Religion - Beauty
( Originally Published Early 1900's )
THE Hudson River adds incalculably to the beauty of the whole valley through which it flows. When a New Yorker wishes to give a visitor to his city an impression of its fine situation, he takes him to the Riverside Drive, where the broad band of blue water glints in the sunlight or provides a silver path for the moon; and conducts him to one of the tall buildings downtown from which he can have sight of the Hudson emptying through the bay into the distant Atlantic. The Palisades, and, farther up, the Highlands about West Point, would be robbed of more than half their charm were the river-bed a mere plain, instead of the stream of gliding water.
The men of the Bible live in a world made beautiful for them, because through nature with its hills and valleys and living things, and through history with its chequered events, they see the controlling presence of the wise, mighty, righteous and tender God. "The earth is full of the loving-kindness of the Lord." Devout patriots saw Him as "a diadem of beauty" to His people. Life in fellowship with Him was a lovely thing: "Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us." In a saddening or terrifying experience, possibly in the face of death-some dark and desolate night—a psalmist declares: "I shall be satisfied when I awake with the sight of Thy Form." Worshipers came up to the Temple "to behold the beauty of the Lord." Impatient of the adornments with which the devout of his clay sought to make their adoration pleasing, Amos insisted that the grandest sight for God and men was the flow of life ordered after the divine will: "Let justice roll down as waters, and righteousness as a flooding stream." Paul looks forth on the course God takes through the ages in the accomplishment of His eternal purpose, and an exclamation breaks from his lips, as an "Oh" instinctively forms on our tongues when a sublime prospect suddenly opens before us : "O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and the knowledge of God ! how unsearchable are His judgments and His ways past tracing out !" And Jesus with a keen eye for loveliness has a scale of ascending appreciations. He prizes lilies of the field, birds of the air and all creatures, then mounts to human beings : "How much is a man of more value than a sheep"; and finally climbs from man at his best in fatherly affection to the Most Highest : "How much more shall your heavenly Father !" The world for Jesus is radiant because His God is lord of earth and heaven.
There is a debate whether beauty exists in things themselves or only in us who perceive them. A British scientist, Professor Thomson of Aberdeen, has recently contended for the fact of beauty as part of the constitution of nature, and says that "in the age-long struggle for existence the unharmonious, the `impossible,' have been always weeded out before they took firm root and multi-plied. The monster is a contradiction in terms. Meredith put it all in a nutshell when he said `Ugly is only half way to a thing.' Nature pronounces her verdict on ugliness by eliminating it." But capacities for seeing and enjoying the beautiful are required. Stevenson wrote : "After we have reckoned up all that we can see or hear or feel, there still remains to be taken into account some sensibility more delicate than usual in the nerves affected, or some exquisite refinement in the architecture of the brain, which is indeed to the sense of the beautiful as the eye or the ear to the sense of hearing or sight." These eyes and ears of the spirit are developable organs. When we look forth upon the pageant of the universe the eyes of the heart report loveliness there, but they also see hideous blemishes, the sickening spectacle of pain, the loathe some presence of mean and cruel and sordid evil. The outlook differs largely according to the capacity or in-capacity of the eyes to see the prospect centering in a spiritual purpose. Blot God out of the landscape, cease viewing the course of events as ordered by a wise and kindly thought, regard men as lonely orphans whose de-sires are unconsidered by an iron universe, give up looking at pain and death as elements in their education for an ampler life and evil as an intrusive alien from whose sway they are being redeemed, and is it not like removing the Hudson, and leaving in its place a swamp or an arid flat ?
