Why we need beauty: Part 2 – Seven features of a Christian theology of beauty

by | Dec 15, 2023 | Bible & Theology, Culture & Society | 0 comments


“Our situation today shows that beauty demands for itself at least as much courage and decision as do truth and goodness, and she will not allow herself to be separated and banned from her two sisters without taking them along with herself in an act of mysterious vengeance. We can be sure that whoever sneers at her name as if she were the ornament of a bourgeois past — whether they admit it or not — can no longer pray and soon will no longer be able to love.” ~ Hans Urs von Balthasar

In the previous blog post, I offered a sketch of a theology of beauty – https://grahamjosephhill.com/beauty-part-1. I did this in consultation with Majority World and Indigenous voices. A theology of beauty must consider moral, pleasurable, spiritual, indigenous, cultural, natural, and artistic beauty.

The church needs to reactivate its theology of beauty. It needs to recover the transformative power of sanctified beauty. Beauty can corrupt when it demands worship that is due only to God. But beauty can also transform lives and congregations when it leads to the worship of God.

Sculptors of theologies of beauty

Theologies of beauty are a breach of theological aesthetics. The theological aesthetics or theology of beauty has been a topic of interest for many theologians throughout history. Their reflections have provided profound insights into the relationship between God, beauty, and human perception. Here are some key theologians, both ancient and modern, who have significantly contributed to this domain:

Ancient Theologians:

St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 AD): One of the most influential Church Fathers, Augustine’s Confessions contains deep reflections on beauty, especially his famous exclamation about God: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new!”

St. Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274): In his seminal work, Summa Theologica, Aquinas discusses beauty as having three essential aspects: proportion, integrity, and clarity. He also ties beauty to the divine, suggesting that we are drawn to beautiful things because they remind us of God.

Dionysius the Areopagite (late 5th to early 6th century AD): Although not as well-known as Augustine or Aquinas, Dionysius wrote about the beauty of the heavenly hierarchy and how the celestial order reflects divine beauty.

Modern Theologians:

Hans Urs von Balthasar (1905-1988): A Swiss Catholic theologian, Balthasar placed aesthetics at the core of his theology. His multi-volume work, The Glory of the Lord, delves deep into theological aesthetics, arguing that beauty is a fundamental way we encounter God.

David Bentley Hart (1965 – ): A contemporary Orthodox theologian and philosopher, Hart has written extensively about beauty and its relation to the divine. His works, such as The Beauty of the Infinite, present a strong case for the intrinsic link between beauty and the nature of God.

John Milbank (1952 – ): Associated with the Radical Orthodoxy movement, Milbank has explored the aesthetic dimensions of theology and the relationship between the Church, culture, and beauty.

Karl Rahner (1904-1984): A Jesuit theologian, Rahner integrated existential philosophy with theology and explored how God’s self-revelation in the world can be understood through aesthetics.

Paul Tillich (1886-1965): in his Protestant theology, Tillich discussed religious symbols and their aesthetic dimension. He also examined the relationship between religion, art, and culture.

Leonid Ouspensky (1902-1987): An Orthodox theologian who focused on iconography, Ouspensky’s works emphasize the spiritual and theological depth of Orthodox icons and their role in conveying divine beauty.

This list is not exhaustive, as countless theologians have touched upon the theme of beauty in varying degrees. However, these figures stand out for their significant contributions to the field of theological aesthetics.

Reflections on theologies of beauty

Christian theology has, over the centuries, offered profound reflections on beauty’s nature and its place in the grand narrative of creation, redemption, and consummation. At the heart of a Christian theology of beauty are several core features and principles that elucidate its transcendent and immanent dimensions, grounding it deeply within the Christian worldview.

1. Creation and Beauty’s Innate Goodness: The very first chapter of the Bible, Genesis 1, resounds with the refrain: “And God saw that it was good.” The act of creation underscores beauty’s inherent goodness. Everything God created, from the vast expanse of the cosmos to the minutest detail of life, was infused with beauty, reflecting the Creator’s nature. Hence, appreciating beauty is acknowledging God’s artistry in shaping the universe.

