The Beauty of Communion
Love and Divine Creativity
“Each of us is an actor on a stage and God is the audience. That metaphor has always interested me, because it makes us artists of our behavior, and the reaction of God to us might be thought of as aesthetic rather than morally judgmental in the ordinary sense.”1 –Marilynne Robinson
“Beauty is a characteristic of the highest qualitative state of being, of the highest attainment of existence.”2 - Berdyaev
We tend to think of beauty as adornment, as pleasant but inessential. We enjoy a lovely snowscape or a hummingbird’s iridescence. Such beauty seemingly provides enjoyable respite during life’s brief intermissions, sandwiched between the more meaningful acts of labor, service, and other necessities. Have we by such thinking trivialized the beautiful?
The good and the true seem essential, by comparison. They have solidity and unimpeachable status, purpose. We guide our lives by them, self-evident reference points that they are. We are to choose the good, search out the truth. One might ask, what happens when all truth has been found and embraced, the good clearly seen and realized? What then? How much richness is constituted by a life that only chose between forking paths, a will that constrained itself to no more creativity than a logic gate? Do we achieve the ends of our eternal nature by a repeated process of selection?
The God of Genesis bursts upon the stage of human consciousness through creative activity. We are introduced to the divine nature as that which enlarges the universe by the generation of something new. Even if working with pre-existent matter, new configurations, new arrangements bring forth that which did not exist and now does.
Is what we call the beautiful in reality an assent to the creative impulse of the divine? In his meditation on the magnificence of the created order, the harmony and fittedness and inexhaustible energy of nature in all its variety, Erazim Kohák asks the question—“what though is the task of humans?” Beavers build dams and dragonflies glitter in the sun and microbes recycle the dead—“what though is the task of humans.” And he answers, “we cherish its goodness and love its beauty and know its worth.” To pause at the threshold of the beautiful is not mere refreshment but the act of worship.
Maximus the Great was one of medieval Europe’s holiest men, and he paid a disciple’s price in torture and exile. Yet surely he erred in one essential respect regarding God: “When in the full ardor of its love for God the mind goes out of itself, then it has no perception at all either of itself or of any creatures. For once illumined by the divine and infinite light, the mind remains insensible of anything that is made by him . . . The one who has his mind tied to any earthly thing does not love God.”3
On the contrary, we love God only when we fall in love with his creation. And when we are filled with the hunger to be creators also, and enlarge the universe with him.
I sometimes wonder, if God were to ask of me one question at life’s end, which question would be the most penetrating, the most revealing, the most significant? I have in mind it would be some variation on the question, what beauty did you create?
The only really essential thing that changes in one’s life is relationships. We can chart our life via job promotions and career reinventions, standards of living and places of residence. But when time and eternity blow all the dross away, will anything remain except the life history of our relationships? And are not relationships the supreme embodiment of the beautiful? The magnificent thing about love, which has made theologians wary of attributing love to God in the familiar sense of the term, is its sheer creative nature. When one enters into a relationship of loving reciprocity, one opens oneself to novelty. The interactions of two persons who become entwined in mutual caring and concern produce something never seen before: a communion, a relationship, a love whose dimensions cannot be predicted or constrained. That is as true of friends as it is of lovers. Love generates what scientists call emergent systems. One can dissect an ant to the subatomic level, but nothing in those gluons and quarks will tell you anything about how an ant colony will function. Such systems are more than the simple sum of their parts—they become infused with radical, unpredictable novelty. That is why love may be the most creative force of all.
We cannot all be Jane Austens or Van Goghs or architects or musicians. Yet we also contribute to the universe something magnificent and never seen before when we foster and nourish whatever communities are in our power to create.
Terryl Givens is Senior Research Fellow at the Maxwell Institute and author and co-author of many books, including “All Things New” and “The God Who Weeps.” To receive each new Terryl Givens column by email, first subscribe and then click here and select "Wrestling with Angels."