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