My Favorite Fairy Tale

 Some 30-plus years ago, I preached a sermon on Colossians 1:13-14: “He [the Father] has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.”

In thinking about what it meant to be rescued and transferred from one Kingdom into another, I decided to use as an illustration my favorite fairy tale, “The 12 Dancing Princesses.” This is not the most well-known of fairy tales. It has never been made into a Disney movie. But it has been written and re-written and updated in many ways. The story is that there was once a King who had twelve daughters of whom he was very protective. Every night he would lock them into the long bedroom in which they all slept; every morning he would come and release them. But what he did not know was that every night another door would open in the floor of the princesses’ bedroom revealing a stairway to a magic kingdom where they would dance all night.

What Makes Music Beautiful?

If you look under “music” in our resource section, what you will find so far will be music about beauty, songs that you might want to add to your repertoire if you are leading worship and would like the people at your church to think about beauty a little more often. Hymns and spiritual songs have power to shape our imaginations, and so such resources are important. But here I’d like to think about a more vexing question: what makes music beautiful? And – even more importantly – is it possible to communicate our sense of beauty in music with those who don’t immediately share it? 

One of the premises that drives this website is that beauty is objective. It’s really out there in the world, built into the nature of reality. In fact, the world is overflowing with beauty. As Hopkins says, the world is “charged” with the current of God’s glorious grandeur, which is to say, with His beauty.  Problem is there’s so much beauty that no one person can perceive all of it. Indeed, no one culture can express or record or recognize all of it. So even though beauty is objective, it’s also perspectival. 

Theology as an Exercise in Beauty

For many years, I’ve been trying to teach my introductory theology classes through the lens of beauty. Over the last year or two, I started to write down what I say in class, and then started to write down things I’ve never said in class but probably should.  Writing is a wonderful way to figure out what we think, and I’m trying to figure out what I think about beauty – after thirty years of pondering it – both by writing on this blog and by working on a textbook. The two projects will no doubt overlap from time to time. Like today. 

My hope for my textbook is not that it will use art to illustrate theological ideas. I think that is what many people expect when I tell them what I’m writing, and then they’re confused if I show them a section. For one thing, although art may sometimes be a place where we encounter beauty, not all art is aiming in that direction. And much of our daily experience of beauty isn’t about art at all. It’s about the moment when you catch a slight breeze through the window and feel it on your face, and for just a second you become aware of the wonderful gift of moving air. Or the moment when your hand brushes against your sweater, and you touch it again just for the pleasure of its softness. Or the moment when you’re reading the Bible and are overwhelmed by some phrase that you may have read many times, but that – this time – lights you up from within. 

“No Beauty We Could Desire”: An Exercise in Poetic Theology

The Futile Hunt

C. S. Lewis begins his poem “No Beauty We Could Desire” by acknowledging the possibility of natural theology, a path to God that leads along the way of affirmation. This kataphatic approach understands every good quality in the creation as pointing to God, who is then understood as both the source and the preeminent exemplar of that quality. This is an approach to theology that is especially amenable to beauty. I see beauty in the world, and I conclude that God is the greatest Beauty from which all other beauty flows. I see goodness in the world, and I conclude that God is Goodness itself, the source of all that is good.

Lewis acknowledges that such a path can be followed in theory, but argues that it’s not so easy to find in practice.

Beauty, Form, and Euclid’s Elements Part 3

In the previous posts to this series,

I set out to articulate a perspective on the opening of Euclid’s Elements as arising by abstraction of forms that arise from sensible perceptions of things experienced in the real world. I aimed to make the case that certain ones of his Definitions and the forms his Postulates take are justifiable and understandable in light of them as arising in this manner. In this concluding, I consider one further definition and postulate and then finish with how this perspective of the Elements may be seen as an expression of beauty in relationship to in the quest for human understanding of geometry.

