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Reading for Beauty

Sarah Clarkson has a recent blog post with a title that makes a big claim: “We Read for Beauty.” Naturally, I decided I needed to read this one. Here’s what she understands by that claim:

What do I mean by beauty? I mean a bone-deep knowledge of the goodness of the world; the heaven-crammed splendor of creation, the gift of a mystery that is every other human soul we meet, the possibility of redemption, of friendship and laughter, the reality of grace invading every corner of existence. By beauty, I mean an encounter with God ‘at play’ (in Gerard Manley Hopkin’s terms) in the world he created for joy and is redeeming in love.

 She considers examples of reading that have served to “outfit” her own “inner landscape of imagination.” She is especially concerned with what it means to read for beauty in light of what she hopes her children will read and how they will be formed by their reading. 

Read the full post here.

Beauty Ever Ancient, Ever New

I’ve been reading Thomas Williams’ new translation of Augustine’s Confessions (Hackett 2019), and yesterday I came to my favorite passage. It’s a very famous section, which Williams lays out as a poem.

Late have I loved you, beauty so ancient and so new!
Late have I loved you!
And behold, you were within, but I was outside and looked for you there, and in my ugliness I seized upon these beautiful things that you have made.
You were with me, but I was not with you. 
Those things helped me far away from you — things that would not even exist if they were not in you.
You called, you shouted, and you broke through my deafness;
you flashed, you shone, and you dispersed my blindness;
you breathed perfume, and I’d ruin my breath and pant for you;
I tasted, and I hunger and thirst;
you touched me, and I was set on fire for your peace. (Bk10, 27.38)

The Beauty of Education

One of my colleagues at Calvin University, Prof. David Smith, recently sent me a link to a wonderful article he wrote several years ago on how school can be beautiful and education can be beautiful. The article focuses on the thought of Comenius, for whom beauty was an important value. David begins the article with the closing words of Comenius’s Didactica Magna, on which he then comments:

Do Thou, therefore, O Lord our God, give each one of us a joyful heart to serve Thy glory as best he may […] Let Thy work appear unto Thy servants, and Thy glory upon their children. And let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us; and establish Thou the works of our hands upon us (Psalm xc.16). In Thee, O Lord, have I trusted, let me never be confounded. Amen. 

The discourse is devotional, the sentiments, biblical; the context is educational. The prayer comes from the final page of an enormously influential treatise on school reform penned in the mid-seventeenth century by the Moravian educator, pastor, philosopher, literary pioneer, and general jack-of-all-trades, John Amos Comenius. After a weighty collection of chapters ranging in topic from the profundities of moral and spiritual education to the practicalities of organizing grade levels and textbooks, Comenius closes with a prayer for beauty. For God’s beauty. That it be upon us. “Us” being in this case primarily those who teach the young.

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,

https://thinkingbeautifully.org/form-beauty-and-euclids-elements-part-2/

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

https://thinkingbeautifully.org/form-beauty-and-euclids-elements-part-1/

(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.