The Beauty of Theology (an Advent Call)

(art: "Saint Jerome" by Caravaggio)

[This article is based on parts of the manuscript for a message I gave on “Beauty” at Epiphany Fellowship. On my personal blog and the webzine I run you can find the audio, manuscript, and full blog series inspired by the message.]

We all know, as I’ve mentioned before, that there is a potential risk of seminary becoming too intellectual an enterprise. This is nothing new. It’s nothing we haven’t heard before. In light of Advent, which began last week, I’d like to send out this call to all the seminarians out there in the midst of papers and final exams. In this article, I’m not seeking to give you anything new, but rather to stir your affections for the study of the revelation of this Beautiful God. I want to talk about what makes theology beautiful, and what makes theology grotesque. “Theology” is the contemplation of the Beauty of God; and as the study of this God, it is also the study of Beauty Itself; it is the contemplation of the various complexities and revelations of God in order to better enjoy Him. John Calvin talks about this in his Institutes of the Christian Religion. He says that if your quote-on-quote “theological study” isn’t leading you to greater praise and enjoyment in God, then you’re not really studying theology! At that point it’s just studying literature – getting a better idea of this “character” named God in this “novel” called “The Bible”.

This is one of the reasons why I had to leave seminary. I was in the midst of such beauty and I was numb to it! I was too immature. I didn’t have the spiritual infrastructure to see it for how beautiful it was! This infinite complexity being placed in front of me day in and day out was not leading me to enjoy Him. How many of us live our lives surrounded by the objective beauty of Christ and it does nothing to us? This contemplation of the Beauty of God can help us. Charles Spurgeon once said, “There is something exceedingly improving to the mind in a contemplation of the Divinity. It is a subject so vast, that all our thoughts are lost in its immensity; so deep, that our pride is drowned in its infinity. No subject of contemplation will tend to more humble the mind, than thoughts of God.”

If the end goal of theology is enjoyment in God, then, how do we know whether or not we’re actually enjoying him? What does this process of enjoyment look like? Let me offer a potential model: First, does your theological education lead you to praise God? By “praise”, I do not mean anything that has to do with your words, actions, or even your thoughts. Praise is the process of turning one’s deepest affections towards the object of one’s contemplation. It is a devotion that is pulled out of your heart and not just decided by your will. It’s acknowledging beauty at the deepest part of who you are. But praising is not enough. Seeing something beautiful and calling it such does not complete the purpose for which that beauty exists.

The Beauty of anything has an attractive quality. It draws you toward it at a very deep level. The next step, after acknowledging this beauty is to allow it to suck you in. I call this participating with the Beauty of that thing or person. All other forms of beauty can only draw you near to themselves. God, in theology, can and does actually draw you into Himself, Himself in you, and then uses his world to communicate Himself even further to you. Let your theology cultivate in you a view of this God as One whose grace can be experienced in everything. Every good-tasting piece of food, every sunset, every cool breeze, every joyful moment all then become moments where God communicates Himself and His grace to you so you might participate and be joined to Him in His Beauty. John Owen, my favorite Puritan, says “O to behold the glory of Christ…Herein would I live; herein would I die; herein would I dwell in my thoughts and affections…until all things below become unto me a dead and deformed thing, no way suitable for affectionate embraces.” Oh that we longed for God like that! In Theology, there is a participation in the Glory, Beauty, Majesty, Goodness, and Love of God that is at hand for those who believe and far for those who don’t.

But even this does not complete the process of enjoying God in theology. Next, we proclaim the beauty we have seen in this revelation of God. The Beauty of anything longs to be known and spread – almost like a virus. It wants to inspire you to tell others about it, so that those people might participate in it as well. This process in response to God’s Beauty in Theology is typically referred to as preaching (and not just behind the safety of a pulpit). Speaking of this God should be the natural response to someone who has praised and participated in the Beauty of God. It is out of the overflow of this in someone’s heart that they speak; not out of begrudging compulsion or sheer white-knuckled obedience. We tell others about the things we find most beautiful. Should this not also apply to the highest of all beautiful persons – God?

This brings us to our last part in the process of responding to the Beauty of God in theology. God, in His love for us, calls us to respond to beauty not only by proclaiming beauty in word, but also producing beauty in deed. This is shown in two ways. First, this shows itself in holiness. Seeing the Beauty of God should inspire us to holy living and loving of others. It should drive us to serving those around us in order to replicate the Beauty of God that we have seen. If your seminary education is not leading you to increased practical holiness, you are an affront to the purpose for which you are supposedly there. Repent or drop out. The second way we produce beauty in response to God’s revelation in theology is by, well, producing beautiful things. We are built in the Image of a God who doesn’t just desire, delight in, and display Beauty, but a God who also makes Beauty. The longer I live, the more I am convinced that everyone has some creative ability in them. Of course this will look different in all of us, but we all have it. Find it. Do it well. Do it often. And do it as a response to the Beauty that is around you in both God and Creation. Seminary should not terminate on itself. It should spur you to create! You are built in the image of a Creator God! You have not only the ability but — I fully believe — the responsibility as well to bring forth more beauty in this world and further participate in God’s “re-knitting” of the broken strands of this universe.

May I challenge all of us, in this season of Advent and reflection, to press in and seek the complexities of Who this God is and how He has revealed Himself? Understanding the Beauty of God in theology is of the utmost importance to the Christian, because His Beauty is completely pointless. It can’t be manipulated, used, or abused. It can only be enjoyed. Something I’ve learned over time: whenever spirituality of any kind goes awry and goes off track, the Beauty of God is one of the first things to go. The inability to accept the mysterious complexities of God is the beginning of all heresy. You can’t have a right enjoyment of the Beauty of God and be a legalist, libertine (someone who abuses grace), or a hypocrite. Seeking to enjoy the Beauty of God is a guard against all these things.

In my reading on this topic, my favorite resource I found was from a Catholic theologian named John Navone. He says in his book Toward a Theology of Beauty that Christian theologians (which I would argue should be all of us) are people given the task of articulating and putting into words how everything in life is given to us by God. Navone calls this the “givenness” of life and selfhood. This means that all of life is grace – unmerited favor; and that even things that are usually seen as secular (types of visual art, media, culture, jobs, and types of “non-Christian” music) are actually things that “mediate the mystery of the dawn of Christ’s Kingdom, as epiphanies or manifestations of grace. We as theologians are charged with the task of ushering in and articulating the mysteries of beauty which we will rest in forever.” That’s amazing. “Theology” is the study of these “mysteries of beauty” that we then articulate to the world around us. He goes on to say that “Theologians are engaged in a dialogue, not only with their public, but with the object of their contemplation.” In this time that the Church has historically set aside to reflect upon the incarnated living Word of God, may I plead with all of us to spend some time, even in the midst of intense cramming, to reflect upon the study of the inspired written Word of God.

Contemplate this God. Contemplate His revelation. Enjoy this revelation. Enjoy this God. Repeat. Happy Advent.

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Written by paul-burkhart
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