Beauty Will Save the World

[If you prefer to listen.]

On the last Sunday of December, I had a Moment during worship - you know, a Moment with a capital M. I was sitting over there as the worship service unfolded, absolutely mesmerized by the beauty before me. The sanctuary was still decked in Christmas finery. The advent candles were blazing, the Christ candle tallest and brightest of all. The chevron windows were, as always, exquisitely beautiful.

And the music - oh, the music. It’s extraordinary to be so close to the source of such magnificent sound. The musicians for the day were Ben and Elizabeth Beilman on violin and viola. I’ll say this as simply as I can, but you need to know that there aren’t enough exclamation points in the world to properly emphasize this statement: the Beilmans are talented musicians. The pieces they played that morning swept over you in an almost overwhelming wave of sound, intricate harmonies and rhythms reaching into the very soul of your being.

But the Moment with a capital M didn’t emerge until I glanced at Meredith. There is always something special about the face of a friend, but there is something extra special about the face of a friend who is also mesmerized by beauty. And seeing Meredith’s face made me think to turn my gaze to the congregation, where all the faces of the people gathered to worship God were fixed in similar expressions of attention and delight. That was when the Moment blossomed into full capital M glory: realizing that the faces of the faithful were the most beautiful sight in a space so dense with beauty I could hardly bear it.

Beauty matters, I reckon. Beauty matters to humans; our appreciation for loveliness is surely among the characteristics that make us human. And beauty matters to God. Did you know that in the book of Genesis, when God is at work creating the world and calling it good, that Hebrew word that is nearly always translated “good” can also mean “beautiful”? God created the world, and called it beautiful.

Dostoevsky went so far as to have one of his characters claim that “beauty will save the world.” Beauty is one of the three central virtues identified in ancient Greek philosophy, along with goodness and truth. Likewise, when Rudolph Otto, one of the great theologians of the 20th century, set out to explore the idea of the holy, he identified three universal elements in religion: a devotion to truth, an ethical framework, and what he called “Mysterium Tremendum”. The tremendous mystery.

An architect once borrowed Rudolph Otto’s philosophy of the holy to defend the role of beauty in religious architecture. He wrote, “Religion attempts to deal with the ineffable, unknowable, transcendent Other, which we perceive not through reason, but through intuition. Religion focuses on the mystery that is at once awesome, transcendent and fascinating as well as immanent. If we are to deal with this mystery, we must find a symbol for it. And I think,” the architect pondered, “that we have only one symbol available in human experience: namely, beauty. Not a particular beauty, not just the beauty of the “dim religious light,” but all beauty. For beauty is also a mystery - ineffable, unknowable but perceivable, remote but fascinating. We sense it, we do not deduce it. It is an experience, not a rational conclusion. The beautiful thing invites us into a state of wonder or awe, and if we are receptive, this lesser mystery can point, as symbols point, to the greater mystery, the Mysterium Tremendum. Otto’s volume - like most of theology - although it deals with the idea of the holy, cannot evoke in us the sense of the holy. Nor do other treatises on the subject. But beauty can. And I suppose this is the reason that priest and artist are found to be companions in every religion.” He went on to say in no uncertain terms: “If an architect wishes to make a particular environment a symbol of the holy, it is absolutely required that the place be one of beauty.”

Well, that’s a lot of philosophy. I’m sorry - but also not sorry, because even if those words cannot evoke in us the sense of the holy the way a masterful work of art can, they are true. And it was the poet Keats who claimed that “Beauty is truth, truth, beauty.”

I particularly loved that line about the priests and artists getting along, because it gives me the perfect opportunity to gush about one of my favorite things in the entire world, the Saint John’s Bible. It is an astounding collaboration between monks and calligraphers - a contemporary illuminated manuscript. Commissioned and inspired by the Benedictines of St. John’s Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, this extraordinary project was started in the late nineties, and the seventh and final volume was finished just a few years ago. It is truly a monumental achievement. It isn’t merely a handwritten Bible. It is a work of art. The calligraphy and the fine art illustrations - or illuminations, as they are called – are profoundly beautiful, and it goes without saying that the text they communicate is rather significant as well. I fell in love with the Bible all over again when I first encountered the Saint John’s Bible. Words fall short - but, no worries. Last fall our congregation purchased trade copies of all seven volumes. They’re only about a quarter of the size of the original, and they are made of paper instead of vellum, ink and gold leaf. But, they’ll be in the parlor after worship if you want to behold the beauty of the Saint John’s Bible for yourself.

Of course, beauty is subjective. Maybe chamber music isn’t your thing. Maybe you’ll take one look at the Saint John’s Bible and yawn - though if you don’t like the Saint John’s Bible you probably shouldn’t tell me, because I will TOTALLY JUDGE YOU. But it goes without saying: we all have different tastes, different aesthetics. What’s gorgeous to one person is gaudy to the next.

And yet I’m convinced that there is beauty that is not subject to individual taste, just as I’m convinced that there is truth that is not subject to changing winds.

Take, for instance, the story at the heart of our faith. The story of a God who loves us so much he sent his only son to pull us out of the mud in which we had gotten ourselves deeply stuck. You can’t pull someone out of the mud without getting muddy yourself, and sure enough, the only son God got good and muddy in the process of saving us. For a moment, it looked like the mud won. For a moment, it looked like the story would end in death. But then it didn’t. The story ended in life. Or rather, the story didn’t end at all. The story goes on as Christ invites each one of us to step out of the mud and into the waters of baptism.

Maybe the Christian story isn’t one you’d normally call beautiful. It certainly isn’t pretty. There’s betrayal and death and a bunch of things that rational people could never actually believe in. But there’s also sacrifice and grace and so much love.

It’s a messy story. Again, you can't wade into the mud without getting messy. But as one of my favorite writers claimed recently, “I do not find messy and beautiful to be mutually exclusive. As a matter of fact- I ALWAYS SEEM TO FIND THEM TOGETHER. Messy and beautiful hang out together ALL THE TIME. Messy and beautiful are Like Laverne and Shirley or Joy and Pain or Love and Loss or peas and carrots or Family Picture Day and Nervous Breakdowns…. THEY GO TOGETHER. Messy and beautiful are inseparable.”
Recall the words of the prophet Isaiah, words that Christians believe point to Jesus Christ:

How beautiful upon the mountains

are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,

who brings good news,

who announces salvation,

who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”

Did you catch that? Even his feet were beautiful. And they only became more beautiful when they were covered in the dust of Galilee, and more beautiful still when they were nailed to the cross. 

Beauty will save the world.

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