Toward an Orthodox Theology of Beauty
Why is beauty important to the worship of the divine?
First, beauty is a metaphor for God Himself
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 turns ugly. God is beautiful. God creates beauty and beautiful things. 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
Beauty and nature go together, but beauty and Christ’s Church are to be even a greater example of the glory of God than that which is seen in the natural world. Christ's Church is greater and more permanent than the natural world. The natural world will one day be recovered and exalted, but the church itself is eternal, so the eternality of beauty and the eternality of the Church go handsomely together. The Church is timeless and beauty is timeless, ageless, and enduring. Beauty is also a metaphor for Christ’s Church, because it reflects his glory. The word glory means beautiful. To be glorified means many things, but it also means to be made beautiful. All of God’s children are destined to become unimaginably beautiful. Believe it or not.
Third, we human beings were made for beauty
The effect beauty has on us can be measured and demonstrated. Humankind was created beautiful, and we will become more and more beautiful was 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 human nature. They do not understand its importance before God, nor with 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 direct connections to eternity.
Fourth, beauty draws people to itself
Beauty draws us into a different realm. We spend most of our time in what we call the mundane. When we come to God, it should not resemble the mundane. Our coming to God must point us in the direction of the extraordinary and lift us up from the mundane. Beauty is a metaphor for all that is TRANSCENDENT. Beauty creates an existential experience in the mind and hearts of those who experience it, and it should be employed in the worship of God, who is unique beyond words, and can only be discussed in the most extraordinary ways – even though humble, or simple. A flower, a candle, a song, a painting, a decoration, a pattern, a texture, a fragrance, an idea . . . any of these things can be employed in the worship of God. The more layered and the more textured our worship, the richer and our understanding of God becomes. Not that it must be profuse, but it can and may be so.
Fifth, beauty is not only a personal experience
. . . it is also objectively quantifiable from one person to another – that is, it is a “real” thing not merely an imagined thing. A beautiful “thing” possesses components that are universally valued. Though there may be endless subjectivity to the appreciation of aesthetic objects 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.
Sixth, beauty gives us pleasure
. . . it 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 the endless attempt to make our objects and environments aesthetically pleasing, or aesthetically meaningful.
Seventh, beauty is what we humans DO - all the time
Whether it be 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 the sense of the “special” and imbue our environments with a sense of meaning and enjoyment. Enjoyment is not only legitimate, it is desired and preferred. Beauty gives us pleasure and it also teaches us many things. Great truths are often both made understandable and enjoyable through ARTS of all kinds.
Eighth, beauty is counter cultural in societies that tend toward cold materialistic utilitarianism
Beauty rebels against the threat of chaos, meaninglessness 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 God. Beauty recreates us and gives us hope that chaos and darkness, disorder and ugliness, horror and despair 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, just as Truth, is ultimately perceived by the heart as well as the mind.
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, no gardens for prayer, no décor in our churches, no aesthetic considerations for 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 Divine. Beauty is the universal language of the heart, and it transforms every substance – it utilizes every element 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 out 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 is pleased by such things, and that he intends the worship of himself to be done so in beautiful ways. Study how God instructed Moses to employ Bezelel and his companions to design the aesthetic elements of the tabernacle. Consider the descriptions of Solomon's temple and all of it's details. Ponder the images of beauty described in the Psalms. Notice the language of the Bible and all of the beauty of its literary forms. All of these things will show clearly how perfectly linked beauty is with worship. Remember your own experiences when you have enjoyed God's presence in a beautiful place, or have been moved by the aesthetic qualities of an environment in which you were praying, singing, meditating or were caught up in the adoration of God. All of our places of worship, including our liturgy and how it is entered into ought to be carefully and thoughtfully constructed for beautiful. We must never forget that evangelism and discipleship are enhanced greatly when they are carried out within the context of rich aesthetics. The Church of Christ has long known this. It is only in the twentieth century that we seem to have forgotten what our ancient parents knew full well.
Twelfth, beauty is essentially spiritual by its nature
A purely secular evolutionary scientist might be compelled to say that “beauty,” as such, does not really exist at all - not in and of itself - that it is only a phenomenological illusion, an artifact of human evolution, the "brain-state" of an observer; probably developed for our survival over millions of years. The notion of beauty, or the perception of "beauty" is one of those features of human existence that makes us somehow superior to other animals, and helps us categorize and manipulate the environments around us - or some such thing. What a perfectly horrible idea that beauty would be considered nothing more than an artifact of the mind, the brain-state of an observer. But, those who know beauty know that such an explanation is woefully insufficient. Beauty points to something greater than us - greater than this world, and we know it, because we describe scenes of beauty in transcendent terms. We cannot help ourselves. Beauty invokes the desire for a place, a world, a HOME beyond this world. I sincerely believe that our recognition of beauty indicates something transcendent within us, or we wouldn't recognize beauty at all. Further, I think 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 - as truly magnificent as it actually is. The recognition and desire for beauty is one of many proofs of the human soul and of the existence of God. An orthodox theology of beauty would place beauty high on the list of Christian pursuits - just beneath the pursuit of Almighty God Himself.
* Rev. Dr. Daniel Rice is rector of Emmanuel Anglican Church in Seattle, Washington.
The grayscale version of the painting shown at the top of the article was painted by Father Daniel for one of the Emmanuel's portable altars they needed during their church plant in 2010.