Beauty as Worship of the Divine
by Roy Salmond
Response To Beauty: Worship?
It’s that time of year—when I get up early to go to the gym, and as I drive, I see the lovely tangerine glow behind Mt. Baker in the Cascade Mountains. The sun is starting to come up, the day awakens, and I sigh and exhale slowly, acknowledging the creator’s handiwork. Something lifts my soul, reminding me of some lines from a recent Luci Shaw poem where she describes yeast:
something that rises in
the dough, like an act of
worship, spontaneous as
jubilation, the bubbles of praise
that rise within us.
As I saw the iridescent glow behind the Cascades, and felt that spontaneous jubilation and those bubbles of praise well up in me, I wondered if my deep response to beauty was an act of worship.
Beauty’s Difficult Definition
Beauty is so much a part of our lives, yet so difficult to define. Poets, painters, writers, philosophers, and musicians have tried to describe beauty for thousands of years. And even though beauty is ALWAYS available, Irish playwright Oscar Wilde notes: “Man is hungry for Beauty. There is a void.”
What is it about beauty that manifests this hunger in me? That compels me to hold it, possess it? That makes time stand still for just a moment, and beckons me involuntarily to submit to something, to someone greater than myself, not unlike worship? There is a deep sense of surrender and devotion, as to one’s lover or intimate relationship—an otherness that obliges me to empty myself of distraction and be present to the moment or to the person.
As a Christian record producer and worship leader, I’ve spent much time reading about and pondering beauty in my life of faith, and the question of responding to beauty as an act of worship has been on my mind a good long while.
One of the key issues in defining beauty is its subjectivity. We’re all familiar with “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder” —meaning we decide what is beautiful or not. It’s here that it gets troublesome.
Beauty can be consoling and disturbing. It can be inspiring and defeating; sacred and profane; heartfelt and cerebral; exhilarating and sobering. We’ve all heard a piece of music, read a poem, or looked at a painting that someone has described as beautiful and we’ve scratched our heads with a “Huh?” Conversely, we’ve also passionately shown someone similar pieces and have encountered their passive indifference, reminding us again of how diverse our responses to beauty are.
“Whatever is received depends on the mode of the receiver,” notes medieval theologian and philosopher Thomas Aquinas, reminding us how beauty is perceived has much to do with our personal taste, which is seldom logical or reasonable.
The Beautiful Points in One Direction
Yet—in spite of all this subjectivity, there are consistencies in beauty. Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer points out that “all the qualities of The Beautiful point in one direction.”
Beauty does have commonalities pointing in the same direction. A simple example: Most of us would rather be stuck in a room with a view of a gorgeous sunset than stuck in a room with a rock. Yet even though there are many things we can agree on regarding beauty, we still encounter that thorny issue of our subjective taste and how God defines beauty.
God Defines Beauty?
So to discuss that, I turn briefly to Swiss reformed theologian Karl Barth, who passed away in 1968, and was considered a giant in 20th century theology. Barth was deeply suspect of people deciding how God defines beauty because we end up placing God into our own interpretation of beauty, and mold him to our bias.
When we hold up our ideal of beauty (whether art, or music, or nature, or everyday beauty) and perceive how God fits into it, we make God a subset of our beauty, a subset of our taste and our aesthetic, and we only see the part of him we let ourselves see. In doing so, our perception of beauty ends up defining God for us. Hence the God of the pretty, the God of the majestic, the God of the inspiring emotion speaks to us, while we can overlook the God of the quiet moment, the God of the difficult truth, the God of lament, and the God of the Jewish man hanging on a cross.
How many times have we, as worship leaders, deemed a song or experience as worship because it fits our aesthetic of how we want to feel? (Think Oceans)
Beauty Doesn’t Define God
Barth says Beauty doesn’t define God because God IS beauty.
This may seem like a theological splitting of hairs, but it is essential for us to resist the temptation of creating God in our own aesthetic image.
Another Swiss theologian, Hans Urs von Balthasar gives us a similar warning regarding this: “We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name (beauty) as if she were an ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not, can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.”