So it has seemed to those who have felt obliged to part with Christian faith. The French philosopher, Jouffroy, has described how one December night he faced his long developing doubts and concluded that honesty compelled him to admit that he was no longer a believer : "This moment was a frightful one; and when towards morning I threw myself exhausted on my bed, I seemed to feel an earlier life, so smiling and so full, go out like a fire, and before me another life opened, somber and =peopled, where in future I must live alone, alone with my fatal thought which had exiled me thither, and which I was tempted to curse. The days which followed this discovery were the saddest of my life." Romanes, Darwin's brilliant pupil, found the evolutionary explanation of life banishing God for him, and owned : "The universe has lost for me its soul of loveliness." Lafcadio Hearn, teaching in a Japanese University where he found his students without religion, says in a letter : "You can't . imagine how many compositions I get containing such words as —`Is there a God? I don't know'—which, strange as it may seem to you, doesn't rejoice me at all. I am agnostic, atheist, anything theologians like to call me; but what a loss to the young mind of eighteen or twenty years must be the absence of all that sense of reverence and tenderness which the mystery of the infinite gives. Religion has been very much to me, and I am still profoundly religious in a vague way. It will be a very ugly world when the religious sense is dead in all children." James Thomson entitles his sincere attempt to portray the world as it appeared to his godless view, "The City of Dreadful Night"; and thinking of an earlier fellow-poet, William Blake, to whom hideous and heartless London had accorded the same unwelcoming treatment it had given him, but whose London had contained a Divine presence, he pens lines which have a pathos when we recall their writer's unbelief :
He came to the desert of London town,
He came to the desert of London town,
Thomson's memory of his own believing days reminded him how to Blake's eyes the drab and dingy streets would wear a glory they did not now show to him.
And believers themselves have time and again spoken of the beauty with which Christian faith has covered for them the appearance of all things. Jonathan Edwards (the memory of whose sensitive soul has been obliterated by the recollection of one or two grim details in a theology which he shared with most of his contemporaries) describes his unfolding religious life: "My sense of di-vine things gradually increased, and became more and more lively, and had more of that inward sweetness. The appearance of everything was altered; there seemed to be, as it were, a calm, sweet cast, or appearance of divine glory, in almost everything. God's excellency, His wisdom, His purity and love, seemed to appear in everything; in the sun, moon and stars; in the clouds and blue sky; in the grass, flowers and trees; in the water and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind. And scarce anything among all the works of nature was so sweet to me as thunder and lightning; formerly nothing had been so terrible to me." Henry Ward Beecher tells how the realization of God's providence transfigured earth and sky for him : "In an instant there rose up in me such a sense of God's taking care of those who put their trust in Him that for an hour all the world was crystalline, the heavens were lucid." In the biography of a young professor of economics in a far-western university, who died a few years ago, there is a letter ad-dressed to him by a well-known architect and artist in San Francisco, appealing to him not to impoverish his life by banishing the beauty of religion: "From the first," writes this correspondent, "the word `God,' spoken in the comfortable (almost smug) atmosphere of the old Unitarian congregation, took my breath and tranced me into a vision of a great flood of vibrating light, and only light. . You are building yourself into a vault in which no flowers can bloom, because you have sealed the high window of the imagination so that the frightening God may not look in upon you—this same window through which simple men get an illumination that saves their lives, and in the light of which they communicate kindly, one with the other, their faith and hopes. . . . You need beauty—you need all the escapes—all the doors wide open—and this seemingly impertinent letter is merely the appeal of one human creature to another, for the sake of all the human creatures whom you have it in your power to endow with chains or with wings." To such believers
Heaven above is softer blue,
There have always been devotees of the religion of loveliness for whom beauty was the clearest disclosure of God. One thinks of the Greeks in antiquity who revered truth and goodness as divine, but who felt that these must be seen as lovely in order to be adored. So they reared temples in charming sites which were white de-lights of symmetrical marble, celebrated sacred festivals with dramas of unsurpassed moving power, and carved statues of gods of incomparable grace and dignity. Lucian writes of the majestically benign figure of Zeus at Olympia : "Those who approach the temple do not conceive that they see ivory from the Indies or gold from the mines of Thrace; no, but the very son of Kronos and Rhea, transported by Phidias to earth and set to watch over the lonely plain of Pisa." Dion Chrysostom says of this same figure: "He was the type of that unattainable ideal—Hellas come to unity with herself ; in expression at once mild and awful, as befits the giver of life and all good gifts, the common father, savior and guardian of men ; dignified as a king, tender as a father, awful as giver of laws, kind as protector of suppliants and friends, simple and great as bestower of increase and wealth ; revealing, in a word, in form and countenance, the whole array of gifts and qualities proper to his supreme divinity." And there is a note of personal confession when he records the religious impression this statue makes: "He who is heavy-laden in soul, who has experienced many misfortunes and sorrows in his life, and from whom sweet sleep has fled, even he, I think, if he stood before this image, would forget all the calamities and troubles that befall in human life."
