In the middle week of the break, my wife and I enjoyed a break further north, catching a plane to somewhere much warmer than Adelaide! Sitting in the row behind us were a couple of little chaps, we guessed in about years 2 and 4. They were chatting to their father who was sitting between them, asking all the sorts of questions that little children ask. Dad was doing his best to answer them. It made me kind of wistful. When we came into land, as the plane’s tyres were just about to kiss the tarmac, this little sing-song voice called out, “What happened to the wing? It just broke!” Not exactly what you want to hear when you’re about to land! Then his older brother exclaimed, “Oh my God!” At which point Mum leaned forward from the seat behind and said, “That’s not appropriate language!” Meanwhile Dad had vagued-out and was pondering the flaps on the top of the wings, which had lifted as we started to land.
Partly as a result of the wonder that the two boys were expressing, but probably mainly because we were on holidays in a sunny and beautiful part of Australia, I had something of a revelation about life, or perhaps a reminder.
We are called to notice, appreciate, and then to create beauty.
Life is more nuanced than just that, of course, so let me expand on my revelation, as I reflect on the nature of beauty. It’s really a reflection on the nature of what is lovely too. (How wonderful that we have that word in our school prayer, at a boys’ school: lovely!)
What is beauty? It is a fascinating philosophical and theological question. There is an extricable link between beauty and justice.
When beauty is disconnected from justice, from fairness, from what is good and right, it always goes wrong. The luxury of the Sri Lankan President’s palace is evidence of that: it is undeniably beautiful, but wrong in the sense that the beauty was enjoyed by a handful of people, separated from the suffering happening all around them. True beauty can never be disconnected from justice.
Equally, though, justice cannot be disconnected from beauty, because then justice becomes unyielding, often brutal, and almost always unforgiving. Justice without beauty becomes self-righteous. Justice without beauty is often destructive. Justice without beauty is something to be feared.
Neither approach serves love. Love is the glue that holds beauty and justice together.
In our tradition this beauty, held together with justice, comes from God. God is the source of beauty and indeed God is beautiful and lovely; but let me just step for a moment away from the traditional language and peak at what’s behind it. Another way of expressing this is that the Universe is more than the sum of its parts. Just as a human person is more than the sum of his or her parts, I believe, so too this is true of the created order, the Universe. There is a presence which includes, and is greater than, the individual parts which make up the Universe. The Universe we live in is pretty extraordinary, as we are seeing in the recent images of far-off galaxies from Nasa’s space telescope. For me this points to that presence, which is behind everything and at the heart of everything; it points to God.
In the midst of all of this, we need to affirm, ever more powerfully, that God wants the best for us. The presence at the heart of the Universe wants the best for us, wants us to live life in all its fullness and with all its joy. The Lord’s Prayer teaches us this: God wants the best for us (our daily bread) and forgives us for everything, even as we must forgive those who sin against us. In other words, God forgives us for the moments that we fail to connect beauty with justice. Forgiveness is a critical part of justice.
Our human notions of beauty are inevitably conditioned by our time and place. In the Christian tradition, this is expressed as, “We do not see as God sees.” God sees beauty everywhere, including in the people we personally might struggle to like. Our task is to catch up.
The Reverend Dr Theo McCall