Friday, September 18, 2009

Reflections on Beauty

There are many defects of the modern mind, but surely one of the most serious is its being conditioned to prize mere functional utility at the expense of beauty. When we consider the value of something, we almost always do so in terms of its usefulness. What’s it good for? What function does it perform? Is it efficient?

The question we rarely seem to ask is, “Is it beautiful?” How often do we purchase something simply for the pure aesthetic delight we take in it? Are we not inclined to think it a waste of money?

Yet God has given us senses that appreciate beauty – sights, sounds, and smells that have a pleasing effect. Sadly, however, Christians often fail to cultivate their aesthetic sense. It is thought to be unspiritual to “waste time” on such things. But God’s delight in things beautiful is displayed in his handiwork. Think of the varieties of color he splashes on the sky at sunset, the thousands of hues of green in nature (with none of them clashing), the sparkling heavens at night, the smell of honeysuckle, the sound of birds singing their songs to God, the taste of a good wine. To a modern utilitarian it might seem that God wasted an awful lot of creative energy on things that serve no useful purpose other than to ravish our senses. But God was pleased not only to ensure our survival in the world by providing us with what is necessary, but also to ensure our enjoyment of it by providing us with what is beautiful.

Created as we are in God’s image, we are drawn to the beautiful, and unless our aesthetic sense has been stifled by a crass utilitarian brain-washing, we pursue the beautiful, not merely in purely artistic pursuits like painting and sculpture, but in everyday ordinary activities, like how we dress, how we speak, how we set the table, how we worship.

Below are some quotations from various sources that might help us recover a sense of the importance of beauty.

Rachel was beautiful in form and appearance (Gen. 29:17)

And you shall make holy garments for Aaron your brother, for glory and for beauty
(Ex. 28:2)

See, I have called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah, and I have filled him with the Spirit of God, with ability and intelligence, with knowledge and all craftsmanship, to devise artistic designs, to work in gold, silver, and bronze, in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, to work in every craft (Ex. 31:1-5)

Sound theology leads always to the love of beauty. When there is no love of beauty, we may say, reasoning modus tollens, that there is no sound theology (Douglas Jones, Angels in the Architecture, p. 26).

We were created to make beautiful things - in music, in stone, on canvass, in sculpted gardens and in wonderful buildings (Douglas Jones, Angels in the Architecture, p. 31).

Beauty is never ‘necessary,’ ‘functional,’ or ‘useful.’ And when, expecting someone whom we love, we put a beautiful tablecloth on the table and decorate it with candles and flowers, we do all this not out of necessity, but out of love. And the Church is love, expectation and joy… As long as Christians will love the Kingdom of God, and not only discuss it, they will ‘represent’ it and signify it, in art and beauty (Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World, p. 30).

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