Beauty and the Imagination

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    De Nicola Family Lecture: "Wallace Stevens, Beauty, and the Catholic Imagination" - Mary Ann Glendon
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Author: Aaron Ames

The imagination is a gift from God, given in His own image, to conceive of a Glorious Reality that does exist, that we cannot yet fully see…

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Why is a sentence from C.S. Lewis delightful while an equally true statement by another, ordinary writer, is not?

“I believe in Christianity as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I can see it, but because, by it, I can see everything else.”

“Christianity has given me a new and different perspective on everything in life.”

Metaphor and poetry have the ability to transcend the barriers of language, through imagery and symbolism, and so convey Truth in a way that points beyond words to something deeper, mysterious, and, yet, real. It strikes at the root of the imagination.

The imagination is a powerful thing, and, yet, what is imagined need not always be merely imaginary: Consider God’s Imagination, as He fathomed the creation of the universe and all that is in it. What was first conceived in His mind is now perceived in this world. Consider our hope in God’s Imagination being able, sufficiently and justly, to handle the eschaton (the End), to make sense of all that has been, and all that has been lost.

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But the modern world has an appetite for devouring all that is imagined and all that is mysterious, lusting to create a world instead of nothing but facts. As the initial antagonist in Dickens’ Hard Times pleads with his young pupils:

Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts; nothing else will ever be of any service to them.

And, if we are not careful, we may find that our senses, too, have been dulled to the wonderful world around us. But as Chesterton would remind us, the imagination can save us from such a boring world:

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“The function of imagination is not to make strange things settled, so much as to make settled things strange; not so much to make wonders facts as to make facts wonders” (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy).

Yet, the very place in society that ought to know better because of its constant insistence that there is more to life than the naked eye can see, the church, has, likewise, become a bullhorn for “facts, facts, facts.” N.T. Wright comments in his lecture on The Bible and the Imagination:

Christian church has often been bad at encouraging imagination. People have been worried, Christian teachers have been worried, about letting people imagine things, in case their imagination runs riot and they start imagining the wrong things, and so we’ve squelched it and squashed it and we’ve built buildings that are inherently ugly, lest anyone think that the buildings are somehow divine. And we’ve done all kinds of things, even in our worship, to prevent the glory getting out.

We live in a world between realities, one that is already filled with the glory of God and one that has yet to be fully filled with the glory of God. In this, we are called to place our hope in a future reality that has not yet been fully realized, yet without abandoning this present reality. Is it possible, then, that the imagination is God’s gift to us to ascend our mortal thoughts of boredom and so begin to get a glimpse of the eternal playground that is unfolding before us?

“As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9). How ought we to transcend the finite ways and thoughts of humanity and began to gaze upon the infinite ways and thoughts of man without the help of the holy imagination? Indeed, we are totally incapable of rightly reading or, better put, rightly imagining the worlds of prophetic and apocalyptic books in Scripture like Daniel or Revelation without taking serious the need for imaginative contemplation. Reason alone is not faculty enough to grasp such transcendent worlds. Instead, we must understand the great need for reason to join flesh with its proper counterpart, the imagination, so as to produce a life-giving worldview.

Many are familiar with C.S. Lewis’ comment that, “If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were precisely those who thought most of the next. It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this” (Mere Christianity). We must keep in view how our future hope is shaping, even renewing, our present reality. For, to be able to even begin to gaze upon this New Heaven and New Earth (Rev. 21-22), the place where our citizenship already resides, we must utilize the power of the imagination.

We must be able to see beyond this physical, decaying world: Where there is despair, we see hope; where there is ugliness, we see beauty; where there is death, we see life. Perhaps then, the imagination is a gift from God, given in His own image, not to be able to create an imaginary world that will never exist, but rather to conceive of a Glorious Reality that does, and yet a Reality that we cannot yet fully see. In this way, we understand the book of Revelation, as we are presented with an illustrative, imaginary world. But, it is only imaginary in so far as the Truths of Heaven simply cannot be contained by anything less than the wildest of imaginations.