2. Beauty as a Window to the Divine: Throughout Christian history, beauty has been seen as a means by which humanity can catch glimpses of the divine. As St. Augustine once exclaimed, “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new!” In nature, art, or human relationships, beauty can echo God’s beauty, drawing souls closer to God.

3. Christ – The Incarnation of Beauty: Central to Christian theology is the belief in the incarnation, the Word becoming flesh in the person of Jesus Christ. In Christ, beauty was embodied, as he perfectly mirrored the nature of God. His life, teachings, sacrificial love, and resurrection manifest God’s beauty, providing a model for Christian lives.

4. Redemption and the Restoration of Beauty: The Christian narrative does not ignore the brokenness and ugliness brought about by sin. Yet, it proclaims a message of hope: God’s redemptive work through Christ aims to restore all things, including beauty marred by sin. The Christian hope is that of a renewed heaven and earth where beauty reigns supreme in its undiluted splendor.

5. Sacramentality and Beauty: Christian worship, particularly in its sacramental expressions, acknowledges the role of beauty in drawing believers closer to God. Through liturgy, music, art, and the sacraments (like the Eucharist), the beauty of God’s presence is conveyed, elevating hearts and minds to the divine.

6. Beauty as Moral and Ethical: A Christian theology of beauty also extends to ethics. Beauty isn’t just about aesthetics; it has moral dimensions. When lives are lived in harmony with God’s design and purposes, they radiate a beauty that is not just physical but spiritual. Conversely, actions that mar or distort this design are seen as lacking beauty.

The core features and principles of a Christian theology of beauty intricately weave together the doctrines of creation, incarnation, redemption, and eschatological hope. They invite believers and seekers alike to gaze upon the beauty of God, to be transformed by it, and to reflect it in the world. From a Christian perspective, beauty is more than mere adornment; it is a profound theological and existential reality pointing to the very heart of God’s nature and his intentions for the world.

Here are seven features of a Christian theology of beauty. There are other features and qualities, but these seven are an introduction.

1. A theology of beauty recognizes that all expressions of beauty testify to divine Beauty

It’s time the church cherished the redemptive, ethical, aesthetic, theological, and human value of beauty. All manifestations of beauty testify to divine Beauty, intentionally or not.

I grew up in Sydney. Many in that city have debated the appeal of the University of Technology’s Frank Gehry-designed building. Sydney-siders disagree on whether this building is ugly or beautiful. Some have already nicknamed it the “crumpled brown paper bag.” But it contrasts the bland, cold, lifeless office buildings lining the Sydney skyline. Frank Gehry says folds in skin and clothing inspired the unique design. He explained his design approach to curves and folds: “The fold is primitive. You’re in your mother’s arms as a child, so we tried to do that with brick.” It will join the Sydney Opera House as one of our iconic buildings.

This building, among other unique architecturally-designed structures and buildings, has put the question of beauty “back on the table” among some Australians. Is this beautiful or ugly? Not everyone will agree that it’s beautiful. But, personally, I think it’s dramatic, fascinating, and captivating.

The church must cherish the redemptive, aesthetic, theological, and human value of beauty.

Sydney Morning Herald columnist Elizabeth Farrelly weighs into this discussion. She says that beauty isn’t just skin deep. Beauty enriches lives. Beauty leads us to ask questions about the sacred and spiritual.

