Tag Archives: beauty

Pursue Beauty

John Keats wrote: “Beauty is truth, truth beauty. That is all we know on earth and all we need to know.”

Ranier Maria Rilke argues in “The First Elegy”:

“For beauty is nothing but the beginning of terror, which we are just able to endure, and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us. Every angel is terrifying.”

When Soren Kierkegaard defines “dread” as the apprehension of the possibilities freedom offers, I believe he tells us why, as Rilke contends, every angel is terrifying. To Kierkegaard, “This dread is the dizziness of freedom which occurs when the spirit would posit the synthesis [the uniting of body and soul], and gazes down into its own possibility, grasping at finiteness to sustain itself.”

Angels terrify us and the dizziness of dread makes us flee from them, because they are reflections of God. The Old Testament holds that if we saw God we would surely die. Because God is more beautiful than he created us to bear. So he gave Christ, his appearance softened by his humanity, as our standard of truth and beauty.

Yet beauty doesn’t only reside in the divine and the good. Beauty also resides in great sinners, in blinding terror, in death, all kinds of darkness, wonder, and tragedy. It resides in all the places we dizzy writers are sometimes obliged to go, if we hope to write the truth.

From Writing and the Spirit.  To read the whole book …

I’m and artist and so are you

An Artist?

“We are God’s art, created in Christ Jesus to do works of beauty, which God has prepared in advance for us to do.” Ephesians 2:10

“So God created mankind in his own image… male and female…” Genesis 1:27.

We are made in the image of the master artist, the creator of all creation, to create works of beauty.

Though we may not be called to quit our day jobs, run off to Tahiti and paint our impressions of the islanders, we are meant to view our work and our lives from an artist’s perspective.

Whether our goal is to provide announcements for a church newsletter, to make of our home a refuge from the storm outside, to save stories and lessons from our lives, to create happiness by loving well, or to compose a novel or film masterpiece, we are called to approach those projects with attitudes guided by the motive of creating works of beauty.

John Keats, in “Ode On a Grecian Urn”, wrote “Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all you know on earth, and all you need to know.”

Real beauty, whether in the eye of the creator or the beholder, is an expression of love.

Christ insists, “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works [works of beauty] and glorify your father who is in heaven.”

We are created in the image of God so that we can make art of and through our lives so that our art can draw people to God. And because God is love, we can draw people to God by helping them love better, which is best accomplished by loving them better.

In my novel The Good Know Nothing detective Tom Hickey and his sister Florence, who works for evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson, are on a road trip when she asks:

“Tommy, do you want to know why I fell for God?”

“Sure.”

“It’s all your fault,” she said.

“How so?”

“See, when you really know love, when you find yourself being truly loved, you can’t help thanking God.”

A tiny sob issued out of her. Then she scooted closer and kissed her brother’s cheek. Tom sat speechless, wondering if his heart might explode.

Florence rode with her head on her brother’s shoulder. As distant headlights approached, she said, “The thing is, when you truly thank God, you sort of feel him smile. Then you fall for him. That’s all.”

 

Beauty

A problem with language is, words can be defined in so many ways. A table can be a tiny and fragile thing upon which we can barely fit a tea setting, or a massive wooden slab surrounded by a dozen of Arthur’s knights.

Abstract words–such as honor, love, courage, truth, dignity, or beauty–each of us may understand differently. And those of us intrigued or perplexed by a certain word might spend a lifetime considering the options and still not feel quite convinced by our definition.

Perhaps more than any other English word, we wrestle with the meaning of “love,” as did poet William Blake when he expressed two perfectly opposite views in “The Clod and the Pebble”.

“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”

“Beauty” is another word to which we give a host of different meanings. Some dresses are beautiful, as are some of the people who wear them. Sometimes my daughter throws a beautiful change up. A day can be beautiful just because the sun is shining, even if we wish it would rain.

So when we read “Ode on a Grecian Urn” and find John Keats contending that “‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty’– that is all ye know on earth, and all ye need to know,” we might applaud in agreement, recoil with skepticism, or choose to shelve the premise for later contemplation.

