Bowing Toward Beauty

One of the more subtle assumptions being made today within theology is the belief that anyone who lacks an appreciation for beauty must be in want of the ability to pray.

This sentiment owes a large part of its contemporary appeal amidst theologians, and particularly those interested in aesthetics, to the work of Hans Urs von Balthasar. For it is within Balthasar’s Theological Aesthetics that we see the topic of beauty so mightily defended in its wider theological context. And more central to us here, it is within Balthasar that the unique intersection of beauty and prayer is laid bare. He writes, “We can be sure that whoever sneers at her [beauty] as if she were an ornament of a bourgeois past – whether he admits it or not – can no longer pray…”[1]

The statement is startling. Yet perhaps it comes as no surprise that such a formulation of beauty as the foundation upon which prayer proceeds is employed regularly by theologians and Christian artists interested in making the case for the importance of beauty today.

But is a proper belief and appreciation of beauty actually necessary for prayer?

I think it is.

Without beauty prayer is crippled because beauty is the very essence of hope and hope is part of the very foundation of prayer. One must be able to imagine a better and more beautiful future in order to pray for the present. For how are we to truly seek that “thy kingdom come, thy will be done, one earth as it is in heaven” (Matt 6:10) if we fail to recognize the sheer beauty of that Kingdom to come?

Like hope, this petition has an eschatological orientation. Praying “thy kingdom come” is a prayer that pulls the beauty and the goodness of the future into the present. It is the institution of the eschaton in the here and now. It is to utter the prayers of the prophets, who saw the beauty of the heavenly city and strived to institute the new heavens and the new earth in their own day. If you are not utterly captivated by the beauty, and the goodness, and the reality of the hoped for kingdom, you cannot pray “thy kingdom come” with any sort of faith or power.

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. provides a wonderful illustration of this beauty inspired hope that enables prayer. Though well aware of the ruins wrought by racism and injustice, he was able to see beyond the present ugliness to the beauty of what could and would one day be.

Addressing the tragic reality of segregation in his final Sunday sermon on March 31, 1968, Dr. King acknowledged that “we must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.” [2]

Yet even while facing this sad fact, the beautiful vision of the great multitude of God’s people in Revelation must not have been far from his mind. In the eschatological Kingdom of God, the great multitude is not segregated. This is the vision of John the Revelator: “After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, ‘Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!'” (Rev 7:9-11)

It was the beauty of this heavenly vision that enabled the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to pray with hope that God’s kingdom would come in this particular way. Captured by the beauty of the kingdom in its fullness, he had hope that God’s kingdom could actually be established in an ever-increasing way – that the 11 o’clock Sunday morning might not persist as the most segregated hour in America. Instead, he prayed that the Christian church might actually be the vanguard and serve as the model of integration and unity for all other institutions both public and private.

Inspired by the beauty of such a prospect, he believed that “we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair the stone of hope” and that “we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood.” His capacity to see and appreciate the beauty of the symphony of brotherhood is what empowered him to hope and pray and work towards transforming the discord of the nation.

The connection between hope and the desire for the establishment of the Kingdom of God is made even more explicit in the work of Jürgen Moltmann. Moltmann argues that hope is the engine that drives creative transformation of the present reality because “it constantly provokes and produces thinking of an anticipatory kind in love to man and the world, in order to give shape to the newly dawning possibilities in light of the promised future…” [3]

The beauty of the vision of the kingdom and the hope that makes all things new is what enables Dr. King to pray as he does to conclude his sermon. Though he uses not the words of the Lord’s Prayer, he prays “thy kingdom come” in substance: “God grant that we will be participants in this newness and this magnificent development. If we will but do it, we will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace. And that day the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy.”

The beauty of God’s kingdom had such purchase in Dr. King’s imagination that he was able to truly pray “thy kingdom come” and so transform broken structures with the possibilities of a promised future.

Captivated by the beauty of the kingdom of God, Dr. King aligned his voice with “the voice crying through the vista of time,” praying “thy kingdom come” such that all things would indeed be made new.

Article by Kevin Antlitz

[1] Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord: A Theological Aesthetics, Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd, 18.
[2] Martin Luther King, Jr., “Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution,” Sermon, the National Cathedral, Washington, D.C., USA, 31 March 1968. Text may be found: http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/encyclopedia/documentsentry/doc_remaining_awake_through_a_great_revolution/
[3] Jürgen Moltmann, Theology of Hope, Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 35.

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