Nearly half of the Old Testament consists of poetry. Fifty chapters in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Bible) alone portray God as a designer, overseeing the construction of a sanctuary. The Bible beams with praise for the beauty of the natural world and imagines God as an artist, potter, sculptor and musician. And yet, “beauty and aesthetics are largely overlooked by theologians,” says Jo Anne Davidson in Toward a Theology of Beauty.
After the Enlightenment, theology as an intellectual pursuit eclipsed aesthetics as a vehicle for the divine. That’s changing.
Theologians are increasingly turning their attention to the theology of aesthetics — the study of how beauty, imagination and the arts inform and are informed by faith. “The aesthetics of the theologian concern the human capacity to know (and love) the unknowable, to name the unnameable, to make visible the invisible. The aesthetics of the theologian elevate the human capacity for the beautiful into the human capacity to know and love God,” writes Alex Garcia-Rivera in The Community of the Beautiful: A Theological Aesthetics.
The study of aesthetics might seem frivolous. But listen to a voice soar, or bask in a majestic cathedral or admire the brilliant hues of a sunset and there’s no denying that beauty is intrinsic to spiritual development. Beauty is a divine portal through which our hearts blossom. Finding God is not an academic exercise. It’s sensual. “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” writes the Psalmist (34:8). “Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing . . . think about these things,” advises the Apostle Paul (Philippians 4:8).
Good advice. Especially in an anxious age of mass, cheap production. It’s hard to despair when you are meditating on beauty. It’s difficult to be miserable while you are marvelling. Moreover, witnessing beauty in the world inspires us to protect it.
If the church took aesthetic theology seriously, it would draw people together in awe and wonder as well as reason. Our sanctuaries would be lush with art. Our Bible studies would focus not just on parsing Scripture passages but applying imagination to their interpretation. We would come to see ourselves as co-creators with God — harbingers of beauty.
As American Pop artist, activist and Roman Catholic Sister Corita Kent writes in Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit: “Creativity belongs to the artist in each of us. To create means to relate. The root meaning of the word art is to fit together, and we all do this every day. . . . whether it is to make a loaf of bread, a child, a day.”
Rev. Trisha Elliott is a minister at City View United in Ottawa.
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