Beauty AND Truth

12 Mar

Since my school days, when I studied John Keats' poetry, I have loved the last lines from his 'Ode on a Grecian Urn',
    Beauty is truth, truth beauty—
    That is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.

I have been trying to introduce my students to the importance of more than one value, in theology. It was Colin Gunton who first alerted me to the importance of three classic values: truth, goodness and beauty, and the fact that in Western Christianity we have overwhelmingly focussed on the first two, with almost no interest in the third. Somehow, it has had no place in our spirituality.

More than that, I think many whose artistic sensitivity has been important to them, have felt that is was something to keep private, or perhaps even something to be ashamed of. It had no place in the church. One very sad expression of this was told to me in the story of a friend, a pastoral colleague. I had known him for many years, and knew that he  played music (church music!) and more generally enjoyed music and literature. Later, I came to learn that these were the 'acceptable' expressions of his early artistic tendencies. His  passion for painting had been defined as not 'spiritual', so as a young man he gave it up. Only later in life did he give himself permission to return that that talent and pleasure. What a travesty.
Beauty is a gift of God and indeed an attribute of God.
Beauty may bring us close to God.
In my classes I talk a lot, and the students talk a lot, and we read a lot of words. In many ways, theology is all about words.
For that reason, frequently I begin my classes by playing some music.
Yesterday I played to the class James Galway's flute arrangement of Pachelbel's Canon, the Canon in D Major. It is a beautiful piece, and it does for us so well what only music can do. In a short time, it can both sooth and calm us, centring our spirits, bringing us to the holy presence, and yet at the same time lift us and challenge us and call from us a visceral, bodily response.

There are many forms of beauty, and we are deeply impoverished in our spirituality, and in our theology, if we do not attend to this third great virtue.
Beauty is truth, truth beauty: if we attend only to the forms of truth that come to us as words and ideas, in conceptual forms (and these too can be very beautiful!) we miss some of the truth and goodness of God, and of life.

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