Giving God a Name - An Ode on Beauty
The Grecian urn that so famously speaks at the end of Keats’ renowned poem utters the timeless phrase: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, — that is all Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” By this, it is understood that Keats was commenting upon the unsurpassed ability of art to convey the truth of our existence, that a single painting—in this case on an urn—can imply variations and subtleties that language cannot.
When we say something or someone is beautiful, what do we really mean? At its deepest level, to declare something beautiful is to say that it is exactly as it should be. Its apprehension has fulfilled in us a certain sense of rightness and perfection so that we receive pleasure in looking upon it. Out of the endless possibilities, out of the chaos, has emerged this single interpretation, and it is true, accurate, exemplary. There seems to be some ideal to which we compare all that we see, at times stumbling upon a face or a sunset that matches this hidden picture of the soul. Somewhere in us, there lives an image of the consummate flower or body, and that which we behold and declare beautiful fits this intrinsic pattern.
And yet, there are also those things that are not aesthetically flawless but are wholly true, and it is their unflinching truthfulness that makes them beautiful. For example, a poem that poignantly captures the devastation of losing a child is tragic and painful, but because it has fully portrayed our unsearchable grief, it stirs in us an appreciation for its honesty and ability to communicate externally the pain we have known internally. We would indeed label it beautiful. Visual and musical art that is dissonant or shocking, jarring or upsetting, falls into this category. It creates in us the sense that what is depicted is entirely accurate—as a photograph, a painting, or as a symphony.
Yes, in all beauty, there is truth. Jesus, too, had much to say about truth and its importance. Namely, that he is the truth of who God is and the truth of who we are, the love of the Trinity embodied in human form. God is both beautiful and the source of all beauty. He is truth, and the truth matters—to you, to me. The truth mattered tremendously to Jesus, too. He spent his years of active ministry teaching and driving home the truth, exposing lies, dying for the reality of our sin and God’s holiness. What could be more beautiful than God—a God who created life and time and people for and through his dearly-loved Son (Romans 11:36)? The Father of beauty and goodness, of crystal laughter, ardent eyes, the oceans, shooting stars, long legs and baby’s pudgy feet, nebulas, motherhood, men. The Holy Spirit hovered over the nascent waters of creation as an artist before a blank canvas, a sculptor bending over a block of clay, a writer staring at an empty page.
Because God has set eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), each of us has a profound longing for the life that would have been had sin never entered the world—the immortality, the closeness, the safety, the intimacy with our Creator. When we grasp at beauty, we cling to a past Edenic cosmos and reach for a future heaven, but we also cling to this manifestation of God’s character that we are able to touch through artistic expression and through his creation. It is but one facet of who God is, and it is accessible to all on this earth as part of God’s common grace.
And so we covet beautiful things, experiences, people. The more beautiful something is, the righter it seems. The beauty that we find in God’s world or through exercising the creative abilities with which he has blessed us is deliberate and meant to cause us to seek and feel our way toward the One in whom we live and move and have our being (Acts 17:26-28). In a poem or in the trout-filled river, we see our Lord fleetingly, a glimpse as he turns the corner. Love, tall grass, laughter and music, the raucous variety of people’s lives and the fragile insects—these are clues that point to something bigger and truer—to a Creator who delights in life.
Beauty lures and captivates us, and for many outside of Christ, the pursuit of beauty becomes a religion in and of itself, providing a type of purpose, significance, healing and joy. I speak with firsthand knowledge, for I once belonged to these ranks. To those who find Christianity irrelevant, offensive, hateful—I once thought as you think. I gloried in yogic chanting and The Arts, in self-expression, in great literature and in eastern philosophies. The classics were my holy scriptures, and I found wisdom to live by in the pages of James, Faulkner, Morrison, and Cather. I entertained notions of reincarnation, astral projection, crystal healing, the goddess and Wiccan beliefs. I celebrated harvest and the moon’s cycles and believed I heard the music of the spheres.
I pursued a certain harmony and happiness; I wanted a beautiful life, as all people do. Nature and artistic expression inspired me most, and these comprised the tenants of my religion. They gave me meaning, community, a sense of peace, and a framework for understanding my place in the world. In creating beauty, I froze time and sensed the eternal, making something true. I unwittingly imaged my Creator, and it felt wonderful. Here is where so many stop, and it is where I stopped. Having sensed this intersection of God and man, I pushed no further. The veil remained drawn. I did not reach beyond these experiences—the fresh, centering, sublime encounters with wilderness and creativity—but rather turned to worship nature and my own desires and talents.
I had traded the truth of the creator for a lie and worshipped the creation instead of the creator (Romans 1:25). I thought that all those who adhered to the tenants of an old book, to a God I’d heard about and didn’t much like, were anachronistic fools at best and dogmatic bigots at worst. Jesus, his very name uttered aloud, was repulsive and embarrassing to me. The language of Christianity repelled me—the notion of sin, the black and white conception of morality, the pathetic adoration of a man named Jesus. These people who called themselves Christians were so ugly, so broken, so weak. I preferred an impersonal energy to a personal God with whom I did not agree.