And while Greece and her worship of the Divine through beauty belong to the past, we still find a present-day analogy in many of the temples of Japan; the Chion-in at Kyoto or the Daihatsu at Kamakura may easily be compared with the most notable shrines of Hellas. Japanese temples, set in lovely nooks, their grounds shaded with tall, dark, fragrant cedars (who can be unaffected by the cryptomerias of Nara or Nikko?), cooled with running brooks or lily pools, quiet save for the occasional booming of a deep-toned bell or the cooing of pigeons, with exquisite bits of lawn and patches of color in flowers and shrubs, and with the immobile face of a colossal Amida Buddha concealed among the softening shadows of a high-roofed shrine, appeal to the most undevout with a suggestive charm.
And in nominal Christendom throughout the centuries there have often been believers whose religion was devotion to beauty. One thinks of the period of the Renaissance in particular, and of those in our day, like Mat-thew Arnold and Walter Pater, who have stood for the Hellenic view of life. Bernard Shaw makes the indigent artist in The Doctor's Dilemma gasp with his dying breath : "I believe in Michael Angelo, Velasquez and Rembrandt; in the might of design, the mystery of color, the redemption of all things by beauty everlasting, and the message of art that has made these hands blessed.
Amen, Amen." It has been an insufficient faith whose adherents may remain selfish, aloof from the wrongs and pains of the mass of men, untouched by humility, unmoved to sympathy with any who lack taste, and sometimes fouled by gross self-indulgences. But it has been a real religion with soothing, uplifting, stimulating inspirations. Goethe is its most outstanding modern devotee, and his latest English biographer concludes a two-volume survey of his career : "So it was with him to the end—unceasing endeavor, ever-widening views, constant renewal of the springs of life." A talented young architect who had undergone a harrowing grief recently published a sonnet in The Yale Review, in which he makes Beauty say:
He that keeps faith with me will surely find
Those who through sublime or pleasant sights and sounds and thoughts, hold communion with "that Beauty which penetrates and clasps and fills the world" have no contemptible fellowship with the Lord of heaven and earth.
But from the Christian standpoint it is a fractional religion. God is to be found not primarily in beauty, but in self-spending devotion. He is not loveliness; He is love. One of the greatest figures of the Renaissance, Michael Angelo, has put his confession of the inadequacy of the worship of beauty in a sonnet penned in old age:
Now hath my life across a stormy sea
Which made my soul the worshiper and thrall
Christians begin with the beauty of holiness, with God as Christlike. A religious service which satisfies the aesthetic nature without committing the conscience to the exacting demands of Jesus, without enlightening the intelligence with His mind and kindling the heart with His passion, does not supply Christian inspirations. An outlook upon life which sees a kindly Deity ("le bon Dieu") smiling upon His foolish and frivolous children, and not over-hard upon them when they prove fiendish to one another, is at a far remove from the New Testament whose God is a consuming fire. A righteous Father creating a new heaven and a new earth after His heart for His children, whose love costs Him untold suffering as He gives Himself in Jesus and in His followers to redeem a world for which He is responsible, and whose true sons and daughters share His conscientiousness and do not spare themselves in bringing to pass His purpose—that is the God of Christian conviction.
