Head of Christ by George Rouault (1939)

What is significant about the art world’s rediscovery of and the church’s growing interest in Beauty? First, I think it is indicative of human nature. As human beings we long to experience good – particularly beautiful—things in life. The initial paragraph of Father Thomas Dubay’s book, The Evidential Power of Beautysays this:

Every human person is drawn to beauty. A night sky can thrill, as can an exquisite orchid, a Mozart concerto, or a lovely face. John Henry Newman, an intellectual and literary giant, would on occasion weep with delight as he played his violin. The more gifted among us are sometimes so vibrantly alive that even created splendors touch them deeply. Because their receptive capacities to be enriched by and responsive to reality are deep, they grow to a maturity far beyond the usual. They live life to the hilt and themselves become works of art – to borrow a phrase from Saint Paul (Eph 2:10)[1]

Second, is the opportunity for dialogue between two parts of society that have shared little interest in each other for the last 100 years. A few years back I helped run an IAM conference on “Artists as Reconcilers” where Yale Seminary professor Dr. Miroslav Volf spoke. In the course of his research he found out that the then head of Yale’s art department, Richard Benson, had been asked what the relationship between art and the church was. In short, Benson’s reply was that there was no relationship; Volf summarized Benson’s thoughts stating, “art is fundamentally transgressive, religion is fundamentally conservative, the two are at odds with one another.”[2]

Theologian Miroslav Volf

Perhaps they are not as far apart as Benson thinks. The Church and the art world have an opportunity to dialogue about art and beauty and learn from one another – the Church, to learn how to make art, the art world to learn what is the true source of Beauty. As one who believes there is a supreme Creator who has His hands in history, I truly believe this parallel interest in Beauty is not an accident.

At this point it might be appropriate to bring some definition to beauty. This is no easy task as it has been pursued for many millennia, and I for one am not assuming that I could bring any new insight into the matter. Also, our limitation as human beings is not an insignificant factor.

We must accept the fact that we are talking about a concept that may ultimately be beyond our comprehension. However, I am not willing to concede that we cannot know anything about Beauty because we cannot FULLY grasp every aspect of it. I believe we can apprehend beauty, see and understand it, but I do not believe we can know everything there is to know about beauty. This is not unlike the other two transcendentals Beauty is usually accompanied by – Truth and Goodness.

Can anyone really say they know all Truth? Can anyone know all Goodness? We can know Truth, and Goodness, and we can know them truly, but knowing all Truth and/or Goodness comprehensively is problematic.[3] Is it wise to simply dismiss any possibility of knowing Truth, Goodness and Beauty because we can only know part and not the whole? I don’t think so.

I would assert it is the same with my knowledge of God. I can know God truly, I can apprehend Him, but to say that I know Him comprehensively would mean I would need to be God to know Him completely, and that’s just impossible.

Much of the Church may not have been exercising any creative expressions of Beauty in teh 20th and 21st centuries, but they do have the intellectual and theological content on which to base Beauty. This is a great boon for the art world, who seem to lack the ability to define Beauty beyond “You know it when you see it.”

[1] Dubay, Thomas, The Evidential Power of Beauty: Science and Theology Meet, San Fransico, CA, 1999, p11.

[2] Go to http://media.internationalartsmovement.com/?p=467 for an audio of this talk by Volf.

[3] When I wrote this paper for my Professor Dr. Charles Mackenzie he told me at the time that he was working on a book about the nature of infinity in science, based on lectures he gave at Stanford some years back. As we discussed this concept he told me when scientists run into a seemingly incomprehensible idea, possibly associated with infinity, they usually give the idea a name and move on in their research and understanding. They see their limitations, but are not daunted by them. Apprehending Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is no different.