I find those lines not only valid and profound; I believe they are words to live by; largely because they require us to reconsider our definition or definitions of “truth” and “beauty.” They demand that if we hope to understand, we need to act, to go deeper than surface impressions and consider what moves us to a resonant and heartfelt appreciation, to feel we have somehow transcended our common condition. They demand that I see my daughter’s changeup as an expression of who she is, the time and effort she has devoted and all she has learned in order to master the pitch, what that says about her and–going deeper still–about the miracle of life. If I choose and am able to go even deeper, I might glimpse a clue about eternity or the meaning of life.  On the way I will discover that true beauty includes a downbeat, an element of sorrow or pain as well as a joyful upbeat. Because evil is true and weakness is true, because truth contains pain and sorrow, beauty must contain them also.

Not every experience of something truly beautiful will send us on a deep inward and transcendent journey. But everything beautiful in the sense Keats uses the word holds the  potential to lead us all the way, were we brave, dedicated and wise enough to take the journey.

Now I’ll quit trying to explain in prose a truth better expressed in poetry. Here’s a link to “Ode on a Grecian Urn”.

Love

Some time ago, during one of those periods when I have been obsessed with the goal of learning more about love, I came across M. Scott Peck’s The Road Less Travelled, in which he gave a definition I found plenty enlightening. He argued that love is not a feeling but is rather a willingness to sacrifice for the sake of another’s spiritual growth. More simply: love is willingness to sacrifice for the sake of another.

From Peck’s angle, love is an act of will that may or may not connect to a particular emotion.

C.S. Lewis wrote about “the four loves”: eros or romantic love; storge or affection such as family members may exhibit for each other; philia or a strong friendship bond; and agape or unconditional love, as God exemplifies and would have us apply toward others.

As Lewis points out, all the loves except agape can readily be abused, poisoned by the desire for self-aggrandizement. What appears to be one of those loves may actually be no more than pure self-love in disguise. We pick our friends for how they can serve us, our lovers for the lust they may satisfy. Love for our parents or kids might depend upon what their accomplishments and status do for our image.

William Blake’s “The Clod and the Pebble” exposes the authentic and the counterfeit (for those who read this poem in my earlier post, it’s well worth rereading):

“Love seeketh not itself to please,

Nor for itself hath any care,

But for another gives its ease,

And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”

So sung a little Clod of Clay,

Trodden with the cattle’s feet,

But a Pebble of the brook

Warbled out these metres meet:

“Love seeketh only Self to please,

To bind another to its delight,

Joys in another’s loss of ease,

And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.”

Though I deeply respect and admire the insights of Mr. Peck and Mr. Lewis, I can’t accept as a complete answer either “love” as willingness to sacrifice regardless of feeling or “love” as a catch phrase for a number of different emotions.

What Soren Kierkegaard refers to as “the subjective” tells me that love is a unity though it may express itself in different variations, and that the willingness to sacrifice based upon motive not partnered with emotion can’t be counted as love.

In First Corintians, St. Paul asserts that: “If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.”

Simply, whatever I do without love is meaningless. I could sacrifice in order to bring about the salvation of the whole world, but the action wouldn’t be worth doing.

I won’t speculate whether St. Paul meant that actions taken without love will backfire or that, even though they might help others, they won’t draw us any closer to God or heaven. His meaning may be far beyond my comprehension.

But I will speculate about the application of love, whatever it is, wherever it comes from, to our work as artists.

Suppose we get blessed with the opportunity to see an exhibit of Van Gogh originals, or to hear fine musicians play “Ode to Joy”. If we have eyes to see and ears to hear, we will notice that the creator of the painting or symphony has applied something more than great skill, that the artist’s love has entered into the creation and remains there as long as the work exists.

When I read Dostoyevski or Dickens I often glimpse through the words the love that inspired the author to write those particular words. And we encounter love not only in the greatest masters. I recently finished the Harry Potter books and found in them an abundance of love.

