From the Editor: Fierce Grandeur
It was a deft move by the adults to make sure Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” (1741) was in the syllabus at my public high school. The sermon offered a fierce model of colonial literary rhetoric. It revealed the acute mind of a Great Awakening divine. It did its work: It scared the hell out of us. Decades later I can still feel the original gale force of its stern language on us young readers.
Preparing this Reflections issue, I had to wonder if such a fearsome generational impression about faith, church, and God would have been different if we had also been exposed to Edwards’ vision of divine beauty in a sermon like “God’s Excellencies.” It might come as a surprise to survivors of the “Sinners in the Hands” homily that the beauty – indeed the loveliness – of God was paramount to Edwards.**
In his 2001 book Faith and Beauty: A Theological Aesthetic, the late theologian Edward Farley writes, “I intend no hyperbole when I say that, in Edwards’ interpretation of philosophical and religious themes (God, redemption, evil, human psychology and cosmology), beauty is more central and more pervasive than in any other text in the history of Christian theology.”
It’s no idle question to ask whether American anxiety about the future of faith would ease a bit if only people regarded the life of belief as an invitation to the grandeur of God rather than a slate of rules and regulations to follow. But the idea of the beauty of God faces formidable contemporary obstacles.
The very word “beauty” is tarnished nowadays, seen in many circles as a non-starter, elitist, a throwback to aesthetic standards that enforce the exclusion of those who aren’t members of the guild or conservatory.
The drift of contemporary sensibility moves against beauty too. Something has happened in the last 40 years – new economic struggles, family difficulties, new magnitudes of loneliness, aggressiveness, and addiction. A national style has taken an ugly turn toward winner-take-all preening and random mass murder. In utilitarian USA, and often at church, beauty has to defend itself as something vital to human spirit and not just an expensive accessory.
If Jonathan Edwards is right, then beauty is a core trait of God and a needful thing to us. We could use more of it – beauty that infuses thought and faith from the inside, a refreshing glint of grandeur that connects creature and creator. To praise God is to receive something of the brilliant glory of God and reflect it back to its divine source, Edwards says. A radiant circle of care is completed and renewed.
“The beams of glory come from God, and are something of God and are refunded back again to their original,” Edwards once wrote. “So that the whole is of God and in God, and to God, and God is the beginning, middle and end in the affair.”
Last fall, in an address at the American Academy of Religion, artist Makoto Fujimura spoke to the urgency of restoring beauty to an everyday place in people’s lives. He worries about the degraded relations between faith and art in a time of fear and distrust. He prays that healing will occur between faith and life, the rational and the intuitive, belief and beauty.
“I pray that out of the ‘irreversible tragedies of our time’ (Irish poet Micheal O’Siadhail) with the Wasteland looming before us, we will look up and know – through our uncertainties, fears and our failures of faith – that we all can experience Genesis moments, new beginnings, new paths,” declared Fujimura, whose work is featured in this Reflections front cover.
He finds much to learn from the Gospel story about Mary of Bethany, her determination to honor Jesus by anointing him with expensive oil. The disciples protest, but her extravagant act of affection mirrors God’s design – and the impulses of beauty. Fujimura advocates the pursuit of “Culture Care,” the practice of generosity and creativity as an alternative to the surly, destructive habits of culture war. He enlists everyone – Christians, Jews, atheists, Muslims, Buddhists, plumbers, teachers, nurses, artists – in a new vision that makes beauty a daily expectation.
“Art is gratuitous,” Fujimura said. “Art is extravagant. But so is our God. God does not need us; yet he created us out of his gratuitous love.”
In this Reflections issue, we hope to catch intuitions and arguments that are growing more insistent against a culture of despair: Beauty is a divine excellency within reach.
** Explore Edwards’ works in the vast online collection of the Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University – see edwards.yale.edu.