Beauty?

by Brian Beck.

I once met a person who claimed to have read John Wesley’s Journal from start to finish and was surprised to find no evidence of any appreciation of the beauty of the countryside he travelled through. Had he no appreciation of natural beauty? I have not done a systematic check but certainly my friend had missed some references: Mr Brackenbury’s house in St Helier ‘has a large convenient garden with a lovely range of fruitful hills’; ‘the little hills, almost covered with large trees, are inexpressibly beautiful’; [1] Raithby, in Lincolnshire, is ‘an earthly paradise’.[2] These references are late in his life, when he had begun to explore the implications of the doctrine of creation. The sermons on The General Deliverance and God’s Approbation of his Works, published in 1781-2,[3] are evidence of his later interest[4], though the focus is on the perfection of the original creation (idealistically conceived), its loss with the Fall, and its eventual restoration, rather than appreciation of its current beauties. Overall Wesley’s interest is in the story of human redemption. Perhaps we should not too hard on him for living before the Romantic Movement changed our perceptions of the world around us. Nevertheless the legacy he has left us is distinctly short on appreciation of the natural world for its own sake. Others have had to fill the gap for Methodism.

I have for long been intrigued by the human capacity to perceive beauty in form, colour and sound. Where has this capacity come from? It is, so far as we can tell, unique to the human species. Of course we differ in our sensitivity to it – compare neighbouring gardens, one a tip the other a park – and in what we regard as beautiful – bride and groom may see more in each other than onlookers do! We may be too preoccupied to give attention to it, as Wesley apparently was. But it is the experience of beauty as such, in whatever sight or sound we discern it, that interests me. How did we come to acquire it? Some may appeal to Darwinian theories of evolution. Attractiveness to the eye has a function in the propagation of the species – witness the plumage display of birds – so does sound –witness the rutting call of the stag. It may play a part in the preservation of the species – ugliness instigating fear and flight, beauty suggestion safety (think of ugly and beautiful characters in fairy tales). But why should humans find beauty in the shape and colour of a tree or a landscape which can hardly be said to advance the propagation of the species? Why do we find the tiger, or a raging torrent, simultaneously dangerous and beautiful? For the beholder or listener the quality of beauty transcends the form or colour or sequence of sounds. It serves no utilitarian value – it is ‘value added’. I do not believe in a God of the gaps (science has managed to plug so many of them in our account of the natural world) but I find it hard to account for our sense of beauty in purely evolutionary, functional terms.

I am driven to think of this apparently unique endowment as an aspect of the image of God. For what purpose? Is it to make life less mundane, less humdrum? A day in the country, a visit to an art gallery or listening to music can work wonders. Is it an anticipation of heaven, a foretaste of what shall be and thus an aid to devotion and hope, an introduction to wonder? Or is it in reality sacramental, an encounter with God, un-named but present in  creation in multiple ways? Is the appropriate Christian response worship? Perhaps Moses’ burning bush was not unique after all.

 

[1] Journal and Diaries ed. W R Ward & R Heitzenrater, Works, Bicentennial Edition vol. 24 p.52, entry for August 20 & 21 1787.

[2] Ibid. p. 99, entry for July 3 1788.

[3] Sermons ed. A Outler, nos. 56 & 60, Works vol. 1, pp. 387ff, 436ff.

[4] See R L Maddox in Wesleyan Perspectives on the New Creation ed. M D Meeks, 2004, pp.21ff, T H Runyon The New Creation, 1998, pp.200ff.

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3 thoughts on “Beauty?”

  1. I watched the film The land of the enlightenment last night. Set it the war-torn mountains of Afghanistan it starts with the Afghani legend that when God was distributing land to the peoples the Afghan man was slow and little and at the end of the queue and all that was left was this country that God was going to reserve as his garden but gave to the Afghans instead. To our eyes it was a very inhospitable landscape of desert and mountains so perhaps God’s view of beauty as with so many things is different to that of humanity.

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    1. This is not about nature but I have long been captivated by MHB 448 and H&P 534 – Now let us see thy beauty Lord, particularly verse 4 “Lord it is coming to ourselves when thus we come to Thee; the bondage of thy loveliness is perfect liberty.” The idea that we find ourselves as we seek God seems to me to be very real. Equally the appreciation of loveliness adds to our humanity if only because it enters that realm of learning which goes beyond the defining restriction of words.

      David Booth.

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  2. I remember when I was in training to be a local preacher & the theology book of study was by one of the Staceys. The first chapter was experiencing God through nature, which is what your piece is about. Today I was in Debdale park in Manchester. It had just stopped raining & the sun shone through the glistening wet trees, it was breath taking. I wished I’d had my phone to take a picture and share it.

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