When we speak of beauty many people now think that we speak of something that is only “in the eye of the beholder”—something that is subjective and no more than a matter of opinion. The role of the viewer cannot, of course, be discounted, but the worldview formed by Christian faith very much includes the experience that beauty is much more than a matter of opinion or taste. Beauty is one of the ways in which God choses to reveal Himself. In our culture today there are many who do not experience this beauty, and, indeed, much of the “transgressive” nature of postmodern art involves the deliberate denial of beauty (and with this, the desecration of what is sacred). Our calling involves refocusing on all of the ways God speaks to us through all of our senses, and how He touches us with His truth once He has gotten our attention through a revelation of beauty.
Consider this example: the difference between an artistic depiction of the nude human body and pornography. Whether we look upon Michelangelo’s statue of the young David or Titian’s Venus of Urbino (images of both are available online), what we encounter certainly includes the beauty of form, but what integrates this form is the face of the subject, the gaze, the human presence that makes the subject a subject and not an object. The personal attraction and love which we label eros is attraction to and love of a person, not a collection of physical attributes. In pornography, on the other hand, the “attraction” involves objectification, the projection of fantasy, that depersonalization which is at its core allied with the denial we find in evil. What is encountered is a denial of the good, the true, the beautiful, and the reality of love; a denial feeding upon the sin which whispers that “I am in charge. Others exist to conform to my will.”
The distinction between the God-given reality that each human being, as created in the image and likeness of God, is always a subject, an end and not a means, and the fallenness in this world which seeks to seduce us into a view that the only subject is me, and all others are objects, is as old as sin. It is a distinction which our culture has blurred. We have been desensitized. What would fifty years ago have been considered pornographic is now mainstream in a prime time TV commercial. Many experience the increased need for stimulation, and so we see a ready (and self-reinforcing) market for often violent video games, music founded only in rhythm, the need to continually surf the internet and social media, movies and TV shows which revel in violence … the list can go on! Many have been not only desensitized but now no longer know how to recognize beauty, what it is. Their worldview has become one of objects only, and it is up to us to participate in how God reveals Himself as the supreme subject.
The words of prayer and Scripture—music—the visual language of sign and symbol and color—the experience of all of the senses in worship: this totality is language in which God reveals Himself. And, this is much of who we are as a parish church in this place at this time. We are called to reach out, to testify, to share, to embody the beauty of holiness, and to walk alongside those who have experienced being objectified, that they might with us experience the “gaze upon God’s face” which is the beauty of creation revealed to those with eyes to see.
Yours in Christ Jesus,
The Rev. Dr. Karl C. Schaffenburg