Beauty will save the world
A Continuation of my conversation regarding the New RC Cathedral…
We humans differentiate ourselves from animals in a number of ways and I think that one of the biggies is our concept and appreciation of beauty, and I certainly do not mean to bring to mind an image of pin-up girls as an example of such appreciation. Rather I am speaking of transcendent beauty, and by using such terminology I do not intend to imply invisibility. Beauty like our faith is real and can be seen and touched. As such, beauty calls us to transcendence on many levels.
Furthermore, we are creatures who not only appreciate beauty but are actually able to bring it into existence through the creativity of every aspect of our lives: music, art, writing, architecture, acting, and even our everyday actions. We create beauty and the act of creation of anything (physicists remind us) costs resources.
Ahh and here is the pinch of the matter. Do we sacrifice huge portions of our unique vocation for creating beauty in order to more effectively engage in the beauty of assisting the poor? Do we tell the songwriter, the author, the poet, or the artist that their resources would be better served elsewhere? From a strictly utilitarian perspective – we MUST! How much money and time we waste in the pursuit and experience of beauty. How unnecessary…or is it?
Utilitarianism prevails today and my mind is brought to the 16th century image of a western church being “cleansed.” The altar, the golden chalice, the stained glass, the icons, the statues, the paintings, and many other ascetic items are tossed out into the streets and we are left with four white-washed walls and a pulpit. A colossal paradigmic shift has occurred here. Reductionism. I think it occurs under the guise of theological reasoning, but is in reality serving the god of utilitarianism. A philosophy that pollutes our theology.
At the same time, we maintain our propensity for beauty but we steal much of it away from our religion. In our religion we make beauty primarily a product of the mind…invisible…mere concepts. Our protestant theology of the Church followed suit. For our secular lives having beauty expressed concretely in every aspect is deemed fine, but it seems for Protestantism only music remained.
In the last few decades, utilitarianism is being taken to its logical conclusion in not only “cleansing” the church, but getting rid of the church altogether. I have a number of friends who are involved in such movements and I very respectfully disagree with their theological and historical assessments of such things. One of the principle arguments offered by house church proponents is quite similar to the one my friend gave in regards to the new RC Cathedral – it is a waste of money. If I were a utilitarian, I would agree…but I am not and I believe instead in the necessity of beauty and am willing to accept its inherent tax on resources.
There is a wonderful and intriguing movie called The Navigator in which a group of men from the early 14th century are mysteriously transported to the late 20th. There is one scene in which they are confronted with the skyline of a modern city and are shocked to learn that the towering skyscrapers are NOT churches. On the contrary the churches are the tiny buildings humbly tucked in between the great monuments devoted to finance. Again, what a paradigmic shift! In their culture, your resources were utilized to demonstrate what was important (“Where your heart is, there will your treasure be…”) to them as a society. THAT concept has not changed, rather what we hold as important as a society has changed.
Why is it that the most prominent buildings in our culture are not churches? What does this say about us? Religion has become merely “a personal thing” and as such its meeting places are going the way of our ability to express our opinions on such matters. From the ancient perspective, Churches were built to inspire and to manifest worship through beauty of architecture and art. They were also there as oracles to proclaim the truth through their very existence. We were to see in them the creative and transcendent beauty that gives glory to God…and furthermore they were to last for generations.
Did you know that long before TBN got there, Russia was arguably converted to Christianity by a building? Emissaries from Russia were ordered to Constantinople as apart of their mission to seek information on the religions of the world. While there they attended a Divine Liturgy in the great Church called the Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) and they were so taken aback by the beauty of it all that they wrote to their monarch: “we knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth…God dwells there among men.” The Hagia Sophia, some 1500 years old, still stands today.
I wear a gold wedding ring on my finger. I could have chosen any other metal, but as with most of us, I chose some metal that is of relatively significant value. Why? Because it represents something of importance (my marriage) and we humans have a natural (God-given?) habit of laying resources upon the altar of things we deem to be important or significant. Please remember this concept if you are tempted to criticize what YOU deem to be extravagant in any church. Consider the altar upon which YOU lay your resources.
Our Orthodox Church buildings do not exist to keep us out of the rain, but rather for the sake of beauty. A waste of resources? Perhaps, but what cost for beauty? Do we shut the recording studios down? Do we close the schools of performing arts and send the students to earn degrees in economics? Do we tell the poets to put their pens down and pick up a shovel to dig latrines in villages with no running water? Do we tell the architects to save resources by always designing simple square structures? Do we stifle creativity and chain it to our utilitarian outlook?
It is not at all funny that this is EXACTLY what the atheistic communists did to the Church in Russia. It can kill a people’s spirit to live without “frivolous” beauty.
I believe that a magnificent Church building can be built, bring glory to God, and there can still be enough money left over to feed the poor of the world. Perhaps if the average Joe Christian would quit pointing utilitarian fingers and maybe cancel their cable TV subscription in order to give that money to the poor, then there would be no such thing as starvation in the world. The fact of the matter is, there are plenty of resources in the world, but not enough beauty.
The Seattle skyline looks lovely tonight, but I don’t see any churches amongst the buildings…although the Bank of America tower looks magnificent. Maybe I should bank there.
...offered by Dn. James Ferrenberg, a sinner at 5:40 PM [+]