And this conception of the Jesus like God is far lovelier than any other, and suffuses with wondrous beauty the world in which He is seen at work, and in which men work with Him in His creative plan. Greek Christians found Jesus fairer than the most charming deities they had known. Clement of Alexandria speaks of Jesus as "our new Orpheus," and dwells on the resistless music of His words and life. Gregory of Neo-Cæsarea says :
"He attracts all to Himself by His unutterable beauty." Augustine, whose mind was steeped in Plato, fills his Confessions with adjectives, for which we find difficulty in discovering English equivalents, to describe the at-traction which God seen in Christ has for him. As he reviews his past before he came to whole-hearted faith, it is its ugliness that impresses him : "Too late came I to love Thee, O Thou loveliness, both so ancient and so fresh, yea, too late came I to love Thee." And all down the Christian ages believers feel, and seek to make others feel, the beauty of life with God as Jesus embodies it. One finds it in Latin Christianity with its hymn to "Jesu duleis memoria," and in the German address to "Schonster Herr Jesu," while an English dissenter sings :
Fairer is he than all the fair That fill the heavenly train.
The Quaker, William Penn, concludes his preface to George Fox's Journal with an appeal to the reader, in which he subscribes himself as "one . . . to whom the way of Truth is more lovely and precious than ever, and who knowing the beauty and benefit of it above all worldly treasure, has chosen it for his chiefest joy; and therefore recommends it to thy love and choice, because he is with great sincerity and affection thy soul's friend, William Penn." And the Puritan Jonathan Edwards, whose aesthetic nature we have already observed, discovers the main appeal of the Gospel to be "this sight of the divine beauty of Christ that bows the will and draws the hearts of men."
Beauty is primarily to be enjoyed, but many among us do almost everything with their religion except enjoy it. Their thought of God is a spur to neglected duty. It is a light illumining an obligation to be shouldered. It is a reinforcement in a difficult and draining enter-prise. It is a prop to uphold a man under a crushing load. It is a challenge summoning forth on the high seas to do business in great waters. But it is rarely an enhancement of life, rendering lovely the outlook upon circumstances, the world's ongoings, upon present experiences and remotest prospects. Christians are aware that it does this for them, but they hesitate to indulge themselves in delighting in the view. They feel uncomfortable when they admit to themselves the solid satisfaction of religion. They grant that the Westminster divines were not lacking in keen conscience, but they are chary of approving their statement that "man's chief end is to glorify God and enjoy Him forever." They are haunted with the fear that it is selfish to enjoy God. And it would be, were their enjoyment a selfish enjoyment. But it is impossible to enjoy the God and Father of Jesus Christ selfishly. When men come close enough to Him to appreciate Him, to be held by Him as companions, to what hazardous and exacting adventures for their brethren He takes them. Life with Him, who declares "I will be that I will be" is a river carrying them out to the unbounded ocean. And their usefulness as religious forces depends upon their pleasure in the life with God. Enthusiasts are the only proselytizers. Appreciation—appreciation of nature, of poetry, of music, of anything whatsoever—appreciation of religion is caught from and increased by contact with the appreciative. "Worship" is an Anglo-Saxon compound from "worth-ship"—''to give value to." Our delight in God is the measure of His value to us. In any situation to worship Him is both to use the benefit which He confers—refreshment, or cleansing, or power, or guidance-and to think of the satisfaction to be had in Him. When we drink from the tiny Hudson starting forth on Mt. Marcy, we not only find our thirst slaked with the cold water, but our souls feasted with the beauty of the brook. When we sail on the lower reaches of the river, we are not only upborne by the buoyancy of the stream, but we are also enriched with exquisite views—Palisades rising in brown cliffs topped with green, one of the Highlands looming in grandeur with the blue water winding about its base, and all along the sloping sides of the valley—in spring with blossoming orchards and dark, new-plowed fields, in mid-summer with a dozen shades and tints of cool green, in October with flaming crimsons and gold, and as we steam at night with towns and isolated houses agleam with lights. When we trust ourselves to God, we are enriched not only with the answer of our urgent need for upholding or stimulus or peace, but also with the beauty of life with Him, who makes all things—the opposition of the belated good, the indifference of the many, the devilishness of the few, the ghastly cross, the imprisoning grave—work together for good unto them that love. That is the harmony and rhythm brought to life by religion. When we "survey" the cross, it appears "wondrous": "love so amazing" fascinates our whole nature—soul, life, all.
