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. 

Then too, I’m more interested in how theology itself, the discipline of attending to and meditating on the things of God, can be an exercise in beauty. In The Abolition of Man, C.S. Lewis talks about the virtue of the chest, which is how he describes magnanimity, the virtue of having a great soul. He describes magnanimity in terms of habitual, disciplined, appropriate affective responses to what is good. To put it another way, magnanimity is the virtue of being attracted to goodness. Medieval people sometimes call this synderesis. He says that it is important for the chest to obey the head, for this power of attraction to be in the service of reason, which is another function of the soul. Reason needs to be in charge, but lacks the power on its own to curb the imperative appetites that so often run our lives. Only magnanimity can give reason that power. Magnanimity enables truth to have traction in our daily lives, so that we’re able to live according to that truth. Elsewhere, Lewis speaks about this as a function of imagination, and I don’t think that’s accidental. Learning to see the good as attractive is an aesthetic act that requires imagination. 

So magnanimity is all about beauty, specifically the beauty of goodness. It’s an aesthetic virtue, that virtue of being most drawn to the things that most deserve your attention. And it seems to me that, if I want to teach my students through the lens of beauty, the most important thing for me to do is to help them grow in that virtue by speaking into that quality of the chest. I can tell them true things all day long, but if they don’t start loving those things, being attracted to those things, longing for those things, none of the truths that I teach them will make any difference in how they live. One way to do that is to explain how everything that we discuss is beautiful: the beauty of the Trinity, of creation, of the cross, of the Church . . . I think that’s worth doing, and I do it. But more importantly, I need to teach in a way that awakens longing, and may I say that is very, very hard to do. Most of the people I read who do this well are writing in the more elevated style of an earlier era, a style that allows saying things that easily get dismissed as sentimental in a contemporary idiom.

Or, in my case, I get told that I sound like I’m preaching, which is fair, because I move into this register more easily when preaching than in the classroom, and more easily in the classroom than when writing. (One of these weeks, I’m going to write about the struggle to preach beautifully.)

Here’s the opening section of my textbook in its current iteration. One of my friends told me after he read it: “It needs a lot more beauty.” Which I expect is true. I do get more explicit later, including defining what I think beauty is, but I thought starting there would be a mistake. Your opinions would be welcome!

Made for Greatness

We love we know not what, and therefore everything allures us. As Iron at a Distance is drawn by the Loadstone, there being some Invisible Communications between them: so is there in us a World of Love to somewhat, though we know not what in the World that should be. There are Invisible Ways of Conveyance, by which some Great Thing doth touch our Souls, and by which we tend to it. Do you not feel yourself Drawn with the Expectation and Desire of some Great Thing?   THOMAS TRAHERNE, Centuries

Most of us know the nagging feeling that Thomas Traherne describes: a feeling that we are made for something more, that there is something big in the world that we already love, even without knowing what it is, because we’re somehow connected to it. We feel ourselves drawn by the expectation and desire of some Great Thing.

The stories we love reinforce this idea. Bilbo is invited to an adventure beyond his bounded life when he finds himself hosting an unexpected party. Harry receives a letter informing him that he is destined for another life, a life of magic, and that there is already a place prepared for him where he will be initiated into this new life. Alice falls down a rabbit hole to Wonderland. Lucy finds a hiding place during a game of hide and seek in an abandoned wardrobe and wanders into another world.

The Bible suggests that we long for such moments of transformation and discovery because there is a real change on offer and a genuine new world for us to explore. Jesus comes announcing that the kingdom of God is among us. Paul says that we who believe in Jesus have already been made citizens of that kingdom. He further tells us that there is a new life of glory and power to which we already have access. If you are a Christian, you are in the process of being changed into a glorious, shining, powerful being, remade into the likeness of the King so that you may rule alongside Him. Whereas Harry was simply offered the chance to master a new technology (albeit a very cool new technology), you are offered a chance to find your place in the cosmic dance. Becoming a disciple of Jesus with your whole self requires far more transformation than learning how to banter with a dragon, or becoming a king or queen.

