Sorry for the brief hiatus. I don’t quite know what happened. Probably just getting used to work and a new schedule and everything. I have a few “lighter” articles in the works for the next couple of days, plus I’m working on more substantial things for other sites. I’ll let you all know. But now, back to beauty.
Last we left the Beauty series, we were discussing the proper way in which to respond to it. Though there’s no absolute “most proper” way to respond, I used our main Biblical text that we’ve been looking at, and an idea developed by C.S. Lewis to break down our response into two useful categories: contemplation and enjoyment. Before we enjoy, we contemplate. This is not to say we can’t enjoy anything apart from comprehensively knowing it, but it does say that a contemplation and exploration of things helps us enjoy them more fully; and to be enjoyed to the fullest is the ultimate desire of Beauty itself. But what does this contemplation look like in real life?
Let’s recall our defintion of Beauty as the attribute of something that expresses complexity, simply. It’s what takes the complex unwoven strands out there in reality and weaves them into a tapestry that we can perceive with our spiritual and physical sense. The more strands are woven more simply, the more beautiful that tapestry is. So in its most basic form, the contemplation of Beauty is thinking through what “strands” or what “complexity” is being represented in the thing in front of you. So what does it look like? Well, formally, in philosophy, this endeavor is called “Aesthetics” or “Metaphysics”. It’s the philosophical study of Beauty and Beautiful things.
In the real world, for the rest of us, I thought of two ways this could look. First, when presented with something that your senses find beautiful, ask yourself, “What is it that’s actually being stirred in me?” Is it romance? Sorrow? Reminders of childhood joys? That stirring is your soul resonating with the strands that are in the tapestry in front of you. This is what art critics are really good at doing: teasing apart the strands that make up any given piece of art. The second way I could see this look is when you are encountered with something or someone that everyone seems to think is so beautiful but you just don’t get it. Maybe it’s the Mona Lisa. You may think: “Yeah, it’s a good painting, but what’s the big deal?” Maybe it’s some piece of abstract art that everyone else is swooning over but you. Maybe it’s a book, poem, or song you just don’t understand. In this case, I would encourage you to do research, read criticism, and try and understand the complexity behind the tapestry that others are noticing, but not you. It seems like people that know Music theory really well seem to like Jazz and Classical more than others. It seems like trained poets like weird abnormal poetry. The better you can understand the complexity in something, the easier it is for you to appreciate and ultimately enjoy the fullness of its beauty. This is why I would encourage all of you to be very curious about as many topics as possible. It’s not for the sake of more knowledge, but so that you can better enjoy the world around you and see it’s Beauty in everything.
Now, what I just went through is more for our everyday use and understanding of subjective, created Beauty. But more importantly, we must learn what it means to contemplate the Beauty of God. In Christianity this endeavor is called “Theology”. If Theology is (as most people know) “the study of God”, then it by definition is the study of Beauty Itself. This is what Theology was meant to be. It’s the kind of theology God calls us to do. Theology is the contemplation of the various complexities and revealed “strands” of God in order to better enjoy Him. John Calvin talks about this in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He says that if your quote-on-quote “theological study” isn’t leading you to greater praise and enjoyment in God, then you’re not really studying theology! At that point it’s just studying literature – getting a better idea of this “character” named God in this “novel” called “The Bible”. This is why I had to leave seminary. I was in the midst of such beauty and I was numb to it! I was too immature. I didn’t have the spiritual infrastructure to see it for how beautiful it was! This infinite complexity being placed in front of me day in and day out was not leading me to enjoy Him. How many of us live day in and day out surrounded by the objective beauty of Christ and it does nothing to us? This contemplation of the Beauty of God can help us. Just yesterday our brother Marc Savage sent that group text (I have no idea how many of you got it) with this quote from Charles Spurgeon: “There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. No subject of contemplation will tend to more humble the mind, than thoughts of God.”
May I challenge all of us to press in and seek the complexities of Who this God is and how He has revealed Himself? Understanding the beauty of God is of the utmost importance to the Christian, because His beauty is completely pointless. It can’t be manipulated, used, or abused. It can only be enjoyed. Something I’ve learned over time: whenever spirituality of any kind goes awry and goes off track, the Beauty of God is one of the first things to go. The inability to accept the mysterious complexities of God is the beginning of all heresy. You can’t have a right enjoyment of the Beauty of God and be a legalist, libertine (someone who abuses grace), or a hypocrite. Seeking to enjoy the Beauty of God is a guard against all these things. In my reading, one of my favorite things I came across was from a Catholic theologian named John Navone. He says in his book Toward a Theology of Beauty that Christian theologians (which I would argue should be all of us) are people given the task of articulating and putting into words how everything in life is given to us by God. Navone calls this the “givenness” of life and selfhood. This means that all of life is grace – unmerited favor; and that even things that are usually seen as secular (types of visual art, media, culture, jobs, and types of “non-Christian” music) are actually things that “mediate the mystery of the dawn of Christ’s Kingdom, as epiphanies or manifestations of grace. We as theologians [(and I would argue as artists and beholders of beautiful things)] are charged with the task of ushering in and articulating the mysteries of beauty which we will rest in forever.” That’s amazing. He goes on to say that “Theologians [(and I’d say even Christian artists)] are engaged in a dialogue, not only with their public, but with the object of their contemplation.” This should be one of the distinguishing factors between artists that are Christians, compared to those that are not: non-Christian artists can only use their art to dialogue with other people (speaking horizontally) and other art (speaking down). Only the Christian can make art with the confidence and hope that it also speaks and dialogues upwards to a God pleased to see, hear, or watch it.
Now what if you’re hearing all this, but you wouldn’t say you’re a Christian. First, if your interest has been piqued, but you just don’t get it, I’d give you the same encouragement I gave to those earlier that don’t understand the Beauty of things that others find beautiful. Learn about this God. Stick around. Ask questions. Seek answers. Try to see the infinite complexity of this God and how simply he has revealed Himself. Look into how He has revealed Himself and start to pick apart the strands of the incredible tapestry he has revealed Himself as. Secondly, let me encourage you: there is objective Beauty. You heart yearns for it and longs for it, and it is out there. Objective beauty is when the fullest possible complexity is expressed to us. So God – infinite complexity – is that objective Beauty Itself. But people don’t know full objective beauty before they know God. This complexity cannot be comprehended until God changes someone to comprehend it. If you’re not there yet, that’s fine. Pray. Ask God to change you as He has changed many of us. Contemplate this God. Contemplate His world. Contemplate all Beauty.
Why? So we can enjoy Beauty. I’ll see you next time.
Here are the manuscript and lecture that this series is based off of.