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Are we created for beautiful spaces?

March 14, 2011

Anyone who has been on the backpacker trail around Europe will be able to testify to the way in which swarms of people are attracted to the beautiful buildings, churches, monuments, and works of art that abundantly populate this continent.  Walking into St Peter’s, York Minster, or standing before Grunewald’s Altarpiece is enough to take your breath away as the beauty envelops the viewer and consistently draws hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.

Of course, the argument could be made that we are drawn to these things because of a clever piece of marketing, sentimental reasons, or because we want to tick it off our list and say that we’ve ‘been there’.  Perhaps there are a myriad of reasons why people are drawn to these places or pieces of beauty.  However, I want to suggest that there is perhaps a fundamental reason, one that lies beneath all the surface motivations and is fundamental to what it means to be human.  I’d like to suggest that we, as humans, are created for beautiful spaces and therefore, we flourish within them.

Exploration of this idea starts with the beginning of the Christian story, the Genesis account of creation found in the first two chapters.  In Genesis 1, we find a creative narrative that describes God who pre-exists and gives form, shape, and content to the world.  His creation culminates with the creation of man, made in his image and for a particular purpose (1:27-28).  This purpose of mankind is given further definition in Genesis 2:15 where Adam cultivates the garden, the setting in which God has created and placed him.  Being made in the image of God and the resulting cultural mandate is a theological discussion that has existed since the early church fathers and continues into the present day.  Additionally, in the field of theology and the arts, the imago Dei and cultural mandate has been used to illuminate, justify and sometimes venerate creativity and thus artistic activity by making creativity fundamental to our humanity.  It’s not my intent in this blog post to provide a critique for this interpretation of the theological concept per se (although, perhaps one could commence in the comments section).  What I want to do is start a conversation building on this belief about creativity and suggest that a consideration of where we were created also sheds light on who we are.

God placed Adam in a garden, a garden that required work to which Adam was called. The Septuagint uses the word for ‘paradise’ when describing the garden of Eden, a word which connotes much more than just untilled fields that need work.  Paradise points to something idyllic, something inherently beautiful.  David B. Hegeman argues that the use of the word paradise points to a link between the garden with the New Jerusalem in Revelation 21, a place of indescribable beauty and ‘pure gold, clear as glass.’ (21:18). This beauty is our eschatological destiny as Christians. [1]   If this is our destiny, can we infer that while we were created to work and bring forth beauty, we were also fundamentally created to inhabit beautiful spaces?  Could this be why we are drawn to the beautiful spaces in our society?

If this is true, it is significant not only for the flourishing of our humanness but also has implications for how we live in the world and how we understand the space in which we worship our Creator God, a topic I’ll return to in a later post.  For now, I’d be interested in knowing your thoughts.

[1] David Bruce Hegeman, Plowing in Hope (Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 1999), 32-34.

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. March 14, 2011 10:26 am

    Great questions! Is it that we are created to inhabit beautiful spaces, or that humans create beautiful spaces in order to testify to the God (whether known or unknown) who inhabits all spaces? I guess these would be two different perspectives on the same reality of being drawn to beautiful spaces.

  2. Jenn Craft permalink*
    March 14, 2011 10:27 am

    Sara,
    I really enjoyed reading this post! The question you ask at the end is particularly interesting…can we draw any implications for living in the world from the account we have of creation? I think, yes! Place/Space is indeed one of the most important topics throughout the Old Testament and beginning in Genesis we see the dynamic of God interacting with people through places and vice versa.

    In the garden, Adam was not commanded to live in the place without doing anything, he had to work (yes, even though it was paradise…which might be yet another potential future blog post related to this question). Essentially. he had to “make” the place what it was–he had to name the animals, till the garden, etc. and through this he not only affected the place itself but he gained understanding of who he was in relation to the place. So by ordering the animals, he was establishing his own place in that order. If we believe all this, then we might extend that idea of “placemaking” out to say that humans were made to interact with and make places wherever they are (it wasn’t just a one-off creation thing) and that this includes the category of the beautiful like you say. It may be difficult to argue for the human need for beauty just from scripture (though it does deal with it…for instance, the tabernacle builders took beauty into account in the tabernacle construction). But despite scripture’s non-explicit account of the role of beauty as we understand it in human life, it is apparent that it factors into the way we go about making anything, including places, and this makes it something foundational that we need to grapple with. 🙂 I realize I may not have said anything very significant here, but those are just my initial thoughts. Thanks again for your post!

    • March 15, 2011 4:26 pm

      Thanks, Jenn, for bringing your place-making perspective into the conversation! In light of the foundational nature of this, is ‘ugliness’ or ‘non-beauty’ the result of the Fall? I realise we’re using really subjective terms but would be interested in your opinion nonetheless!

  3. March 14, 2011 1:13 pm

    As Christians we believe that humanity was created by our Heavenly Father, in His image. As such we have his DNA. We long for His beauty and His presence. It makes perfect sense that we would be drawn to beautiful places. It is because we are made in the image of the Creator, that we are creative.

  4. tim basselin permalink
    March 14, 2011 2:26 pm

    I’m not sure we are made for beautiful spaces, and I have an inclination that our idyllic version of Eden is largely a projection.

    Your post made me consider what beautiful spaces do to me, how that affect my soul. I realized that they largely turn (the meaning of repent, no?) my focus from myself toward something other. Whether it is another person or a sense of something larger than me (as is the case in cathedrals), I “lose” mySELF in the beauty.

