Recently, I met a gentleman who, upon discovering I taught theology, asked me what was the good of studying religious ideas in our secular world today.
When I told him religious ideas have continually made the world a better place, he challenged me to name one. I told him there are plenty of simple religious ideas that have created such a ripple effect that they changed the course of history, and shared a few of them with him.
I’ve decided to turn my response into a series of blog posts. The first one, about how the Cistercian idea of work created a Europe-wide economic boom in the 12th century (and helped produce some amazing beer), is here.
Here’s the second of those world-changing ideas.
THE IDEA: THAT BEAUTY IS THE KEY TO UNDERSTANDING GOD
The Christian doctrine of creation is a bit different to that of other religions. Christians don’t believe that God created the world and then sat back and admired his creation from a distance. Instead the church teaches that while God is separate and beyond all creation, he is nonetheless integrally involved in that creation, sustaining the universe from moment to moment.
Theologians and writers from Irenaeus to Thomas Aquinas to Julian of Norwich wrote about how creation is an ongoing process, with God actively involved in the remaking of the world. God is its creator and owner, its sustainer and director, and its redeemer.
Then in the 18th century along came a revivalist preacher named Jonathan Edwards.
These days Edwards is best known for his work on the doctrine of justification by faith, particularly his famous sermon, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. Sometimes caricatured as a hellfire preacher, Edwards had an interesting view on the doctrine of creation.
He was fascinated by the natural world. He wrote a scientific paper on how spiders fly using their silk as a parachute. He observed the phases of the moon in extraordinary detail. He took his devotions in the woods near his home.
Edwards wrote: “God’s excellence, 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, trees; in the water, and all nature; which used greatly to fix my mind.”
His mind duly fixed, Edwards believed not only that God was integrally involved in the universe, creating the world again and again each moment, but more.
He came to believe that the beauty we see in the world was put there by God because God himself is essentially beautiful. Indeed, Edwards said, God is the most beautiful thing there is. And the beauty reflected in the relationships of the various parts of the created order are themselves a reflection of the beauty of the Trinity.
In other words, beauty is the key to understanding God.
For Edwards, the beauty of God was like music, something so elegant and lovely that it transcends human understanding. You can learn all the theology or doctrine you like, but to truly understand God you need to hear that music through an encounter with the beauty of creation.
This simple idea changed a lot of things.
Contemporaries of Edwards like Edmund Burke started speaking of the importance of having an encounter with the sublime. When something is beautiful we find it appealing or attractive, but when something is sublime it is awesome or even terrifying. It fills our minds and enlivens our senses. The sublime delights us, but it also unsettles us. The way standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon does. Or how we might feel in a summer thunderstorm or looking over the edge of Niagara Falls or watching elephant migrate across the Serengeti.
When something is sublime it is gorgeous, but discomforting. And what is the most sublime thing of all? For Edwards it was God. The all-powerful God both terrifies us and delights us.
And this is why we’re drawn to those things in nature than are bigger and more frightening that we are. Visiting the Andes or the Dolomites is a way to satisfy the yearning for God, for the sublime.
Soon, artists and composers tried to emulate this sensation. By creating dramatic, overwhelming symphonies full of intricacy and beauty, Bach and Handel (also contemporaries of Edwards), were seeking to reflect the glory and beauty of God.
If you’re struggling to understand this, think about the most sublime piece of music you’ve ever heard. Whether it’s Sacre du Printemps by Stravinsky, or Schubert’s String Quintet Adagio, or Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, there’s something about being immersed in utter beauty that both satisfies and unnerves you.
Which brings me to the greatest album of all time. In many people’s estimation.
John Coltrane recorded A Love Supreme in December 1964 and released it the following year. It is his personal declaration of faith in God and his confession that his greatest desire is to walk in the ways of God.
“No road is an easy one,” Coltrane wrote in a prayer in the album’s liner notes, “but they all go back to God.”
The whole piece expresses his deep gratitude for the grace of God and an acknowledgement that even his talent is evidence of that grace. The album is a gift, an offering to the God who Coltrane believed gave him the music in the first place.
A Love Supreme is a suite, broken into four parts: Acknowledgement, Resolution, Pursuance, and Psalm. There’s this incredibly powerful riff that begins in Acknowledgement and reappears throughout the whole piece in various ways. That’s Coltrane chanting ‘A Love Supreme’ nineteen times.
Then, in the fourth and final movement, Psalm, Coltrane does the strangest thing. He performs what he calls a “musical narration” or a “wordless recitation”. Coltrane “plays” the words of the prayer (which appear in the liner notes) on saxophone but doesn’t speak them, ending with the cry,
“Elation. Elegance. Exaltation. All from God. Thank you God. Amen.”
Jonathan Edwards could have written that prayer.
The idea that God is involved in creation, that he continues to create the world moment by moment, that it is through beauty we can encounter his true nature – all this is bundled up into the transcendent musical score of A Love Supreme.
The idea that we can cooperate with the most sublime Being in the universe to create beauty that reflects God’s character, well, that has led to the architecture of Antoni Gaudí, the paintings of Vincent van Gogh, the films of Terrence Malick, the music of John Coltrane.
So, next time a musician thanks God in their Grammy acceptance speech, think of that old Calvinist Jonathan Edwards smiling in heaven.
[Stay tuned for more ways that religious ideas have changed the world in future posts]