The presentation of the Christian religion as inherently beautiful, and as vastly enhancing life with its loveliness, deserves far more attention than it commonly receives. Few of the faiths which Christianity is seeking to sup-plant, or rather to consummate, by bringing their adherents under the sway of Jesus, have not trained their devotees to some extent to experience the Divine through Beauty. The saying is attributed to Mahomet : "If a man have two loaves of bread, let him exchange one for some flowers of the narcissus : for bread nourishes only the body, but to look on the narcissus feeds the soul." Even in the intense economic pressure of China and of India, their people have not lost the eye for the lovely, and associate it with devout aspiration. While we have no interest in cultivating the aesthetic taste apart from a sensitized conscience, we dare not overlook any capacity for appreciation to which Christ can be rendered appealing. The great New Testament word "grace" never wholly lost its earlier aesthetic connotation. "The grace of God" is a phrasé which presents His love as doing something marvelously lovely.
On many missionary fields much remains to be done in enabling the Church to present the Scriptures in a literary form comparable in majesty and winsomeness to the German and English versions of the Bible ; to sup-ply the people with hymns as finely lyrical as their best non-Christian songs; to furnish her congregations with houses of worship which appeal to the aesthetic sensibilities of the community; and to enlarge the scope of her work to reach the artistically susceptible, as well as seekers after truth and men of dissatisfied conscience-in short, to proclaim "the grace of God."
And within Christendom it is often possible to approach those whose minds find intellectual difficulties in the Christian message with the appeal of its enhancement of life. George Romanes, whom we have already quoted, after he had passed through his eclipse of faith, in speaking of Jesus to a group of working-men, said : "Whatever answers different persons may give to the questions, `What think ye of Christ ? Whose Son is He ?' every one must agree that `His name shall be called Wonderful.' " There is a haunting ,charm about Him which captivates even those whose minds find trouble in fitting Him into their view of the universe, or of readjusting their view of the universe to accord with their impressions of Him.
And at the moment when the mood of many is the jaded and cynical temper of the disillusioned, there is special point in stressing the loveliness of the Christian outlook. The kingdom of heaven is opened to the child-like, and the awakening of the sense of beauty is a chief road to regaining the heart of a little child. Francis Thompson, in one of the most exquisitely penned essays in our tongue, presented the religious worth of the poetry of Shelley to ecclestiastics, who thought ill of this poet because of his break with the traditional creed and morality, and warned them that in his eye for loveliness he possessed conspicuously that childlike spirit which Jesus so stressed: "Know you what it is to be a child? It is to be something very different from the man of today.
It is to believe in love, to believe in loveliness, to believe in belief ; it is to be so little that the elves can reach to whisper in your ear; it is to turn pumpkins into coaches, and mice into horses, lowness into loftiness, and nothing into everything, for each child has its fairy godmother in its own soul; it is to live in a nutshell and to count yourself the king of infinite space; it is
To see a world in a grain of sand,
it is to know that you are under sentence of life, nor petition that it be commuted into death." In the reaction which has so widely followed the idealism of the War, to train, men's minds afresh to prize things lovely and to baptize their spirits into wonder is a preparation for a rebirth of faith. "Wondering he shall come to the kingdom."