“Everything in our culture tells us to despise and devalue beauty… Yet our deepest experience gives lie to this, as does our entire species’ memory. Beauty was the focus of intense imaginative engagement, philosophical inquiry, education, and public pursuit. Taken as one of the highest human values—up there with truth and love—it was tested and scrutinized, pummeled and parsed, debated, refined, and—above all—taught…

Numerous studies point to the importance of beauty to well-being. People heal faster after surgery when they look at green space. Fine art practice helps people with mental illness. Singing lifts the spirit. Yet this is still peering through the wrong end of the telescope, still valuing beauty in terms of utility. The point is beauty doesn’t just make you feel better; it makes you feel differently. Only when we value beauty for its own sake—not for any measurable utility, for its status value or health outcomes but beauty qua beauty—do we experience its beneficence… This clearly moves into the spirit realm, which is why beauty has traditionally centered almost all forms of sacred ritual.”[1]

Sure, all beauty is subjective. We judge beauty through our personal and cultural preferences. But that doesn’t mean we abandon our cultivation and analysis of beauty. We continue to create and scrutinize and refine and debate and teach beauty. This goes for natural, physical, sexual, moral, philosophical, visual, musical, technological, architectural, spiritual, and all other forms of beauty. As Christians, we believe that all beauty reflects Jesus Christ. It testifies to the One who is—and who reveals—true Beauty.

The theology of beauty has long been a profound testament to the inextricable link between our perception of beauty and its divine origin. Rooted in ancient reflections, theologians like St. Augustine of Hippo viewed beauty as a medium that speaks of God’s eternal grandeur. His reflections in Confessions intimate that our human yearning for beauty, whether in nature or art, is essentially a more profound desire for the eternal beauty of God.

This idea is expanded upon by St. Thomas Aquinas, who, in his Summa Theologica, defined beauty in terms of proportion, integrity, and clarity. For Aquinas, the beauty we perceive in the world is not merely subjective or random; it possesses an objective order that mirrors the divine order. This suggests that the beauty around us is not merely decorative but deeply theological, testifying to the nature of the Creator.

However, it’s in the modern era that this concept reached new depths. Hans Urs von Balthasar postulated that beauty is a primary means by which we experience God’s presence. In The Glory of the Lord, Balthasar emphasizes that every genuine aesthetic experience leads the soul closer to a recognition of divine beauty. Similarly, David Bentley Hart in The Beauty of the Infinite propounds that the myriad expressions of beauty in the world, in their infinity and variety, reflect the inexhaustible beauty of the divine.

Lastly, as represented by theologians like Leonid Ouspensky, the Orthodox perspective accentuates this connection through the veneration of icons, considering them as windows to the divine, encapsulating celestial beauty in earthly form.

A theology of beauty posits that every fragment of beauty we perceive—whether in a sunset, a piece of music, or human kindness—echoes a greater Beauty. Through its myriad reflections in our world, this divine Beauty beckons us to seek its source: the Creator.

All beauty testifies to the One who is and who reveals true Beauty. We value and celebrate beauty for its own sake, not utility. But we believe that created beauty is only possible because of divine Beauty. Beauty points to God.

Beauty opens opportunities for conversations and creative works that testify to Beauty. This Beautiful God reveals Godself in God’s beautiful creation, gospel, artistry, and more.

2. A theology of beauty sees all desire for beauty as a desire for God

Paul reminds us how easy it is to replace the worship of God with the worship of natural, sexual, religious, and ideological beauty.

“For since the world’s creation, God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse. Although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor thanked him, but their thinking became futile, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal human beings, birds, animals, and reptiles. Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for degrading their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth about God for a lie and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen”[2]

As humans, we forget that our desire for beauty is a desire for God. And we forget that our admiration of beauty must lead to our worship and service of the Creator.

The theology of beauty has unveiled a profound truth: our innate human longing for beauty is, at its core, a yearning for the Divine. This perspective posits that every tug on our heartstrings by a beautiful vista, a moving piece of music, or an act of kindness fundamentally echoes a more profound, sacred call.

St. Augustine of Hippo captured this sentiment with unparalleled clarity in his Confessions, where he admits, “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new!” Augustine recognized that our earthly pursuits of beauty are quests for God’s eternal beauty, suggesting that beneath our aesthetic inclinations lies a spiritual thirst.

