Updated: Jan 20
‘”Beauty is truth, truth beauty,”—that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know."
~ John Keats
In science they talk about beautiful theories and elegantly simple ideas. In metaphysical matters, too, there are beautiful ideas (and less beautiful ones). Existential concerns have aesthetic value, in other words, which means there are beautiful and less beautiful ideas about existence, about transcendent reality, about God and the world, about people… and beautiful and less beautiful ways of believing in these things.
But adrenalin has become the new drug, and so expediency trumps aesthetic value. And what’s the connection between our addiction to adrenalin and our obsession with expediency? Adrenalin has everything to do with action verbs; with doing rather than with being. Adrenalin happens: Winning, fighting, getting, owning, seeing, performing, killing, succeeding, failing, running, talking, shouting, screaming… these are adrenalin words. They do.
And the better something is done–or rather, the more do-able it is–the better. So forget form. It’s all about function. There has never been a time like this present age where everything is at the behest of function: it remains the unquestioned standard by which all things are measured, whether we’re talking about sports or politics, religion or sex, movies or music… even, and perhaps most of all, beauty. It is beautiful if it works. Forget form for form’s sake; beauty for what something is. Modern culture is an adrenalin junkie, and the more sensational the function, the better.
Even science, that erstwhile bastion of reasoned inquiry, has now fallen prey to the lure of adrenalin and entered the fray of public opinion and become almost indistinguishable from technology. Science is what science does. The result? It is shrill with opinions on things it has no business speculating about; things, that is to say, that in principle can neither be proven nor disproven. And why has it done this ~ entered the public fray and bowed to the convention of function? Because that’s where the adrenalin is. Because that’s where things operate. That’s where things happen. And what good is science if can’t do something anyway, right?
The trouble is, truth isn’t a matter of public opinion, isn’t a matter of expediency or functionality or usefulness. The world was never flat and neutrinos always existed, regardless of how many or few people believed it, and how much of a difference it makes in our daily routine. But alas, science has shed the lab coat for the speaking tour.
And so the gap between science and religion hasn’t widened, it’s grown smaller. Science, at its most popular, is increasingly concerning itself with matters traditionally left to religion, while religion, at its worst, tries to determine what science should and shouldn’t say. And at least in conservative Christian circles, the insistence on treating scripture as if it were a book of facts or, worse yet, a scientific textbook, is again on the rise (so much for the 18th century). Not that the Bible doesn’t have facts in it: David was King of Israel and Solomon did build the Temple; or that some of its speculations can’t indeed be confirmed by science: there is an order to how things came to be, for example, starting with the elements first, then water and land, and then living things in the sea, and so forth, culminating eventually in human beings. But in the main, the Bible is not about facts. It’s about truth, and those two (truth and facts) are barely kissing cousins. Facts change (ask any scientist), but Truth doesn’t.
And there’s the tweet: because adrenalin is the new drug, the notion that Truth even exists sounds so medieval, so (let’s be honest) boring; so about is rather than does. But shouldn’t it be so? God is the great I Am, not the great I Do. Things matter, in other words, simply because they are, not because they do. A severely retarded baby is every bit as precious as a child prodigy, and a lame old man in a hospital bed is as intrinsically valuable as a professional athlete. In the land of Is, beauty matters because form matters. What a thing is is of infinite importance.
“They also serve who only stand and wait.” (John Milton)
In the land of Is, distortions are the principal conundrum, the key question everyone should be concerned with. It is the manifestation of sin. Sin distorts, that’s all it can do. Truth creates, beauty is made, but sin can only borrow the material. The devil is, in this sense, the ultimate flatterer, since all he can do are variations on a theme. In his mission to destroy, he somehow manages to flatter God. Wasn’t it Chesterton who said that every thief compliments his victim by believing the thing worth stealing?
Why am I thinking about this? Because only something true could have resulted in something as beautiful as Christmas. And by Christmas I don’t mean “X-mas” or “Happy Holidays” or Santa at the mall. I mean mangers and Gloria in Exelsis Deo and wreaths hung with care. I mean family warmth and carol sings and “ho ho ho” and Johnny Mathis Christmas albums and John Pizzarelli in concert at Disney Hall. Clearly I’m not simply speaking about the “true” meaning of Christmas. After all, we Christians hijacked Saturnalia from the Romans and turned it into our own holiday. I’m speaking about the whole package of giving and receiving, of being together and of waiting for something that’s already here and hearing something as quiet as hoof prints on your roof and suspending disbelief. Nothing that was the genesis for all of that could itself be untrue.
It must be true because it is so damn beautiful. Even the poignancy of it all, the brutal fact of all the people who don’t receive a thing on Christmas, of the gaudy commercialism of it all, of the disconnect between the presents under the Christmas tree and the overcrowded Union Gospel Mission who must–must–turn people away.
I’m talking about cold and stinky stables on the outskirts of town and improbable coronations attended by some farm animals and a few disheveled migrant farm workers. I’m talking about babies and pregnant teenagers eloping to a distant country under the cover of night. Nothing untrue could have come up with that. Sin can only distort what’s already there. Only truth can create, truth and love, and what is matters because what is… is: beautiful.
Beauty is truth, truth beauty—that is all / Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.