In this blog on Cathedrals of Worship the phrase caught my eye “Is such opulence really about bringing glory to God, or rather is it designed to direct praise toward the famous architects and the wealthy patrons who bring it into being? … How is it worshipful to waste so much on a mere building? Couldn't the resources be better used in the kind of work actually commanded in the Bible? Don't such spaces actually elevate worldly values (like wealth and fame and physical beauty) over heavenly ones?” The first thing that drew my attention was the words physical beauty. Last Sunday my church’s sermon had been on Revelation 21 the new heaven and the new earth. The sermon focused mainly on what would be considered the “spiritual” aspects of this promise of heaven, mentioning in passing that we couldn't be sure of the exact substance when John described seeing gold and precious stones. But reading the words of revelation I can’t help but see the physical beauty being ascribed to the new creation of God.
I wouldn't call physical beauty un-heavenly. I would only see it so when it begins to distract from or take the place of God, rather than pointing to and serving its creator. All wealth and all fame properly belong to God and in that context they are good. They only become un-heavenly because we generally only encounter them uneasily misplaced in the possession of humans and human organizations. But the taint is in how these things are possessed and used, rather than the things themselves.
I think in the modern age, as in any age, it’s easy to attribute the consistency in encounters to the things we’re encountering, forgetting the commonality might also be us. I think it is helpful to look back, not to the Renascence tradition that modern thought comes from but to the middle-ages tradition whose lingering momentum have the Renascence building cathedrals. It was a time when great resources were often devoted to building great cathedrals. But it can be a frustrating time for art historians because many of the great architectural achievements are anonymous. I think there would have been a special meaning to life to have lived in those times. Imagine being a simple stone mason who got to spend your life creating a physical object that was going to be consecrated to the worship of God. Yes, the various funding sources that paid your wages had a part to play in the drama of worship, but it was fitting that Christ’s bride the church should be respected and even secular authority be accommodated as allowed for in God’s plan.
I think we can miss the value in beauty, in a good report, in work worth of wages because our culture habitually uses and references these things in casual and debasing ways. We’ll miss a great deal if we don’t look past our culture to see the value these things were made with.