Yet, if we should ever desire to get our “head into the heavens”, we must cast off the immaturity of adulthood and return to the maturity of our childlike faith:

…we all like astonishing tales because they touch the nerve of the ancient instinct of astonishment. This is proved by the fact that when we are very young children we do not need fairy tales: we only need tales. Mere life is interesting enough. …A child kicks his legs rhythmically through excess, not absence, of life. Because children have abounding vitality, because they are in spirit fierce and free, therefore they want things repeated and unchanged. They always say, “Do it again”; and the grown-up person does it again until he is nearly dead. For grown-up people are not strong enough to exult in monotony. But perhaps God is strong enough to exult in monotony. It is possible that God says every morning, “Do it again” to the sun; and every evening, “Do it again” to the moon. It may not be automatic necessity that makes all daisies alike; it may be that God makes every daisy separately, but has never got tired of making them. It may be that He has the eternal appetite of infancy; for we have sinned and grown old, and our Father is younger than we (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy).

What was once marvelous never ceases to be just as marvelous: we simply grow old and tired, and we cease to marvel. We need the help of the imagination, a return to infancy of sorts, in order see the world as God sees it, as delightfully made and even more delightfully remade. Again, N.T. Wright helps us to understand how this is indeed one of the primary gifts of the Scriptural Narrative:

The Bible helps us, enables us, to understand, to re-appropriate, to celebrate the role of the imagination as part of our redeemed, renewed, image-bearing humanness. You need imagination to live in God’s world (from lecture on “The Bible and the Imagination”).

We must allow God to renew our mind, to allow us to be conformed to a higher image, an image that cannot be seen with mortal eyes, but only through the eyes given by the Spirit.

The imagination does need its checks and balances, as it is able to conceive of ugliness as well as beauty. So it is, in nurturing the imagination, we must be surrendered to the Holy Imagination of the Spirit that dwells in us. We must, in all things, have only a prayerful imagination, that is an imagination constantly given over to prayer. Our call as Christians is to have an obedient imagination:

Imagination is a thing of clear images, and the more a thing becomes vague the less imaginative it is. Similarly, the more a thing becomes wild and lawless the less imaginative it is (G.K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy).

The capacity to create and experience beauty is dependent upon this interaction between imagination and wonder. For, in seeing a beautiful sunset, the imagination allows the mind to transcend the individual physical realities of the sun, the landscape, the colors, etc., and to see it all as one interdependent whole, and so to wonder and delight in such beauty.

Or, consider listening to Beethoven’s 5th, in which the imagination perceives the many instruments, all playing independent parts, as one complete whole, as if it were only one instrument, and so one sound. Yet, in truth, it is many instruments, and many sounds. And, so it was that surely Beethoven must have conceived the beauty of his symphony in the imagination before it was ever put to paper or played. And surely the harmonious beauty of the created world was in the Mind of the Grand Composer before it was composed:

Beauty… can be appreciated only by the mind. This would be impossible, if this ‘idea’ of beauty were not found in the Mind in a more perfect form…. This consideration has readily persuaded men of ability and learning… that the original “idea” is not to be found in this sphere (Augustine, City of God).

Open the door to the imagination, and you will open the door to Eternal Beauty.

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988), a Swiss theologian and priest, who upon completing his seven volume work entitled The Glory of the Lord, concluded that “beauty is the word that shall be our first.” Indeed, in the opening story of Genesis, God creates harmony out of chaos, and the lush Garden of Eden can only be described as beautiful. Likewise, Revelation returns to the Garden, only it is even more beautiful than before. What is the connection, then, between the beauty we see in the world around us and the Transcendent Beauty of God?

What is it in a serene and picturesque landscape that seems to overwhelm us? What is it in a carefully composed melody that brings us a deep sense of joy? Skeptic Anthony O’ Hear attempts to answer this question:

In experiencing beauty we feel ourselves to be in contact with a deeper reality than the everyday…. Art can seem revelatory, just as it does seem to answer to objective standards. It can seem to take us to the essence of reality, as if certain sensitivities in us… beat in tune with reality. It is as if our… appreciation of things external to us… are reflecting a deep and pre- conscious harmony between us and the world from which we spring (Anthony O’Hear, Beyond Evolution).