So, my advice is, if we intend to create anything beautiful, by which I also mean anything true, we had best apply ourselves to the acquisition and practice of love.

Otherwise, if I attend the best writing programs and learn all the poetic skills, I will offer only noise. If I devote myself to craft and produce dozens of novels that entertain millions of readers, I have given nothing of value in exchange for the fortune I may have acquired.

I had a remarkable friend, Sylvia Curtis, the mother of Eric Curtis, whom you could meet in Reading Brother Lawrence. One day I as I entered Sylvia’s apartment she met me with a scowl and demanded, “What’s the purpose of life?”

I said, “Uh . . .”

She said, “To know love and to serve God.”

Later she admitted that definition came from a Catholic priest in an orphanage where she had done time.

Please note that “to know love” comes first.

Truth

In John 18:33–38, while being interrogated by Pilate, “Jesus answered, ‘For this I have been born, and for this I have come into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice.’

Pilate said to Him, ‘What is truth?’”

Maybe if Jesus could’ve pitched a zinger, a sound bite he knew would reach Pilate where he lived, he would’ve responded. But most likely no such zinger is within the province of language.

Imagine Jesus answering, as did the poet John Keats about 1800 years later: “Beauty is Truth, Truth Beauty.”

So Pilate asks, ‘What is Beauty?’

Suppose Jesus answers, “Love.”

Then Pilate counters, “And just what is love?” Which leads Jesus back to Truth, beginning an endless loop.

Or Jesus might’ve answered, as according to John 14:6 he did to his disciple Thomas, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life…”

To such a claim, Pilate could reply, “That’s not an answer.” Which would be a valid point, as Jesus seems to imply elsewhere.

In John 8:31-32, “Jesus was saying to those Jews who had believed him, ‘If you continue in my word, then you are truly disciples of mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.'”

Here he has revealed that knowledge of the truth requires the actions of perseverance, discipline, and application of a fund of principles.

Probably since the concept of truth entered language, folks have argued it’s meaning. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy gives a summary of 20th century approaches. If you’re up for a challenge, give it a read.

Of the philosophers I’ve consulted on the topic, Soren Kierkegaard offers revelations that most appeal to my admittedly highly subjective mind.

What you’ll find below I have clipped from a philosophy website and edited a bit for the sake of conciseness and clarity.


Subjective Truth

Kierkegaard distinguishes between objective and subjective truth. Considered objectively, truth merely seeks attachment to the right object, correspondence with an independent reality. The statement “cats often meow” is objective truth. Considered subjectively, however, truth seeks achievement of the right attitude, an appropriate relation between object and knower. Thus, for example, although Christianity is objectively merely one of many available religions in the world, it subjectively demands our complete devotion.

For Kierkegaard, it is clearly subjective truth that counts. How we believe matters much more than what we believe, since the “passionate inwardness” of subjective adherence is the only way to deal with our anxiety. Anxiety, a condition central to Kierkegaard’s world view, is the appropriate reaction by seekers of truth to accepting that they must make the journey entirely on their own, relying on nobody or no set of dogma. Passionate attachment to a palpable falsehood, Kierkegaard supposed, is preferable to detached conviction of an objective truth or common belief.

This could translate, “It doesn’t matter what you believe, so long as you’re sincere.” But Kierkegaard’s standards for sincerity are exceedingly high. They bring us around the circle to John 8:31, where Jesus advises those who seek the truth to practice discipline, perseverance and the application of the principles he teaches. And I’ll maintain that such application requires uncommon humility and deep, courageous honesty.

For now, at least, I’m going to end this exploration with a highly subjective conclusion: Truth is that which alerts us to Beauty by drawing us closer to openhearted, generous, selfless Love. 

Find Ken Kuhlken’s books at www.kenkuhlken.net

What Is Truth?

“Truth is the work of freedom,” Kierkegaard wrote.  “…truth exists for a particular individual only as he himself produces it in action.”

