Kind, Beautiful, and Foolish
In his book The Idiot, Fyodor Dostoevsky sets forth the bold assertion that “beauty will save the world.” The sheer number of ways in which this quote has been applied attests to the risk inherent in the idea, and perhaps inherent in beauty itself. Certainly the church during the Reformation recognized the risks involved in imaging God, using beauty to communicate an incommunicable mystery, the impersonal to describe a Person. For good reason, many are cautious when we hear a statement such as the one in this novel.
But Dostoevsky did not pronounce the idea with the naïveté with which it is often quoted. He did not have in mind the kind of beauty we worship in the fashion or beauty industries nor did he have in mind an impersonal object or a purely abstract notion, a distinct but distant ideal. On the contrary, Dostoevsky entertains the idea in a person, in Myshkin, who lives the quality of beauty as if an inescapable quality of his inmost being. For Myshkin’s inclination is to help rather than to harm, to give mercy rather than malice, forgiving again and again, though surrounded by people who do not. In fact, it is this group who tirelessly labels Myshkin the “idiot” because he refuses to participate in the disparaging and destructive ugliness of their own ways but instead takes what is cruel and repulsive in them and their culture and dispels it. They hate him for it; they believe him a fool. But it is a kind and beautiful foolishness.
I sometimes wonder if we have so stripped away the possibility of actual beauty in our encounters with the divine that we not only miss something real of God and others to behold in the world, but we miss opportunities to show the world the beauty of God—in hands and faces, in people who bestow crowns of beauty instead of ashes, in communities that repair ruined cities instead of causing further devastation.(1) Theologian William Dyrness laments the modern mentality that has somehow lost the sense of the “wholeness that beauty reflects.”(2) We are so mindful of beauty’s limitations; but isn’t it we who are the limited as the depicters of God’s beauty? “[When I look at] the moon and the stars that you have established,” sang David, “what are human beings that you are mindful of them?” (Psalm 8:3). Describing the very wholeness that beauty reflects, Dyrness continues, “Based on God’s continuing presence in the Spirit of Christ, God is somehow present in all beauty.”(3)
That is to say, the divine presence can be seen in the beauty of bringing the cup of cold water, in the stained glass mural of the great cathedral, or in the life that sits in broken shards before the potter and in the lives who sit with her. Moreover, if beauty is revelation, if creativeness is more than an object but an action of both play and work in God’s kingdom, if the Incarnation is a call to participate in the glory of God as persons who imbibe that glory, then there is most certainty in beauty the potential to save, for God is both the Source and Subject.
In his 1970 Nobel Laureate lecture in literature, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn made the bold suggestion: “Perhaps that ancient trinity of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty is not simply an empty, faded formula as we thought in the days of our self-confident, materialistic youth. If the tops of these three trees converge, as the scholars maintained, but the too blatant, too direct stems of Truth and Goodness are crushed, cut down, or not allowed through—then perhaps the fantastic, unpredictable, unexpected stems of Beauty will push through and soar to that very place, and in so doing fulfill the work of all three?”(4) In other words, perhaps we cannot afford to omit the possibility of God reaching out to the world in beauty, in mystery, and transcendence.
Of course, this is not to say that beauty is not a risk for the community of God. We are sinful and limited creatures in our ability to appreciate true beauty, and it is often an elusive concept to understand practically. We are artistically formed at the hands of a God who is far beyond us. We must indeed remember with David that it is we who fall short, we who must maintain the perspective of humility and keep before us a sense of mystery. But like Myshkin who attempted to rise above the ugliness of his world, we must also have the courage to risk beauty, living as those who recognize the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ and so choose to boldly proclaim and reflect this beauty in a world that would have otherwise.
Jill Carattini is managing editor of A Slice of Infinity at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.
(1) See Isaiah 61.
(2) William Dyrness, Visual Faith: Art, Theology, and Worship in Dialogue (Grand Rapids, Baker Academic, 2001), 90.
(3) Ibid., 90.
(4) Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Nobel Lecture in Literature, 1970, from Nobel Lectures, Literature 1968-1980, Ed. Tore Frängsmyr (Singapore: World Scientific Publishing Co., 1993).