St. Thomas Aquinas further deepened this understanding. In his explorations in the Summa Theologica, he defined beauty as having proportion, integrity, and clarity. These qualities describe not only artistic or natural wonders but also the character and nature of God. This understanding implies that when we are drawn to beauty, we respond to these divine attributes manifest in the world.

In the more contemporary realm, Hans Urs von Balthasar asserted in The Glory of the Lord that beauty is not just an attribute but a revelation. Every experience of beauty, according to Balthasar, pulls the soul into an encounter with the Divine, transforming our mere appreciation into a deeper communion with God.

David Bentley Hart, emphasizing this link, posited that our continual quest for beauty in its infinite forms mirrors our pursuit of the infinite beauty of God. The multifaceted beauty we seek reflects our inherent desire to connect with its ultimate source.

The theology of beauty offers a transformative perspective: our universal and relentless desire for beauty in its myriad forms is not just an aesthetic preference. It’s a sacred yearning, a compass pointing our souls toward their true north—God, the ultimate embodiment of Beauty.

Our desire for purpose and meaning and life is a desire for the Way, the Truth, and the Life. Our desire for intimacy and companionship is a desire for communion with the Trinity. Our desire for leadership and direction is a desire for the King and Lord. Our desire for forgiveness is a desire for the gracious and forgiving Christ. Our desire for a fresh start is a desire for the transforming Holy Spirit. Our desire for spiritual fulfillment, a better future, and interpersonal connections is a desire for the One who offers faith, hope, and love. And our desire for beauty—in all its manifold forms—is a desire for divine Beauty.

As Christians, we can show how a desire for beauty is a desire for God. We can celebrate the beautiful enthusiastically—while fanning into flame our passion and desire for the One who is Beauty.

3. A theology of beauty desires that all beauty will lead to the worship of God

The church needs to recover the experience of God in all forms of beauty. Beauty can transform lives. We enhance our mission and worship through beautiful communities, art, goodness, truth, and worship. Beauty comes in many forms. Beauty can bring glory to Jesus Christ. We must recover moral, pleasurable, spiritual, indigenous, cultural, natural, and artistic beauty.

Every glimmer of beauty, seen or sensed, should not terminate in itself but beckon souls toward the worship of its divine Source. Rooted in this is the belief that beauty is not just a casual pleasure but a profound invitation to a deeper communion with God.

In St. Augustine of Hippo’s profound reflections, there is a yearning that perceives all beauty as a faint echo of the divine. In his Confessions, he marvels at the world’s beauty but realizes that each manifestation is a mere whisper, a pointer, directing the heart to worship the eternal beauty of God. For Augustine, earthly beauty was but a shadow of divine splendor.

St. Thomas Aquinas added another layer to this understanding. By elucidating beauty as proportion, integrity, and clarity in the Summa Theologica, Aquinas implied that beautiful things’ innate structure and order mirror the divine order. When captivated by such beauty, the logical culmination of that captivation should be worshiping the grand Designer.

The modern contemplations of Hans Urs von Balthasar emphasize the sacramental nature of beauty. In The Glory of the Lord, Balthasar argues that beauty is a theophany, a revelation of God. Therefore, when one truly encounters beauty, it becomes a moment of epiphany, a realization of the divine, which should naturally cascade into worship.

Further, David Bentley Hart posits that the myriad expressions of beauty in the world, with their inexhaustible allure, should be admired and recognized as sacred reflections of God’s beauty. They call for more than appreciation; they call for reverence.

In essence, a theology of beauty profoundly shifts our perspective: It is not enough to merely recognize beauty. Instead, each encounter with beauty—be it in art, nature, or human interactions—should inspire and elevate the soul, moving it to acknowledge, revere, and worship its Divine Originator.