The spirituality to which I ascribed demanded nothing of me or anyone else. It was inoffensive. It was easy. It staked no ground and drew no boundaries. I could master it entirely in my own strength. In effect, it was small, and I was still very much in control. Those moments of abandon, of self-forgetfulness, of feeling “at one” with nature and the universe, were addictive and alluring, but I submitted to no one. The beauty in nature and the beauty I longed to create were tastes of God’s thumbprints on this world, but like the sheltered soul in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, I was satisfied to stare at the stone wall and watch the shadows walk across, thinking all the while that I experienced the shadowcaster, the authentic and enlightened life.
Reality matters, as does what we choose to put our faith in. I seemed to think that I could pick what was true, as though the truth was dependent upon my belief in it and that no such thing as independent reality existed. Therefore, I was free to do what was right in my own eyes. Christian morality was unattractive and antithetical to my definition of good. Like so many others, I considered myself spiritual, and highly so. I believed I most likely had a soul, but I couldn’t have told you how or why or what a soul was. I believed in spirits, but again, I could not tell you how such a thing as a spirit might exist or who had made this non-corporeal entity. Above all, I believed in something called “energy,” and the “universe,” a force without personality or opinion that somehow had brought forth life from nothing, kept the planets in orbit, and led me where I needed to go. Christianity seemed to me the least spiritual of available options. I sensed that there was more to this life than what I could see and touch and understand, but I did not have a name for it. I pieced together as best I could those elements of various philosophies, religions, and belief systems that resonated, but my patchwork philosophy was not enough. It fell short. God intended far more.
What I have come to learn is that there is no true spirituality apart from a relationship with the one true God, and that there is a vast difference between experiencing aspects of the Divine and actually knowing the Godhead—the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit. And there is nothing like it. Jesus has ruined me for all other worship and all other religions. How could I return to such a false faith, trade in being the daughter of the Living God to wander aimlessly with a dead, unworthy idol in my pocket? How could I return to worshipping a nameless god?
Friend, the Lord is so much more than the exhilaration you get from sleeping beneath the Milky Way or laying color across the canvas. You do not run from some dogmatic, cruel, hateful man in the sky who wants to oppress and snatch away your joy. You run from life and love itself, from warm, flowing, vibrant relationship with the maker of your soul. You think Christianity is foolishness, and yet you know that there is more than you see, or you would not feel as you do when you draw, sculpt, compose, play, dance, sing, walk along the ocean’s edge, or swim in an alpine lake. It is good that you marvel at God’s handiwork, that you find solace on the mountainside, but the One who made the mountain ranges also made you to know him as a child knows his father. Why do you run? Why do you turn aside to lesser gods who cannot hear your prayers, who have no power?
He is the same God of all beauty and creativity who gifted both Mozart and Stephen Hawking with their genius, who gave Maria Callas her voice. He is the God who created deep sea creatures that shine their own light and whales that sing, weeping willow trees and fog, who designed leaves to turn gold and red in fall. Ferns and anaconda, desert wadis and stalactites. He is the same God who gave you your speed, your strength, your rhythm.
In describing the impetus for his decision to eke out a simpler existence, Thoreau wrote that he went to the woods to live deliberately, to make sure he had not, when it came time to die, discover that he had not lived. He did not wish “to live that which is not life; living is so dear (Walden).” Do not waste any more time living that which is not life. The shadows are not the substance; turn around and walk out of the cave. The voice you hear calling belongs to your God, and he is not a force or an energy. He is Spirit, and he has a name—a will, emotion and a personality (John 4:24). What is at stake is not just the quality of this life, whether or not you have lived deeply and sucked out all its marrow as Thoreau strove to do, but your eternity.
Jesus did not come to quell our passions and enslave us, making for himself an army of self-righteous robots. He came to liberate us and restore us to the God for whom we were made. Eleven years ago, I was without excuse. I had clearly perceived his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, that had been clearly perceived ever since the creation of the world (Romans 1:20), and yet I had rejected him. Until one day, I picked up a Bible and started reading it. It was that simple. God’s Spirit ran to me then, grabbing me in a stranglehold as I questioned and struggled, my heart breaking. It broke because I slowly came to see how terribly wrong I had been all those twenty-seven years—how foolish, arrogant, and destructive. And it broke because I saw the mind and heart of God Himself portrayed there on the pages—a mind and heart unlike any man’s. And I knew. By God’s grace and through His Spirit working, I knew that here in my hands was the truth and the beauty I had craved and such solid ground as I had never known. I saw Jesus, and his name no longer repulsed. I saw him as he is, full of grace and truth and love, and his living Spirit raised me from the dead. You can imagine my shock that what I had always thought would be bondage and captivity was the source of authentic freedom. I came home to my God.
Your spirit leans towards the truth. See that you do not refuse him who is speaking (Hebrews 12:15). Come home.