Many of us could hardly disagree with such an interpretation of the experience of the beautiful. Yet, while O’Hear is happy to admit the transcendence of such experience, he strangely concludes:

If this feeling is not simply an illusion… it may say something about the nature of reality itself, as responsive to human desires…. But how could we think of an aesthetic justification of experience… unless our aesthetic experience was sustained by a divine will revealed in the universe, and particularly in our experience of it as beautiful? It is precisely at this point that many or even most will draw back. Aesthetic experience seems to produce the harmony between us and the world that would have to point to a religious resolution were it not to be an illusion (Beyond Evolution).

In a similar way, Karl Barth relays the story of Baron Friedrich Grimm, a skeptic and agnostic, who after attending a young Mozart concerto exclaimed:

I have now for the first time in my life seen a miracle…. I truly fear that this child will turn my head if I hear him again; he has shown me how difficult it is to preserve one’s sanity in the face of a miracle (Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart).

Barth noted this peculiar quote from a skeptic because he himself assumed the experience of Mozart to usher him into an eternal, transcendent, beautiful world: “Whenever I listen to [Mozart], I am transported to the threshold of a world which in sunlight and storm, by day and by night, is a good and ordered world” (Karl Barth, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart). Has Beauty even the power to convert? The Late Fr. Thomas Dubay seemed certain that it did:

The acute experience of great beauty readily evokes a nameless yearning for something more than earth can offer…It is an aching need for the infinite, a hunger for more than matter can provide. It sparks a thirst for the divine…Because the light of the radiant form is true to the mind of the Artist who fashioned it, the same light of truth shines on the mind of the one perceiving it (Fr. Thomas Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty).

In experiencing beauty, we are, if but for a moment, drawn outside ourselves and able to gaze upon a world in which we are no longer the center, and, in this, there is a supreme delight, as if the universe were declaring to us that we are not alone, as if there is a much bigger piece to this whole puzzle. We yearn for something more than this life has to offer, probably because there is more.

Consider Revelation 4, a description of God’s Throne Room. The creatures, dwelling in the midst of God’s very Beauty, are said to worship “day and night” without ceasing (4:8). When confronted with finite beauty, it evokes such a response of worship, but in the midst of the very Source of Infinite Beauty itself, what other response could there be but unending worship? The moments we most live for in this life are those moments of splendor and beauty. But what if those were only very limited glimpses of beauty. What if the Eternal Beauty of God emanates with something so far beyond what we have ever experienced in this life?

Might the order of creation itself be a hint that God is up to something profoundly beautiful:

If one were to travel from earth to the next closest star in our galaxy at 500 mph it would take 5.5 million years. But this galaxy itself is much more vast than that. From edge to edge, it is 12-15 billion light years across. And a light year moves at a rate of 186,000 miles per second, making it way around the very broadest part of the earth seven times every second. And yet, our galaxy is astronomically small in comparison to others, some being 60 times larger than our own. Then, there are billions of galaxies.

Maybe we begin to get the picture of just how vast this place really is. But this only sets up the picture for the harmony that follows…

In the midst of this great vastness, we can gaze at our own tiny blue planet and begin to see order, harmony, unity, and proportion at work: Consider how perfectly all the gravitational forces of the vast universe must work together in order to allow the Earth to literally “hang in the balance.” If we were but a tad closer or further from the sun, life would not exist as we know it.

As Fr. Thomas Dubay exclaimed, “Creation is a book proclaiming the Creator.” If beauty depends upon order and harmony, what could be more harmonious than trillions of physical pieces of matter working so remarkably in sync that Earth is perfectly stationed to permit life? Could it be that the entire universe is playing the same symphony?

Or perhaps we should move from the world of macrocosms to the world of microcosms:

The composition of the tiniest cell is a “micro-miniaturized factory containing thousands of exquisitely designed pieces of intricate molecular machinery…far more complicated than any machine built by man and absolutely without parallel in the non-living world” (Dubay, The Evidential Power of Beauty).