Of course, it may seem less exciting. That’s because the chief Enemy of God has devoted a great deal of time convincing us that goodness is boring, that real excitement and drama require the spice of rebellion, and that becoming a person who is willing to sacrifice your present weak desires in order to achieve something transcendent requires you to become a much less interesting person than you are now. The Enemy wants you to believe that the mix of good and evil, right desires and wrong ones, adds up to a sophisticated and inspiring story.

The attractiveness of evil is the oldest lie in human history. The boringness of goodness runs close behind. The fact that we can find such lies believable says much about the distortion of our perception of reality. Because in truth there has never been a person as interesting, as compelling, as authoritative, and as desirable as Jesus, who also happens to be the only human being who has lived without any sin, evil or wrong desire. Those two sets of truths are connected. If Jesus were not perfectly good, if virtue did not shine out of Him at every moment, if He did not pursue the right no matter the cost, He would not be worth following. Becoming His disciple may be difficult, it may be costly, but if it is boring you’re not doing it correctly. Walking with Jesus should make us call out as Bilbo did while leaving his safe home in the Shire, “I’m off to have an adventure!”

G. K. Chesterton famously said, “The Christian ideal has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” It is certainly true that this adventure will be difficult. This is true of all great adventures. The adventure of becoming a disciple will require sacrifice from everyone who pursues it. Each of us has disordered desires, addictive hungers for experiences and things and people that are not worthy of us, that harm and demean us, that distract us from the life of discipleship. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “When Jesus calls a man, He bids him come and die.” Jesus Himself tells us (and demonstrates in His own life) that dying to self must always precede entrance into new life. That is the simple truth.

Authors of great stories know this. That’s why there are moments when the children in Narnia risk their lives for the sake of protecting the land they rule. Lancelot is willing to die for Arthur, and Arthur is willing to die for his people. Aragorn risks himself to save Frodo, and Frodo risks himself to save the world. And of course Harry gives up ultimate power and lays down his life to conquer Voldemort, a personification of evil. Just as surely as these fictional heroes needed to be willing to sacrifice, so will you need to sacrifice in order to follow Jesus. Doing the right thing is costly and often painful. We need look no further than the example of Jesus Himself to see this. Each of us has loves that will have to be denied, desires that will be unsatisfied, pain that will have to be embraced. And yet the result of such heroic suffering is victory, power, and joy.

The sacrificial life typically starts with small steps. The first sacrifice is not usually laying down your life, but something that may seem too small to be important – like giving up an hour of sleep or television or time with friends in order to begin a discipline of prayer and Bible reading. But Jesus says that those who cannot be trusted in small things will not be trusted with great ones. If you cannot be trusted to read the Bible daily, why would you expect to be entrusted with the power of a radically new life? If you cannot be trusted to be attentive to your theology homework, why would you expect to be entrusted with all the secrets of wisdom and knowledge that are available for those who follow Jesus?

It is not that we earn the new life through pain and suffering. Being transformed into the likeness of Jesus is a gift, not something we can earn. But transformation can hurt, even when it is for our good. We only have to think about training to be an athlete to know that this is true. If our primary goal is to avoid discomfort, we will probably avoid transformation as well. T. S. Eliot speaks of Jesus as “the wounded surgeon” who heals us with a “sharp compassion” (“East Coker”). In Mere Christianity, C. S. Lewis uses a different metaphor. “Imagine yourself as a living house,” he suggests. God is the architect and builder who is going to repair you, and this seems like a good idea as long as all He wants to do are the repairs that you’ve already seen as necessary. But then He begins making far more extensive renovations that involve tearing you apart and then building you back up again. “You thought you were being made into a decent little cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself.”

Studying theology may not seem like an obvious doorway to this adventure of transformation. But when you open yourself to ideas about who God is and about the ways He works in the world, you also open yourself to thinking about how He may be working in your life. Once you start thinking about that, your receptivity to the “invisible communication” that Traherne is talking about will get stronger; the gravitational pull that God is always exerting on your life may become harder to resist.

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