We might test this theory by allowing ourselves freedom to experience a variety of attitudes, beliefs and actions and asking which of them makes our conscience feel free. Then, as we act in accord with our conscience, our actions become the truth. Not the results of truth, but truth itself, as John Keats expressed when he wrote, “Beauty is truth, truth beauty.” Notice he didn’t claim that beauty is true and truth is beautiful.

Truth as action and substance rather than mental construct is a central tenet of Kierkegaard’s vision of Christ. He asserts that when Jesus claims to be the truth, it doesn’t mean Christ’s teachings are true or his example is the right way to behave. It means, Jesus, his person, his existence, is the truth.

The validity of the test suggested above depends upon whether or not we have a conscience. Not long ago, I realized that when I was a boy, the word conscience was commonly used, but I couldn’t remember having heard it in years. No doubt the social sciences knocked the stuffing out of the word with the theory that the conscience once viewed as part of human nature is actually a result of early childhood programing.

While we are certainly affected by parental and cultural programming, I’ll argue that a deeper level of conscience exists. This conscience recognizes the good and will guide us toward the good, if we set it free. Sure it’s buried deep, under heaps of learned opinions, attitudes, prejudices and fears. To find it we need to devote the will, time, and effort to journey inward.

Kierkegaard has plenty to offer concerning the journey inward, which can become the adventure of a lifetime. And which I mean to explore next week.

For more about the journey inward than a blog can offer, Ken Kuhlken’s Reading Brother Lawrence.

Getting It

The common belief about knowledge, at least in our culture, is that to claim knowledge about something we should be able to backup the claim with logic, sensory observation, personal experience, or a solid reason to trust the provider of the knowledge.

But sometimes we encounter ideas we simply know are true even though they don’t come through any of the accepted methods.  Occasionally an idea rings so true that it sets off a whole new vision and calls us to view ourselves, or an element of our lives, or the whole world, in a remarkably different way. Light breaks into the cave.  Suddenly we “get it.”

My earliest recollection of “getting it” is of my reaction to Feodor Dostoyevski’s Crime and Punishment.  The best I can express the experience in words is, I realized that compared to love, nothing else matters.

Later, the final lines of John Keats “Ode on a Grecian Urn” knocked me out cold.  “Beauty is truth, truth beauty–that is all/ Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.” When I came to, the world was a far richer place.

And William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming” floored me, and convinced me that the “rough beast … slouching toward Bethlehem to be born,” was real and something I had better reckon with.

Then came Sören Kierkegaard.  I wish I could recall the passage, because its theme has haunted me ever since, with the knowledge that Christian churches can be the enemies of Christ.

While most evangelists labor to bring people to church or lead them to professions of faith, Kierkegaard challenged us to undertake a passionate, vigilant, and persistent search for truth.  I suspect he believed that if Christ, as he claimed, is the truth, to Christ is where honest truth seekers are bound, whether or not they set off in that direction.

Churches, like schools or mentors, can be valuable resources, or distractions, or worse.

During graduate school, I had the privilege of hanging out with novelist Kurt Vonnegut. At a party, a few of us gathered in the kitchen, which is often the setting for the most engaging conversations.  Mr. Vonnegut used the platform to argue that if one of us worked in a gas station and the price of a gallon was outrageous, we should realize our responsibility for charging that price, and not blame the station owner or anyone else. Because we had chosen to work there.

B. Traven, author of Treasure of the Sierra Madre, maintained that oppressed people should realize that they don’t need to remain oppressed. They could choose to die resisting.

What these bright fellows were getting at with their extreme examples is that each of us, not our nation, employer, family, or pastor holds the ultimately responsibility for our thoughts or actions.

As Kierkegaard would have us recognize, neither God nor our conscience, if we attend to it, condones the neglect of our capacity to discover the truth and act accordingly.

Which is good advice to remember especially now that a cadre of pastors have declared they mean to preach on politics.

Ken Kuhlken, www.kenkuhlken.net