellence of artistry, truthfulness, and originality. (Free Online Dictionary).
Or the quality or aggregate of qualities in a person or thing that gives pleasure to the senses or pleasurably exalts the mind or spirit. (Merriam Webster Online Dictionary)
So it begins with “a quality” in the relationship of its parts to each other and to the mind and sense of the observer, reveals itself in sensual or mental “pleasure,” and leads to some “exalted” state of mind, spirit and/or body. There is something in the object or person or idea or experience that begins in either sensual or mental perception and leads to an experience of the object, person, idea, or experience that “moves” us, “excites” us, “inspires” us in our very being.
That being said, beauty can be hard to talk about for a couple of reasons. Immanuel Kant suggested that beauty has both objective and subjective realities. In our time, beauty is thought of primarily subjective–“beauty is in the eye of the beholder” is the accepted mantra–with the objective property of beauty largely ignored or denied. I always ask my classes whether or not anything exists that can be called beautiful whether anyone is there to perceive it or not.
I don’t know the answer to that, but I lean toward believing, at least in theory, that there is that thing out there that is beautiful though no one perceives it.
Then there’s the constant reminder that beauty cannot be “just physical.” “Beauty is only skin-deep” is the mantra here, suggesting that unseen beauty is something deeper and more meaningful that physical beauty (true enough), but implied is a constant denigration of the physical, a platonic dualism that says what we can’t see is more real than what we can. Sounds downright biblical, but truth is, that’s not exactly what the biblical writers had in mind–they were not gnostics or Platonists. In biblical terms, the created order is “good.” Broken, but good. More about that later.
How amazing that a combination of idea and form can create an explosion inside the heart and mind that points the spirit toward…something “out there.” Alejandro Garcia-Rivera speaks eloquently about the encounter with beauty, ascribing it to God calling to a creation he loves. Garcia-Rivera describes the feeling as an apprehension, all in a moment, of the source of all being as well as the revelation of the vast abyss that stands between the perceiver and the source. So that in the very moment of beauty’s arrival, there is also the presence of an ache, a longing to be rejoined with that source in that far-off country we’ve not yet been to.
Enough for this morning. Bill Hybels (Willow Creek) teaches that many of us have a “holy discontent” that serves as a clue to our calling in the world. For some it may be social injustice, for others it might be the abuse of the environment–there are a thousand worthy things to be passionate about. I don’t know why, but for me, it has always been the loss of beauty and the misguided belief that we can live fine without it, thank you very much.
I am convinced that the life of the Kingdom has truth, goodness, and beauty in it. I recently received catalogs from the major Evangelical publishing houses. Not one book about beauty. Not one.
There are different kinds of poverty…