Ten Remarks on Beauty - Beat Rink
Ten Remarks on Beauty from a Christian point of View
by Beat Rink
1. Despite all the different concepts of beauty, there are characteristics of the beautiful which transcend historical and cultural boundaries. Otherwise we would hardly feel that works of art from other times and regions are beautiful. The Christian idea of man certainly contains anthropological fundamental constants of this kind. Here we should note that there are objective criteria for beauty. This goes against the subjective definition, following Kant, that “beautiful = what pleases”.
2. The Christian understanding of beauty takes account of questions of aesthetics and the path of cultural history. It does not demand beauty in a naive way, as if there were no emotive history behind this term and no complex history of art – or no difficulties in the concrete realisation of “beauty”. Only in this way can it avoid, for example, the traps of a “religion of beauty” or religious kitsch.
3. Beauty is an important Christian theme and concern.
a) A Christian theme: The beauty of Creation comes from God. God Himself is beautiful. The story of salvation is beautiful. And where God acts in the life of a person or in history, the aim of His action is beautiful. Thus the experience of our own lives is: Christ makes new, in Christ a “new [beautiful] creature” comes into being. This presses towards an external form, e.g. in way of life. And God’s action in history (and, in the narrower sense, the Kingdom of God) is directed towards the new, beautiful Jerusalem.
b) A Christian concern: The experience of beauty through God does not lead the Christian into splendid isolation, but presses outwards. It is manifested in love for God and one’s neighbour. In the narrower sense as well (e.g. in the arts!), beauty is an important concern for Christians precisely because it is a sign of this love. On the Christian side, beauty should be a constantly recurring theme and should be expressed – even in times in which it is not valued in the arts scene!
4. Beauty is a sign of God’s love and grace. Continuing the previous thought, we see that all beauty comes from God and points ultimately back to him in the sense of the “revelatio generalis” (the revelation which is there for everyone to see; see Rom. 1,20). God’s grace is extravagant and generous in an “unreasonable” way: in Jesus’ day, lilies were often burned as fuel, and these are much more beautiful than Solomon’s robes! (Mt. 6,28). A person who can enjoy beauty experiences a measure of freedom from everyday pressures – and thus also a reflected aspect of grace.
5. All beauty in this world is broken. Brokeness as a result of sin means that even our beautiful objects always bear the marks of sin. We are therefore always dealing with broken beauty. [Even Christ in heaven appears in Revelation as the Pierced!] The wish for uninterrupted beauty in this life is the fruit of ideological thinking (e.g. art under dictators), religious naivety and/or ignorance regarding the complex phenomenon “art”. But we also experience God making even the ugly beautiful or giving us the eyes to see hidden beauty (Mother Teresa speaking of the dying: “How beautiful they are!”). Through God, ugliness is broken as well.
6. The Christian understanding of art places “Pulchrum” (the beautiful) at one corner of a triangle including the two other values “Bonum (the good)” and “Verum (the true)”. Here it is again necessary to tie down these terms theologically, burdened as they are from history. It therefore not possible for “autonomous aesthetics” without ethics to exist in a Christian understanding, which is precisely why “Bonum” and “Verum” are important as ethical (non-aesthetic) terms. This means, for example, that it is problematic to pursue “beauty” when callous forces dominate the culture market and conceal themselves behind “beauty”. Or again: “l’art pour l’art” tends to become an end in itself; yet, in the Christian understanding, art calls for a recipient who is spoken to in the name of love, which can mean: shaken into consciousness; spurred on to seek truth; comforted; sharing joy. Or again: perversions of the term “beauty” (Marinetti: “War is beautiful”) must be rejected radically. But we must also question critically the present-day cult of beauty.
7. A characteristic of Christian aesthetics is the personal. Christian faith acknowledges the personal nature of God and God’s personal care for us humans. In the story of creation, we hear of God’s recognisable handwriting where every animal is made according to its kind (Gen. 1). In the same way, each person is unique and loved by God in his uniqueness. Aesthetics on Christian principles will take this aspect into account – counter to all tendencies towards anonymity, uniformity and mass production – e.g. in the architecture of modern cities.
8. An important point of reference in Christian aesthetics is the glory of God. The Old Testament often speaks of God’s glory. The term “kabod” also means fullness of power, weight, force of the divine presence. The New Testament uses for this the word “Doxa” (also in the sense of fullness of light, splendour). God’s perfect beauty is thus full of energy and strength, but at the same time also resplendent. The Christian understanding of beauty can take its orientation from this and thus counter an aesthetic concept centred on the all-too simple equation beautiful = harmonious.
9. Beauty is a characteristic of aesthetic quality. One can superimpose various emphases on this statement: a) Beauty in a work of art is only one amongst many characteristics of quality (e.g. alongside congruence of form and content, ambiguity, technical quality, strength of expression etc.). But it is an important element (from the Christian point of view). An equally important emphasis is: b) Beauty and aesthetic quality belong together. This may sound banal. Yet, precisely under the banner of faith, under which we wish to praise God (i.e. the Creator of “the universe of the art-work” as well!) through art of the best possible quality, this cannot be emphasised enough.
10. Beauty comes into being time and again as a gift of the Holy Spirit. In John 16 and 17, Jesus speaks of the mutual glorification of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. And Jesus speaks of the glory which he has given to us (Jn. 17,22). We in turn are invited to glorify God in our praise. Glory has an aesthetic side; it can be understood as beauty in the most comprehensive sense (see above). The believing artist is entitled to trust that the experience of this beauty will repeatedly shine out in his work as well, even when it has ugliness as its subject. Beauty in art can also be interpreted as a gift of the Holy Spirit – and we can count on its constant recurrence.
Beat Rink is a germanist, a theologian and pastor of the Swiss reformed church and writer (poetry and books about art and theology). He is director of Crescendo ministries International, based in Basel, Switzerland. www.crescendo.org