    Whether original is has to do with disobedience or needing autonomy, both cause me to continuously lose the other for my self. Where I’m tying to go with this is that perhaps without sin, all spaces (no matter how “drab” Eden may have been) may well hold enough wonder to be considered paradisical (sp?). Consider the freedom of a child WONDERing at the tiniest blade of grass.

    Perhaps our need for beautiful spaces is less about us being “made for” beautiful spaces and more simply an acknowledgement that the Creator declared it all good, but we’ve simply forfeited our ability to recognize the beauty of that which is outside our own self.

    My concern is this: calling for artists to re-create paradise promotes a clockmaker God who once long ago made a paradise. Calling the artist to discover and form beauty recognizes an active God that is continuously creating and longs for us to recognize and participate.

    • tim basselin permalink
      March 15, 2011 1:51 pm

      That middle paragraph should read “Whether original sin,” sorry.

      • March 15, 2011 4:20 pm

        Thanks, Tim, for your comments and for adding to the conversation.

        I wanted to first clarify what my post was aiming to explore. By considering what we were created for (a beautiful garden) and what we will on day inhabit (a beautiful city), I was suggesting that this points to something fundamental within humanity that helps us to understand why we are drawn to beautiful spaces. My aim was to give a potential framework for how to understand humanness and why we do the things we do. My intent was not to idealize Eden nor suggest that we ‘re-create paradise’ – the beauty that we respond to is not stuck in the Garden of Eden. It is constantly being discovered and formed by artists (as you suggest), and if I can borrow Wes’ comment, ‘in order to testify to the God (whether known or unknown) who inhabits all spaces’. Beauty does not just point to the past but it points to our future – the eschaton. So I absolutely agree that beautiful spaces do not advocate a clockmaker God.

        Would you be able to clarify how you interact with beauty and what that leads you to consider? If I’ve understood correctly, beauty causes you to consider the other and later on, you mention that we have lost the ability to recognize beauty outside of ourselves. If we have lost that ability, what do you think the ‘beauty’ we ascertain actually is? Also, if beauty leads us to consider the other, do you think it’s possible for that other to be God?

        I appreciate the relationship you draw between sin and beauty, something that is important to consider. While I do think that sin mars our capacity to create, form, and perceive beauty, I don’t think that it changes what we were fundamentally created for or what we’re created to. We will still inhabit a beautiful city in the end.

      • tim basselin permalink
        March 15, 2011 4:51 pm

        Sara,

        Thanks for the continued conversation. My apologies if my comments came across as starkly contrasting to yours. I don’t really disagree with what you wrote . .. it was quite lovely . . . I’m just exploring it further from another angle.

        To clarify, I did not mean that we are unable to recognize beauty in a categorical sense. I meant that sin causes us to be unable to recognize beauty. When we do recognize beauty, something more than sin is operating, and that something draws us outside of ourselves toward something other . . . at least that feels like how I experience beauty. Beauty’s function, then, (though I’m not comfortable with the word ‘function’ here) is to make us realize the other, and ultimately the “wholly other.” Indeed, Rudolph Otto should have included more in his discussion of the numinous about the connection between mystetrium and beauty (he perhaps focused a bit too much on the tremendum half of mysterium tremendum).

        My only concern in your post (and it is perhaps a slight concern) is where you write “Beauty does not just point to the past but it points to our future – the eschaton.” Again, for me at least, this points to a slightly distant God, one who created and has an ultimate future plan. I am currently interested not just in God the Father’s role but in the Holy Spirit’s role in general revelation. I’m interested in theologically conceiving of art not only as a reflection of the past, or a looking through a telescope to the future, but as a current activity of the Holy Spirit. Certainly art acts as a means to an eschaton, but I believe it can also be an eschaton in itself, in the present.

        When I think along these lines, it makes me reconsider sin and discussions of the image of God. Maybe sin is less a robbing us of our past, or stealing our future, and more a blinding to the present realities of God’s declaration of the world as good. From this view, beauty draws us out of our sinfully myopic perspective to recognize God here, now, with us – Emmanuel , the Comforter, the Father/Mother, the well-spring and improvisational saxophonist of beauty.

        Perhaps I have not clarified, but I appreciate this space to think aloud and your patience.

      • March 15, 2011 5:22 pm

        Thanks, Tim, for clarifying what you were thinking. I understand much better and I really appreciate the perspective that you’re reminding us to consider – the here and now of God’s presence and his creative activity by the Spirit rather than only looking to the past or waiting for the future. As I join you in thinking outloud, I wonder if it’s unhelpful only to consider past, present, and future in their own separate categories. The present is where the past and the future meet – and, I think, their inter-relatedness is key to really understanding their significance. While, in the present, we certainly understand beauty through the activity of the Spirit, we also understand goodness of creation because we understand that it was fundamentally created good and will be made good again. I wonder if that interaction of past and future actually helps and provides the framework by which we see the goodness of the present. What do you think?

      • tim basselin permalink
        March 15, 2011 5:55 pm

        I like that, as long as the understanding doesn’t have to begin with the past or future in order to understand present beauty. I like the idea that the present beauty can be one with the others.
        It seems we’ve constructed a bit of trinitarian theology of beauty.
        🙂

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