I’ve gathered From my Twitter feed the role of beauty and cathedrals was addressed at Emergence Christianity – A National Convention( #EC13 #BigTickle) . This Luther quote was thrown out there as an answer to the problem (though it is only a problem for a certain mindset admittedly dominant among Protestants):
“The people need beauty as well as the Gospel because they live in a world of ugliness.”
I prefer “Beauty will save the world.”
Luther’s quote at first glance makes beauty and physical and material beauty in particular secondary. It divides off beauty from the truth of the Gospel. Beauty isn’t the Gospel it only possibly maybe, if the conditions are right serves truth and the Gospel. God apparently isn’t beautiful, in God’s economy beauty is a second thought.
The Dostoevsky quote, or more to the point a what is said by one of the characters in the Idiot, sees beauty as intrinsic to the world, the gospel, God, and Faith.
This vision is in my mind much more sacramental and truly ecclesial than Luther’s perspective (Which incidentally was also the Frankish perspective at the time of the Iconoclast controversy in the East, and why Frankish Theologians didn’t quite get either the controversy nor understand the theology of the 7th Ecumenical council though they accepted it).
Now one may misunderstand me when I say “sacramental” if one hears reference only to seven (or two) sacraments, and not the condition of possibility within creation itself for the Seven (or Two) Sacraments. For a full and concise treatment of this condition of possibility I recommend Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World.
If we live in a world of ugliness it is because the world has ceased to be what God intended for the universe. If God can be joined with creation, if bread and wine can be come the body and blood of Jesus Christ, if water can be our passage from death to new life, it is because what is physical, what God created was always supposed to be our communion with God. If we see what is beautiful and do not see God it is not because beauty is a distraction or secondary, or non-essential, but because the world is no is no longer for us what God created it to be.
But now, as I sit with the Luther quote i have a second thought. If we no longer hold that beauty is secondary, and if we hold that God is to be met in our physicality, Luther’s quote is perhaps the same as the Dostoevsky quote. The ugliness is due to the fall, to our loss of God in the everyday. We then need Cathedrals, Icons, and beauty to have the truth of the Gospel, and have God, because in the present age the world is opaque to Beauty, but it is to be translucent. It was to be our connection to our Life. Sacraments return to us physical things as the whole universe was to be for humanity, the means of our communion with God, our very sustenance in body and soul. Then in a Cathedral we are in the presence of God through its beauty. This was my experience of the cathedrals of Europe as a child. I carried that experience with me until I rediscovered the broad and deep theology of the Sacramental transfiguration of the World in Jesus Christ.