Fragments of Light

Monthly Archives: November 2015

Engaging Beauty

At the moment one comes into the presence of something beautiful, it greets you. It lifts away from the neutral background as though coming forward to welcome you—as though the object were designed to “fit” your perception. In its etymology, “welcome” means that one comes with the well-wishes or consent of the person or thing already standing on that ground. It is as though the welcoming thing has entered into, and consented to, your being in its midst.
— Elaine Scarry, On Beauty and Being Just quoted in: Visual Faith: Art,Theology, & Worship in Dialogue, by William A. Dyrness

As he reflects on the interaction of art and culture, in his book, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, & Worship in Dialogue, William Dyrness examines Elaine Scarry’s argument that our responses to beauty are perceptual events of profound significance for the individual and for society. Scarry argues that the beautiful object renders fairness, an abstract concept, concrete by making it directly available to our sensory perceptions. In so doing, it takes the individual away from the center of his or her self-preoccupation and thus prompts a distribution of attention outward toward others and, ultimately, says Scarry, this raises our awareness of ethical fairness and in so doing brings our attention to justice.

Dryness comments: “In a recent book, Elaine Scarry argues that beauty lies at the basis of all human drives to learn and grow. Arguing from a naturalistic framework, she notes that this is grounded in the fact that the world seems to be shaped in such a way that it welcomes our appreciation of its beauty. . . . Scarry faces the problem of accounting for this apparent mutual embrace,since she believes there is God, no metaphysical reality that endorses this beauty. ‘(Beautiful things) now seem unable in their solitude to justify or account for the weight of their own beauty. If each calls out for attention that has no destination beyond itself, each seems self-centered, too fragile to support the gravity of our immense regard.’ She satisfies herself by noting that even without such a transcendent grounding, these experiences lead the perceiver ‘to a more capacious regard for the world.’ ”

“If the capacious regard that Scarry calls for is, ultimately, reflective of a Presence lying at the heart of all regard, then for Christians who insist that these aspects of the world speak of the goodness and love of the Creator, such experiences of beauty are intrinsically sacred. Something of the loving goodness of God shines through our experience of beauty. This is why we are inevitably moved to put ourselves in the way of such experiences. We deeply long not only for such beauty but, Christians believe, for relationship with the personal presence lying beneath such beauty. As a result, the experience of great beauty often moves unbelievers to seek God, just as it often moves believers to praise, even to song or dance. St. Augustine classically expressed this in his Confessions: ‘Neither the charm of countryside nor the sweet scents of a garden would soothe (my soul). It found no peace in song or laughter, none in the company of friends at table or in the pleasures of love, none even in books and poetry. . . . These things of beauty would not exist at all unless they come from you. Like the sun, they rise and set. . . . Not all reach old age. but all must die. . . . Let my soul praise you for these things. O God, Creator of them all . . . ‘ The power of beauty then cannot be ignored, for it is part of the spiritually charged world in which God has placed us.”

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