I recently attended “The Power of Beauty” conference at Franciscan University.
Roger Scruton, the famed philosopher of beauty and conservatism, delivered the keynote address.
In that address, Scruton declared that beauty is about “being at home in the world.” Beauty is somehow connected with belonging. When we deny the beautiful, we deny something necessary to human flourishing.
My friend and fellow conference-goer, Joseph Cunningham, took issue with this definition. He argues that if Beauty is about belonging—about making a home in this world—then we are using beauty instead of submitting to it. This, Joseph argues, is utopian because it assumes we make our perfect city here on this earth.
This is a problem we must always be wary of. The things that make life worth living, beauty, truth, goodness, and unity, are the classical transcendentals. They are far above each of us. They exist whether we respect them or not. They existed before we were born and will carry on long after we are cold in the ground.
What then, does beauty have to do with our belonging? To say that it does certainly seems rather man-centered. What is man, that beauty should be mindful of him?
But what if Scruton was right? When Scruton says Beauty is about belonging, I doubt he means it in the new-age way that is empty of all meaning. When Scruton uses the word “belonging,” he is likely not talking about beauty belonging to us, to be molded and used to make us feel comfortable. Rather, the belonging he speaks of is about our belonging to beauty.
To understand this we must remember that beauty is a transcendental, but it is not an abstraction. It transcends all of us, but in the Christian religion we know the transcendent comes down to become a real presence in our world through acts of sacrifice.
The easiest analogy to be made here is with love. Love exists beyond all of us, but in order for us to love—and to be loved in return—we have to make sacrifices. We have to give ourselves over to someone else. In short, we have to belong to someone else. But this belonging is not about love belonging to us. It is about our belonging to love.
Our relationship with beauty works in much the same way. Why do we build beautiful cathedrals, or write and constantly rehearse haunting liturgies, or take the time to decorate and order our houses into places that feel like home?
Because we are practicing belonging.
As Scruton himself put it in his book, The Face of God, religious practice begins in the community, where we form congregations and parishes with the “desire to be reconciled with those who judge us and on whose love we depend.” This is not to make faith a mere utilitarian method of living with our neighbors. It instead speaks to our deep need of reconciliation, and as Scruton continues to explain, we can only understand faith and religion when “we regard the experience of community as a preparation for the experience of God.”
When we endeavor to decorate and make our homes beautiful we are practicing belonging in the same way we practice belonging every week at our parish churches. And this practicing, this rehearsing of self-sacrifice and belonging to something beyond ourselves, is the only way we know to achieve true holiness and to arrive at the place that is truly beautiful: the place C.S. Lewis so famously called, “our true country.”
Brian Miller is currently studying Law at George Mason University where he also works as a Research Assistant. His writings have appeared in The Intercollegiate Review, Ethika Politika, and The Imaginative Conservative.