In a recent class I asked my students what the correlation between math and beauty was during the Middle Ages. If you're unfamiliar with this era, for the purposes here, suffice it to be the time of cathedrals. Ultimately, I was asking them to synthesize the two mediums - math and beauty - which, if they'd done their homework, would be best shown in the gothic cathedrals. The immense, larger-than-life sanctuaries, the symmetrically agreeable walls, ceilings, flying buttresses, and pillars, the immaculate detail and intentionality in the ornamentation. All of it... a call to something bigger.
Now, the first part of the 'answer', if there is one, is the that the theory behind math at this time was rooted in the objective fact that there is a perfection to measure toward; a goal by which all equations are held responsible for attaining. The second part is that beauty, whether agreed up or not, is an idea held by an opinionated species - making it mostly subjective. Personally, I'm not one to say that "Beauty is subjective", but at least for the purpose of discussing how people engage it, subjectivity is undeniably present. However, like math, it's striving toward something: perfection. What I mean here is that whether someone thinks that this actor or actress is beautiful, or that one is, or this painting or that one is "better", humans have a standard by which they're comparing what they see to, determining if it "measures up" to said standard.
During the High Middle Ages these cathedrals were intended to appease both the scientifically mathematical bent, as well as the abstract, creative tendencies in others, regardless of which perspective was "better". The goal was transcendence. Specifically, it was to aid the human in transcending their lot in life for the moment, and to encourage them to engage the Beautiful. Now, that's a crude over-simplification, but it's a relevant one nonetheless. And I only say that because the idea of beauty, or perfection, has been perverted by many to represent a detached theology of God's compartmentalized place outside of humanity. But that is not biblical.
And so, we as a Christian culture have slowly stepped away from a biblical theology of beauty, not fully recognizing how to engage it properly. Our immediate [negative] reactions are either some level of iconoclasm (stay away from it because you'll make it an idol), or to treat it like a hobby, (it's not truly something for the mature Christian to devote ample time to), and/or are just filled with confusion or timidness (I think I like it, but am I supposed to). Now, obviously there are some things in our culture that people try to pass of as "beautiful", which should be burned, ripped, and destroyed. Ugly things. Crass thing. Pornographic things. Shock-value things. Odd things. Like Mapplethorpe's, Serrano's, Hirst's and others (I would highly encourage you to not look these up as they can be crude and pornographic).
I think this uneasiness is understandable, and even good - at least until we know how to sift through, and engage it with a holy desire and righteous care.
We have a God who created perfection, and placed us right in the middle of it: Eden. And although it's been corrupted, He's planning on remaking it, and placing us back in it... to enjoy... in person. Furthermore, He didn't leave us without personable, immediate, tangible traces of His glory and beauty in the meantime, but gave us men like Bezalel in Exodus who decorates the Tabernacle, and David in the Psalms who highlights that nature around us is a testimony which resonates the Lord's beauty. He's even given us something not so visually obvious: virtue. We can see this in the person of Christ, in the humbled state that Philippians describes as something pure and good, which can arguably be said as beautiful.
So, as this series will lay out, the biblical proposal for beauty is one of personal interaction and engagement. Such a biblical theology of beauty should identify beauty as being present amongst the living world that we inhabit. However, because of the Fall, we are subject to misguided ventures. We are far too easily blinded to the face of beauty, and in that blindness are surrounded by darkness. This can scare us, and makes us skeptical of it. And so, at best, we think of transcending to it - which is good, and needed at times. Although, transcendence is not all. This "occasional" encounter with beauty forces us to have a Facebook relationship with it: we "Like" it... but don't truly know it. It makes us only want to address it on rare occasions, but then soon after claim it as "in the eye of the beholder," because, let's face it... since we don't know it well, who are we to make claims about it. This is nothing short of a Christian bow-out.
So, my purpose here is threefold:
- Recognize that the objectivity in beauty is theological coherent with Scripture, so that we might be unified as a Church to biblically engage such a vast part of our world and culture.
- Recognize that the God given uniqueness of each person helps them to see said theologically beauty in places that other brothers/sisters in the Faith might have missed it.
- Recognize that such an appreciation of beauty is nothing short of more fully worshipping God in a complete and wholly manner; He came to us physically in Christ, yet has given us spiritual eyes to see past this present context (transcend its distractions) in the Spirit.
Don't worry, this won't be an art appreciation series. Art is just one small facet by which beauty is communicated. Instead, I want to help the reader recognize that "beauty" doesn't have to be so ambiguous, indefinable, or "out there" as our culture has made it. In fact, as alluded to, my purpose is to help us see some of the gaps in our theology. So, here're some questions to ponder:
Could we be hindering our knowledge of God by ignoring this topic?
Could we do a better job at wholly experiencing and being present with God?
Could this be an avenue we've been ignoring for explaining God to others?
Think of it this way, to allow the Serranos of the world to define and determine what is beautiful is like having a student in some high school health class assist in heart surgery. They might accidentally get it right - I'm no probability expert - but more often than not, they will show their limitations.