Created beauty witnesses to divine Beauty. But we can still enjoy beauty for its own sake. It’s important for us to celebrate beautiful things just because they’re beautiful. The Spirit calls us to regain our passion for artistic, natural, performing, visual, musical, literary, built-environment, cultural, moral, technological, urban, and human beauty. This involves us investing in these many forms of beauty. And we glorify God through them. And we pray and hope they lead to his worship and magnification. We work to that end. We pray that our poetry, music, literature, paintings, sculptures, architecture, dance, theology, and other beautiful creations lead to the worship and service of the Creator.

4. A theology of beauty celebrates Beauty reaching out to us in Christ

Jesus Christ is divine Beauty. Beauty reaches out to us in creation, Christ’s incarnation, passion, resurrection, kingdom, and Pentecost. He chooses to reveal his beauty in creation and incarnation. His love, life, and message show us the nature of true beauty. Beauty reaches out in the incarnation to an ugly, violent, and fallen world. Beauty enters this mire and brings hope, salvation, and regeneration. God makes this mess beautiful through Christ’s divine power, grace, and love. He also amplifies creaturely beauty wherever it exists.

In his life, death, and resurrection, Beauty shows us what beautiful living, suffering, sacrifice, love, hope, faith, and rebirth look like. Beauty makes all things new. He ushers in the beautiful new creation. The old is gone, and the new is here! He reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation so we might join him in making everything new. And his kingdom is beautiful.

As followers of Jesus, we can enjoy the many types of beauty—while stoking our desire for Christ, who is divine Beauty.

This beautiful kingdom manifests itself in righteousness, holiness, peace, love, hope, and joy in the Holy Spirit. At Pentecost, the Spirit of Beauty empowers the church to glorify and serve the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. And, so, Jesus Christ shows us the nature of true beauty. He does this through creation, incarnation, passion, resurrection, kingdom, Pentecost, and the new creation.

Beauty is not a passive or distant reality but an active force reaching out to humanity most profoundly in the person of Christ. This theology paints a captivating portrait of the Divine engaging with the world abstractly, intimately, and personally.

St. Augustine of Hippo exemplifies this in his poignant musings. In Confessions, while Augustine marvels at the beauty around him, he discerns a deeper resonance of the beauty of God in the life of Christ. He describes his encounter with God: “Late have I loved you, beauty so old and so new!” For Augustine, Christ is the incarnation of this timeless beauty, inviting humanity to communion.

St. Thomas Aquinas, known for his academic rigor, also recognized the intersection of beauty and divinity in Christ. By describing beauty in terms of proportion, integrity, and clarity, Aquinas alludes to the perfect embodiment of these attributes in Christ. He perceived Jesus as the ultimate exemplar of divine beauty, manifesting God’s nature and virtues in human form.

For Hans Urs von Balthasar, the nexus between beauty and Christ is pivotal. In his expansive work The Glory of the Lord, he puts forth Christ as an example and the epitome of divine beauty reaching humanity. The profound depths of divine beauty are revealed through Christ’s life, death, and resurrection, offering redemption and relationship.

David Bentley Hart further magnifies this idea, suggesting in The Beauty of the Infinite that the infinite beauty of God, incomprehensible in its fullness, has approached us and reached out to us in the finiteness of Christ. Jesus becomes the touchpoint, the tangible manifestation of divine beauty that humanity can encounter and embrace.

A theology of beauty profoundly celebrates Christ as Beauty personified. In Jesus Christ, beauty is observed, experienced, admired, and adored. Through Christ, the ineffable beauty of the Divine tenderly and powerfully reaches out, seeking to draw all of humanity into its radiant embrace.

5. A theology of beauty asks, “How can we be the community of the beautiful”?

How can our faith, ethics, contemplation, liturgy, poetry, and art be truly beautiful? How can these point toward the wonder and beauty of the triune God? How can we be “the community of the beautiful?”[3]

We must examine, foster, and teach beauty. We need to encourage imaginative and creative engagement with the notion and expressions of beauty. We should examine contemporary and ancient theological and philosophical enquiries on the nature of beauty.