Nor can we forget the holding power of beauty. Many who have lost confidence in the truth of the Bible, and have come to view its ideals as obsolete, continue to read its pages for their sheer fascination. When the Scriptures are barred from the curriculum of schools and colleges because of religious prejudice, it would be a vast gain could they be brought back simply as great literature—which they indisputably are. Their stately sentences and musical cadences, their apt metaphors and pithy sayings, their vivid characterizations of several hundred interesting figures, captivate the fancy. Through the charm of the literature men are drawn into its view of life suffused with the beauty of the presence of its God. This emphasizes the duty of the Christian Church to present her message and order her worship as beautifully as she can. The English historian, J. R. Green, when traveling on the Continent, once wrote to his fellow-historian, Freeman, "I am going to High Mass to-morrow, inasmuch as Catholicism has an organ and Protestantism only a harmonium, and the difference of truth between them don't seem to me to make up for the difference of instruments."
Many, and probably almost all believers at times, find it hard to be sure of the correctness of Jesus' interpretation of life. It is seldom easy to believe that this is a world under the control of a God who is love. When it seems too good to be true, it is well to insist that it appears good. When heaven overhead seems vacant and earth about us a shambles, it is no small thing if in the mind there hangs the idyllic Galilean picture of a world in which a thoughtful Father clothes the lilies and caters for the sparrows and numbers the hairs of His children's heads. It may be labeled an illusion, but let it be confessed a beautiful illusion. It then possesses a man's vote to be true if it can, and prepossession is nine-tenths of belief.
We began with the assertion of the scientist that beauty is inherent in the structure of things. That which we discover to be beautiful, can hardly be out of all relation with reality. If the monstrous is in process of elimination, the beautiful is on its way to being established. A foremost writer on aesthetics, the Italian philosopher Croce, defines beauty as "successful expression." To Christians Jesus is the incarnation, the Self-expression, of God. Does not the charm of Jesus suggest "successful expression" and point to an ultimate Being at the heart of the universe whom He manifests ? Wordsworth claimed that a poet's task was "to add sunshine to daylight." Daylight is sufficient to see by, but what an addition the sunshine makes to all we see ! According to the Christian interpretation, God works poetically; He adds to useful prose the spell of musical verse. He has expressed Himself successfully in the Babe of Bethlehem, the Teacher of Galilee, the vicarious Sufferer on the cross, the triumphant Lord. He has made Himself known and felt to our satisfied delight.
A characteristic of beauty is enduring power. Plutarch, writing several centuries after Phidias planned and carved, speaks of his figures and buildings as "still fresh and new and untouched by time, as if a spirit of eternal youth, a soul that was ageless, were in the work of the artist." Keats put the same discovery in the familiar lines:
A thing of beauty is a joy forever;
That is true these many generations after of the expression of God in the Son of Mary. The fascination of Jesus abides. The satisfaction which men take in Him grows. Each age finds new meaning in the old titles, "The Desire of Nations," "The Saviour of the World," "Wonderful Counsellor," "Prince of Peace," "The Friend of Sinners," "The altogether Lovely."
And this "successful expression" of the Divine is not confined to Jesus, but extends to every soul brought under the spell of His Spirit. Men and women through whom something of the heart and conscience of Christ are disclosed possess an unaging loveliness. They seem not to belong to a passing day, much less to a past day, but to be harbingers of a fairer to-morrow. Sainte Beuve complains that the worldly Montaigne has "no notion of that inverse moral and spiritual perfection, that growing maturity of the inner being under the withering outer envelope, that second birth and immortal youth, which makes the white-haired old man seem at times only in his first bloom for the eternal springtime." The lines with which the Elizabethan hymn-writer describes the heavenly city, are a true portrait of what is in the heart of those in whom the river of Christ's Spirit flows, and in social groups where that same stream finds an unimpeded way :
Thy gardens and thy gallant walks
To believers Christ is the "successful expression" of God. Following Him they find "sunshine added to day-light," all things enhanced with beauty. There are ugly blemishes still upon the world—corporate relations and many men, women and little children, untouched by the Spirit of the Son of man. They cannot rest in an artistic view of existence which makes a harmonious unity by eliminating the inappropriate. God's Self-expression is not completely successful until the charm of Jesus Christ is seen and felt in the life of nations and cities, and of all sorts and conditions of people, made immortally fair by the flow in them of the River of God.