Faith: Bringing forward all the beauty within us
June 10, 2022
Is beauty a religious value?
The ancient Greek philosopher Plato spoke of the good, the true, and the beautiful as a kind of philosophical “trinity.” If a thing was good, he said, it was also necessarily true and beautiful. If it was true, it had to be beautiful and good as well. And if something was beautiful, you could be sure it was also good and true. These three qualities were mutually implicated in one another; you couldn’t have one without the others.
So, in the ancient classical world, truth, beauty, and goodness belonged together; they were an integrated whole. And, in fact, Plato placed beauty in the highest place in this metaphysical hierarchy, because for him the essence of beauty was harmony, and truth and goodness depended for their integrity on being harmonious. So, beauty had a certain priority in Plato’s scheme.
Plato thought that any instance of finite beauty could lead us, guide us, and conduct us eventually toward perfect, ideal and eternal beauty. In our postmodern world, many have lost confidence that this dimension of depth even exists, so we tend to be fixated on surface appearances, the fleeting manifestations of beauty in its finite forms. We have “flattened out” the world. This loss of confidence in depth was expressed in humorous fashion by the author and playwright Jean Kerr, who said, “I’m tired of all this nonsense about beauty being only skin deep. What do you want, an adorable pancreas?” That’s a too-literal understanding of what is meant by spiritual depth!
A well-known prayer by Socrates gives expression, I think, to the vision and task of bringing forth true beauty from within. Socrates, standing in his favorite forest grove, speaks: “O Pan, and all ye other gods that haunt this place, give me beauty in the inward man … and may the outward and the inward man be at one.”
Beauty in the inner soul. What a wonderful idea. But it requires discipline to recognize the connection between inner and outer beauty, and to give it expression. That discipline/spiritual practice may take the form of art or science or of ethical action to bring forth beauty, truth, and goodness.
What if we were able to allow Beauty to show itself through finite appearances in the same way that we appreciate a sunset, or a flaming maple tree in the autumn? Might we then be more able to see through the finite occasion to the infinite source? The rabbis say we ought to utter a hundred blessings a day, and there are blessings for when one sees a particularly beautiful person: “Blessed art thou, o radiant one, who creates a world that is filled with such beauty.” Immersed in beauty, aware of the beauty around us, we may be inspired to create moral beauty and discover new truth.
Goodness, Truth, and Beauty — these three abide. And (perhaps) the greatest of these is Beauty.
Writer Rev. Bruce Johnson retired last Sunday from the Unitarian Universalist Church in Duluth after serving there for more than a decade. Learn more at http://www.uuduluth.org.