How can God’s people embody and reflect this divine beauty? Throughout Christian history, theologians have asserted that the church, as the body of Christ, is called to appreciate beauty and manifest it, becoming a living testament to divine Beauty.

St. Augustine of Hippo laid the groundwork for such a vision. In his musings, particularly in Confessions, he identifies the restless longing of the human heart for beauty, which ultimately finds rest in God. This implies that when united in purpose and love, God’s people can channel this divine beauty, making the church a haven where souls find what they unconsciously yearn for.

St. Thomas Aquinas elucidated beauty as proportion, integrity, and clarity. Translated into the life of the church, this means a community rooted in unity (proportion), holiness (integrity), and truth (clarity). For Aquinas, the church, when living out these attributes, becomes a mirror of divine beauty on earth.

In modern reflections, Hans Urs von Balthasar highlights this mission in The Glory of the Lord. For him, the church is called to be a sacramental presence, where every act, whether liturgical or charitable, becomes a revelation of God’s beauty. This means a church that is not just doctrinally sound but aesthetically radiant, drawing souls through the allure of the Beautiful.

David Bentley Hart underscores this notion further, suggesting that the church, as the community touched by the infinite beauty of God, should be a beacon, a place where the beauty of God’s love, grace, and mercy are tangibly felt and experienced.

A theology of beauty challenges the church to be more than an institution. It calls the church to be the “community of the beautiful,” where divine beauty is not just discussed but displayed, not just believed but embodied. In this vision, God’s people, united in love and purpose, become a living mosaic, reflecting the world’s myriad facets of divine Beauty.

Beauty must be front-and-center in our Christian education, theology, and public pursuits. This must involve us identifying, developing, and resourcing the creative arts and artists in our congregations. These include the performing arts, visual arts, literary arts, technological arts, and more. We must find creative ways to incorporate the creative arts into our worship, fellowship, and mission. We should help our congregations reconnect with artistic beauty, theological aesthetics, and the Beautiful One. We should develop beautiful worship experiences through painting, liturgy, poetry, drama, dance, nature, etc.

Becoming “the community of the beautiful” is no easy task. Modernity’s cold and dreary tastes shape many congregations’ theologies, architecture, and worship. Scientism and rationalism sideline beauty. Postmodernity makes beauty subjective and not worthy of collective scrutiny and expression. But the church must reject such impulses. It’s time to rediscover our passion for the truly beautiful and true Beauty.

6. A theology of beauty learns from First Nations and Indigenous peoples

This involves allowing First Nation and Indigenous art to nourish the Christian spirituality of our congregation. We can, of course, also learn from beauty in our own and other cultures. All cultures engage and express beauty in their own unique ways. This tells us much about the nature of beauty. But, since First Nation and Indigenous peoples and traditions are often marginalized or neglected, we should intentionally listen to what they can teach us.

A couple of decades ago, I spent a couple of weeks in an indigenous community in Carnarvon, Western Australia. I took a team of young non-Indigenous Australians with me. During the evenings, around the campfire, we listened to indigenous elders tell dreamtime stories. They told these through song, dance, painting, storytelling, and musicianship. They expressed musicianship through a range of instruments. These included vocals, hand clapping, boomerangs, clubs, sticks, hollow logs, seed rattles, didgeridoos, decorative drums covered in reptile skins, and blowing into large conch shells.

Australian Indigenous peoples express artistry in many ways. One of the best-known ways is dreamtime painting. They communicate Dreaming stories through delicate and exquisite iconography. This iconography includes paintings of symbols, totemic representations, kangaroos, emus, boomerangs, goannas, witchetty grubs, honey ants, spears, snakes, lizards, dingoes, and koalas.

Australian Indigenous dreamtime stories and artistry go back at least forty thousand years. They communicate Indigenous notions of the spirit world, nature, humanity, and cosmology. Indigenous art, beauty, and aesthetics unite human, natural, and sacred worlds.

Indigenous and First Nations art and beauty bring the human, natural, and sacred together as the gospel of Christ does.