Consider that a single cell contains more information than 30 volumes of Encyclopedia Britannica. Imagine a city so tiny that it cannot be seen by our naked eye and yet having millions of opening and closing gateways. It possesses a transportation system, libraries of information, manufacturing plants, computers, and much else. Imagine each of these micro cities making others like them in an afternoon. Of course, it is said that each of these micro cities within the cell are as complex as New York City itself (The Evidential Power of Beauty). And the trillions of cells that make up each human body work with unrivaled efficiency and togetherness, every cell playing its part, working together to sustain the whole. And we think smartphones are impressively complex!

As far as we have come with our own machinery, we must still admit how much more efficient and more intricate, yet, more harmonious the creations of nature are than our own creations. Surely this points to the Grand Imagination of our Grand Composer.

Why is it then, that some can simply fail to see beauty for what it is (Consider earlier example of O’Hear, who calls beauty an “illusion”)? Richard Dawkins, a notable biologist and outspoken atheist, once commented that if a statue of Mary were to wave at him, he would call it a miracle, but preferred to chalk it up to probability:

It is possible for a marble statue to wave at us. It could happen. The odds against such a coincidence are unimaginably great but they are not incalculably great. A physicist colleague has kindly calculated them for me. The number is so large that the entire age of the universe so far is too short a time to write out all the noughts! It is theoretically possible for a cow to jump over the moon with something like the same improbability. The conclusion to this part of the argument is that we can calculate our way into regions of miraculous improbability far greater than we can imagine as plausible (The Blind Watchmaker).

Dr. Dawkins’ sin is not so much in his inability to see miracles. His sin, entrenched in his own ego, is his inability to see anything outside the world of science and logic, the world of “facts, facts, facts”. What has failed Dr. Dawkins here is not his intellect, but his imagination. His world is simply too small to accommodate the grand horizon of Beauty and the Supernatural. Chesterton reminds us of the danger of divorcing reason from imagination:

Imagination does not breed insanity. Exactly what does breed insanity is reason. Poets do not go mad; but chess-players do…Poetry is sane because it floats easily in an infinite sea; reason seeks to cross the infinite sea, and so make it finite. The result is mental exhaustion…To accept everything is an exercise, to understand everything a strain…The poet only asks to get his head into the heavens. It is the logician who seeks to get the heavens into his head. And it is his head that splits (Orthodoxy).

One is more attuned to beauty when they are less inwardly focused, that is, when they are less self-centered and ready to be other’s centered. For, only in humility can we see otherness for what it really is. Yet, sin is the representative of ugliness itself, for it is distortion, disruption, discord, self-centeredness. And what is inwardly focused desires no harmony, no unity with the larger, complete whole. Sin feeds on competition, not cooperation, and so beauty is defeated in its all-against-all mentality.

The best way to see beauty is God-centeredness. For, when God becomes the center of our lives, instead of ourselves, our vision of the universe suddenly becomes simultaneously larger and, yet, also more intimate. The cure for jadedness is taking the focus off onself: “Just as the removal of cataracts restores clear vision, so does repentance restore the joy of youth and a capacity for the beautiful” (The Evidential Power of Beauty).

In discussing the coming glory that we await in Christ’s return to reign in finality, Revelation 19:7-8 proclaims:

Let us rejoice and be glad and give him glory! For the wedding of the Lamb has come, and his bride has made herself ready. Fine linen, bright and clean, was given her to wear. Fine linen stands for the righteous acts of God’s holy people.”

We are called, as Christians, to prepare the way of the Lord, by beautifying our own lives by gazing upon the transcendent ways and thoughts of God’s Glory. But, in order to do so, we must be attuned to the beauty around us. We must unleash the imagination, the spirit of wonder and awe, such that we are able to see the world around us not only for what it is, but for what it is becoming. We must be able to perceive this new world that God set in motion on the third day, a world not where earth stands alone, nor where heaven is a distant reality, but a world in which heaven invades earth and all things are being made new.

