The beauty of faith

March 7th, 2023

Why should preachers care about beauty? A preacher who graduated from seminary in the 1990s recently lamented, “I am not sure what I am doing anymore. At weddings people think they have hired me to do what they want, at funerals people ask me not to mention God, and on Sundays I wonder if the Word of God seems to matter.” Many preachers are confused about their roles these days. The church, along with culture, is in a time of transition—we know from what but not to what. Still, we have a key role to play in what happens, and beauty can be a significant player in how we reconceive of preaching and faith. Preaching hopefully will always be understood as the Word of God, but in these times some supplemental understandings may help, since for many people, “This is the Word of God” can stop conversation. Perhaps our role as preachers is this: In God’s name we offer beauty to the world. Every Sunday we have something beautiful to give, and it is handcrafted language offering meaning and purpose. Here, amidst all the fragments of life today, we offer the One who is Unity itself. That is beautiful. To think of preaching as beautiful can change how we do it and how we feel about our roles.

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Classical Beauty 

What is beauty? Beauty used to be an external reality that exists “out there.” In the so-called great theory of beauty going back to Aristotle, beauty is what pleases by its symmetries, proportions, balance, order, unity, and harmony.[1] Augustine and others found that beauty originates in the mind and character of the divine, and is imparted to creation through the Spirit who in Christ makes all things new.

There was every reason to think that beauty did exist “out there” in the Middle Ages when people found beauty, harmony, and unity everywhere, all pointing to Christ at work “draw[ing] all things to himself ”[2] (var., John 12:32), as Duns Scotus Erigena said. People found beauty, harmony, and unity in nature, for instance, in what they called the great chain of being, from God down—angels, animals, fish, insects, plants, stones, and minerals—everything has a purpose. Hugh of St. Victor said, “Every [living] nature tells of God; every nature teaches man; every nature reproduces its essential form, and nothing in the universe is infecund.”[3] He found beauty in numbers: for example, in multiplying by three, every fourth number ends in one (3, 9, 27, 81 . . .). This, he said, was a code God planted in the universe; in this case it affirmed the three Persons of the Trinity and their oneness. Scripture was like a beautiful lock; it could be opened using the right keys, such as the classic four “senses” of Scripture that G. R. Evans identifies as the foundation of all medieval biblical interpretation.[4]

For the people of that time, all scripture testifies to its unity, namely Christ. Even the notion that some people were not intended to understand scripture (Isa 6:9-10) was testimony to the beauty of God’s overall plan. Simple meanings in one place of the Bible help unlock more complex meanings in other places. Nature was also in code that one could unlock with scripture. Understanding God’s intended meaning of scripture, one could read nature for its own witness to the unity and purpose of the Creator.

General Guidelines for Preachers to Speak of Beauty Today

What has changed? What might need to change in our own understandings to speak effectively of beauty in today’s world? Culture has moved away from the great theory of beauty, and this has implications for how preachers speak of it:

(1) Be cautious using the word beauty. Beauty is now subjective and cultural, not objective and universal. When novelist Margaret Wolfe Hungerford wrote in Molly Bawn (1878), “beauty is in the eyes of the beholder,” she opposed people in her day thinking it was a fixed standard. Beauty is now not only subjective but also a matter of cultural conditioning and interpretation; it has to do with context and perspective. Beauty can be a sexist term applied to women, reinforcing cultural stereotypes. A picture of a beautiful funnel cloud on the prairies may be horrifying to someone who has experienced a tornado. A tattoo may be beautiful but for some it symbolizes gang violence. In Korea and Taiwan, a traditional fish dish lives up to its translated name, “stinky tofu,” but those who love it find the taste beautiful. Jean-François Lyotard speaks with appropriate nuance: beauty “appeals to the principle of a universal consensus (which may never be attained).”[5]

(2) Be cautious using the word unity that often goes hand in hand with beauty. Be careful in naming where unity exists. The medieval unity of all things is gone. The unity of the Bible is gone: Scholars have identified many authors, editors, and social situations that influenced its demise. The biblical theology movement in the mid-twentieth century collapsed when it failed to identify unifying themes. Unity of meaning and interpretation is gone. There are differing versions of history, many kinds of lenses with which Scripture can be read (e.g., feminist, black, Min Jung, postcolonial), and many cultural and experiential perspectives of today’s readers. Unity, understood as good, is dead in many places. Many historians have presented a unified vision of history and have thereby silenced the voices of the poor and powerless.

