Beauty: Transcendence vs Relevance or Transcendence AS Relevance?

A friend posted an article in the Untangling Christianity FaceBook group entitled “Stained Glass Isn’t Irrelevant (Or, Why the Beauty of the Church Matters).”

I was thankful for the post’s impassioned view on the value (and necessity) of beauty as I believe that Christians can—and should—see beauty, and particularly “goodness,” as both something in which to revel and as a valid starting point for dialogue about who the Christian God is / what Christianity is about.1

Yet I also found myself confused—and ultimately disagreeing—on a particular point (and what followed from it). The author, Haley Stewart, wrote: “We have so much to offer that must not be swept away in a misguided effort for relevance when what is being longed for is transcendence.”

To my mind, presenting the matter as a choice between transcendence and relevance represents an “either / or” mentality that actually undercuts her argument, for is she not advocating beauty as (supremely) relevant (so your comment that, “The True, the Good, and the Beautiful. These are the things human beings are wired for”)?

It seems to me that she is.

Further, it seems to me that just as beauty is critically important, so is the context within which we are appraising something as beautiful. This includes the historical context. And when we consider the historical context for stained glass windows in cathedrals we circle back to the distinction between transcendence and relevance. In other words, stained glass windows served a dual purpose within cathedrals or, more likely, offered one thing in the service of another.

This is Joseph Gies’ perspective in Cathedral, Forge and Waterfall:
“Back in the sixth century, Pope Gregory the Great had made a plea for depicting scriptural scenes on church walls for the benefit of the unlettered faithful. A synod at Arras in 1025 reiterated the recommendation, for “this enables illiterate people to learn what books cannot teach them.” But wall paintings in barrel-vaulted churches were hardly discernible in the dim light.” p. 132

So stained glass was used as a means of teaching the illiterate masses and of beautifying the church.

Yet if anything I would say that these windows originally represented “beauty in the service of communication,” rather than communication in the service of beauty. In other words, their primary function was that people should understand the content of the gospel and of Christian belief, that it should be made relevant to their daily lives. This does not negate their aesthetic value (or ignore that this role is no longer pivotal for stained glass in modern cathedrals), but it shows the necessary interweaving and benefits of both “form” and “function.”

Given the above it seems to me that “relevance versus transcendence” mistakenly places each notion within its own category (and so perhaps other notions, such as truth or goodness, might also be placed in separate categories). Instead, and for the purpose of this discussion, I believe that they are all within a single category: relevance for / in the context of lived existence.

So let me ask: What if we were to see “relevance” as relating to “life and lived experience” rather than as merely concerned with “facts,” “proofs,” or “evidence?” Surely a thing can (and many times should) be the latter as well, but my wager is that relevance actually has to do with the former. And to my mind, this makes all the difference.

Please understand me: I am not stating this for argument’s sake but because I believe that situating beauty and transcendence in this manner offers something much larger (and more essential), something which I believe is also central to the point that you are making in this post. Namely, when “relevance” means “that which is essential to life and right living” this then leads to seeing beauty, truthful facts, loving relationships, lived experiences—all of it—as necessary components to a proper integration of faith and life.

In other words, I see a deep and necessary reciprocity between the experience of life (lived truthfully, lovingly, beautifully) and our best understandings of the Christian God (as derived from competent, informed Bible reading), such when properly integrated they are mutually informing and / or correcting:
a) life is richer and more authentic—and I become most my “best self”—when I live in right relationship with the Christian God,
b) I best approach the biblical text—and thus understand God more truthfully and relate to God more lovingly—when my life is oriented by the truth and love, love and truth.

So when we see beauty, or transcendence, as a necessity of “life” as well as the result of rightly relating with God then it becomes both something of tremendous value in the ‘here and now’ and a pointer (or a witness) to something greater. In both cases beauty / transcendence is “relevant” while not being confined to the narrower sense of “factual, quantifiable” relevance. If anything, beauty expands this category even as God explodes so many of our categories (such as our understanding and practice of love, truth, forgiveness, justice, mercy, fairness, etc.).

I see this to be confirmed when beauty is experienced as “transcendence.” In such cases we do not cease to be human but become more ourselves through this experience. Or better, we become more our “best selves.” Thus transcendence does not imply denying or overcoming our humanity but is the proposition of a fuller, richer possibility of oneself in the context of something greater still: for in being “superfluous” and “gratuitous” beauty points, in my view, to that which is gratuitous and excessive to its very core: love.

And so this reciprocity continues, in that the Christian God is not simply loving but is love.

Show 1 footnote

  1.  While there is no space to do so here, I would argue that beauty is a form or variety of goodness, just as beauty and love are deeply related through their gratuitous–and even audaciously gratuitous–natures (as per the end of this blog post).

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