Let us never fail to be fascinated by God’s unending glory, which indeed “fills the earth”, as we are able to see it now, and still will gaze upon it one day with even greater clarity. And, one day, when the lion finally lays down with the lamb, when the prey finally embraces the predator, when the great ministry of reconciliation has come to a completion beyond our wildest imagination, it is on that day we will come to see that this holy imagination was anything but imaginary. And, perhaps, it is the Cross of Christ than reminds us of such impossible possibilities.

If God’s glory radiates beauty, then is not the Cross the most radiant image of His beauty? Not what you expected as an image of beauty? You weren’t expecting blood and sweat and tears? You weren’t expecting agonizing, cruel pain and suffering? You weren’t expecting the Cross to be the defining image of God’s beauty?

The reason why the beauty of creation alone is not enough apart from the revelation of Scripture is that when we gaze upon the beauty of creation, we are but for a moment so consumed by this transcendent beauty, that we forget that ugliness still takes up residence in this world, so consumed by this beauty are we that we forget that sin still pierces the human heart. But the Cross will never let us forget this.

“It is finished.”

How strange that these words were affirmed by Christ, not at his resurrection, not at his ascension, not even waiting for his return, but were said amidst his final gasps for breath before he died. It is finished: on the Cross, suffering was transformed into Glory. It is finished: on the Cross, the ugliness of this world was transformed into beauty.

Not what you expected, that the very image of beauty itself would, if but for a moment appear ugly? But then again, that is what makes the Cross more stunningly beautiful than anything else in this world; because it is unwilling to abandon the ugly, unwilling to excommunicate the sinner, unwilling to leave it to its own demise, and so, if it must, it becomes what it is not, if only it might transform even the most hopeless, most disgusting landscape into a haven of beauty. The Cross is beautiful if for no other reason than that it offers hope that the ugliness of this world might just be transformed at last. Look upon the Cross and stand in awe and wonder.

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote a novel paradoxically entitled The Idiot. At one point in the story, the main character, Prince Myshkin, who suffers terrible from epilepsy is conversing with Hippolite, who himself suffers from tuberculosis, and is always envious of the deep sense of content that Myshkin has in the midst of his suffering, while he himself prepares to attempt suicide because he cannot bear his sickness. As Hippolite does his best to mock the apparent naivete of Prince Myshkin, he unknowingly declares a profound truth:

Is it true, prince that you once declared that “beauty would save the world”? Great Heaven! The prince says that beauty saves the world! And I declare that he only has such playful ideas because he’s in love!

Beauty will save the world. And, yet, only Sacrificial Love makes such a hope possible. Yes, beauty is consummated by sacrificial love. We look upon this Cross, upon this ghastly image of a man hanging, beaten, bruised, bloody, and, yet, as we gaze upon that which appears to the world as ugly, we encounter Beauty at its height. In the Cross, Beauty is consummated in love, in personal, intimate, unconditional love.

But the beauty is not discovered in gazing upon some abstract, impersonal, fact of reality. The beauty of the Cross is only discovered by being intimately united with the One on the Cross.

You see, Prince Myshkin knew what Hippolite did not. While both suffered terribly from disease, Myshkin had hope, while Hippolite had despair. Myshkin, by gazing not only upon the beauty of creation, but likewise upon the beauty of the Gospel Narrative, understood what Hippolite did not: Despite our suffering, despite our humiliation, despite our death, Beauty will conquer!

This is the saving power of the Beauty of the Cross. Might it be that Jesus, naked, despised, rejected, abandoned, and humiliated on the Cross, has touched the uttermost depth of the ugliness of this world, and has made it beautiful? Can you see it? Can you see the beauty? Cast your holy imagination upon the Great and Holy Imagination of Creation and Recreation, and you just get a glimpse…

“Theology, therefore, must be concerned much less with showing man that Christ offers him what he wants and much more concerned with showing man that he cannot help but worship the splendor of what he sees.” – Jeffrey Kay

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