This is the first part in my series going through the different ideas in the manuscript I wrote for a recent message I gave at Epiphany Fellowship’s monthly ministry “First Friday Fundamentals”. Upcoming topics include what Beauty is, how science reveals Beauty, why we find some things/people unattractive, and the nature of physical beauty. This first part lays out a theological and psychological understanding for why we long for beauty in the first place and how even that longing can get derailed because of our fallenness, finitude, and sinfulness. Also, I made a Web Album of pictures I took from Calton Hill. They can never do it justice, and they look really anticlimactic, I know, but just trust me, God met me there. I also linked relevant references in the manuscript to their appropriate pictures.
[Bold: things I had time to say // Regular: things I didn’t have time for]
In the Summer of 2006 I spent some time studying Creative Writing abroad at the Glasgow School of Art in Glasgow, Scotland. It was amazing in many ways. It was the first time I’d ever been out of the country. I saw things, met people, and went places I only could have dreamt of seeing, meeting, or going. One particularly memorable highlight: I had my first beer ever in a Scottish pub, July 4th, during the World Cup. The third week or so into the program, we had a free weekend so I decided to spend the weekend in Scotland’s capitol, Edinburgh. On Sunday I found a church and attended this amazing service. Afterwards, I just started walking around the city. I ended up following my map to this place called “Calton Hill.“ I walked in the shade of the tress around the base of the hill and found these little stairs to my right. I followed those stairs and as I reached the top, the trees broke just right, and the light fell so precisely, and I turned at just the right angle that I suddenly found myself standing above the entire city of Edinburgh looking out for miles. As I turned around 360 degrees, I could see the ocean on one side, the city on the other, and the giant hill to my left a mile or so away called Arthur’s seat that they say figures into the King Arthur legend. [Click Here for the Web Album]
I began to cry almost immediately. One thing you’ll realize about me over time: I’m either the most rational romantic or the most romantic rational. To the charismatics in an old church of mine in Richmond I was the cold, dead theologian. To the seminarians up here I was the feely, emotional charismatic. They’re probably both right. But regardless, I broke down on top of this hill because I was staring at the most beauty I’ve ever seen. I felt small, I felt sinful, I felt worshipful, and I felt the presence of God more tangibly in those few hours I spent on top of that hill than at any other moment of my life. At the very same time I felt the most complexity and simplicity of emotions. I was so at peace, yet I wanted to scream.
So why is it that beauty draws those sorts of things from us? What is it anyway? How do we know what is beautiful and how to respond to it? We live in a world of such paradox. Pain and ugliness are the primary soundtrack of our lives, it seems, and yet most of us don’t live in a constant state of despair. We seem to live off those little oases of beauty in life. So how do we understand what beauty is and how it works in the midst of the seeming vanity of all life? Well, there was another man in history that pondered these things and recorded them in the book of the Bible we know as “Ecclesiastes”. He looked out on his own existence and the nature of life and saw it for what it was: full of useless strivings and the vain repetitions of repeated history as all reality just keeps turning, turning, turning. We know him today by the Hebrew word for “Speaker” or “Preacher” and that is what he does. In the text we’ll be in he tells us about life and beauty and how these things relate.
The Text (Ecclesiastes 2:22-3:15)
Read 2:22-24 | verse 24, as the Hebrew literally says it, and how it can legitimately be translated, reads: Nothing is better unto mankind than that he should eat and drink and see his soul as beautiful in the midst of his toil.
Read 2:25-26 | The “toil and striving of the heart” the writer talks about here is the work that we do in light of our deepest desires. It’s the pursuits to fulfill all we want and all we long for. It is those pursuits that can never be accomplished, those longings that can never be fulfilled. It’s the deepest drives within us that motivate everything we do. The writer says that these desires, these strivings can never be satisfied. We can try all we want, but no matter what, that pain and vanity will always be the constant state of our lives. But why? Why is it so vain to work so hard at this?
Read 3:1-8 | You see, it’s vain because all things already have their proper predetermined season. Everything you work to accomplish will only come in it’s appointed season for you, and everything you work to avoid will always come in its appointed season for you. That is why our toil is all in vain. But yet we strive anyway. So why do we still strive in this life? The Preacher asks this very same question: What gain has the worker from his toil? He then tells us that he thinks that God has given him a special perspective to give us some insight on why we do (and should do) the strivings that we do. He says: I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He says that he thinks he sees it. He has looked out over history and life and he thinks he sees why it is we strive. Though it’s in vain, God still births something in us to toil. The Preacher has seen the proper striving that God has given humans to do. So what is it? Well, his answer to that is our main text tonight.
Read 3:9-15 | The writer says I have seen the business that God has given to the children of man to be busy with. He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from beginning to end. Does anyone else see how weird this sounds? The writer says this is the business of man and then goes on to talk about God doing things and what we can’t do. So what’s going on? This is what I think the writer is saying: God has a picture of what a good and beautiful world looks like and He is forming this world into that picture as he is making all things beautiful. This beautiful world is an Infinite, eternal one. So, He has put eternity into our hearts, or in other words, put a deposit of this eternal beautiful world in our hearts, causing us to long for it. This seems to be so we can recognize the beauty that God is making while not seeing the exact mechanisms that God is using to do it. It forces us to enjoy what God is doing while still having to trust Him rather than trying to predict Him. Apparently the business of man, then, is to see, recognize, and enjoy the beauty God is doing. But, in our sinfulness, we don’t like not being able to find out what God is doing from the beginning to the end, so we like to form our own pictures in our heads of what a good and beautiful world looks like. So every action of every human being is to make the world out there match the world in their head. The task of the Christian, then, is to make the world they want in their head match the world the God has placed a longing for in their heart. The rest of our text describes what this looks like, so we’ll get to that later when we talk about how we respond to beauty. But let’s first get down a definition of Beauty.
And that, my friends, is for next time . . . Here are the audio and manuscript links, as promised: