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why beauty matters

The Cholla cactus in Joshua Tree Park.  Beautiful in its own way.

I have begun reading the sixty plus titles that are required for my upcoming comprehensive exams.  I decided to tackle the weightiest works first (don't know if that is wisdom or craziness), so in the past days I have been reading Balthasar's thoughts on theological aesthetics.  It is fascinating, inspiring, and due to the density of the material, pretty challenging.  Balthasar starts his theological writings with one word: beauty.  And I must say, I think he's onto something.  Why is beauty so important?

First, a few definitions of beauty.  At dictionary.com you can find the following descriptors of the word:  a combination of qualities such as shape, color or form, that pleases the aesthetic senses, especially the sight; a combination of qualities that pleases the intellect or moral sense.  Balthasar gives a more theological definition of beauty:  the intersection of form and splendour.  He indicates what he means by these two aspects:  form is an actual presence that can be seen, heard, experienced, not just an abstract concept, and splendour is that which makes something love-worthy.

Basically, beauty is something which attracts and captivates us.  It is different from lust (which seeks to take from or devour).  It is not based on mere appearance.  It is not tied to worldly, superficial, and temporary ideas of what constitutes beauty.  Balthasar suggests that beauty is something which bestows nobility on a person's every day life.  So what is nobility?  Being noble means to be grand, stately, magnificent, of high moral character, having courage, generosity, honour, dignity, eminence (being important and distinguished), and excellence.  Beauty has the ability to bestow this wonderful nobility because when we encounter real beauty (not the temporary, superficial kind), we are lifted up.  Beauty enlarges us, it makes us more beautiful ourselves, and it helps us to embody goodness.  Beauty changes us.

A few biblical examples of beauty might be helpful to illustrate the point.  First, the story of Esther in the Old Testament.  Here was a beautiful woman who was so attractive and captivating that the king of the time made her his queen.  Esther was more than just a pretty face, though; she was a woman of high moral character and courage, insisting on justice even when doing so endangered her life.  She was a generous and noble person, exercising hospitality, restraint, and kindness while navigating the tricky process of protecting the lives of a persecuted people.  She raised the moral standards of the palace by her actions and in turn, circumvented the destruction of a nation.  In her story, we can see that beauty is intricately linked to goodness.  Balthasar observes that "in a world without beauty... the good also loses its attractiveness, the self-evidence of why it must be carried out."  If we forget what real beauty is, we forget what goodness is.

A second example is perhaps more obvious in its theological implications.  In Isaiah 52 we have the prophet calling out to a city that is under the harsh rule of Assyria.  He cries out for Zion to "Awake, awake" and "clothe yourself with strength! Put on your garments of splendor."  It is a call to the city to rise up and beautify herself.  Why?  And how can such a downtrodden people muster strength and exhibit splendour?  Let's read on:  Isaiah declares that lust and captivity, oppression and abuse are coming to an end.  Then he writes these familiar words: 
     How beautiful on the mountains
     are the feet of those who bring good news
     who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings,
     who proclaim salvation,
     who say to Zion, 'Your God reigns!'
Here, beauty is found in feet (not the usual object of admiring stares) that bring news of freedom, that announce peace, that run in the name of salvation, that proclaim the coming of God's good reign again.  Zion can beautify herself because beauty (in the form of good news and salvation) has come her way.  An encounter with beauty changes everything. 

In contrast to many of the messages we receive through the media these days, beauty is much more than mere appearance.  Beauty brings goodness.  Beauty lifts people up.  Beauty restores hope and joy and purity.  Beauty comforts.  Beauty brings healing.  A later verse in Isaiah 52 contains these phrases: "his appearance was so disfigured beyond that of any human being and his form marred beyond human likeness" (verse 14).  These words are thought to allude to the leprosy of a former king, Uzziah.  In the following sentence we encounter the idea of "sprinkling" which can also be translated "cleansed" ("so he will sprinkle the nations"). This relates to the practice of priests sprinkling water on the sick for their healing (see Ezekiel 36:25).  In this case, we see that beauty can even co-exist with physical disfigurement because it is not equal to outward appearance.  "Who would have thought God's saving power would look like this?" (Isaiah 53:1, The Message).   

This chapter has profound messianic implications and it (as well as the following chapter) are quoted several times by New Testament writers in order to tie the ancient cries of the prophets to the life and works of Jesus. In Jesus we see the perfect combination of form and splendour.  He took on human form: people could see him, touch him, hear him.  He carried the splendour of the Divine in his being: this is what captivated people and made him love-worthy.  The one sent from God to bring healing to the world, to bring peace on earth, and to bring good news of comfort and salvation did not attract people by his outward appearance, but by his love, his insistence on justice, and his mercy and compassionate healing.  His beauty lifted people up, it changed them.  People who have a profound encounter with beauty become carriers of beauty themselves.  They radiate with goodness and there is an inexplicable desire to be near them.  Beauty is one of those mysterious things that defies precise description and scientific calculation.  There is no formula for beauty.  It cannot be dissected; it must be beheld.

And this beauty, Balthasar insists, is the first word in theology.  The attractiveness of a good and generous God whose splendour changes us as we encounter it in concrete form is the beginning of a beautiful life.  A life that lifts others up and bestows nobility on the ordinary.  If you have ever gazed out over an ocean, or stood in awe at the base of a mountain, or witnessed a baby in peaceful sleep or seen children in gleeful play, or watched the northern lights dance and heard them crackle across the sky, or smelled the first flowers blooming in spring, or stood at the front of a church looking into the eyes of your beloved as you say vows that join you for a lifetime... then you have experienced a bit of the mysterious, transformational power of beauty.  And that is why beauty matters.

Quotes from Hans Urs von Balthasar.  The Glory of the Lord, Volume I: Seeing the Form.  Translated by Erasmo Leiva-Merikakis.  Edited by Joseph Fessio S.J. and John Riches.  Edinburgh:  T & T Clark, 1982.

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