Beauty as Decoration
What von Balthasar is saying, is that in reducing beauty to decoration, like a chaser, or a sugar-coated pill to help Truth and Goodness go down easier, it affects our appraisal of beauty, as well as diminishes the spiritual disciplines of prayer and love. We reduce beauty to functionality. People who cling only to their aesthetic of beauty diminish God’s presence in their world.
To understand the depth of God’s beauty, it’s necessary to see beyond beauty being ornamental and embrace it as an essential part of God’s holiness. This is critical in our development of a worship pedagogy that is more inclusive of the beauty we encounter daily, reflecting God’s embedded character.
I know this can seem like an analytical labyrinth. How do we get out? How can we have a richer impact of beauty in our lives and in our worship?
For me, it starts with desiring God’s glory and beauty outside of our inadequate perception of it.
Reflecting Abraham Heschel’s pithy observation: “First we sing, then we understand,” we step forward in desiring to see beauty through HIS eyes. To be beholden to him as our loving Beholder.
Here Barth directs us again, that to widen our conception of beauty, the beauty that God exemplifies, we need to look to scripture, to creation, and to the person of Jesus to see how God IS beauty.
The Character Of God’s Beauty
As Gadamer says, the Beautiful points in one direction.
Barth says, that direction points to scripture, and its here we find God’s character and beauty exemplified. A few examples:
In Phil. 4:8 we read, “Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
Likewise in the Sermon on the Mount (Matt: 5:3-10) notice whom Jesus declares blessed: the poor in spirit, the mourners, those that hunger for righteousness, the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers and the persecuted. And in Paul’s sublime treatise on love in 1 Corinthian 13, we read of the beauty of loves many facets.
Lastly, in Isaiah 53:2 we have an example of God’s contrary perspective foretelling the Messiah: “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.”
God’s Currency of the Beautiful
This last scripture is a good example of God’s currency of the beautiful. What we hold in value does not always equate with what God values. In these words, “…no beauty or majesty to attract us”, we see the holiness and divinity of Jesus outside of what we value as aesthetically beautiful.
So, not seeing beauty as an ornament (as Balthasar suggests), but seeing it as an extension of God’s being, his holiness, is to open our eyes to notice his ever initiating presence in the world around us, to see and experience beauty in HIS currency of value. As Mary Oliver points out in one of her poems:
If you notice anything,
it leads you to notice
Educating The Faithful
Much of this can be inculcated into how we lead worship in our Sunday services. It’s not just the purview of the pastor to educate the congregation in the ways of God; for every time we lead a song in corporate worship, we are educating the faithful in God’s narrative.
If we want to instill a broader sense of beauty in our world and in our faith journey, how we tell the story of God to each other on Sunday mornings educates us into gaining a deeper insight into God’s beauty. Without ignoring the lack of beauty in and around us, to recognize his beauty in the likely and unlikely places is to see what we haven’t seen; to feel what we haven’t felt; to hear what we haven’t heard; and to love where we haven’t loved—welcoming God to enlarge our hearts, souls, and minds to participate in the beauty and glory of Himself.
Beauty is Hospitable
Lastly, beauty welcomes us and invites us out of ourselves into something, someone other.
To give ourselves over to the one who beholds us with love, beholden to the Beholder, is our deep response to beauty as an act of worship. The key word here is response. Beauty initiates, and we respond to the mystery of God’s participation in our world.
We love because he first loved us (1 John 4:19). We move because he first moved us. We welcome because he first welcomed us. Beauty invites. It is hospitable. It says, “Come on in and partake of the depth and breadth of your loving creator.” We merely have to respond to beauty’s welcoming invitation, in all its diversity.
We’re invited into the grandeur of the heavens; the splash of weather, the dance of words; the hush of tenderness; the heartache of loss, the moan of the train, our poverty of spirit, the surprise of pleasure, to celebrate restorative justice and ponder the solitude of a thirty-three-year-old Jewish man hanging on a cross 2000 years ago.
Beauty invites us into conversation with the Divine. To “draw us into intimate communion with himself in worship and prayer, not just to convey information about himself, but to disclose himself.” (James B. Torrance). As he regards us with the grace, forgiveness, and love he wants us to trust in, we as worship leaders, welcome others to engage this conversation of our relationship with Creation, with each other, and ourselves, and with the fullness of Beauty in communion with the Father, Son, and Spirit.