Form, Beauty, and Euclid’s Elements (part 2)

In the previous installment

(upon which this part depends), I gave what I feel is the correct beginning in how to arrive at and understand basic notions in mathematics. In doing so, I attempted to re-appropriate medieval concepts of matter, form, and abstraction in order to understand what constitutes the objects and subject-matter of mathematics. In particular, I emphasized the role quantity played and in what way things may be quantified. To that end, quantitative being became understood as substance as subject to quantity. I began here with this understanding and examine how the basic items of Euclid’s Elements are arrived at.

David Bentley Hart’s The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Review Essay)

It takes time to absorb David Bentley Hart’s sprawling and difficult book, The Beauty of the Infinite: The Aesthetics of Christian Truth (Eerdmans, 2003). Most reviews that I have read are full of qualifiers, noting that there is far more to this book than can be captured in a summary, and often admitting candidly that the reviewer has not yet mastered the material.

Part of this is because of Hart’s writing style. He is not difficult in the way that many academic writers are difficult; his writing is not sloppy or intentionally obscure. Indeed, there is often a poetic, soaring and persuasive quality to his prose. His sentence structure sometimes rivals the apostle Paul’s for complexity, but when pondered everything he says is clear. He is difficult because he is holding so many strands of thought together and because he is in dialogue with such a wide variety of thinkers.

The book begins with an introductory section in which Hart helpfully defines his terms and outlines his project. He begins with a question: “Is the beauty to whose persuasive power the Christian rhetoric of evangelism inevitably appeals, and upon which it depends, theologically defensible?” The book can be understood not only as an attempt to answer this question but as an attempt to justify the centrality of the question for Christian theology.

Ravished by Beauty, by Belden Lane (Review Essay)

Belden Lane’s Ravished by Beauty: The Surprising Legacy of Reformed Spirituality (Oxford 2011) is a lovely book. It is a book that uncovers beautiful dimensions to the Reformed tradition. It is accessible, winsome, personal and inviting. Lane does a particularly good job of summarizing some often overlooked and valuable aspects of the Reformed tradition. He dispels many stereotypes about this tradition, especially in its Puritan manifestations. This is a book that I might well use in class to introduce students to the discipline of theological aesthetics in a Reformed context.  

If I were to use it in class, however, I would have to point out that this is also a fundamentally incoherent book. Lane is trying simultaneously to embrace and to reject the Reformed tradition, which creates problems for him throughout. He freely admits to being “at best, a reluctant Calvinist” [p.57] who is “repulsed” by doctrines of divine wrath and predestination [p.207]. This does not invalidate the book, but it does mean that readers need to be attentive.

What is Thinking Beautifully?

What does it mean to think beautifully? Perhaps it means that our thoughts are elegantly expressed. Perhaps it means that our thoughts are focused on the nature of beauty. And perhaps it means that beauty can be a lens for all thinking about whatever is true and whatever is good.

We hope to express things beautifully on this website, and we will certainly be thinking a great deal about the nature of beauty. But the reason for the site’s name is centered on the last possibility: that beauty can be a lens for all thinking about whatever is true and whatever is good, and because it can function as such a lens for all real knowledge it can also be a meeting place for multi-disciplinary conversation among Christian scholars. Engineers and theologians, mathematicians and poets, historians and chemists may not share much in the way of language or method, but all those disciplines and many more take beauty into account.

Form, Beauty, and Euclid’s Elements (part 1)

I want to begin exploring, or perhaps recovering, a way of understanding the discipline of mathematics as one that integrally involves a perspective of beauty, not a “beauty cold and austere, like that of a sculpture,” (Bertrand Russell) but a beauty that irradiates from the form of anything that can be understood as having being. This view that I will articulate will be one which sees the development of any subject-matter as a dynamic interplay of human understanding and the rendering and communication of knowledge. I will focus, as my case study, on what is considered the earliest of paradigmatic works of mathematics: Euclid’s Elements. As we will see, I consider this as an exemplary work for demonstrating how form and beauty underlie mathematical reasoning.