Not the kind that makes your stomach turn with a sense of shame. Not the type of error that lives upon cognitive dissonance.
But the kind in which we realise we made an error in aesthetic judgment: we only saw two faces in profile when there was also a vase. Or the Elizabeth Bennett type, when we realise our first impression was mistaken. He was not proud, after all, but we were prejudiced.
We place great stock in correct understanding. But we love the journey of having our perceptions changed. In that journey, Beauty is a gentle but effective teacher of truth.
When I think about this, I go back to a conversation I had one afternoon in early Summer, while studying at Oxford. It was dusk, and I went to close my window that overlooked Addison’s Walk (the forest path that was C.S. Lewis’ inspiration for Narnia). As I turned, I tried to undercut what I had just said. I did keep seeking out books on ‘Beauty.’ But I joked that this was part of my Moulin Rouge trilogy of Truth, Beauty, and Love.
The truth, however, was different. And one particular book that found its way onto my bookshelf showed me so.
It is a tiny book. With a cover image of duck eggs that would woo any lover of beauty, Elaine Scarry’s On Beauty and Being Just packed a punch. Scarry named a battle being waged on beauty that I had not noticed, for all the day-to-day violence: Beauty is much vaunted, but everywhere disparaged.
Beauty is disparaged, Scarry argues, because it can give rise to ‘material cupidity and possessiveness.’ More egregious still, Beauty is thought to breed inattention to social relations.
The list is long of Beauty’s supposed crimes. But, as Scarry points out, Beauty is wrongly disparaged because of a ‘misguided version’ of ‘its otherwise beneficent attributes.’
For all the frescoes and the hymns, for all the dappled things, it has been easy for Christians to find piety by making Beauty small.
Beauty distracts from God. It creates just another ‘thing’ to set-up on a Sunday morning. And it is not necessary, anyway, on the Powerpoint slides that will be projected during the service.
These lines are spoken in haste, the world over, on any given Sunday.
We comfort ourselves that we will not fall prey to parish projects that build spires to the sky, when the lonely are down and out. We vend communion wine in plastic cups.
Above all, we are pragmatic. We run from Beauty. But, in doing so, we make it big. Too big. Out of proportion and disconnected.
The defence of Beauty, however, is in no way new to Christianity. Although, it can seem so.
The confidence in beauty found in Saint Augustine’s work, as an Order of Study that points us to God, was nurtured because the young Augustine allowed himself to ask:
Do we love anything save what is beautiful? But what then is beautiful? And what is beauty? What is it that allures us and delights us in the things we love?
(Confessions IV, 13, 20)
These were the questions, Carol Harrison contends, in her Beauty and Revelation in the Thought of Saint Augustine, that ‘remained with Augustine throughout his life, as a philosopher, as a theologian, and bishop.’ Augustine’s responses to these questions remained largely ‘unsystematised.’
At times, Augustine regretted what he had written earlier. But his desire to grasp what is beyond the form of art — the eternal Idea or Archetype — grew stronger.
A journey through life in which we allow ourselves to ask such questions, and to apprehend beauty, is a journey in which we will learn to be wrong. And learn that being wrong is truly glorious, because it heightens our joy in finding and being found by God, whose beauty is past change.
Kate Brennan is the Founder of Global & Smart (www.globalandsmart.com), a storytelling platform for ‘the story behind the good.’ Kate studied international development at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar and spent the last year of her doctoral studies at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton on a visiting fellowship. She returned home to Australia from New York, where she had been working, to be Advisor to Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Her edited volume, Making Global Institutions Work, will be published by Routledge this fall. Kate and her fiancé are part of St George’s Anglican Church in Sydney’s Paddington.
Photo: Victor Silva