Indigenous Australians welcomed us warmly. We sang with them around the campfire at night. They invited us into their lives during the days. They introduced non-Indigenous Australians to the beauty of Indigenous culture, history, and aesthetics.

Indigenous beauty revealed God’s beauty to us.

In its quest to understand and articulate the divine, diverse voices have enriched Christian theology. The wisdom of First Nations and Indigenous peoples provides a unique and profound lens through which the theology of beauty can be further deepened and expanded.

St. Augustine’s reflections on the universality of human longing for beauty find echoes in the Indigenous narratives that speak of a deep connection to the land, nature, and community. This intrinsic bond reflects the beauty of belonging, of being rooted not just in a physical space but in the heart of creation itself.

St. Thomas Aquinas’ conception of beauty as proportion, integrity, and clarity resonates strongly with Indigenous understandings. Indigenous communities’ harmonious relationship with nature, where everything has a place and purpose, mirrors Aquinas’ notion of proportion. Their emphasis on storytelling, which preserves identity and promotes communal values, aligns with the principles of integrity and clarity.

Contemporary theologians such as Hans Urs von Balthasar and David Bentley Hart often view beauty as a theophany, a tangible manifestation of the divine. Indigenous spirituality likewise understands the world as alive with spirit, where mountains, rivers, and forests aren’t just resources but sacred entities radiating the Creator’s beauty.

First Nations and Indigenous Christian writers like Richard Twiss and Terry LeBlanc advocate for seeing the connections between Indigenous spiritualities and Christian theology. Their writings illuminate how traditional practices, from dances to rituals, are profound expressions of beauty, gratitude, and communion with the Divine.

When receptive to the wisdom of First Nations and Indigenous traditions, a theology of beauty becomes more holistic and grounded. It learns to see beauty not just in abstract concepts but in the rhythms of life and the stories passed down, the sacredness of land, and the interconnectedness of all creation. By listening and learning, theology is enriched, and beauty is understood in more profound and diverse ways.

7. A theology of beauty enables mission-shaped Christianity

It’s possible for churches to create beautiful worship, architecture, and liturgies, without testifying to God and, thus, joining with God in God’s mission. But, in my opinion, it’s impossible to be missional without valuing, noticing, and cultivating beauty.

It’s impossible to be missional without valuing, noticing, and cultivating beauty.

Hans Urs von Balthasar emphasizes that beauty is revelatory. In his work, The Glory of the Lord, he postulates that true beauty offers a glimpse of the divine. For mission, this means that every act of Christian service can become a means of revealing God’s beauty to the world. By showcasing the beauty of the Christian life – in love, compassion, justice, peacemaking, reconciliation, hospitality, and sacrifice – Christian missions can draw souls to the Divine.

David Bentley Hart pushes the narrative further, suggesting that in the diverse and infinite expressions of beauty, we find reflections of the infinite beauty of God. A mission-shaped Christianity invites a universal approach, recognizing and valuing the diverse ways cultures and individuals reflect and resonate with divine beauty.

A theology of beauty breathes life into mission-shaped Christianity. It reimagines mission not as mere duty but as a passionate response to the beauty of God’s love, prompting the church to reach out, connect, and share this divine beauty with the world.

Mission-oriented Christians notice the beauty all around them. They pay attention to how their culture perceives and expresses beauty in all areas of life. They foster expressions of beauty that make sense to their culture and that speak prophetically to their culture. At the same time, they enjoy expressions of beauty that come from other cultures and societies.

Mission-shaped Christianity asks, “How can we create beautiful paintings, liturgies, poetry, literature, drama, dance, theology, morality, community, etc., that testify to Jesus Christ? How can we help people notice where God is present in beautiful things, drawing them to faith and repentance? How can beauty help inspire people to worship and serve Christ?”

May our desire for beauty will lead to the praise and adoration of God, who is Beauty.