(3) Avoid assuming fixed standards of beauty. Beauty comes into existence in being perceived. A definition of beauty from 1969 is dated: “the quality present in a thing or person giving intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind.”[6] An editor today might use a red pencil on, “the quality present in a thing or person.” Beauty no longer exists in things or people; it is a quality attributed by the perceiver. Something becomes beautiful while engaging with it, in the act of perception. Beauty has no singular quality the world over; cultures vary; teenagers and grandparents do not necessarily agree on beauty. The words, “giving intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind,” imply that beauty is never disturbing. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II fighter plane is beautiful engineering but is also disturbing as a huge expense and possible instrument of death. Beauty does not just appeal to “the mind,” it has to do with values and matters emotional, kinesthetic, intuitive, and spiritual.

(4) Speak of beauty not least in terms of relationships. Beauty emerges out of them. The ability to find beauty in life largely depends on having good relationships. Acknowledge that beauty changes in the course of a relationship, for instance, through getting to know someone better and appreciation deepening. When Craig Barnes dedicates his book, “For my wife, Dawne, the morning light beside me on the porch,” he speaks of rich love based in fond rituals over time, comparing Dawne’s beauty to the rising day.[7] Beauty is fluid because perceptions of beauty change. In troubled relationships, the partner who was attractive a few months ago may seem so no longer because of what he or she has done. Business recognizes the fluid nature of beauty, hence it promotes fashion and consumption.

On the other hand, first, beauty has not necessarily changed as much as some scholars suggest, at least from a Christian perspective. For preachers, the primary focus for beauty is people in relation to God and creation. Most contemporary philosophers leave God out of discussions of beauty. Beauty for them has only momentary life in perception and memory. However, if one understands God to be the source of all beauty, goodness, and truth, then beauty has a life beyond our own limited individual perceptions. Beauty is found wherever the Holy Spirit is encountered; at home, in the church, in the world, and for many who think in theological terms, in the relationship of the three Persons of the Trinity.

Second, beauty as unity is still possible. Granted that worldviews today are fragmentary and do not apply equally to all. Granted there can be real danger in imposing on others a worldview that falsely invokes unity and stresses conformity. Nonetheless, a thoughtful and discerning faith still can give testimony to one God and the beauty of God’s promises. God’s unity is not singular—a notion that defies math yet is coherent in poetry. Unity exists as God’s love and purpose over against chaos and destruction. This unity penetrates and ultimately transforms the effects of sin and evil, the destruction of the planet by human endeavor, war, and natural disasters, and the ongoing suffering of so many individuals and communities.

Preachers in the modern era could praise God’s beauty and expect assent. Today that might seem to listeners like the wishful thinking of a greeting card in blind ignorance of the news. The best strategy for preachers may be to show dual simultaneous awareness of both beauty and its opposites. Ed Farley argues that redemption brings a deeper sensitivity to beauty and harmony, and simultaneously, a deeper awareness of its opposite, the tragic and chaotic.[8] In other words, lack of unity in the moment does not remove a larger sense of unity and purpose.


Excerpted from Preaching as Poetry: Beauty, Goodness, and Truth in Every Sermon by Paul Scott Wilson. Copyright © 2014 Abingdon Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

[1] Wladyslaw Tatarkiewicz, “The Great Theory of Beauty and Its Decline,” Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism XXXI (Winter 1972): 165–80.

[2] Duns Scotus Erigena as cited by Edward Farley, Faith and Beauty: A Theological Aesthetic (Burlington, Ver.: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2001), 21.

[3] Hugh of St. Victor, The Didascalion of Hugh of St. Victor: A Medieval Guide to the Arts, trans. Jerome Taylor (New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1961), 2:4, 64.

[4] G. R. Evans, The Language and Logic of the Bible: The Earlier Middle Ages (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1984), 1. See also Paul Scott Wilson, God Sense: Reading the Bible for Preaching (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2001), which explores the relevance of the four senses for today.

[5] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, Theory and History of Literature, vol. 10, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minneapolis, 1984 [original French version, 1979]), 77.

[6] The Random House Dictionary of the English Language (New York: Random House, 1969).

[7] M. Craig Barnes, Pastor as Minor Poet (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 2009), dedication page.

[8] Edward Farley, Faith and Beauty: A Theological Aesthetic (Burlington, Vt.: Ashgate Publishing Limited, 2001), 101–3.

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