“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything that is beautiful; for beauty is God’s handwriting—a wayside sacrament. Welcome it in every fair face, in every fair sky, in every fair flower, and thank God for it as a cup of blessing.” ― Ralph Waldo Emerson


Some Reflection Questions

How are you developing multi-sensory worship experiences in the life of your church? How are you seeking to enrich your worship, prayer, and spiritual practices through artistic beauty? Are you worshipping through painting, liturgy, poetry, drama, dance, and so on?

How are you creatively telling the gospel, biblical truth, and the story of Christ’s kingdom?

What can you, your family, and your church learn from the First Nations arts indigenous to your area? Are you allowing First Nation and Indigenous art and artistic beauty from cultures other than ours to nourish your soul? Are you allowing those expressions of artistic beauty to help you connect with those “other” cultures and people different from you? Are they leading you to Jesus Christ and his Beauty?

Getting Started

You may not currently have a creative arts ministry in your church. But you can move in that direction. Commit to identifying, supporting, developing, and resourcing the creative arts and artists within or associated with your church. Do this as an entire church and ministry team. J. Scott McElroy and Jessie Nilo offer guidance here: See http://thenewr.org.

Makoto Fujimura seeks the flourishing of the creative arts. He helps churches reconnect with artistic beauty and theological aesthetics. His Fujimura Institute defies “fractured, fragmented modern perspectives.” It “encourages artists and thinkers to collaborate, cooperate, and inspire their audiences to piece together a whole view of the world.”[5] As a church or ministry, get to know Makoto Fujimura through his videos, writings, books, and art. Together, start to think, pray, and collaborate on ways that Fujimura’s work might help your church connect afresh with beauty. How does it help you worship the Beautiful Messiah? What can he teach your church about artistic beauty in your setting? (See http://www.makotofujimura.com).[6] Regarding creative arts and aesthetic beauty in the church’s life, Makoto Fujimura answers many questions on Rachel Held Evans’s blog. (http://rachelheldevans.com). See her entry “Ask an artist (Makoto Fujimura)” and his responses.[7]

Take a day or weekend away to contemplate the beauty of nature. Go to the forest, ocean, or some other naturally beautiful place. Enjoy natural beauty.



[1] Elizabeth Farrelly, “More Than Skin Deep, Beauty Enriches Lives,” Sydney Morning Herald, <http://www.smh.com.au/comment/more-than-skin-deep-beauty-enriches-lives-20150211-13bmh9.html>.

[2] Romans 1:20–25.

[3] Alejandro García-Rivera, The Community of the Beautiful: A Theological Aesthetics (Collegeville, MI: Liturgical, 1999).

[4] Gerard Manley Hopkins, Gerard Manley Hopkins: Selected Poetry (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008). This was a favorite poem of Alejandro Garcia-Rivera: see Alejandro García-Rivera, “Light from Light: An Aesthetic Approach to the Science-and-Religion Dialogue,” Currents in Theology and Mission 28, no. 3-4 (2001). 273.

[5] http://fujimurainstitute.org

[6] http://www.makotofujimura.com/bio/

[7] http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/ask-an-artist-makoto-fujimura-questions and http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/ask-an-artist-makoto-fujimura-response

Graham Joseph Hill

Rev. Dr. Graham Joseph Hill serves as Mission Catalyst for New and Renewing Communities with the Uniting Church in Australia. Previously, he was the Principal of Stirling Theological College (Melbourne), the Vice-Principal of Morling Theological College (Sydney), and an Associate Professor at the University of Divinity, Australia. Graham is an ordained and accredited minister with the Baptist Churches of Australia. He has planted and pastored churches and been in ministry since 1988. Graham is the author or editor of 13 books. He also directs The Global Church ProjectGraham writes at grahamjosephhill.com

Graham's qualifications include: Honours Diploma of Ministry (SCD), Bachelor of Theology (SCD), Master of Theology (Notre Dame), and Doctor of Philosophy (Flinders).

See ORCID publication record: https://orcid.org/0000-0002-6532-8248


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